Saturday, December 20, 2008

Reflections on Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan

The novel Azazeel by Yousif Ziedan is one of six Arab literary works short listed for the second Arab Booker Prize to be announced next March 2009. When it was first published this year (2008), Azazeel caused a stir, mainly in religious circles in Egypt. It was seen by some as a critique of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church and an attack on the Christian faith. However, a closer reading of Azazeel indicates a different intention. The novel, by shedding light on a historical period in Egypt and the Middle East and on the 5th century theological differences regarding the nature of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, underlines how religions - all religions - are often manipulated for wordly purposes/interests and how countless injustices and cruelties have been committed in the name of God. It is a message relevant to all religions whether Christianity, Islam, Judaism or other faiths and it is relevant to our present times as much as it was 16 centuries ago. History is evidence enough that no religion/faith can claim the upper moral ground when it comes to what its followers have sadly perpetuated in its name throughout the centuries. And it is the average man/humanity at the end that has paid a high price for this.

The novel also highlights how history is often distorted by those who write it-especially if they are those in positions of power and authority - and how weaknesses, failures, defeats and the credibility of opposing ideas are often obscured or undermined to present us with a different version of reality that is more fitting to the interests of the powers that be.

The novel also dwells on the dichotomy between reason and religious dogma, between science and faith. Hypa, a monk and the main protagonist of the novel is a symbol of the constant tension between these elements. His name itself is derived from that of Hypatia, a 5th century Greek scholar from Alexandria, considered the first notable woman in mathematics, who also taught philosophy and astronomy and whom he witnessed being killed at the hands of a Coptic Christian mob in the streets of Alexandria. Hypa is a man of science and medicine, a poet and avid reader traveling with a baggage of books (including religiously forbidden books), but also a monk and a man of religion. That is why throughout the novel he is haunted by doubts and questions. He is a man with a sincere and genuine conviction in the humane and compassionate principles of his faith but is disillusioned and torn by the violence and repression condoned by the religious establishment of which he is a part. He goes through a lifetime journey of questioning and discovery, and at the end can only make the choice that leaves him one with himself and his convictions.

Azazeel is a novel that invites us to reflect and re-think many of our established beliefs/world views and "taboo" subjects. It is an invitation to re-read and re-discover history, to understand the real forces, interests and issues at play, and from that understand more our reality today, and how to build a future that is more inclusive, just and free of prejudice.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

His Laughter

She loved the feeling of fresh sea air blowing against her face as she cycled along the beach road. On her right side were the soft sands of the beach stretching out into the beautiful turquoise sea. On her left side stood rows of elegant summer houses with brightly colored gardens. Every day, just before sunset, she cycled four laps along the beach road. She loved the sense of freedom, of movement and of speed that cycling gave her…of being in control. Day after day she felt her strength growing and the muscles in her legs getting firmer as she peddled longer and faster.

She was nearing the bend at the end of the beach road and going on into her second lap when she saw him there like she did every day, standing behind a car parked in front of one of the summer houses. As usual, he was leaning his arms on the top of the car, gazing at the sea or chatting with people or just staring at those strolling or cycling by. He always had sun glasses on but she could tell that he was in his mid or late thirties. He seemed pretty good looking with an attractive tanned face. But what attracted her the most was his amazing laughter. Many times she could hear it long before she saw him. It was that kind of warm gregarious laughter that seemed to send ripples of joy out into the air, touching and uplifting everything that came in its way. The laughter of a caring and kindred spirit. It always made her smile somehow…inside out. One thing though that made her feel a bit uncomfortable was how he sometimes seemed to stare at people. At times she could almost feel his intense gaze on her as she cycled past him.

As she started her third lap she could see him still standing there. But this time she heard him shouting out. There was a little girl on a tricycle in the middle of the road. As she turned the bend she saw him come out from behind the car towards the girl. She was shocked the moment she saw him and almost slammed into the sidewalk. He came out walking on two crutches. He only had one leg. His right leg was amputated from above the knee. He slowly moved towards the little girl and stood in the middle of the road as she cycled back to safety onto the side walk.

