Reviewed by Tom Little
Mixing religion and literature in Egypt can be a very risky business indeed. In 1994, Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz was stabbed by a militant Islamist after he published Children of Gebelawi, an allegorical novel about the shared origins of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, causing outrage amongst religious groups.
More recently, Lawyers Without Shackles, an Islamist lawyers’ association, tried to ban the classic 1,001 Nights because they thought it was obscene, and references to sex in the text were “calls to sin”. Thankfully the group had no success and the Egyptian state publisher, who had just issued a new edition of the tales at the time, gleefully noted how well their reprint of the 1,001 Nights was selling.
But writing in 2009, novelist Youssef Ziedan quickly found that Egypt’s Christian minority were just as prickly as their Muslim compatriots when it came to matters of faith and fiction. His dazzling novel Azazeel, which took the form of a series of confessional scrolls written by Hypa, a doubt-wracked monk, as he wandered across Egypt and Syria, stirred the ire of Egypt’s Coptic church who were offended by Ziedan’s representations of the early Christian church.
Apparently some readers from the Coptic church took the book at face value and thought Ziedan claimed to have unearthed scrolls written by a real-life monk, and rushed to point out no monk called Hypa had ever existed. Some called for the book to be banned but, once again, common sense and good taste prevailed and the book’s English translation is finally available, almost a year later than scheduled.
A year’s wait for a novel this well written (and translated), however, seems like a fair deal to me. Confessional literature is certainly nothing new, but Ziedan’s skill as a narrator, combined with his eye for detail and knowledge of the time he situates his novel in (the author also happens to be a renowned scholar of Arabic and Islamic studies) makes Azazeel a truly outstanding read.
Hypa is born into a poor, Christian family in upper Egypt, but is forced to flee his childhood village after the murder of his father. He decides to take up a life of monastic study, taking up theology on the one hand, and the art of medicine on the other.
As he pursues his studies, he wanders across Egypt, Syria and Palestine, at a time when ominous divisions between the different factions of the early Christian church are starting to open up with distressing consequences. As these divisions start to turn into bloody religious persecution, Hypa flees to seek peace.
However, Azazeel is not just a story of one man’s odyssey with a little period detail thrown in: Hypa may well be committed to a life in the orders, but he is by no means immune to the lure of the human world, finding himself torn between his faith and the temptations of the flesh. His weaknesses push him to confess all in his scrolls, and his need to be truthful with himself and explore his failings make him a likeable, but perhaps frustrating, narrator.
They also lead him to meet Azazeel, one of the names given to the devil in the Old Testament, who seems to visit the narrator as he scratches out his confessions. Azazeel, however, maintains that he is just a part of Hypa himself, as he is a part of every human being, and the truth of the matter has been one of the most controversial aspects of the novel…
Azazeel won the “Arabic Booker” prize for literature, The International Prize for Arabic Fiction, in 2009 and reading Jonathan Wright’s elegant translation it is easy to understand why. Miraculously, the author has managed to make the world of early Christian theology interesting and even exciting in this novel, giving it a modern relevance in our age of renewed religious intolerance.
By turns sultry, meditative, tragic and always gripping, Azazeel is a brilliant addition to the sadly limited canon of Arabic literature available in translation and a stunning novel in its own right. With a few more novels of this caliber (we are particularly excited about the release of In Praise of Hatred by Bloomsbury later this year), top Arab authors should find the recognition they deserve outside of their own countries.