Excerpted from the novel by SHADY LEWIS
Translated from the Arabic by KATHARINE HALLS
Excerpt appears below in English. To read the original Arabic, click here.
One of the things I like about Shady Lewis’s writing—and the reason I’m so glad it’s appearing in The Common of all journals—is that it’s global in its imagination, and yet deeply rooted in specific places and experiences. The place is Cairo, and the experiences are those of Coptic Christians and young people on the left. From this vantage point, Lewis offers a biting critique of Egyptian society, but one that’s filled with affection for its people. But Lewis has also lived in the UK for a long time, and in the novel excerpted here, On the Greenwich Line, he turns the same critical yet compassionate gaze on its capital city. His setting is a run-down East London borough, and his characters an unlikely cast of desperate migrants and frustrated local government employees. The premise is simple: as a favor to his friend, the protagonist finds himself roped into organizing the funeral of a young Syrian refugee named Ghiyath. The protagonist himself is an Egyptian immigrant who’s lived in London for many years and works as a housing officer for the local council, so he knows all about the absurdities of racism, austerity, and bureaucracy in the UK; he just doesn’t think they concern him, until the fateful day his life collides with Ghiyath’s, and he’s forced to acknowledge just how much he has in common with those who’ve fallen through the cracks. The result is a painful interrogation of how a decade of Conservative austerity has hollowed British society out from the inside, and a devastating portrayal of the migrants and outcasts who are forced to live permanently on the brink of destitution. It’s also a profoundly human story about London and its many lost souls, and for a reader like me who loves the city, Lewis’s writing about London, in Arabic, feels both familiar and arresting. Translating it into English, I hope both to honor its intimate, quotidian London-ness, and to preserve the outsider gaze which enables it to offer up such striking observations as the protagonist’s musing on the “Mosque of the White Chapel”—his Arabic rendition of Whitechapel Mosque. It does us good to return to old sights with fresh eyes.
On the Greenwich Line: An Excerpt
He was a full twenty years younger than me. I still didn’t know much about him. To put it more bluntly, three days ago I didn’t even know he existed. Of course it’s not unusual to be unaware of certain other people’s existence in the world; of many people’s, even. But the fact I was now responsible for his body, suddenly and out of the blue, was bound to cause me some anxiety. Death was going after people half my age, and without any preliminaries at all? Still, that in itself didn’t bother me any more than listening uneasily to death counts on the morning news. I think what horrified me beyond anything else was the way he’d died. How wretched to die like that, and at that age: in one’s bedroom, quietly, on the bed, without even one person to witness what had happened. It wasn’t a death that seemed suited to our times, either. For better or worse, we seem to be obliged to take death seriously these days, to consider it an unmitigated evil that can’t be justified or understood.
The poor guy might have died in slightly grander fashion. Something that wouldn’t have been so hard on his loved ones. He could have met his end alongside a few other people; even if nothing had tied them together but their shared death, he would at least have had some company, which is not nothing—in fact it’s been very popular lately. Or he could have died in front of a few witnesses, so that the details of his final moments, recounted again and again, could have brought some comfort to his family, or added just that bittersweetness necessary to keep his memory fresh and vivid for as long as possible. His death could have been preceded by some sort of suffering. That way it would have presented itself as a respite to him and a relief to those around him. At the very worst, he could’ve been killed in a car accident or something like that, and then we could shake our heads at the absurdity of fate. Even that sort of senseless cruelty is a thing of some consequence, and provokes a gasp and hand clapped to the heart in those who hear about it.
None of this would have made much difference to the deceased, it’s true. As far as we know, the dead don’t suffer from the cruelty of death anywhere near as much as the living do. Those wretched individuals are expected to gather up the severed parts of whatever’s been destroyed by the dead person’s departure, then carry on living as if nothing at all has happened. It’s a miracle more impressive than birth and no less tragic than death itself.
