Beelzebub: a controversial novel to look forward to

Youssef Ziedan’s Azazeel (or Azazil) – to give it its original title – won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction and will be published as Beelzebub by Atlantic Books in 2010.

The availability of money for the translation – courtesy of IPAF – is a major boost to opening the doors to this rich literary field.  The first IPAF winner Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis is to be published by Sceptre in the UK in September having been translated into English by Humphrey Davies.

Azazeel is set in fifth century Upper Egypt , Alexandria and northern Syria and the novel unfolds during a critical point in Christian history. Focusing on the period following the Roman Empire ‘s adoption of the ‘new’ religion, it highlights the conflicts arising amongst the fathers of the Church on the one hand, and between the ‘new’ believers and receding paganism on the other.

Professor Youssef Ziedan is highly qualified to write on the subject.  He is director of the Manuscript Centre and Museum affiliated to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina and a highly respected Egyptian scholar specializing in Arabic and Islamic studies. A university professor, public lecturer, columnist and prolific author (with over 50 works of non-fiction and criticism), he has worked as a consultant in the field of Arabic heritage preservation and conservation in a number of international institutions: UNESCO, ESCWA and the Arab League. He has also directed a number of projects aimed at the preservation of Arabic manuscripts – the cataloguing, editing and publishing of these historic texts is something he is devoted to and they, in turn, influence and inform his fiction.

Azazeel is his second novel, following The Shadow of the Serpent (2006).

In an interview with The National (an English language newspaper owned by Abu Dhabi Media Company) Ziedan responds to criticism that the subject-matter will be difficult to understand by stating that “The novel wasn’t written for the average reader”.

I wanted the reader to participate in the novel, to get involved, to be as confused as I got; then to set out through the novel on the middle path between reality and imagination, pouring on to the text a lot of his own reality, and his own imagination, until finally invisibly connecting with the hero, seeing his reflection in him. I did not want to present an entertaining story or tale, I wanted to present him with a provocative text that would interact with the readers on a deep level. And that is how I ended up using this technique that has been described as a “bracketed imagination”.

Other critics have suggested that he has mimicked The Da Vinci Code in an Egyptian setting.  His answer is forthright:

I have no response to this, because its proponents have read neither this novel nor that, or are ignorant of the essential difference between an adventure novel based on historical fabrication like The Da Vinci Code, and a philosophical novel written with blood, sweat and tears like Azazeel.

But his fiercest opponents have been Coptic clerics who accuse the author of trying to insult the Church and calling into question the tenets of their Christian faith.

Helmi Namnam, a literary critic, points out that

“Any Christian cleric reading Azazel as a chronicle of the history of the Coptic Church or a treatise on theology, would undoubtedly feel angry and agonised. But it should be clear that the book is a literary work inspired by an important epoch in the Egyptian history, marking the shift from the ancient Egyptian religion to Christianity.”

Namnam likened the Coptic reaction to Azazeel to the “inquisition logic” of the Middle Ages.  But a LA Times blogger has highlighted the inherent dangers facing an Egyptian author brave enough to adopt a stance of this nature.

Suzan Abrams, writing in her blog last March, notes that

Church elders turned hot under their collars defending a history held private to their present congregation and ancient records. Ziedan’s story is said to have rebellously challenged their authority as the heirs of St. Mark the Apostle and the Church’s exclusive claim to Egyptian history between the end of paganism and the arrival of Islam in 640AD. They decided that the author intended to destroy “authentic Christian doctrine”.

However, Ziedan claims that his intention was quite the opposite: he sees the novel as “not against Christianity but against violence, especially violence in the name of the sacred”.

An excerpt of Beelzebub translated by Nancy Roberts is available to subscribers of Banipal.

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