CHICAGO: In rural Upper Egypt, public prosecutor Nader Fayez Kamal arrives in the village of Tayea, where tension is high between Coptic and Muslim communities in award-winning novelist and legal scholar Ashraf El-Ashmawi’s novel, “The House of the Coptic Woman.” Beginning a new job as a deputy public prosecutor on the outskirts of town, Nader must navigate a tricky post with complicated relationships between people and the land they live on. Translated into English by Peter Daniel, Nader finds life away from Cairo more complex than he had hoped for, but faces it with a strong legal mind and a penchant for solving mysteries.
On the night Nader arrives at the rest house to begin his new job, he meets a caretaker named Ramses who tells him that the lodge was originally built by a British irrigation engineer who was in charge of northern Upper Egypt before he was murdered in the 1940s. From that event, history changed the face of the village which by 1952, after the Egyptian revolution, changes its name to Tayea after the mayor. With a history of religious tension, Nader isn’t prepared for what’s about to happen. Coinciding with his arrival is the appearance of a young woman named Hoda who appears in the middle of the night with a secret that will change her life and that of those around her.
With an atmosphere that is foreboding, El-Ashmawi’s incredible storytelling sets the mood as the novel shifts between Nader and Hoda. Between the divisive village life, arson attacks, murders that are never solved, and mysterious land acquisitions and sales, Nader and Hoda are thrown into a world where they are forced to tread carefully. Nader has a knack for stepping on toes but has to learn the hard way that the path to justice and peace can be messy.
Setting a tone that is intelligent, complex, deceptive, and rich, El-Ashmawi’s novel encompasses sectarian strife and a debate about justice. There are laws that penalize for small offences and others in which the punishment is far less than the offense. In a place where justice is more concerned with politics, the protagonists will find themselves facing decisions that could alter their lives forever.