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August 12, 2019



Mountolive, which was published in 1958, is the most Coptic of all Lawrence Durrell’s tetralogy, The Alexandria Quarter. It is the third novel in the series. In previous articles, I have suggested that Durrell never knew the Copts, and his knowledge about them was obtained from others; and that his “Coptic Plot”, which he first entertained in the second novel of the tetralogy, Balthazar (1958), of working with the Zionists in Palestine against British and Arab interests, is an unrealistic work of sheer imagination.

One of Durrell’s extraordinary and bizarre writings about the Copts comes in Chapter I: the outburst[1] of the head of the Hosnani Family, Falthaus, in response to a gaffe by the young English diplomacy trainee, David Mountolive, who is later to become British Ambassador in Cairo. Mountolive, “a junior of exceptional promise, [who] had been sent to Egypt for a year in order to improve his Arabic and found himself attached to the High Commission as a sort of scribe to await his first diplomatic posting, but he was already conducting himself as a young secretary of legation, fully aware of the responsibilities of future office”, went to Egypt in the 1930s, before the start of WWII. There, he was first hosted by the Hosnani family for ten days to learn Arabic and Egyptian ways. The Hosnanis were a rich Coptic Christian family who owned a large villa by the Lake of Mereotis, near Alexandria. It consisted of Falthaus, the head of the family, who was in his sixties at the time, and was “dying of some obscure disease of the musculature, a progressive atrophy”. Durrell calls him, “the sick man” and “the invalid”. Fathaus’ wife is Leila, a woman in her forties, “though she looked much younger”. Mountolive, who was in his twenties, as one gathers, falls in love with Leila, and is sexually involved with her, which Falthaus knows, and is comfortable with for as long as she doesn’t fall in love with the Englishman! The family has two sons: the eldest, Nessim, is an intelligent student in his last year at Oxford, and has “a Byzantine face such as one might find among the frescoes of Ravenna – almond shaped, dark-eyed, clear featured”; and Narouz, the younger brother, who Durrell describes as hare-lipped, heavy built and ugly, who rejoiced in bloodshed and manual work. Narouz is to be the farmer of the family, while Nessim the banker.

After returning from a romantic rendezvous with Leila – a matter which not only Falthaus knew about, but also Nessim and Narouz – the family and their guest gather at the dinner table. This happened after Falthaus had rehearsed a suicidal attempt by shooting himself with a pistol, and telling himself, while Narouz was in earshot, “And now if she should fall in love, you know what you must do.” Mountolive did not know of this incident, which happened shortly after dinner, and which cast its shadow over the dinner. It took a gaffe from Mountolive to make Falthaus burst. Durrell does not tell us the details of the gaffe, but the reader can gather it was along the Cromerian[2] belief that there is no difference between the Copts and Muslims in Egypt.

I shall copy Durrell’s description of the “outburst” below.


But how indeed was Mountolive to know all this? He only recognized a reserve in Narouz which was absent from the gently smiling Nessim. As for the father of Narouz, he was quite frankly disturbed by him, by his sick hanging head, and the self-pity which his voice exuded. Unhappily, too, there was another conflict which had to find an issue somehow, and this time Mountolive unwittingly provided an opening by committing one of those gaffes which diplomats, more than any other tribe, fear and dread; the memory of which can keep them awake at nights for years. It was an absurd enough slip, but it gave the sick man an excuse for an outburst which Mountolive recognized as characteristic. It all happened at table, during dinner one evening, and at first the company laughed easily enough over it — and in the expanding circle of their communal amusement there was no bitterness, only the smiling protest of Leila: “But my dear David, we are not Moslems, but Christians like yourself.” Of course he had known this; how could his words have slipped out? It was one of those dreadful remarks which once uttered seem not only inexcusable but also impossible to repair. Nessim, however, appeared delighted rather than offended, and with his usual tact, did not permit himself to laugh aloud without touching his friend’s wrist with his hand, lest by chance Mountolive might think the laughter directed at him rather than at his mistake. Yet, as the laughter itself fell away, he became consciously aware that a wound had been opened from the flinty features of the man in the wheel-chair who alone did not smile. “I see nothing to smile at.” His fingers plucked at the shiny arms of the chair. “Nothing at all. The slip exactly expresses the British point of view — the view with which we Copts have always had to contend. There were never any differences between us and the Moslems in Egypt before they came. The British have taught the Moslems to hate the Copts and to discriminate against them. Yes, Mountolive, the British. Pay heed to my words.”

