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February 22, 2016

Coptic Portrait

Coptic woman from the third-century (Coptic Fayum Portraits)

In a previous article, On Coptic Literature: What Is [Should Be] Coptic Literature (6 July 2016), we discussed the definition of literature, and said it was written works having excellence in form, expression, ideas and widespread and lasting interest. We also defined Coptic literature as “the collective body of literary works written by members of the Coptic people, anywhere in the world, in whatever language, whether it has a Coptic theme or not.” This is the general definition of Coptic literature: its common denominator, besides its high and lasting artistic value, is its creator – it must be a Copt. However, it should not be missed that there are different levels of Coptic literature within that broad definition, depending on the language used and theme employed: Coptic literature written in Coptic and having Coptic themes are the highest level in this definition.

Of all literature genres, literary fiction is perhaps the highest form. Literary fiction is generally defined as invented and imagined stories about people and events that are not real that hold literary merit: its form is prose, and it includes novels, short stories, novellas, romances, fables.[1] Coptic literary fiction will then mean this, but insists that the work is written by a Copt, in any language, and even if the theme is non-Coptic. But, there must be a distinction within this definition. I recognise three levels of Coptic literary fiction:

Level 1: Literary fiction written by a Copt, in Coptic language, and employing a Coptic theme. This is the highest form of Coptic literary fiction. Although the Copts cannot claim literary fiction, in the form of novels, novellas, or short stories written at this level, they can claim a lot of Level 1 literary fiction in the form of prose romances: romance is defined as “a fictional story in verse or prose that relates improbable adventures of idealized characters in some remote or enchanted setting; or, more generally, a tendency in fiction opposite to that of realism.”[2] The Copts have written in both Sahidic and Bohairic fantastic stories of their heroes and idealised characters, whether as their sacred figures or saints and martyrs, and some of these stories can easily be regarded as romances, such as ‘How Pisentius Conversed with the Mummies’, ‘The Mysteries of St. John the Divine’, ‘Abbaton, The Angel of Death, King of all Mankind’, ‘The Story of Lady Euphemia and the Devil’, and ‘Adam Describes the Rebellion of Satan Against God’ – all translated from Coptic to English by E. A. Wallis Budge.[3] One can add to these works the martyrdoms of SS. Paese and Thecla, S. Shenoufe and his brethren, SS. Apaioule and Pteleme, which were published and translated into English by E. A. E. Reymond and J. W. B. Barns.[4] In the past these stories were neglected and rejected because they were seen as Copts writing hagiography without paying much respect to scientific accuracy. If this idea is disallowed, and these literary works are seen as emanating from the imaginative mind of devout Copts to edify and educate, and intentionally meant to include elements of fanciful exaggeration, one can see in them some undeniable outstanding beauty.

Level 2: Literary fiction written by a Copt in a language other than Coptic but employing a Coptic theme. One would expect this level of Coptic literary fiction to occupy the arena after the Copts abandoned their Coptic language in the Middle-Ages, but, alas, not much exists of it. In fact, sadly, there seem to be none of it existent: no Copt seems to have written a work of value in any language any literary fiction, whether a novel or short story or novella or romance or fable, which discusses Coptic matters. This is a great shame. The Copts, until they revive their language, must create literary fiction at this second level – work that is written by Copts and directed at the Copts, and not at Arabs or any other people: the danger is always that, once the fictionist puts non-Copts as his target audience, he would always be tempted to write about non-Coptic themes. For Coptic literary fiction that is focused on Coptic characters, events and life, the fictionist has to possess a certain nationalist sentiment and resist the financial temptation that larger markets provide.

Level 3: Literary fiction written by a Copt using non-Coptic language and theme. This is the lowest form of Coptic literary fiction even though it may have its own merit and beauty. Examples of this group is Beer in the Snooker Club,[5] written in English by Waguih Ghali (1930 – 1969); and Rama and the Dragon, City of Saffron, Girls of Alexandria, and Stones of Bobello – all written in Arabic (but translated into English) by Edward al-Kharat (1926 – 2015). These are interesting novels, but I do not think they can help Coptic literature or the Copts a lot. In fact, the first could be seen as English literature written by a Copt, and the others as Arabic literature written again by a Copt. One cannot find in them any Coptic themes: their characters can hardly be described as Coptic and they do not reflect the human condition through the Coptic mind, feelings and experience.

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I have no much respect for what I have called Level 3 Coptic literary fiction, though I don’t deny its significance. The fictionists at this level have detached themselves from their Coptic cultural nation and are more interested in foreign audience – their fiction does not reflect Coptic life.

The highest Coptic literary fiction, as I said, is that produced at Level 1: this is Coptic literary fiction proper. But it is old, and all we have of it is romance: we do not have novels, novellas, short stories or even fables in Coptic, by Copts, treating Coptic themes. But for this to appear, we must first revive our Coptic language; and for this to happen, we must wait for yet some more time. What we can at the present, is producing Coptic literary fiction at Level 2; but, sadly, we don’t see any of value being produced, or at least to my knowledge. The production of this level of Coptic literary fiction must be encouraged by all means, and the focus must be novels, novellas and short stories. It is mandatory that we produce literary fiction of our own, by us and springing from our culture and national life. And if we cannot produce that in our beautiful Coptic language, let us use any language we master for that sake – and let us hope that one day we will escalate our production to Level 1 of Coptic literary fiction, the highest form we can produce.


[1] See, for instance, Chris Baldick, The Oxford Dictionary of Literary Terms (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2008).

[2] Ibid.

[3] E. A. Wallis Budge, Egyptian Tales and Romances: Pagan, Christian and Muslim (London, T. Butterworth Ltd., 1931).

[4] E. A. E. Reymond and J. W. B. Barns, Four Martyrdoms from the Pierpont Morgan Coptic Codices (Oxford, The Clarendon Press, 1973).

[5] Waguih Ghali, Beer in the Snooker Club (London, Deutsch, 1964).

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