Azazeel comes to Britain as the winner of the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, inevitably known as the ‘Arabic Booker’. It’s also been both a source of controversy and an unexpected popular hit in Youssef Ziedan’s homeland. According to the translator’s afterword, within months of publication, ‘piles of the novel appeared on the pavements of Cairo, alongside the self-help manuals, political memoirs and Teach Yourself English books that are the staple of the Egyptian popular book market.’
The action takes place — and this is the controversial bit — during the relatively brief period when Egypt was a Christian country. By the early 5th century, the temples to the old gods had largely been destroyed (sometimes with their followers inside) and Islam was 200 years away. Not that this led to an age of religious harmony. The Christians were now fighting among themselves about the kind of doctrines that might seem to have been central from the gospels onwards, but that were in reality still entirely up for grabs. How could Jesus possibly be both God and man? How could a human being possibly give birth to a divine one? How can the Trinity possibly be squared with monotheism?
Caught in the middle of these increasingly bitter debates is the book’s Zelig-like narrator, Hypa the monk — or, as he understandably calls himself, ‘Hypa the perplexed’. Aged nine, Hypa sees his pagan father hacked to death in the name of Jesus. Even so, he joins the Christians, takes up a life of monastic wandering and handily becomes a witness to many of the key events.
In Alexandria he hears the city’s bishop Cyril declare a holy war on science, Jews and pagans. In Jerusalem, he strikes up an awed friendship with Nestorius — later excommunicated for denying Mary the title ‘Mother of God’. He also has his share of trouble with women, leading him not just into sin but, even more dangerously, into the suspicion that sexual love may be no bad thing.
No wonder that by the time he comes to write the memoirs that we’re reading, the appealingly earnest Hypa is more perplexed than ever: ‘I am one ambiguity after another, and ambiguity is the opposite of faith, just as Satan is the opposite of God.’
But in fact, it’s soon clear that Ziedan himself, a respected Arabic and Islamic scholar, disagrees with this view of ambiguity. In the novel it is people full of certainty who betray the faith most. As for Satan, he is represented by the eponymous Azazeel (a demon with a walk-on part in Paradise Lost), who not only bids Hypa to write, but also seems to be one of the main carriers of the author’s message: that being true to your own experience should be prized above ‘delusion, conjecture and dogma’ — words that in the context of the book feel like synonyms.
With the origins of their church shown in such an unflattering light — and with Cyril of Alexandra, their long-standing hero, cast as the chief villain throughout — you can perhaps see why the book has caused outrage among Egypt’s beleaguered Coptic Christians, many of whom have called for an outright ban. (Rather blandly the translator’s afterword suggests that the English-language reader ‘can safely ignore these controversies’.) You could certainly make the traditional observation that the book would have been a lot braver, and no less true, had it used the early days of Islam to show how much of religious doctrine is owed to a mixture of happenstance and violence. Nonetheless, the result is still an utterly absorbing read.
The plea for tolerance and the condemnation of killing in the name of religion may not sound startling to secular western ears, but Hypa’s heartfelt gropings towards them have much wider resonances about the difficulties of living a good life — and of ever knowing whether you’re living one. The vividly observed historical and geographical setting provides fascinating proof of how East and West were already clashing within Christianity more than 1,500 years ago.
You’ve also got to hand it to any book that can make what are now fairly esoteric religious debates seem quite so thrilling. This one even reaches a genuinely exciting climax with the (off-stage) proclamation at the Council of Ephesus in 431 of the hypostatic union of Christ’s human and divine natures.