“I am sorry” stammered Mountolive, still trying to atone for his gaffe.

“I am not,” said the invalid. “It is good that we should mention these matters openly because we Copts feel them in here, in our deepest hearts. The British have made the Moslems oppress us. Study the Commission. Talk to your compatriots there about the Copts and you will hear their contempt and loathing of us. They have inoculated the Moslems with it.”

“Oh, surely, Sir!” said Mountolive, in an agony of apology.

“Surely,” asseverated the sick man, nodding his head upon that sprained stalk of neck. “We know the truth.” Leila made some small involuntary gesture, almost a signal, as if to stop her husband before he was fully launched into a harangue, but he did not heed her. He sat back chewing a piece of bread and said indistinctly: “But then what do you, what does any Englishman know or care of the Copts? An obscure religious heresy, they think, a debased language with a liturgy hopelessly confused by Arabic and Greek. It has always been so. When the first Crusade captured Jerusalem it was expressly ruled that no Copt enter the city — our Holy City. So little could those Western Christians distinguish between Moslems who defeated them at Askelon and the Copts — the only branch of the Christian Church which was thoroughly integrated into the Orient! But then your good Bishop of Salisbury openly said he considered these Oriental Christians as worse than infidels, and your Crusaders massacred them joyfully.” An expression of bitterness translated into a cruel smile lit up his features for a moment. Then, as his customary morose hangdog expression appeared, licking his lips he plunged once more into an argument the matter of which, Mountolive suddenly realized, had been preying upon his secret mind from the first day of his visit. He had indeed carried the whole of this conversation stacked up inside him, waiting for the moment to launch it. Narouz gazed at his father with sympathetic adoration, his features copying their expression from what was said — pride, at the words “Our Holy City”, anger at the words “worse than infidels”. Leila sat pale and absorbed, looking out towards the balcony; only Nessim looked serious yet easy in spirit. He watched his father sympathetically and respectfully but without visible emotion. He was still almost smiling.

“Do you know what they call us — the Moslems?” Once more his head wagged. “I will tell you. Gins Pharoony. Yes, we are genus Pharaonicus — the true descendants of the ancients, the true marrow of Egypt. We call ourselves Gypt — ancient Egyptians. Yet we are Christians like you, only of the oldest and purest strain. And all through we have been the brains of Egypt — even in the time of the Khedive. Despite persecutions we have held an honoured place here; our Christianity has always been respected. Here in Egypt, not there in Europe. Yes, the Moslems who have hated Greek and Jew have recognized in the Copt the true inheritor of the ancient Egyptian strain. When Mohammed Ali came to Egypt he put all the financial affairs of the country into the hands of the Copts. So did Ismail his successor. Again and again you will find that Egypt was to all intents and purposes ruled by us, the despised Copts, because we had more brains and more integrity than the others. Indeed, when Mohammed Ali first arrived he found a Copt in charge of all state affairs and made him his Grand Vizier.”

“Ibrahim El Gohari” said Narouz with the triumphant air of a schoolboy who can recite his lesson correctly.

“Exactly,” echoed his father, no less triumphantly. “He was the only Egyptian permitted to smoke his pipe in the presence of the first of Khedives. A Copt!”

Mountolive was cursing the slip which had led him to receive this curtain lecture, and yet at the same time listening with great attention. These grievances were obviously deeply felt. “And when Gohari died where did Mohammed Ali turn?”