She didn’t know why she suddenly seemed out of breath…why she felt so much weight in her legs as she struggled through her third lap …why she had a lump in her throat. Even though she didn't know him personally, she had developed a kind of affinity towards him, the kind that grows between perfect strangers who somehow become a part of each others lives and daily routine. His captivating laughter had deepened this feeling even more so.
Coming back for her last lap she noticed that he wasn’t there any more. But as she slowly turned the bend the echo of his familiar laughter reached her ears from somewhere. She could almost feel it rippling past her unto the beach, floating softly over the sea and vanishing into the golden red disc gently descending into the sea. For a fleeting moment she could have sworn that the sun was smiling just before it disappeared into the turquoise waters.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008


He walked into the restaurant. It was crowded. He found an empty table at the back near the window. He took his seat and looked at his watch. He was glad he had come a bit early to reserve a table before his family came. On weekends the place was always full. He ordered a lemon juice as he waited.

“My back hurts a lot these days…” he heard someone talking behind him.
“I underwent a sonar the other day….” came the reply.

From their voices he could tell they were elderly. He had just caught a glimpse of two men sitting in the table behind him when he had taken his seat. They were both talking in loud voices as most older people do…probably because they couldn’t hear so well.

“Did you hear about the new hospital ? It has an excellent cardiac unit…” the conversation went on.
“Yes, I visited a friend there the other day. His daughter was with him. He’s lucky…if ever I get hospitalized I won’t have anyone with me….” came the answer in a tone of regret.
“Do you know that my daughter calls me only once a week??? They have no time for us anymore!” exclaimed the other
“What I worry most about is dying at home alone and nobody finding out except after many days….”
“I think about that too. But if you’re gone so what!? Why worry about something if you’re dead and gone!!”

Oh a typical conversation between old people he thought to himself as he overheard them talking....and how depressing it was!! Illness…loneliness…death… ungrateful kids…and the list goes on! He’d heard it so many times before. In the future he’d make a point never to sit near elderly people…no point in spoiling an outing with this type of dispiriting talk!
He looked at his watch again…they were late.

“Did I tell you I bought a plot in the new cemetery...”
“No you didn’t…but good for you. When my time comes I’ll have to be taken to the family cemetery in my hometown…it’s a long way. I just hope it won’t be a hot summer day when I go!!!”

There they go again he thought to himself. The conversation was starting to irritate him. If the restaurant hadn’t been so crowded he would have changed tables. He was hoping the family would hurry up and come. He glanced at the doorway…His eyes brightened up…there they were at last.

He waved to his daughter. She came towards him and gave him a big hug.
”Really missed you sweet heart” he said in an emotional voice as he held her tightly, “It’s been ages”.
Then came her husband…his grandson…his wife…and their twin girls. The two little ones jumped into their great-grandfathers' arms. He tried picking them up as he stood but that was too great a feat for his aging back and weak legs. He almost lost his balance and slumped back into his chair.

“It’s not easy being old my sweeties” he said with a chuckle as they both clambered up his lap and kissed him, "It’s not easy being old...”

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Call to Prayer

Allah Akbar…Allah Akbar…The call to dawn prayer came gently to his ears, slowly awakening him. Haya ‘ala el- Sala…Haya ‘ala el-Falah…How he loved Sheikh Fadl’s voice…so pure…so warm…so divine. It made him feel as if the Almighty himself was calmly nudging him to wake up and guiding him gently to pray. Although he lived a few blocks away from the mosque, he could still hear Sheikh Fadl’s beautiful melodic azzan as it floated softly through the early dawn silence. For many years since he was a child he had heard this enchanting voice. Never had Sheikh Fadl, come rain or sunshine, failed to climb the long and winding stairs of the tall minaret five times a day to call the faithful to prayer. And never had he himself failed to answer his call and perform his religious duty …for how could anyone listening to this divine voice that touched both heart and soul fail to obey. He remembered how, as a child, he had once woken up trembling from a bad nightmare. At that same moment he heard Sheikh Fadl’s call to dawn prayer coming from afar. His heavenly voice soothed and calmed him. It brought peace to his heart and made him feel safe in the embrace of God's love. He knew from that day that the Almighty may be far above in the heavens, unseen and untouchable, yet he was near and ever so close with his mercy and compassion.

He continued to listen to the call to prayer as he lay in bed… …but why was it getting louder?...what was happening to Sheikh Fadl’s voice?...why was he shouting like that?...what was going on???

