In his 2019 novel On the Greenwich Line, Shady Lewis gave us a book that is deeply hopeless and at the same time perfectly funny and cheerful. It’s a paradox that the Egyptian writer handles with apparent ease. And it is brilliant. It has now been translated into French as Sur le Méridien de Greenwich (Actes Sud, Paris, 2023).
Lewis explores the condition of exile, of those migrants who carry with them from South to North and from East to West the haunting question of being uprooted. Born in Cairo in 1978, the author emerged after the Egyptian revolution of 2011. With a master’s degree in psychology, he used his academic knowledge of crowd psychology and the theories of philosopher Michel Foucault to study how the daily sit-ins in Cairo’s Tahrir Square had created autonomous practices of self-regulation and resistance to social control and repression by the Egyptian state.
This was followed by his first acclaimed novel, Ways of the Lord, which he presented as an attempt to answer the question of what is it to be a Christian in Egypt. The novel was, at the time of its publication, presented by the author as a way to open the world of the Copts to Copts themselves as well as to Muslims.
In his latest novel, Lewis may have wanted to open the world of migrants to Westerners. He has been living in London for years and works in a social services department. It’s an ideal position, as both an insider and an outsider, from which to observe the tragic question of migration. This is also the strength of this novel; his way of placing the reader on the limit, the separation, the meridian which arranges the world while splitting it in two. The border and the lock that include and exclude in the same movement and thus create human hierarchies.
The hero, whose age and first name are unknown (we only understand that he’s Egyptian), receives an urgent call one night from a friend in Cairo. In the name of a deep and untold solidarity that remains despite the London exile, the narrator is asked to bury a young Syrian who has died in Britain after a series of various exiles and incredible escapes.
The narrator, while reluctant at first, eventually accepts the sacred mission. From there, the story is fed by different characters who all revolve around a single question: what does exile do to the person who lives it and to the societies that manage it?
The novel unfolds the singular human trajectories of people who, one day, left their country because of war, economic catastrophe or simply because they wanted to succeed elsewhere. Based on these particular premises, the novel also recounts the administrative purgatory in which these people are kept, neither completely rejected nor ever really welcomed.
The narrator, although a former migrant himself, works in a department that manages asylum, welfare and housing applications. From the very first words of the novel, one is struck by the tone used. Lewis never lapses into pathos. Even the most tragic fates in the book are full of irony and absurdity, and are definitely not lacking humour. Indeed, absurdity is a literary tradition that he claims gladly.
“The absurd has been always an element of the modern and its literature, from Don Quixote to the late modern in Kafka,” he told me. “It is a sign of the fall of the heroic age.”
However, when this absurdity leaves its literary dimension to describe at best the fate of migrants, it takes on a heroic dimension. This, he said, doesn’t meet the eyes straight away.
“The journeys of the heroes of ancient mythology are no more valid. Millions of refugees, migrants and ‘illegals’ risk the lengthy and terrifying journey every year to cross seas, oceans, deserts and guarded borders, but their stories are not hailed as miracles. They are only seen as a nuisance. In this sense, absurdity is the new version of heroism, a version that is defined merely by vulnerability.”
These migrants, says Lewis, are the modern heroes. “Migration is not necessarily modern. A concept such as the diaspora comes to us from the old testimony. The Islamic calendar is marked by ‘the year of migration’; Islam builds its narrative on the basis of exile.”
These heroes are indeed our modern Ulysses, confronting the cyclops of modern bureaucrats and the sirens of a mythical and devouring West. “However, what is unique about the modern world in this context is bureaucracy. On the Greenwich Line explores the ways in which the state apparatus attempts to classify, manage and assimilate the migrant, minorities, or what we could use as an umbrella term, ‘the alien’. The tension rises out of this unintended interaction between bureaucracy that is marked by rigidity and the fluidity of migration.”
The bureaucracy where the narrator works, takes the form of an administration that theoretically tries to organise as humanly as possible the reception and the life of migrants in their land of exile. Lewis’s novel shows us first of all that this same administration welcomes into its ranks employees who have themselves had a migratory journey, a successful one it appears. Its success is reflected in a job at the very heart of the colonial administration.