“To Ghali Doss” said Narouz again, delightedly.

“Exactly. As Chancellor of the Exchequer he had full powers over revenue and taxation. A Copt. Another Copt. And his son Basileus was made a Bey and a member of the Privy Council. These men ruled Egypt with honour; and there were many of them given great appointments.”

“Sedarous Takla in Esneh” said Narouz, “Shehata Hasaballah in Assiout, Girgis Yacoub in Beni Souef.” His eyes shone as he spoke and he basked like a serpent in the warmth of his father’s approbation. “Yes,” cried the invalid, striking his chair-arm with his hand. “Yes. And even under Said and Ismail the Copts played their part. The public prosecutor in every province was a Copt. Do you realize what that means? The reposing of such a trust in a Christian minority? The Moslems knew us, they knew we were Egyptians first and Christians afterwards. Christian Egyptians — have you British with your romantic ideas about Moslems ever thought what the words mean? The only Christian Orientals fully integrated into a Moslem state? It would be the dream of Germans to discover such a key to Egypt, would it not? Everywhere Christians in positions of trust, in key positions as mudirs, Governors, and so on. Under Ismail a Copt held the Ministry of War.”

“Ayad Bey Hanna” said Narouz with relish.

“Yes. Even under Arabi a Coptic Minister of Justice. And a Court Master of Ceremonies. Both Copts. And others, many others.”

“How did all this change?” said Mountolive quietly, and the sick man levered himself up in his rugs to point a shaking finger at his guest and say: “The British changed it, with their hatred of the Copts. Gorst initiated a diplomatic friendship with Khedive Abbas, and as a result of his schemes not a single Copt was to be found in the entourage of the Court or even in the services of its departments. Indeed, if you spoke to the men who surrounded that corrupt and bestial man, supported by the British, you would have been led to think that the enemy was the Christian part of the nation. At this point, let me read you something.” Here Narouz, swiftly as a well-rehearsed acolyte, slipped into the next room and returned with a book with a marker in it. He laid it open on the lap of his father and returned in a flash to his seat. Clearing his throat the sick man read harshly: “‘When the British took control of Egypt the Copts occupied a number of the highest positions in the State. In less than a quarter of a century almost all the Coptic Heads of Departments had disappeared. They were at first fully represented in the bench of judges, but gradually the number was reduced to nil; the process of removing them and shutting the door against fresh appointments has gone on until they have been reduced to a state of discouragement bordering on despair!’ These are the words of an Englishman. It is to his honour that he has written them.” He snapped the book shut and went on. “Today, with British rule, the Copt is debarred from holding the position of Governor or even of Mamur — the administrative magistrate of a province. Even those who work for the Government are compelled to work on Sunday because, in deference to the Moslems, Friday has been made a day of prayer. No provision has been made for the Copts to worship. They are not even properly represented on Government Councils and Committees. They pay large taxes for education — but no provision is made that such money goes towards Christian education. It is all Islamic. But I will not weary you with the rest of our grievances. Only that you should understand why we feel that Britain hates us and wishes to stamp us out.”

“I don’t think that can be so,” said Mountolive feebly, now rendered somewhat breathless by the forthrightness of the criticism but unaware how to deal with it. All this matter was entirely new to him for his studies had consisted only in reading the conventional study by Lane as the true Gospel on Egypt. The sick man nodded again, as if with each nod he drove his point home a little deeper. Narouz, whose face like a mirror had reflected the various feelings of the conversation, nodded too. Then the father pointed at his eldest son. “Nessim,” he said, “look at him. A true Copt. Brilliant, reserved. What an ornament he would make to the Egyptian diplomatic service. Eh? As a diplomat-to-be you should judge better than I. But no. He will be a businessman because we Copts know that it is useless, useless.” He banged the arm of his wheel-chair again, and the spittle came up into his mouth.

