Adel Esmat's Tales of Yusuf Tadros stands apart from most contemporary Egyptian fiction. Not only is the book narrated by a Coptic Christian, but it's set in several rural Egyptian cities. The main characters scarcely brush the places where most Egyptian novels are set: Cairo and Alexandria.
The novel, which won the 2016 Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature, was praised by judge Rasheed El-Enany as a "candid depiction of the worsening situation of Egyptian Christians and their alienation in their own country". Indeed, this is a central theme. Yet Tales of Yusuf Tadros is also about the narrator's coming of age as an artist.
The book's translation by Mandy McClure also deserves special attention. It reads seamlessly, capturing the sonorous tone of ecclesiastic music, and at other times a painterly love of the many qualities of light.
Early in the book, the narrator describes his mother’s work for the Holy Bible Association. In the mid-1960s, mother and son tramped all around Tanta, gathering donations. As they struggle up and down stairs in search of supporters, Yusuf learns that “suffering purifies”. For Yusuf, this comes to apply equally to family, religion and art.
For the most part, Yusuf is a passive character. One of his few bold acts is to discover his love of drawing. As a boy, he imagines going to Paris like great Egyptian artist George Bahgoury. But when he's 7, a lorry strikes Yusuf, and "the accident blew out some coping centre". It's serious enough that it also turns his mother's hair white and causes a fog to settle over his father's eyes.
Painting seems like a lifeline. As a young man, Yusuf goes to study art in Alexandria. We can imagine a success story wherein sensitive, talented Yusuf goes from Tanta to Alexandria, to the world. But he's overwhelmed by the big city. "I saw myself small in that place. The cars seemed to pass farther in the distance than normal, the buildings were taller than normal, sizes bigger than they really were, and I was smaller than my true size." So though his friends disapprove, Yusuf quits school and returns to Tanta.
At first, Yusuf satisfies himself by doing portraits, though "not one of the conservative girls of Tanta let me paint her nude". By chance, one of his subjects dies just after Yusuf paints the man's portrait, and he quits portraiture. After that, he is pressed into marriage.
To make a living, Yusuf teaches – first in tiny Kafr Al-Zayat, then back in Tanta. But there are no inspirational stories about education. Instead, Yusuf suffers: "When you enter a classroom with run-down benches and see the broken windowpanes bearing the traces of the brick thrown through them… your responsibility to teach them seems absurd."
Yusuf also suffers in love. First, he falls for a Muslim woman, and the relationship puts both of them at risk. "By that time, in the mid-1990s, most of the girls were veiled and the sorting had begun." The general mood, Yusuf tells us, "started tilting toward segregation", with Christians moving to Christian-owned buildings, and Muslims to Muslim-owned accommodation.
Now, Yusuf feels the weight of his Christian surname: "I got sick of that look people would give me when I said my name... They'd look at me like I was an alien, just landed from another world." And yet he often manages to ignore the world around him. When other teachers become aware of his affair, his response is strangely detached: "Apparently I'd become extremely vulnerable."
A friend helps Yusuf flee Tanta, and he goes to teach in Al-Tur, a small city in the Sinai Peninsula. There, he falls in love a second time, on this occasion with a married Christian woman. When he finally realises he’s putting her in danger, it seems to catch him by surprise.
After this reckless second affair, Yusuf is forced to return to Tanta, and his wife. Yusuf still doesn't recognise he has caused many of his family's problems: "I left Tanta in scandal and returned in scandal. Scandal pursued me wherever I alighted until I wanted to disappear."
Slowly, he returns to painting, first with a series of 99 self-portraits, and later with a job at the local art-supply shop, where he copies and colours pharaonic motifs. Yusuf's struggle to "emerge" as an artist is one of the book's most compelling themes. Eventually, his influential friend Rida helps him secure an exhibition. "Nothing can match the thrill of the first exhibition. It was the first time I saw Janette happy, like her life had borne fruit," Yusuf says.
Yet this doesn’t turn into an art-success story. In the end, Yusuf’s tale is about suffering, staying on the move and making art regardless of reception. He finds beauty in embracing his fate. Earlier in life, Yusuf had wanted to divorce his wife, which is forbidden by the Coptic church. But near the end, he says: “I’ve discovered the wisdom in Coptic marriage.” Carrying the cross of a difficult marriage “will grant you qualities you appreciate”.
By now, Yusuf tells us, he has become conservative. Yet that doesn’t mean stagnant. He plans to make one more move to the US, to be with his son. There, he hopes to escape “this darkness” descending on Egypt, moving into the light.