Disputes with the Devil

As Youssef Zidan’s novel Azazeel enters its tenth edition, Al-Masry Al-Youm meets the author whose novel continues to provoke heated controversy

Fifty-year-old scholar Youssef Zidan’s controversial novel Azazeel (The Devil) clinched the Arabic world’s top literary prize – the Arabic Booker – in March, the second year an Egyptian author has walked away with the award.

Last year, the inaugural International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which aims to boost the international profile of literary fiction in Arabic, went to Egyptian author Baha Taher for his novel Sunset Oasis, described by the prize’s website as "a journey that crystallizes the existential crisis of a defeated man."

In Azazeel, the latest victor Youssef Zidan tells the fictional story of Hiba, a Coptic monk in the fifth century.

Hiba witnesses troubled times in the Church’s history, as it faces a fresh wave of heresy spearheaded by Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople.

The title, Azazeel, is an ancient Hebrew name for the devil, who remains the monk’s companion and philosophical debater throughout his journey.

The devil continues to urge Hiba to narrate his story throughout the book, resulting in a novel brimming with accurate historical details collated from decades of research.

However, the main story of Hiba, faced with two sexual temptations and won over by the devil each time, is part of historical narrative, Al-Masry Al-Youm discovers.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: How do you feel about the attacks on the novel?

Youssef Zidan: I feel bad. On my way back from the ceremony in Abu Dhabi, only two days after the award was announced, I was surprised by the large number of articles in Arabic newspapers, many of which were attacking me.

This was the first shock. I dealt with it as the Sufi teacher Abd El Kader El Jailani recommends: "endurance at the first shocks."

Now, after so many weeks of this media fuss, I am dealing with it as if it concerns somebody else, not me. I usually take time to think, meditate and contemplate about things.

I realized something strange: Azazeel, with all the popularity it gained, with its thousands of printed copies and downloads over the internet, with the criticism it received, is very provoking to a certain type of priest.

I am referring to the Middle Age definition of a priest. Those who think they have the keys for this life and the life after. Their anger was deceiving and almost comic. But there is another kind of priest – the literary kind – who liked the novel. Pope Shenouda declared that he hasn’t even read the novel. So those who attacked the novel in the name of the church, they don’t really represent the church or the pope.

The same applies for those who attack the novel from within the literary community. Some people have authority by virtue of the fact that they are present – physically – within these communities. Because I live in Alexandria, and I am busy with my job and research, I don’t frequent these circles. That is why, according to some critics, my novel is not good.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: But was the media fuss beneficial in terms of the sales of the novel?

Zidan: The sales of the novel are only important to the publisher, not me. A year has passed and my novel has not discussed properly – with the exception of a few articles.

However, I am happy that the readership continues to increase. I am also happy that my readers gave me the award. In Abu Dhabi, they announced the results of two competitions. One is from the international committee and the second is voted by the readers.

I was undertaking the last edit for my most recent book Arab Theology and they told me I won in both. This made me very happy, and gave me a boost to focus on my next books.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: How about your upcoming novel El Nabaty?

It is a different novel. The narrator is a woman. And the novel takes place in a forgotten period of our modern consciousness – 25 years prior to the Arab invasion of Egypt. I have not slept in three days visualizing some scenes for the novel.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: How do you usually write? According to a schedule or not?

Zidan: I let the river take its path. The scenes are written in my mind first, and then it becomes very persistent, very concentrated that it has to use its own language and come out on paper. I think that’s why my novels are different. Critics have been comparing it to Dr Faustus and the Da Vinci Code, as if the human brain has to be that lazy and that imitative. I think comparing a novel to another makes you read it with a lazy eye.

I write every day. I get up very early in the morning and I write a lot in different themes. I have my work at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, which requires that I produce academic papers for publication and conferences.

As for novels, I write when the novel is written in my mind. Before I wrote Azazeel, the main character Hiba, the monk, was always present in my mind. This is what is happening now with the heroine of my new novel El Nabaty, she is here in my head. I see things with her eyes.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: Who is Azazeel?

Zidan: It is the human being; the deepest part of every one of us. We are grateful for the existence of Azazeel because we can blame our mistakes on him especially if they are found out.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: But in your novel the devil is a woman. This becomes very clear in the last scene.

Zidan: No, in the last scene Azazeel has a lot of faces first, it is his mother, then his beloved, then it is himself, then it is a sound with no face, and after many trials, the incarnation process failed.

Al-Masry Al-Youm: How did you find the courage to portray a monk like this, especially as in Egypt we have great respect for the monastic tradition?

Zidan: Monks are human beings. And in the novel, these are monks from the fifth century. The first monks in Egypt are very different from those of today. In the age of Azazeel, some of the priests were married and then they were baptized, and this sounds very strange for contemporary scholars. In the novel, Hiba is only a human being.

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