By Olivia Snaije
Shady Lewis’ على خط جرينتش, or On the Greenwich Line, originally published by Dar al Ain in 2019, has just come out in French with Sindbad/Actes Sud as Sur le méridien de Greenwich, translated by Sophie Pommier and May Rostom. A German translation, by Günther Orth, is coming in June.
The event for Lewis at the Institut du Monde Arabe, which took place on a sunny day in Paris, was packed, and while he spoke in Arabic via an interpreter, the majority of the audience had obviously read him in Arabic and were already laughing by the time his sentences were translated into French. Lewis began the event with an apology and a grin to other Arabic speakers for his Egyptian accent and the “particularities” of Egyptian Arabic.
Lewis is as funny in person as in his novel. For those unable to read Lewis in Arabic, the humor carries over in French, and will most certainly in English, too. In fact, on the back cover of the French edition, the book is described as having a “deliciously British” sense of humor, which Lewis challenged, by saying “is there not an Egyptian sense of humor?”
But this description was correct after all, he said, as “I wanted to express this British humor in Arabic, because when I arrived [in the UK] the only thing I liked was the British sense of humor. Which is Irish, by the way.”
On The Greenwich Line is Lewis’ second novel, following The Lord’s Ways (2018) which focuses on the government and the church’s authority over Egypt’s Christians. His third novel, A Brief History of Genesis and Eastern Cairo (Dar al Ain, 2021) is based on events that took place in Cairo between security forces and Islamists in 1989. In an interview with The National, Lewis said that On the Greenwich Line was an unintended sequel to his first novel, with the central theme being “the cruelty of the bureaucracy and how it controls the fate of people.”
The storyline of the novel is based loosely around the death of a Syrian refugee in London and the narrator, an Egyptian who works in the British social services administration, who has promised a friend in Egypt to take care of the man’s burial in London, even if he never knew him.
What follows is a biting and hilarious journey through the British administrative services, run for the most part by immigrants, who have much to say about the gaping inequalities and absurdities of a system crumbling from years of neo-liberal economics. Lewis’s narrator highlights the arrival of the conservative party, which slashed the social housing budget by more than half, despite millions of requests for social housing. The administrative procedures necessary for these requests were multiplied so that each file can now take years, thus delaying the process.
Lewis said he uses humor to “defuse the drama in our lives…if we can laugh together about the drama, it’s better than pitying people’s tragedy.”
The Greenwich Line follows in the footsteps of a “well-known tradition of administrative literature,” which began with Kafka, he said, adding that he was also influenced by Michel Foucault’s writings on administrative hierarchy, bureaucratic pyramids, prisons, and individualism. Lewis is intimately familiar with the inner workings of the British social system, having worked for the National Health Service for many years. While he criticizes it, he also said he had a form of sympathy for bureaucracy, which “shapes things in an objective way as a sort of safeguard.”
In Lewis’ madcap and tragic world, all systems are involved in both safeguarding society and delaying its progress. In the case of a suicide, two different administrations bicker, accusing each other of negligence. His narrator muses that in ancient Egypt, the pharaohs had their people build pyramids and other “useless and lavish projects” to keep them busy when they weren’t tending their fields.
Even buildings take on an administrative persona—the row houses from the Victorian era impose a certain visual bureaucracy on the landscape, dictating routine, repetition, and order.
The immigrants toiling in the administration have worked out their own vision of ethnic hierarchy—in particular, pertaining to skin color—which they all try out on each other. His Jamaican-Scottish colleague who has never set foot in Africa emphatically tells the narrator that he is not African because his skin is not black. But his Nigerian colleague has a complex theory which involves everyone who might be categorized as “other” as being black—whether Chinese, Irish, Communist, from eastern Europe, or gay.
Lewis’ flashes of gallows humor are pitch perfect, such as when his narrator goes to pick up the body of the Syrian refugee and runs into a New Zealander involved in the embalming process who is fascinated by ancient Egypt, or when he encounters an Iraqi who drops in on the funerals of people he doesn’t know.
Shady Lewis’ characters, like so many in reality, live within society’s interstices, desperately trying to survive and find meaning. As they do, the reader will follow them, laughing along the way.
Olivia Snaije (oliviasnaije.com) is a journalist and editor based in Paris. Her articles have been published in a variety of newspapers and magazines including Words Without Borders, The Guardian, Publishing Perspectives, and The New York Times. She was the editor of a books-related website, Bookwitty, is a former commissioning editor at Saqi Books as well as a former executive editor of Alef, a London-based cultural magazine about the Middle East. She was on staff at both Vanity Fair and CBC/Radio Canada in New York. She translated Lamia Ziadé’s Bye Bye Babylon (Jonathan Cape), and has written several books on Paris published by Dorling Kindersley and Flammarion. Editions Textuel (Paris) and Saqi Books (London) published Keep Your Eye on the Wall: Palestinian Landscapes, which she co-edited with Mitch Albert.