I was an especially unlucky living person, who, by some twist of fate, had been given the arduous task of experiencing the death of a person entirely unknown to me. I couldn’t blame anyone but myself. One night, around midnight, I’d got a call from Ayman in Cairo that was the start of everything, and I could have refused outright to get involved. I could simply have said no, or wriggled out of it with one of the little lies I’d got into the habit of using since I came to live in London; but you can’t underestimate embarrassment and the things it’ll make you do.
It was the first and only time Ayman had come to me needing something; in fact, nobody from Cairo had ever asked me for any favors of any kind in the time since I’d left. This was my only chance in ten years to prove that my being in London had some purpose or was of any use to anyone. It was a combination of hubris and shame, and it was bound to lead to disaster.
After a short opening gambit in which he assured me I wasn’t obliged to help him, and that he’d understand completely if I said no, Ayman had asked me to go the following morning to a hospital in East London, collect the dead body of a twenty-year-old man, and make arrangements for his burial. That was it. He didn’t give any further details.
“It’s a direct request, and I need a one-word answer—yes or no.”
Ayman’s voice was firm, and I could see there was no point trying to sway him, but I did my best anyway.
“That’s not fair,” I said, “Can’t you tell me who it is first, what the situation is?”
As expected, all this achieved was to make his tone of voice even firmer.
“If you can do us this favor, I’ll tell you what I know,” he replied, “but if not then there’s no point chewing your ear off. So? Yes or no?”
Ayman got the answer he wanted with no trouble at all; within thirty seconds of picking up the phone, I’d agreed to do it. His winning card wasn’t the frosty note I could clearly hear in his voice. It wasn’t the closed questions, either, with their minimal, condensed answers, yes or no—a tyrannical simplicity no question had ever held before—that wrested my assent out of me.
Curiosity—that was his winning shot. Ayman wouldn’t have told me the story of the deceased if I’d said no; I’m sure he’d have punished me rigorously and never mentioned the dead young man again. He knew curiosity was my weak point, and he exploited it ruthlessly.
Despite the mysterious air of the request, the excitement fizzled out completely as soon as Ayman started to explain. Any thrill of enlightenment that went through me didn’t last more than a second or two. Once the secret was spoken, all cause for curiosity evaporated, as usual. It didn’t surprise me: in general, I find that knowing things, for all that people get excited about it, is overrated and dismally boring.
To tell you the truth, the story of the young man—whose name was Ghiyath—would have been more exciting if it had happened, say, ten years ago. Or if it hadn’t been so intensely repetitive. If it had ended with some unexpected outcome or been crowned by a more heroic death. In fact the story was quite dull, and quite disappointing, to the point I can scarcely now remember more than its broad outlines. Ayman knew a Syrian family who’d moved into a small house next door to his mother’s house in their village. This might have been the most interesting detail in the whole story, because I couldn’t imagine how any Syrian had ended up in the village of al-Tayyibin in Upper Egypt, a place you’d struggle to find on the map to begin with.
Anyway. The family had fled Syria when the war there got worse. The fact they’d ended up in Egypt was proof they were either exceptionally unlucky or desperate. Meanwhile, their only adult son—Ghiyath—had stayed in Syria for the sole reason that he was locked up in one of the security regime’s prisons; which one, I can’t remember, not that it would add anything to the story. According to Ayman, Ghiyath and two cellmates had dug a tunnel a hundred miles long using plastic spoons, a tunnel that traversed the line dividing regime and opposition territory. Seemingly no sooner had he climbed out the tunnel than one of the opposition factions arrested him for some reason or other (no surprises so far). For the three weeks he was detained in opposition territory, control shifted back and forth between twenty-two different factions (or twenty-three? I’m not sure). A shari’a judge allied with one of the factions condemned him to death for uncertain reasons, but the judge himself was executed half an hour later. And so the late Ghiyath escaped certain death.
The story’s liable to get tediously sidetracked in labyrinthine details, especially when it goes into how he survived forty-one air raids carried out by airplanes from twenty-one different countries; the regime’s barrel-bomb assaults; gas attacks, including the colored and colorless kinds, the kinds that have a powerful stench and the kinds that are odorless; and that’s without even mentioning the Katyusha rockets. By pure chance Ghiyath experienced this whole assortment of horrors while barely more than a child.
