In Other Words | The Ways of the Lord by Shady Lewis
Excerpt from Chapter 1
 
 
 
Illustration by Salma AlGamal
 

In Other Words is a new series of translated excerpts from contemporary Arabic literary works, by emerging or established authors, published in English for the first time. For a long time, the process of selecting works written in Arabic for translation, which gives them the opportunity to reach a wider audience and to potentially join the ever-expanding canon of “world literature” (as problematic as that term is), has been largely confined to a designated community of “gatekeepers” — mostly made up of Western publishers and translators — who decide which narratives they deem most “representative” of the region and therefore worthy of traversing cultural borders and crossing over to other parts of the world.

By offering translated glimpses of works that we believe are significant — in their language, format, or thematic resonance — we are attempting, at least in part, to perhaps effect that selection process by bringing more attention to stories that we think deserve to travel far and wide. We hope to create more space for diverse voices from the region to be heard elsewhere, not for what they “represent,” but for the unique, singular vision each of them provides. 

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“Let me start at the very beginning. And please bear with me, Father. Gaafar is my mother’s grandfather. This story begins with him, as do many other stories. But we don’t need to get into those just yet.”  

Obviously, Gaafar isn’t an appropriate name for a Copt. But it wasn’t his only name. He had another one. This was something of a tradition in my mother’s family. His other, more obviously Coptic name was Hanna. On first impression, the twin-names given to children in our family may seem to be a means of remaining under the radar. An obviously Coptic name like my mother’s, Maria, needed to be balanced by another, neutral name: Maisa. It was by chance that I found out, just two years ago, that she was known by this name as a child. However, this naming phenomenon wasn’t straightforwardly binary. For example, the youngest of my uncles on my mother’s side was known in the village as Hany – a safe, neutral name. Meanwhile, his customers in the jewelry quarter knew him by the conspicuously Coptic name of Georgy. 

It seems, then, that this tradition probably had nothing to do with taqiya, the tendency of minorities to exercise caution. God forbid the point was to deny Christ before the world! One of my mother’s cousins, for instance, has two names, Michael and Tadrus, neither of which mask his religion. As for my middle uncle, the name printed on his ID is Adeeb, but everyone, for no apparent reason, calls him Massoud. In the only two cases I’m personally familiar with, this tradition is tied to profession. Georgy seems an appropriate name for someone in the gold trade; a name that inspires trust in Muslim and Coptic customers alike. In the second case, one of our relatives who owns a small car repair shop prefers to use the name Waleed at work because he thinks it’s a better name for his workshop than his more Coptic name, Henry, his name at home and on his birth certificate. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve failed to find a single logical explanation for the multiple cases of double-naming in my family. Likewise for the many variations on the name of our street, al-Fareed

The priest interrupted me, correcting the street name. “It’s Alfred, not Al-Fareed [1],” he said. “And it had always been that way because only Christians lived here until the metro was constructed, which brought with it all those newcomers. It wasn’t enough that they were pushing us out, they also wanted to change the street names, because they didn’t sit well with them.” I nodded my head in seeming agreement and found a chance to gulp down the last sip of my Coca Cola before returning to my story.

“Gaafar’s name, at least, had a clear explanation, one that everyone agreed on. My family’s roots can be traced back to the deep South, specifically to Qena in Upper Egypt. Until quite recently, there was a system in place whereby the sheikhs of Arab tribes would grant protection to Copts in villages and hamlets. Our family fell under the protection of the Gaafra: a tribe of Ashraf, who trace their lineage to Prophet Muhammad. As a result, my family was also in the tribe’s service, although there wasn’t actually much service required. All that was asked of them was that the men of the family join the Eid and Mulid processions on foot, behind the horses of the Ashraf. This wasn’t as humiliating as it might seem upon first impression. The main objective was for the Sheikh to show off all the Dhimmi, or protected minorities who fell under his patronage and benevolence, parading their great number and excellent conditions in front of all the other clans. In fact, my grandmother, before she was afflicted by the illness that devoured her memory, would often tell us that the men of our family, being so close to the Ashraf, used to ride on ornamented saddles during Eid al-Adha, side by side with the Muslim elders. That was a ‘marvel’ that no one from Qena to Aswan had ever heard the likes of.

Thanks to the privileged status the men of the family — most of whom worked in the gold trade — had attained, they had nothing to fear as they moved from one village to another selling their jewelry. They continued to enjoy the protection of the Gaafra in exchange for a seasonal offering delivered twice annually. The story, as I’ve heard it over and over again, goes that Gaafar – our Gaafar – was named after the clan, and that this name became a curse. Later, his father recognized the error of his ways and baptized the child with the solidly Coptic name of Hanna. But despite this, it caused him great suffering. It seems Gaafar was a name that pleased neither the people nor God, for the newborn child was, for some reason, black-skinned — “black like a slave, not just dark,” as my grandmother would reiterate each time she told the story. This somewhat irked the tribe. It didn’t bring them honor for a slave — perhaps even a bastard! — to carry their name. Where could that black complexion have come from in a family whose men and women were light-skinned and fair-haired? They and other Copts were often said to resemble khawagat, or foreigners. In any case, the tribe soon forgot the whole affair. God, on the other hand, never forgets.” 

