The world of London's others

In "Auf dem Null Meridian", Shady Lewis tells the story of an immigrant in London who works in social services and whose life is turned upside down. With a light touch and black humour, he describes the tragic consequences of racism and Eurocentric thinking. Lisa Neal read the book for

By Lisa Neal

The Greenwich meridian, also known as the prime meridian, is the line of longitude that divides the globe into east and west. "The prime meridian doesn't exist, and yet it is real, simply because some people agreed that it exists," writes British-Egyptian author Shady Lewis in his latest novel.

It could just as easily have run through the Canary Island of El Hierro, or Paris, or the Azores. But of the available options, 20 out of 27 countries at the International Meridian Conference of 1894 voted for Greenwich. It has been a fixed point of orientation for the peoples of the world ever since.

At the same time, the Greenwich meridian is a metaphor for the fact that what we experience as truths are ultimately mere constructs, determined by those with interpretational sovereignty.

In the novel, the exasperated narrator replies to his colleague: "The prime meridian doesn't run through here because some people agreed that it should, as you say, but because some people had bigger cannons than others and so they could impose whatever they wanted on them". In the end, what is truth still depends on the distribution of power.

Cover of Shady Lewis' novel "Auf dem Nullmeridian", published in German by Hoffmann & Campe (source: publisher)
Shady Lewis was born into a family of Coptic Christians in Egypt in 1978. In 2006, he came to London as an immigrant and worked for more than ten years in the social services of the city administration. His novel was prompted by the experience that even former immigrants working in the public sector are often unable to help their fellow human beings. Having studied psychology, his focus these days is on analysing the psychological structure of political discourse in the Arab world

Western sovereignty of interpretation

But to begin at the beginning: the story finds the protagonist, who works as a local authority housing officer in one of London's problem neighbourhoods – mid-life. It's an area with a high immigrant population.

A friend tells him about the death of a Syrian, called Ghiyath, who died alone in his room in London after fleeing to the UK. The friend asks him to organise the repatriation of the body to Egypt and the subsequent funeral. For the narrator, it isn't just a new responsibility that begins with this task; he sees parallels between himself and the dead man, and so he starts to reflect on his own life.

At the same time, other strands of the narrative are developing. One of these offers insights into the protagonist' arduous occupation. A fatal misunderstanding comes to a head with his colleague Kayode; flashbacks are constantly being woven into the narrative thread.

The question of who is allowed to decide what is true has real consequences for the life of the protagonist. Like the author Shady Lewis, he was born into a family of Coptic Christians and emigrated from Egypt to the UK.

As a migrant he is an outsider in British society, but as a Coptic Christian he does not belong among the Muslim migrants either.

Time and again, the protagonist recounts how other people have tried to interpret the truth on his behalf. "So tell me, did you visit the pyramids often?" an employee in the pathology department asks him.

He replies, "Not very often, no. Could we get back to the reason I'm here?" But the embalmer, a self-proclaimed expert on Egypt, won't let it go.

"That's weird, though. Why not very often?" "I have no idea, we don't constantly go to the pyramids in Egypt. Sorry, but I'm looking for a body that must have arrived here on Monday," the narrator says, still trying to get through. To no avail. "You're Egyptian though, right?" The narrator relents: "Yes." And so it goes on. "Well that's the weirdest thing I ever heard. So how many times have you been to the pyramids?" the technician asks.

Precise observations of everyday life

The author conveys his feeling for life stories that play out on and around the margins of society. They would be lost in conventional reportage, probably too lacking in drama for that medium. But it would be a great shame not to tell these stories, because they capture how reality is felt by many in the dark corners and margins.

Shady Lewis makes precise observations of everyday life. His novel demonstrates how absurdly different societies treat their members, and who gets a chance of a life worth living where. This is shown particularly through the story of how the dead Syrian Ghiyath became a refugee.

The words are considered and well-chosen, and paint vivid pictures. "Pepsi was obsessed with colouring everything. For instance, everyone who saw her noticed that she wore a thick layer of powder on her skin", it says at one point.

Thousands demonstrated in London against racism in Britain after the death of George Floyd (image: picture-alliance/AA/I. Tayfun Salci)
Undercurrent of racism: Shady Lewis makes precise observations about the everyday life of those who have immigrated to the UK and live on the margins of society. His novel demonstrates how absurdly different societies treat their members, and who gets a chance of a life worth living where. This is shown particularly through the story of the Syrian Ghiyath, whose death decisively shapes the course of Shady Lewis' story

Pepsi explains: "'Ah, my friend! Perhaps you think I'm completely mad, but you're forgiven for that, because you don't know what it means to be a black person living among white people. You have a choice: either you colour your skin white and have everyone laugh at you for it, so that you keep painting yourself whiter and whiter, until everyone believes you. Or you don't care about anything and make fun of both skin colours. One of those is worse than the other, and so I do both. I try and fit in, and at the same time make fun of the others' world'".

Those with power possess the truth

Most of the minor characters work well, though some appear only briefly and remain sketchy. A climax to the plot might have helped the flow of the story. Occasionally the protagonist's interior world and his passivity are difficult to bear; this is due to his despair at how powerless he keeps finding himself as a public servant to help those in need.

What really sticks in the memory as a reader are all the little glimpses you get into the dark corners of society.

The individual, interwoven stories show that the establishment of truth is, was and remains a discourse of power. And this is not a coercion-free discourse – the first-person narrator is right to criticise how the prime meridian was decided upon.

A coercion-free discourse – a concept that originates from philosopher Juergen Habermas – involves the fundamental equality of those taking part, the fundamental ability to question all subjects and opinions, and no-one being fundamentally excluded. None of this applied to the establishment of the prime meridian, nor does it to many of the human fates described in this book.

Despite this insight, the book does not proclaim that everything is hopeless. Instead, it urges us to listen to each other more, and to ask questions if we don't understand or can't pin something down.

Lisa Neal

© 2023

Translated from the German by Ruth Martin

Shady Lewis Botros, Auf dem Nullmeridian, literally 'on the prime meridian', translated from the Arabic by Gunther Orth (published by Hoffmann & Campe 2023)