The fact he ended up in another security facility—again—only adds another layer of repetition to the narrative. Certainly the methods of torture used at the prison oblige us to recognize the singular talent and imagination that must have gone into inventing them, and to appreciate the zeal and commitment shown in their application. But in the end, they all achieve very similar results. Ghiyath dug himself another tunnel, longer than the first, to get him out of the country altogether; he dug alone, and without the help of any cutlery this time. But I think Ayman was probably exaggerating when he claimed Ghiyath had done all this with hands tied behind his back.
On his nineteenth birthday, Ghiyath finally emerged out of the tunnel at the seashore, and swam from Beirut to Alexandria in a mere three days; apparently a friendly dolphin accompanied him on the journey and kept a vigilant watch the whole time. But unluckily for Ghiyath, that summer day wasn’t the most propitious time to arrive in Egypt, because for various convoluted and trivial reasons, Syrians had suddenly become rather unwelcome. But here he finally had a stroke of good luck in that the Egyptians put him on the first flight out of the country. The plane flew round in circles for a few days looking for somewhere to drop him off—somewhere that would agree to take him—before finally landing in Ecuador, as you do.
Ten months went by. He travelled through four continents and fifty-seven countries on foot, sometimes alone and sometimes in company; stayed in forty-three camps; crossed two oceans, four seas, and thirteen rivers; and escaped certain death multiple times. An earthquake struck in Guatemala, an alligator tried to eat him in Bolivia. He’d have drowned off the shore of a Greek island had he not held on tight to the dead body of a child which was floating beside him. After that he was chased by a police dog in Bulgaria which came within an inch of tearing his heart out and chewing it to pieces. Another Syrian set him on fire in Berlin. The most dangerous near miss of all was when a female journalist tripped him up as he was running away from the police through a public park in Hungary, sending him headlong into a sharp rock that almost sliced him in two—but a rascal lives long, as they say.
I’m not saying there aren’t interesting parts here and there in everything Ghiyath went through; the problem’s just that these days it’s all very familiar. At least a few million people have similar, if not identical, tales to tell, and ultimately these things get boring. Not to mention that some aspects of the story—which I wouldn’t reveal out of respect for his memory—are quite reprehensible. Ghiyath committed a fair few unlawful and dishonorable acts in the course of his long journey. Granted, he was forced to, in most cases, but the ends don’t necessarily justify the means, particularly when it comes to lying. For example, when Ghiyath finally made it to this little island of ours, he claimed—to avoid being sent back to France, where he’d come from—that he was a minor, aged fifteen. Amazingly, he was such a good liar that the authorities were prepared to believe he was a full five years younger than he actually was.
It might sound like I’m being a bit hard on the poor guy. I wouldn’t be surprised if people decided to put that down to some kind of hostility towards refugees on my part, and they wouldn’t be totally unjustified; I know many immigrants in a similar position to myself who’ve arrived in this country, or wherever else, and immediately wished they could close the door behind them and throw away the key. But that’s absolutely not the case here. I have an unimpeachable position on refugees, which I arrived at by a rough and thorny path and at a remarkably young age. Unfortunately I feel obliged to tell the story so as to justify myself now.
At the dead end of the side street in eastern Cairo where I grew up lived two twin boys who were one year older than me and much taller. They were an unusual-looking pair: aside from their bright red hair, they had pale faces that were so covered with freckles you could barely make out their features. And they acted as strange as they looked: or, put it this way, they always had some obscure excuse to avoid playing or talking with the other kids in the street.
That obscurity was reason enough for us to feel a mix of fear and disgust towards them, the way a person feels towards strangers. But the gulf that lay between the twins and us was bound to be broken by a method of their choosing and, unfortunately, at my expense.
One summer’s day after the sun had gone down, I was sitting on our front doorstep, the street totally empty as it usually was around that time. In the distance I glimpsed Ashraf and Sharif, the twins, walking confidently towards me with a look of malicious intent. I didn’t imagine they’d try anything right in front of our house—it would be too audacious, and unprovoked too—so I guessed they just wanted to get a rise out of me.