The narrator of the novel left Egypt years ago. In the eyes of his friends back home, he is the epitome of integration and success. But the novel shows us to what extent this bureaucracy dehumanises both those who are outside it, the migrants, and those who work in it, the civil servants in charge of granting or withholding the grail sought by migrants, “The right to have rights”, as described by the late German American historian Hannah Arendt.
Moreover, these officials have a hierarchy among themselves, between whites and blacks, Christians and Muslims, superiors and inferiors.
Fifty shades of whiteness
One of the characters in the book, a Nigerian colleague of the narrator, engages in social and racial theorisation which gives it a strong political tone. For this character, the world is divided between “whites” and “blacks”. Such terminology does not imply a nuance of skin tones, but rather a social and administrative status. He, for example, is “white” in the eyes of his family back home. And when he returns to the country upon retirement, the purchase of a villa with a swimming pool will consolidate this white status.
In the eyes of his Christian Polish colleague, though, he is black and will remain black. He is also “black” according to the Kurdish refugee woman to whom he may or may not provide a flat. This woman, although weakened by her exile status, will insult this black-skinned civil servant. She will draw from her white skin a theoretical superiority and the right to be racist while her fate depends on him.
Through this theorisation of administrative whiteness, Lewis’s work is part of the post-colonial theories for which white is no longer a colour but a social status. “Racial classification and hierarchy were the main marks of the colonial project; whiteness was the centre and defined everything else,” he explained. “The racial terminology, concepts, imagination and realities still live with us. The character in the novel develops a counter theory not based on whiteness but rather on blackness, where a blond migrant from East Europe is black too. This absurd and funny theory is not determined by skin colour but by one’s position in the capitalist and classist structures.”
And it is in Britain that these colonial remnants are best expressed. It’s the country in which Lewis lives and whose contradictions he observes. “Britain is where I have been living for the past 17 years. In contrast to some other European countries where assimilation and integration define the political agenda, Britain’s official policy is multiculturalism. It is a country where a brown Hindu, second generation immigrant becomes the prime minister and at the same time his government presents some of the most racist and anti-immigration rhetoric and policies in the country’s contemporary history. It is very surreal and very real too.”
A French reader of the novel by the Egyptian writer will realise how much the English model, which is constantly presented as the French counter-model based on universalism and integration, encounters the same contradictions and aporias in the policy of welcoming foreigners.
The wandering stranger
But if Shady Lewis shows us how the West manages to hold, by its very reception policies, the migrants who arrive on its doorsteps, the East is not spared. In Egypt, he shows how Syrian and Palestinian refugees are also eternally suspect and pointed at. In this case, the foreigner is no longer the one who does not resemble us, but the one who resembles us too much in a sense. And this surfeit of resemblance is the very reason for the rejection shown towards him.
Geopolitics has also produced its share of forced exiles, as Lewis also shows, launching hundreds of people on the migration routes who have been hit by a history that is beyond them. And in these jolts of history, the Arab world has not been spared.
The Palestinian Nakba, the US invasion of Iraq, the Sudanese civil wars and the Syrian catastrophe are horrific episodes that are defined by dictatorship, sectarianism and imperialism, he pointed out. “Iraq, Libya, Lebanon and Yemen have their share too. In a way, the Arabic language and its writing are now rooted in exile. Not necessarily as a result of direct and personal experience, but rather as a historical potentiality. Every Arab is a potential migrant, refugee and illegal.”
In his novel, in a narrative spin that is both ironic and tragic, the narrator, although a Copt, ends up dressing like a Salafi Muslim, because of the way he is treated by society. One thinks of Kafka, of course, of these sudden transformations that affect human beings caught in the net of the absurd. Giving reason to one’s accusers, becoming what one is accused of is the ultimate act of autonomy left to these eternally hunted people.
Through a gallery of endearing characters, Shady Lewis has written a great novel. His characters struggle, like insects under glass, knocking themselves out on invisible but solid walls. In this ultimate space, they also bump into each other, each trying to keep a thin space of survival. And it is there that the metaphor of the meridian takes on its symbolic importance.
“The meridian presents how power can turn the imaginary into reality, how it draws and redraws geography, produces it, and invents regions, classification, people, races, divisions and subjectivities,” he noted with a sense of regret. “It symbolises how power constructs the world and us.”
We are all divided by this meridian, his book seems to say, which not only classifies us as human beings, but also as individuals, internally. Escaping from its grip is perhaps the only solution for humanity and for our own psychic survival.