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Youssef Ziedan: عزازيل (Azazeel)

An Egyptian novel set in the fifth century A.D., concerned with what, for most of us, will be arcane aspects of Christian theological doctrine may not at first sight seem appealing. Nevertheless, this book won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 and sold very well in Egypt, despite the fact that it dealt primarily with Christianity. Though I am not in any way religious, I have long been fascinated with the origins and rise of Christianity, not least because, whether we like it or not, it has had a huge influence on our way of life. Even if you do not share my interest, you will still find this book worth reading, not least because it is so well-written, the main character is tormented by doubts and struggles with these, as any good literary hero should, and it is a fascinating story which most of us will have little or no knowledge of.

Our hero/narrator is Hypa, an Egyptian monk. This story nominally comes from a collection of manuscripts found in ruins to the North of Aleppo. Hypa is writing his story and, under the influence of Azazeel, is telling us everything. Azazeel is known as Azazel in Judaic and Christian tradition and is a fallen angel or a scapegoat though, as Hypa tells us towards the end of the book is Iblis, Satan, Ahriman, Azazeel, Beelzebub, Beelzaboul, in other words, the devil. It is Azazeel who persuades Hype to reveal details of his life he might have preferred to keep hidden.

Hypa is writing in 431 A.D. This is an important year for him as it is the year his mentor Nestorius is excommunicated and, though, of course, Hypa was not to know this, led to the schism of the Eastern and Western churches. The novel tells both of the events that led to Nestorius’ excommunication and Hypa’s wanderings.

Hypa was from near Aswan, in Southern Egypt. His father was a fisherman who had married a Christian woman. The father worshipped Khnum. However, the Christians were becoming more powerful and the pagan religions were being gradually suppressed, often violently, usually by Christians. (Ironically, the Christians would be similarly suppressed when Islam took over.) One day, the Christians attacked the temple and Hypa’s father was brutally murdered, in front of his son, who was helping him with his fish. Hypa was aware that his mother had betrayed his father and he ran away and never saw her again.

Hypa fled to Akhmim, where a kindly priest adopted him and he trained as a monk and a doctor. His adventures started when he went to Alexandria to gain further knowledge of medicine. Alexandria was a much bigger city than he had ever seen and he initially got somewhat lost but was determined to find the sea, which he did. He decided to go for a swim but the current nearly dragged him out to sea but he just managed to struggle to the beach. On the beach, he saw a voluptuous woman, who invited him in to her house. This woman – Octavia – introduces to sex but also shows him her master’s library which contains many rare books, which he copies. However, she hates Christians with a passion (as does her absent master) and, when she finds out that he is a Christian monk, he is sent on his way.

We learn two things from this episode about Hypa. While everyone around him seems to be fairly dogmatic, both Christian and pagan, Hypa is less so. He is prepared to accept that men, even monks, need the company and love of a woman (he later says that he sees nothing wrong with a certain amount of promiscuity), though it is forbidden by the Christina authorities. Secondly, many of the books he copies are pagan in origin and, therefore, strictly forbidden. However, his view, which he continues to hold, is that Christians have much to learn from pagans (which include the Greeks) and should show tolerance towards them. This is presumably a view that Ziedan is putting forward and applies as much to our age as it does to the fifth century.

This tolerance is tested when he finally goes to Alexandria. He is admitted to a monastery where he has an introduction and where he can study. However, he is interested in Hypatia and attends her lectures and manages to speak to her. However, a fellow monk warns him off. While he is in Alexandria, there is a dispute between Orestes, who favours a more secular approach, and Bishop Cyril (who will later excommunicate Nestorius), who favours a more religious approach. Their dispute often leads to violence and Hypa witnesses the attack on Hypatia, leading to her brutal murder, because she was seen to support Orestes. Hypa is too cowardly to intervene but he does flee the city immediately afterwards.

His travels take him to Jerusalem, where he meets Nestorius and is very much influenced by him. However, Hypa finds the urban life too much and Nestorius sends him to a remote monastery, north of Aleppo. He is happy there, restoring the library. However, life intervenes, firstly with the arrival of a singer, Martha. The pair fall madly in love but they are not destined to be together. Secondly, Nestorius, now Bishop of Constantinople, is under threat from Cyril and he calls on Hypa to help. Nestorius’ views (Jesus is human, and his incarnation is a compromise between the Eternal Logos and Christ the human. Mary is the mother of Jesus the human being, and should not be called the mother of God) lead to his excommunication. Hypa is left alone with Azazeel, pushing him (‘Did God create man, or was it the other way round? he asks Hypa).

Even if you ignore the theological disputes (which, I must say, I found fascinating) this is still a superb novel as we follow Hypa’s struggle with Azazeel but we also see that he tends to take a tolerant approach, opposed to rigid dogma. Cyril is clearly the villain of the piece (which very much annoyed the Copts, for whom he is a great saint). Is there a lesson to be learned from Hypa? Of course there is. This novel is concerned with the period before Islam but its lesson on tolerance and a broad church can clearly apply to all religions and, indeed, to all dogmas, religious or otherwise.

Publishing history

First published in 2008 by Dar al-Shuruq
First English translation in 2012 by Atlantic Books
Translated by Jonathan Wright