Now that Azazel is in its tenth edition little attention has been paid to what Hypa said in his autobiography. Mahmoud El Wardani reviews the most controversial of contemporary Egyptian novels
Youssef Ziedan’s Azazel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction—the so-called “Arabic Booker”—awarded by the Emirates Foundation, which brings with it a $60,000 cash award and, inevitably, a translation of the winning novel into several world languages.
The novel, published by Dar Al Shorouk and in its tenth edition now, has been at the center of an internet controversy between Copts and Muslims that, regrettably, pulled in several clerics. This is unfortunate because it is the novel that has gotten the short end of the stick: instead of being approached as a literary text, many considered it a political, even sectarian work, and it has been used as a trump card in the smoldering war between Muslims and Copts, although without a doubt the book benefited commercially.
I do not wish to engage in a religious argument here; I am not a party to the dispute or the fierce, grim battle between Nestorians and Cyrillians. Rather, I hold great respect and appreciation for both Islam and Christianity. If there are some who commented on the novel on the internet from this narrow, dark perspective, their comments had nothing to do with literary criticism. That is a separate field with its own kinds of analyses, arguments, and approaches, whereas Azazel was approached as a religious work and judged on this basis, which was unfair to both the novel and religion.
The novel purports to be the autobiography of an Egyptian monk, Hypa. His tale begins in 431 CE and stretches back to the end of the second century CE. The period chosen by the author as the setting for his work was a tumultuous one, and just because the novel focuses on a priest with Nestorian sympathies does not mean that Ziedan favors the Nestorian faith or holds some bias against the opposing Christian sect represented by Cyril.
That is, we are not dealing with a book of religious doctrine, but rather a fictional work with its own rules and laws, and both al-Azhar and the Church should remove their illustrious hands from literary works and, with all due respect, confine themselves to their own areas of concern.
For example, if we look at the History of Eastern Christianity by Aziz Suryal Atiya, or Church and State and Egyptian Thought in the Christian Era by Dr. Raafat Abd al-Hamid, or at the many appendices written by Abd al-Aziz Gamal al-Din in his edition of History of the Patriarchs by Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa, we quickly realize that these religious disputes and struggles did not take place a vacuum, but were part of larger struggles between rulers of the Roman Empire. Egypt occupied a particularly important spot in these battles, not only because of the philosophical and intellectual role of the Alexandrine school before and after the Christian era, but also because throughout these centuries Egypt remained the empire’s breadbasket.
Thus, it was not solely a question of doctrine. Many of those who have studied Constantine’s convocation of the First Council of Nicea in the summer of 325 CE—attended by 318 bishops to resolve disputed matters of doctrine and which led to the schism between Arius and Athanasius—agree that Constantine was primarily interested in the unity and integrity of the empire. Indeed, he wrote to both parties to the dispute ordering them to put an end to their incomprehensible nonsense.
Let us then turn to Azazel as a literary text. Although this is only Ziedan’s second novel, it is well wrought and deftly written in a fine-turned classical idiom. Azazel is a seductive novel that tells the painful story of Hypa, who in his early youth travels from Akhmim deep in the Egyptian south to Alexandria, then to Jerusalem, and finally on to al-Samawi Monastery north of Aleppo. Here he falls in love with Martha and is tempted into adultery by the devil, Azazel.
Ziedan employs a well-worn literary device that is artistically convincing despite being somewhat traditional: the papers of Hypa—scrolls written in Syriac—were discovered in 1997 in ruins northwest of Aleppo, we are told, and the author states that his book is a translation of these scrolls over which he labored for seven years. It’s quite likely that many of those who attacked the novel were not in on this particular literary joke. Although the word ‘novel’ is found on both the book’s cover and the title page, the book opens with a translator’s introduction. The confusion is heightened by the inclusion of documentary photographs of archeological ruins in both Egypt and Syria, which led some readers—particularly critics of the book—to forget the existence of the word ‘novel’ completely and treat the book as if it were an Arabic translation of a real Syriac manuscript instead of the work of fiction it is.
Hypa tells us that a mob killed his father when he was nine years old because of his aid to embattled pagan priests, after which his mother married a follower of the new religion. Hypa was educated in Akhmim before traveling to Alexandria to continue his studies. There he meets a woman, Octavia, who is waiting for him on the beach after the gods had prophesized to her that he would come out of the sea.
In the streets of Alexandria, Hypa sees another mob of clerics whose job it is to inform the government administration of pagan elements engaging in intellectual activities that might represent an obstacle to cementing the authority of the Church. They brutally murder Hypatia, an actual historical figure and one of the most important philosophers of her day. As these struggles take place in the external world, another more violent struggle is underway between Hypa and Azazel, who tempts Hypa to sin with Martha.
Without a doubt, Ziedan has been able to craft one of the most important characters in the Arabic novel in the figure of Hypa, skillfully portraying his conflict with Azazel, the devil who lives in us all. This success would not have been possible without Ziedan’s devotion to his materials and his painstaking research into the period at hand—its material culture, Church history, and the intricacies of contemporary Christian theological debates. His efforts here were truly comprehensive.
The author also possesses an extraordinary sensitivity to and awareness of how to structure a novel. Over the forty days it takes for Hypa to write his papers, the reader not only watches his life and an entire era unfold, but is drawn into a consuming existential struggle between man and the devil.
In the end, Azazel deserves the recognition bestowed by the International Prize for Arabic Fiction—as long as we read the work as the novel it is, rather than as a religious tract.