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THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET: WHEN A NATION IS WARY OF THE IMPACT OF A NOVEL

August 9, 2019

AQ

The Alexandria Quartet by Lawrence Durrell

Who would think that a novel would scare off a people? But that is exactly what has happened to some Copts when the British author Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) published his internationally acclaimed The Alexandria Quartet in the period 1957 – 1960: Justine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1958), and Clea (1960). That was during the ultra-Arab nationalism, military era of President Nasser (1952 – 1970), an era characterised by antagonism to British colonialism and Zionism. The air was filled with fear, and conspiracies were always suspected, and the slightest evidence of disloyalty punished by death.

The Copts, who happened to read The Alexandria Quartet, were on edge. Its events occur mainly in Alexandria, Egypt, in the period 1933-1945, when Egypt was still under British control. Though the novel is complex, and sometimes difficult to read, it has a strongly-felt Coptic presence. Some of its main characters are Coptic, members of the Hosnani Family: Falthaus, the head of the family, who is physically invalid; Leila, his wife; Nessim, the elder son who is a successful businessman; and Narouz, the younger son. Nessim is married to a Jewish woman, Justine.  Though the marital bond between the Copt and the Jew is marred by infidelities, they enter into an anti-British activity in Palestine to smuggle arms from Hitler’s Germany to the Zionists! The activity is dubbed, “Coptic conspiracy”.

The whole thing is imaginative and unrealistic, but it was enough to raise the fears of the Copts. In Egypt, claims of disloyalty of the Copts are often manufactured by Muslim fundamentalists and have led to attacks on the Copts, as has happened in the Suez massacre of the Copts on 4 January 1952 when the Muslim Brotherhood Society accused the Copts of siding with the British in their fight against the Fidayyin. The Copts were, understandably, wary of anything which could be used against them even if it was an imaginative, non-existent conspiracy in an English novel.

The American author, Edward Wakin, in his book, A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt’s Copts (1963), writes of the impact of the so-called “Coptic conspiracy” on the Copts:

As to their loyalty to Egypt, many Copts complain that Nasser doesn’t realize how much he can rely upon them, that he should trust them rather than the many “opportunists” who surround him. At each new round up of spies, the Copts examine the names carefully to make sure that none of the spies is one of them. A member of the landowning Coptic aristocracy recalled her apprehension after a spy roundup when she was in doubt about one of the names and her relief upon learning that he was not a Copt. She also complained about Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, which involved the Copts in a conspiracy with Zionists against the Egyptian government. Durrell has been quoted as saying: “I dreamed up for the story a conspiracy of the Copts against the Egyptians. It never existed, except in my imagination. I asked an expert to read what I had written and he was worried that the Egyptians would actually punish the Copts now for this non-existent conspiracy.”[1]

How can we explain the fear of that Coptic woman from the landowning aristocracy? There is no doubt that her fears were shared by many Copts who read the Alexandria Quartet, few as they may be. In Egypt the Copts live as second-class citizen, always subjected to the suspicion of working with the “enemy”. Even an imaginative, non-existent “conspiracy” in a novel can lead to attacks on them. If this tells of anything, it tells of the precarious position of the Copts in Egypt. But, more importantly, it tells of the hostile environment in which we live, created by a people (or a large section of them) who think, openly or secretly, that we are not really equal citizens but potential enemy.

FOR MORE ON THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET, GO HERE & HERE.

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[1] Edward Wakin, A Lonely Minority: The Modern Story of Egypt’s Copts (1963), p. 23.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Simon permalink
    August 10, 2019 12:03 pm

    Alexandria Quartet – the worst rubbish I have ever had the misfortune to read. Boring, pointless and what as though of at the time as intellectual ie. totally incomprehensible but the self-styled intellectuals could always retort “Oh well, you clearly can’t understand it”, nor realising that there is, in fact, nothing there to understand in the first place.

    • Dioscorus Boles permalink*
      August 10, 2019 1:00 pm

      To a large extent I agree. And the plagiarism!

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