But this was an opportunity for which Nessim had been waiting, for now he took his father’s sleeve and kissed it submissively, saying at the same time with a smile: “But David will learn all this anyway. It is enough now.” And smiling round at his mother sanctioned the relieved signal she made to the servants which called an end to the dinner.

They took their coffee in uncomfortable silence on the balcony where the invalid sat gloomily apart staring out at the darkness, and the few attempts at general conversation fell flat. To do him justice, the sick man himself was feeling ashamed of his outburst now. He had sworn to himself not to introduce the topic before his guest, and was conscious that he had contravened the laws of hospitality in so doing. But he too could now see no way of repairing the conversation in which the good feeling they had reciprocated and enjoyed until now had temporarily foundered.

Here once more Nessim’s tact came to the rescue; he took Leila and Mountolive out into the rose-garden where the three of them walked in silence for a while, their minds embalmed by the dense night-odour of the flowers. When they were out of earshot of the balcony the eldest son said lightly: “David, I hope you didn’t mind my father’s outburst at dinner. He feels very deeply about all this.”

“I know.”

“And you know,” said Leila eagerly, anxious to dispose of the whole subject and return once more to the normal atmosphere of friendliness, “he really isn’t wrong factually, however he expresses himself. Our position is an unenviable one, and it is due entirely to you, the British. We do live rather like a secret society — the most brilliant, indeed, once the key community in our own country.”

“I cannot understand it” said Mountolive.

“It is not so difficult,” said Nessim lightly. “The clue is the Church militant. It is odd, isn’t it, that for us there was no real war between Cross and Crescent? That was entirely a Western European creation. So indeed was the idea of the cruel Moslem infidel. The Moslem was never a persecutor of the Copts on religious grounds. On the contrary, the Koran itself shows that Jesus is respected as a true Prophet, indeed a precursor of Mohammed. The other day Leila quoted you the little portrait of the child Jesus m one of the suras — remember? Breathing life into the clay models of birds he was making with other children. . . .”

“I remember.”

“Why, even in Mohammed’s tomb,” said Leila, “there has always been that empty chamber which waits for the body of Jesus. According to the prophecy he is to be buried in Medina, the fountain of Islam, remember? And here in Egypt no Moslem feels anything but respect and love for the Christian God. Even today. Ask anyone, ask any muezzin.” (This was as if to say “Ask anyone who speaks the truth” — for no unclean person, drunkard, madman or woman is regarded as eligible for uttering the Moslem call to prayer.)

“You have remained Crusaders at heart,” said Nessim softly, ironically but still with a smile on his lips. He turned and walked softly away between the roses, leaving them alone. At once Leila’s hand sought his familiar clasp. “Never mind this,” she said lightly, in a different voice. “One day we will find our way back to the centre with or without your help! We have long memories!”


Now, I have mentioned this outburst as extraordinary and bizarre matter, for I don’t believe that the gist of the uttering put in the mouth of Falthaus Hosnani could come from a Copt. Durrell, in fact, is putting in the mouth of Falthaus the words, and makes him express the views, of another Englishman, whom Durrell does not mention. Plagiarism is a frequent allegation made against Durrell (see, e.g., A. F. Hassan, Lawrence Durrell and the Alexandria Quartet: Influences Shaping His Fiction [1980]). I do contend here that Durrell has plagiarised a lot from S. H. Leeder’s Modern Sons of the Pharaohs, written in 1918; and for this, I shall dedicate my next article.


[1] Lawrence Durrell, Moutolive (Faber Paper Covered Editions, 1958), pp. 39-46.

[2] Lord Cromer, First Consul-General of Egypt (1883 – 1907). Lord Cromer advanced in his book, Modern Egypt, the view that the Copts do not differ from the Muslims of Egypt in anything except that the former worship in churches while the latter worship in mosques.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Samir Rizk permalink
    August 12, 2019 8:52 pm

    Very interesting essay as usual

    Sent from my iPhone

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