Shady Botros Lewis's latest novel is a haunting portrayal of those lost among the cracks in Britain

'Ala Khat Greenwich', or 'Greenwich Meridian', explores the all too familiar notion of not belonging anywhere

In this Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018 photo, journalist and author Shady Lewis Botros, author of the book, "Ways of the Lord," poses for a portrait in London. The new Arabic-language novel, the author’s first, explores the lives of Egyptian Christians, dealing with discrimination but also a Church aligned with a state seeking to control them. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
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After living in Britain for 15 years, Egyptian author Shady Botros Lewis painted a graphic and almost painful picture of the lives of immigrants in the West in his latest Arabic-language novel Ala Khat Greenwich (Greenwich Meridian). It offers a haunting, but all too familiar, notion of not belonging anywhere. It could not have been a timelier topic for his second book, one he hopes may be translated into English.

With many European governments struggling to absorb the latest wave of migrants – caused by conflict or poverty in parts of the Middle East, Asia and Africa – Lewis's story offers a rare insight into the lives and mindsets of refugees, with the main character having lived in Britain long enough to see his adopted home and its inhabitants in a deeply nuanced light that is rarely seen in Arabic literature. "It is basically a fictionalised autobiography," Lewis, 41, who lives in London, tells The National.

The novel's unnamed narrator is based on Lewis and his life as a psychology graduate. Until three years ago, he worked in social services in the East London borough of Hackney, an area that has historically attracted newly arrived immigrants. His job brought him into direct contact with the city's complicated and cumbersome bureaucracy, along with its disenfranchised classes and those hopelessly trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty.

"One key idea in the book is the cruelty of the bureaucracy and how it controls the fate of people," he explains. "It's an inadvertent continuation of my first novel, which portrayed the control of the government and the Orthodox Church over the lives of Egypt's Christians."

Lewis's first novel, entitled Turuq Al-Rab (Ways of the Lord), came out last year to rave reviews for its unpolished and irreverent look at the church's role in the affairs of Egypt's Christian community, which accounts for about 10 per cent of the country's population of more than 100 million people.

Lewis says that in Greenwich Meridian, the book's narrator "does not see Britain as heaven on earth" because he's aware of the misery towards the bottom of society. "As you can see, the narrator also sees that life can be good in Britain, but neither he nor the people around him can have that life," he says. "They can neither live well in their countries of origin nor have a good life in Britain."

The characters attest to Lewis's contention that he, fellow immigrants working with him at a London council and the people they are supposed to serve, are members of a community living on the fringes of society, invisible to the wealthy and powerful in the city's financial district.

There is the Nigerian employee, for example, who uses real and metaphorical ethnic affiliations to categorise colleagues and everyone else who lives in the city. "Don't forget that not all blacks are of the same degree," the character says. "There are black blacks, blacks from eastern Europe, Chinese blacks, very black blacks, half-black blacks, black Muslims, Muslim blacks, black by choice, incidental blacks …"

Next is the woman who immigrated to Britain from eastern Europe and sees no point in helping the sick and poor. They should be left to their own devices to die or survive, she tells the narrator, who is horrified by the thought.

Another colleague shares with him an unusual take on her race, one that reflects resentment over the hand life dealt her. "My friend, you may think I am totally mad and you may be forgiven for thinking that because you don't know what it's like to be black in a white society," the character says. "You have two choices. No more. Either you dye your skin white and everyone mocks you for it but you continue to add more layers of white dye every day until you look convincingly white, or you can ridicule both colours. Two solutions, each crueler than the other. I chose to embrace both … "

book cover of Shady Botros Lewis's latest novel
The cover of Shady Botros Lewis's latest novel

As the narrator, Lewis shares some heart-rending words to describe the legacy of the poor, disenfranchised and sick, not only in London, but also in his native Egypt, where his grandmother's dementia was cruelly dealt with by her family (they locked her up for days on end). There is also the Syrian migrant who endured pain and humiliation during his travels across half the globe in search of a sanctuary. He ended up in London, his place of choice, where he soon died alone in bed from what appeared to be a cardiac arrest.

The narrator himself is a victim of that painful feeling of not belonging anywhere. A member of Egypt's ancient Christian minority, in England he is referred to as a "Paki", a derogatory term in Britain for Pakistanis, by a street beggar who shoves him to the ground while travelling on the underground. The narrator is grief-stricken when he learns of the premature death of friends he left behind in Egypt and his grandmother's final days cause him great pain.

"I am stuck here just as he is stuck there," he says of the only surviving friend he has left back in his home country. "I have changed enough to be a stranger in Cairo but I haven't changed enough to be rid of the stigma of being a foreigner in London."

Elsewhere in the book, he explores the common and often racially motivated argument about the temperament of foreign immigrants living in the West. "People of dark skin like me are easily accused here of having a temper or an exaggerated temper," he says. "It is because of this that they find themselves forced to offer a detailed and thorough explanation for showing the smallest sign of anger, sadness or despair, or any other unpopular sentiments in this country."

HTEARK Shoreditch district within the London Borough of Hackney in London, UK.
Shoreditch district within the London Borough of Hackney

Almost ­fittingly, Greenwich Meridian closes with the bizarre but heart-warming tale of an Iraqi immigrant the narrator meets at the Muslim section of a London cemetery while waiting, in vain, for the body of the Syrian immigrant to arrive and be buried.

"I watched a documentary on Channel 4 10 years ago about a group of women who volunteered to organise funerals for American soldiers killed in Iraq but who have no families," the Iraqi tells the narrator. "I come from Iraq and I thought that all people should do something similar. I discovered that hundreds of people die alone here, more than anywhere else, and no one comes to their funerals.

At the threshold of the grave, I fight loneliness at its final battlefield and I extract its victims from its jaws.”