I was wrong. One of them came up so close behind me, where I was still sitting on the ground, that his knees nearly touched my back, and stood towering directly above my head. When I looked up, he spat a huge ball of phlegm straight into my eye. The other twin followed it with a kick in my side and I let out a long scream of pain and humiliation. The pair sauntered away in the direction they’d come from, looking self-assured and satisfied with what they’d achieved. When they were a few meters away, one of them turned back and shouted with an anger I couldn’t comprehend: “Blue bone scum!”
The insult put an abrupt stop to my wailing: the attack that had seemed unprovoked just a second earlier now made sense. Only because I was a blue bone—an easy target, let’s say—could they pick on me without fearing the consequences. Knowing that calmed me down. The strange lesson I learned at that young age was that many injustices feel more bearable if you can only understand their logic; the worst are those that defy explanation.
I don’t really know why injustice should be less painful when it comes with a few clear general rules. Maybe because you know what to expect, or because it loses its individual valence and you don’t feel like it’s aimed at you personally. That ball of spit was aimed at all Christians, not necessarily at my eye, that’s what I told myself. The thought was satisfactory, and relieved me of any thoughts of revenge.
My mum didn’t share this view. I wasn’t expecting much from her when I told her what had happened; when it came to blue bones, or black bones—my own invented retort—essentially when it came to the matter of religion in children’s quarrels, I knew she preferred quietism.
“Haven’t I told you not to play with those bloody Muslims?” she would always say. “Well, there you go, now they’ve given you a thrashing. Serves you right!”
I always knew to expect a slap around the face when I stubbornly replied, “Like there’s anyone else!”
This time, some kind of miracle occurred. The normally meek and downtrodden woman was taken over by a supernatural outburst of fury, and she grabbed me forcefully by the arm and dragged me the length of the street to the twins’ house. She screamed hysterically and thumped at the door. When the twins’ mother answered, she pushed her roughly aside and the woman tumbled to the ground. My mum stormed through the house, me following in her wake, until she found the two boys in the living room and set on them, slapping and kicking so indiscriminately I worried she might accidentally kill one of them with a misjudged blow to the head. That might have been what their mother was thinking, too, because she was out in the street, shrieking to the neighbors to help her. My mum’s demented fit only lasted a minute or two, and then she left the house, her body heaving with rage, yelling at the top of her voice for all the street to hear: “So now we’ve got refugees coming over here and beating our children? We’re in our own country, and the beggars we let in are spitting in our faces!”
Refugees. It was the first time I’d heard the word, and to make matters more confusing, my mother kept alternating it with “Palestinians” in her furious ranting, so that it seemed to me they must be the same thing. But what I took the word to mean—and this thought filled me with pride—was that those people, whatever they were, came below me on the ladder of getting thrashed. In fact, they came below everybody, because I myself was near the bottom, on the last step but one.
“Mum, what does ‘refugees’ mean?”
“It means people with no country.”
If I’m honest, it was the first time—and I say this with great embarrassment—that I’d experienced a childish sense of belonging to my country. And I felt a sort of affection towards refugees, because thanks to them I no longer had to be everyone’s punching bag.
Things didn’t end there; the next developments were dramatic and mortifying. After two hours of calm which my mother spent in a state of high alert, the twins’ father came home from work and found out what had happened. The fearful silence in our house was broken by the man’s angry banging on our front door.
“Now Christians are beating our children, are they?” he thundered.
I could see my mum was shaking with fear as she opened the door. The man did exactly what she had done in his house: pushed her aside, knocking her to the ground, and strode through to the living room. He wasn’t looking for me, as I’d thought, but for the man of the house.
“Don’t you have a man to keep you under control?” he roared.
Luckily my dad wasn’t back from work yet, so there wasn’t much the man could do; he could hardly lay a hand on a woman. After trying to smash some of the furniture, but only hurting his own hand, he stalked back outside to interrupt my mother’s yelling, which was directed at the men of the street: “The Palestinians are coming after us in our own homes, and you’re watching from your balconies like a bunch of women!”