Father Antonios fidgeted in his seat before kindly interrupting me: “My son, it’s now four o’clock. This story about your grandfather, what’s it got to do with your absence from church?” I assured him that I’d be as brief as possible and that many things would make sense once he’d heard the story. Then I went on.

“Gaafar was an obstinate child, a troublemaker with a habit of picking fights in the village for the most trivial reasons. These scuffles between him and other boys would begin when they decided to provoke him, calling out “Slave boy! Slave!” And in one incident that later earned him a violent beating from his father, he head-butted an elderly man who had mockingly asked him, “How are you, khawaga [2] Gaafar?”

Gaafar could accept being either a slave or a khawaga, but no one could expect him to bear both at once. Perhaps this is the reason most members of my mother’s family lose their minds as they grow old. Who can bear the burden of having two names at the same time? Both Gaafar and Hanna! In the last of these brawls, Gaafar lost what was left of his sanity, pulling out a sickle and aiming its tip at the neck of his opponent who had cursed him and called him ibn haram, a bastard child. According to my grandmother, the man’s head was completely severed from his body — a speculative version of events that I’d always been skeptical about. But regardless of this minor detail, the conclusion was one and the same.

“So you mean to tell me that you’re a bunch of mass murderers? We aren’t afraid … God is with us.” The priest’s joke and our ensuing chuckles were enough to reassure me that he was still listening and that he wasn’t falling asleep, even though his eyes had been closed for the past half hour. More importantly, and more surprisingly, he understood the significance of the second half of my story before I had even begun telling it.

“Gaafar returned after fifteen long years of imprisonment. He had spent several of these in forced labor at a quicklime mine, which, in my grandmother’s words, “licked his eyesight clean.” He spent the remaining years in a regular prison. Upon his return, he quietly married one of his cousins, and to avoid trouble, the family sent him and his wife to the Nile Delta. They dispatched him with a share of his father’s inheritance, enough to buy a piece of land and live off the income. Gaafar was blessed with four sons, the youngest of whom was my mother’s grandfather, Wadie. For some time, Gaafar earned himself the nickname Maalem, or Cantor [3], on account of his blindness. He was not really a cantor, however, or at least not the sort that chanted church melodies during mass and taught them to newcomers. In fact, Gaafar’s relationship with the church in his new hometown was none too good, for reasons you can well imagine. His gruffness had multiplied with the years he spent in prison, his blindness, and the distance from his family, and it left him at odds with the congregation, especially the priest who — like Gaafar — was known for his arrogance.

On the night that changed everything, Gaafar hurried over to the priest’s house carrying his newborn girl Farawla. It was two o’clock in the morning but the girl’s baptism could not be postponed; Farawla had been born only half alive. No part of her body was moving; there was nothing to indicate she was alive apart from her faint and irregular breathing. You can well imagine how a dispute rapidly developed between Gaafar, shaking with anger and fear, and the boorish priest, jolted awake by aggressive knocking on his door. It is said that Gaafar began swinging his cane around the house, breaking furniture, after the priest insisted on postponing the matter a few hours until he was ready: “Best left for the morning, Maalem.”

Farawla died before seeing that promised morning. Now the little girl must sleep forever, like all those who fail to receive the sacrament of baptism and cannot enter the kingdom of Heaven, who will never be judged, will never see the face of God, but must remain suspended forever between heaven and hell, in eternal limbo. 

Over the next four days, which Gaafar spent locked up in his room, what broke the man’s heart was neither the reality of death nor the blows of Providence — to which he had become accustomed — but rather his powerlessness before other humans. It was one thing if the Lord decided to deny Gaafar the daughter of his old age, either in His wisdom or as a deserved punishment for his sins. But who was this boorish priest who held the keys to heaven on earth, that should deprive him of seeing Farawla after death? And for what? Because Gaafar had disturbed his sleep!”

Father Antonios cleared his throat. His face showed signs of discomfort. “So you don’t come to church because of this? Are you angry with us? Or with God?” I paid no attention to his interruption and proceeded with the story. 

“Soon, the blind man began hallucinating, sometimes in fits of blasphemous fury, others in bouts of madness. One time he announced his resolve to burn down the church. Another time they found him in the cemetery, digging up his baby daughter’s grave, intending to pull out her corpse and baptize her himself. Sometimes he swore Farawla was a saint and that she appeared in his dreams. But the obstinate old man didn’t require more than a few weeks to regain his sanity. In fact, he surprised everyone by attending mass on the fortieth day of his mourning. He ate the bread and drank the wine from the conceited priest’s hand and kissed it with complete sincerity. But everyone knew that the devil who dwelt in Gaafar’s mind was plotting something dangerous. 