He woke up in bed with a start. He had been dreaming again of Sheikh Fadl and his call to prayer. He gave a long deep sigh as he got out of bed. Sheikh Fadl had died many years ago and nobody climbed minarets any more. There were microphones now…three of them from three different mosques in his street. They were open at full blast, all at the same time, bombarding his ears with what was supposed to be a call to prayer, but what was for him a jumble of shouting, hoarse voices and static. He knew that things changed with the times, but he could never reconcile himself to what others considered a sign of progress and modernity. He felt he was being roughly shaken awake, held by the neck and dragged out of bed by a harsh unfeeling hand. The cold metallic shouting from so many mosques only touched his nerves but never his heart. For him it felt more like a call to perform a mere ritual rather than an act of faith, a call that aroused the fear of hell rather than the love of God.

As he headed to the bathroom, he tried to shut out the ugly sounds that pierced his ears. He reached deep down in his heart and soul in search of the sounds of love, beauty and compassion stored in his memory from a distant past. From somewhere deep within, slowly and gradually emerged that divine and beloved voice…it gently enveloped him in an aura of peace and serenity…and it was all that he heard as he completed his ablutions and spread his prayer rug…the heavenly voice of Sheikh Fadl’s call to prayer.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Beaches of Marina

“Yalla, wake up my love”, his mother said as she gently placed a kiss on his forehead. “You’ll miss the bus if you don’t hurry”.
He slowly turned in his bed. He looked at the time. It was 4:30 am. The bus leaving for Marina Beach Resort was at 5:30. He struggled to get out of bed…how he wished to have a bit more time to sleep! He went to the bathroom as his mother prepared him a cup of tea and some sandwiches. He’d drink his tea now and leave the sandwiches for the bus. He washed his face and dressed quickly. His suitcase was already packed from the night before. His body was still aching as he sat sipping his tea with his mother. He had done a lot of hard work during the past few days and all he dreamed of was a few days of sleep.

“Cheer up my sweetest..” his mother said in a tender voice as she looked at his tired face. “You’ll be at the seaside…the sea wind does wonders for you…you always come back looking great.”
“Yes mother…for sure,” came his blunt reply.
He was ready to go. He gave his mother a big hug and a kiss.
“Take care of yourself my dearest and call me when you get there”, came her concerned voice as he picked up his bag and headed for the door.

He had a long way to go to reach the bus, but he made it just in time. It was already full of young people like himself, some of whom he recognized from previous trips, all heading for the different beach resorts along the North Coast.

He took a seat by the window. He dozed off for a while, dreaming that he was lying on a golden beach with his beloved, holding hands and whispering in each other's ears. How he adored her and longed for them to be married!! Would that day ever come?? He woke up with a start as the bus stopped at the toll station. He looked out of the window and saw rows of cars packed with suitcases, bicycles and filled with happy smiling vacationers all heading for the beaches.

He finally reached his destination. It was already past 8:30 am. He jumped off the bus, greeting on his way all the familiar faces. He met a group of the guys heading for the beach.
“Hey, you’re late”, called out one of them. “You’d better hurry up”.

He ran to his room, quickly undressed and put on his blue overalls and white boots. He picked up his fork and ran for the beach. There was just a handful of holiday makers. Everybody else was still sleeping. He joined the group of men-in-blue and began sweeping the beach. Coke cans, food scraps, tissue paper, empty bottles, candy wrappers, all sorts of trash left behind by vacationers or thrown unto the beach by the sea had to be swept every morning. Everything would be clean by the time the crowds hit the beaches later on in the day. He slowly worked at his job, at moments feeling a strong desire just to lie down and sleep on the soft golden sands. He wished he had rested during his short break, but he had to work on his days off as well. It wasn’t easy making ends meet, let alone putting something aside for the future. He stood for a while under the shade of a wooden umbrella and looked out at the beautiful blue sea stretching out into the horizon. He felt a cool sea breeze gently brushing against his face. It reminded him of his mother’s words and her tender voice. He smiled as he went back to sweeping…and sweeping…the beaches of Marina.

A Lovely Day

She felt the warm rays of the afternoon sun on her body, penetrating her woolen jacket and reaching deep into her bones. What a beautiful sensation it was! She slowly sipped her tea with milk, sweetened with a bit of honey, savoring every drop. It was one of those crisp clear spring days, not too cold and not too warm. She was sitting on the terrace overlooking the garden. She raised her eyes to the sky. Its dark blue color seemed to beckon her to reach out and touch it. In front of her lay the garden rich with colors. A canvass of violet, orange and yellow bougainvillea sprawled over the garden fence. Pink and red geraniums were in full bloom, their leaves a dark bright green. She had to remind the gardener to make cuttings and plant some new pots.