The man’s reaction took me by total surprise: he burst out laughing, shaking his head from side to side like he couldn’t believe what he’d heard. His anger seemed to have faded away completely.
“Who’s Palestinian, you crazy bitch?” he said as he walked back towards his house, slapping his palms together in incredulity.
There were no further scuffles between the twins and me, and no confrontation ever took place between their father and mine, who made sure to leave and enter the house as inconspicuously as possible for the next few days. But my mum’s misunderstanding only took a few minutes to clear up, because the assembled neighbors told her once the fracas was over that Ashraf and Sharif’s family were neither Palestinian nor refugees, they were Upper Egyptians who had once lived in Suez, then fled during the Six-Day War and were resettled in Cairo. Maybe that was why she’d got mixed up.
As I grew older and came to grasp the full dimensions of the story, I adopted a clear position towards refugees, and in this regard I won’t have anything said against me: refugees must be treated with equality and respect. Because you might think someone’s a refugee and later find out they’re not, which can lead to embarrassment, or worse, they might turn out to have a father who’s prepared to beat up your father, and that is downright dangerous.
Back to Ghiyath, before we forget his story. The things that happened from the time he arrived in the U.K. up to the day his housemate noticed a terrible smell coming from his bedroom aren’t worth going into. The Polish man hadn’t remarked at Ghiyath’s three-day absence; in the time they’d shared the flat, they’d hardly spoken more than two words to each other, just yes and no and some improvised sign language as required by the daily upkeep of their affairs. The body was bloated and lying on its back looking peaceable and uninterested. The housemate called the police, who took the body to hospital for a post-mortem, and there they determined that the cause of death was either disappointment, exhaustion from working over twelve hours per day, or perhaps just the sudden anticlimax of there being no immediate danger of death.
“God rest his soul, Ayman,” I said. “What’s it all got to do with me, though?”
The story had cooled the enthusiasm I’d been feigning so far, but Ayman wasn’t going to let me get out of it.
“Are you trying to go back on your word?” he asked accusingly. “We’ve already agreed you’re going to pick up the body and sort out the funeral.”
That wasn’t exactly what we’d agreed. All we’d said was that I’d help.
“Is it that simple?” I asked, trying to find a way out of the trap. “Aren’t there procedures? Doesn’t it have to be a next-of-kin or something?”
Here Ayman struck the fatal blow.
“Don’t worry about that,” he said. “Everything will be ready for you by tomorrow evening.”
Shady Lewis, born 1978, is an Egyptian novelist and journalist whose writing centres on cultural and political intersections within and beyond the Arab world. He lives in London, where he spent many years employed by the National Health Service and local authority housing departments, working with homeless people and patients with complex needs. He has published three novels to date, beginning with The Lord’s Ways (2018), each of which engage with the social history of Coptic Christians and trajectories of migration from Egypt to the West. The novel excerpted here, On the Greenwich Line, is his second, and is forthcoming in French translation with Actes Sud and in German with Hoffmann und Campe (2023). His most recent novel, A Brief History of Creation and East Cairo, appeared in 2021 and was recently awarded a Global Africa Fellowship for translation into English.
Katharine Halls is an Arabic-to-English translator from Cardiff, Wales. She was awarded a 2021 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Haytham El-Wardany’s Ma La Yumkin Islahuh (Things That Can’t Be Fixed) and her translation, with Adam Talib, of Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace (Overlook Duckworth, 2016) received the 2017 Sheikh Hamad Award for Translation and was shortlisted for the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. Her translations for the stage have been performed at the Royal Court and the Edinburgh Festival, and short texts have appeared in World Literature Today, Asymptote, Words Without Borders, Adda, Africa Is a Country, stadtsprachen, Newfound, Critical Muslim, The Common, Arts of the Working Class, Perpetual Postponement, and various anthologies. Katharine is also an agent at 10/11, where she represents Shady Lewis and a number of other authors writing in Arabic.