My grandmother insists it was a miracle, so her version of subsequent events is no doubt exaggerated. Unfortunately, though, she’s our only source, so we have no choice but to accept her story — albeit with a grain of salt. 

On the morning after the fortieth day of mourning, Gaafar left the house on his own without the customary accompaniment of one of the young men of the family. In the evening, he didn’t return home. His absence didn’t last long, however; he came home the following day, having spent the night at an unknown location. As soon as he was back, he began looking for a buyer for his farmland, his only source of income. According to my grandmother, it was sold in half a day, while in the second half of the day, Gaafar used the money to purchase another piece of land beside his home. At the time, no one understood why he was in such a rush to sell his land and buy new land, both at a loss. 

Gaafar kept the secret to himself. For the next four years, he would leave the house on his own with a large envelope stuffed with papers under his arm, and wouldn’t allow anyone at home to come close to him. Some swore they saw him at the governorate offices, others claimed they saw him in Qena, others yet in Cairo and Alexandria. Some said he slept on the streets, while others saw him in the company of Effendis, carefully examining the papers in the envelope with those men of high status. Several times he was seen in the company of foreigners, or with men wearing strange robes with ropes tied around their waists. 

“Anyway, Father, let me tell you in a nutshell how the whole business was concluded.” I’d had enough tormenting the old man, especially after I’d proven to him as much as to myself that I was the one steering this conversation; that the cards of this game of confession were not entirely in his hands. 

“The morning after the fortieth day, Gaafar had gone out seeking revenge. He’d found out that the Catholics had an archdiocese in Menoufia, but he lost his way and spent the first night on the platform of the Shibin al-Kom train station, until a few helpful souls gave him directions the next morning. His encounter with the Catholic bishop was a divine miracle. Well, at least it was for the bishop, because the blind man had come to propose that his whole family would convert to Catholicism and that he would build the Catholics a church in his village. He promised to cover the cost of its construction and furnishing, as well as the price of the land it would be built on. 

All Gaafar asked for in return was that a Catholic priest be relocated to the village and that he should settle there, who would be unfazed that his parish would consist of just six or seven people. He added that he would prefer someone who could tolerate his flinty nature. The church decree from Rome was issued in the space of a few weeks, although the whole business took four years — between procedures, complaints and grievances in administrative offices — until finally, the government issued a building permit. That, according to my grandmother, was another miracle. 

Once the church was built and opened, Gaafar did not stop stirring trouble. After just two months he threw out the Catholic priest on the grounds that he spoke poor Arabic. As for the young monk sent by the diocese to replace him, it is said that Gaafar slammed the church door in his face and refused to allow him to conduct mass for an entire month because he caught him drinking wine and smoking in the back garden. The old man battled his grief for his unbaptized daughter until the very end, and his revenge did nothing to assuage his anger. Even on his deathbed, he would wake up suddenly and raise his fist at the heavens, making vicious threats that horrified those around him: “This is my church! I own it. I built it so I wouldn’t enter your heaven and never have to see your face.” He died screaming blasphemies of this kind and was buried beside Farawla, in accordance with his will.

I hadn’t seen such a look of surprise on Father Antonios’s face since the start of our meeting. I had never actually believed him to be capable of surprise. He seemed uncertain about me. Should he really take this story seriously as an attempt to answer his question? Or had I, perhaps, spent two hours telling him this tale solely with the intention of making a fool of him? Perhaps the priest thought I was a little unhinged by the pressing circumstances in which I found myself, circumstances which had obliged me to meet with him in the first place. His voice was weary as he shook my hand goodbye, saying: “Thank you bashmohandis [4]. God bless you, and I’ll see you next week at the same time.”

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[1] The mispronunciation of the foreign name “Alfred” led, over time, to its Arabization. Al-fareed means “the unique.” This small, quotidian example speaks volumes of the much larger sectarian tension between Copts and Muslims, and the Copts’ growing sense of being invaded or overrun by Muslims.

[2] Khawaga (plural: khawagat) is a common Egyptian title for foreigners or those of foreign heritage. It can be respectful or mocking, depending on the context.

Another sectarian curiosity: Copts and Christians generally in Egypt are often conflated with foreigners, even though they trace their roots to Egypt long before the Arabs, and many of them are in fact ethnically indistinguishable from Muslim Egyptians.

[3] Maalem is Arabic for cantor, the person in church who sings verses to which the congregation responds. Blind people found it difficult to secure work, and were therefore often employed by the church in this capacity. 

[4] Bashmohandis is a respectful term for engineers.

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