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.