She took a deep breath, taking in the fresh air and the sweet scent of orange blossoms. When had they planted that orange tree?? Oh…that had been so many years ago! Now it stood majestically at the entrance of the garden, like a handsome woman, displaying her beauty every spring and arousing the senses with her deep perfume.

She held the tea cup in both her hands, feeling its warmth running through her body. The exquisite singing of a black bird could be heard from a distance. She closed her eyes and listened to it with reverence, as she had for many years now, awaiting this divine gift of spring, the "song of love" as she had always called it. For her, no music could surpass this enchanting mating song that seemed to usher in the birth of life and love anew.

The sound of laughter came from within the house. It was her grandchildren. They had spent a morning of story telling together. She had never realized how much fantastic stories her imagination could still conjure up until she sat looking into their beaming and eager faces as tale after magic tale flowed from her lips. It made her feel so much alive.

She laid her head back and took a deep breath as the scent of jasmine penetrated her whole being. How sweet life could be!!

"Mother!!" she heard her daughter calling from inside. "You better get in now…it's getting cold. Remember you have to rest…your chemotherapy session is tomorrow."

"Oh…those sessions!!" she cried out loud as her daughter pushed her wheelchair into the house. How she hated them.

"But at least," she thought to herself with a smile, "today had been such a lovely day!"


She swallowed the last drop of tea and put her cup down. She had drunk it slowly hoping he would have come by the time she finished it. He always came home at this time. She went to the kitchen and rinsed the cup out and laid it to dry on the sink. On her way out she put her hand on the pots on the oven. They were still warm. If he came now it would take just a few minutes to re-heat the food. He always came home so hungry! She went back to the living room and turned on the TV, browsing the different channels. Nothing much today…as everyday. He still hadn’t come. She turned off the TV and went to the window and looked out. His car wasn’t there …or maybe he had parked it further up the street and would walk back home. No sign of him yet. She went back in and sat on the sofa. She picked up the crossword puzzle and tried to work on it. She had always been such a wiz at it but now….why did it seem so difficult?! She heard footsteps coming up the stairs. “Oh that must be him!” she thought as she rushed to open the door. She blushed as she saw the upstairs neighbor going up. She quickly closed the door feeling embarrassed. How could she have mistaken his footsteps?? She new their sound by heart as she new everything else about him. She went back to the living room and turned on the radio. She liked the music that played this hour of the day. He loved it too and always listened to it as they had their dinner together. She waited. When would he come? It was starting to get dark now. She felt a cold shiver run through her body and tightened her shawl around her. She rose to her feet and went to turn off the radio. She looked up at the clock… its monotonous ticking throbbing in her head. She felt the familiar heaviness in her heart as the darkness enveloped the living room.

She sat in silence…. as she has sat every night since he left her two years ago……waiting.

Hands of Love

I hold his hands in mine. Despite the visible signs of aging they still maintain their special beauty that I love so much. Their elegant shape, the long, delicate fingers, but most of all the energy of life they have always conveyed. Their sweet scent fills my nostrils as I bring them to my lips and softly kiss them.

As a child, these hands enchanted me. I watched in awe as I saw them bring forth magic tunes from a violin or a piano, or convert a piece of candy wrapping or scraps of paper into a little doll, a bird or flower. I was fascinated by the different shapes these hands took...a flying eagle, a lion’s mouth, an old man, as I sat wide eyed listening to tale after tale… transported from one magic world to another. I was captivated by how they worked on wood, leather, and glass creating endless works of beauty, how they cared and nourished all types of plants transforming our home into a virtual greenhouse. They were hands that seemed to breath life and beauty into all what they touched. And as they aged they never lost their vitality nor their passion to create.

Even as his illness progressed and he lost motion in most of his body, his hands remained alive. They would reach out to touch me as I sat by his bedside, finding my arm and pressing it gently. He could speak no more and hardly see, but his hands spoke many words: I’m still here…don’t worry...I’ve had a great life...not afraid to go…I love you…

I gently let go of his hands and take a last look at them as they rest motionless on his chest. They are lifeless now and wet with my tears. My heart is heavy. I know I will never see them again...those hands of creation…hands of love.