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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Azazel by Yousef Ziedan (Arabic) - Book Review عَزَازِيلَ

A product of Government schools in Egypt, I grew up reading Tawfik el Hakim, Taha Hussein and Arabic translations of Treasure Island and Robinson Crusoe. While my Arabic language remains reasonably good, I mostly read in English now. I found the quality of Arabic literature from the 1970's on tedious and banal with over emphasis on flowery language, series of nonstop metaphors and excessive symbolism lacking in coherence, creativity and feelings.

In the last few years I started again to read more in Arabic after being encouraged to do so from reading several books by Alifa Refa'at, Hannan Al Sheikh, Saher Khalifa and others that were translated to English. Books like Alaa el Aswani's Yakobian Building and Chicago actually returned to me the joy of reading in Arabic. El Aswani had something to say, his creativity and sensitivity only needed to be communicated and people who read the English translation got as much out of it as I did reading it in Arabic. The language did not add to the work, nor did it detract from it, in other words el Aswani's creativity was language neutral, could be enjoyed fully or almost fully as long as the translation is reasonably good.

Literature that I need to work on, that consumes me to appreciate fully is far more fulfilling for me than straight forward creative story telling of El Aswani for example. The power of language and the imagery that a certain use of the language can create helps me reach levels of intellectual and emotional joy that is hard to reduce to words. Ahdaf Souief writing in English about migration, alienation and cross cultural experiences from an Egyptian soul is particularly appealing to me. It has been decades since I read in the Arabic Language a novel that combined beautiful impactful prose with true creativity.

Gilead, the novel by Marilynn Robinson about a pastor in Kansas writing, in his dying days a letter to his young son, a book-long meandering letter about the pastor childhood, family and life and the struggle over slave emancipation within the church.

Yousef Ziedan's book Azazil is the most remarkable Arabic book I have read since the age of the greats Hakim, Mahfouz, Hussin and A’akad and arguably far more evolved than much of the work of these masters of Arabic literature. The Pulitzer Prize winner Gilead is the book I always thought of as I read Azazel. Ziedan use of the Arabic language was masterful; this will be a book that will need highly skilled translation in order for the readers in English or other languages to appreciate the beauty of its prose.

The portrayal of the Monk Hipa as a multi dimensional human with strong beliefs and doubts, with desires coupled with immense discipline was, in short, terrific. Most of the surrounding characters were less fully developed and to a certain extent played the roles of “goodies and badies”. The depth of the development of Hipa multi faceted personality did not make me focus too much on the cardboard nature of the supporting actors as I read this beautiful novel; only on reflection afterwards did I feel this shortcoming.

The choice of the mystical Azazel as the satanic companion turned into a semi-confidant of Monk Hipa was very interesting. Azazel is a confusing biblical mystical character that the monk recognized as his evil shadow. More symbolism maybe behind this choice of this not so well known “junior” devil …was he prevalent in the writings and beliefs of those distant Christians? Was it something to do with Azazel reputation for sexual temptation which seemed to have always conquered our monk? I was not sure.

With the level of sensitivity to protection of religion and fear of accusations of irreverence or worse in Egypt I was puzzled by Ziedan choice to put an Islamic hadieth at the beginning of the book ..was it a declaration of his faith to avoid scrutiny by would be Muslim critics? While the hadieth at the beginning of this wonderful novel is a beautiful spiritual one, it detracted from quality of the book and opened it to very fair criticism of the being an attack on the Coptic Church. On the one hand, this book does a great deal to explain so much more about Christianity to Egyptian Muslim readers as Egyptian Schools only teach Christianity to non Christians from a purely Islamic view point, in other words they don’t teach that Boutres or Gerges believes this and that, they teach that we as Muslims believe that the message of Christianity is so and so and Boutres and Gerges have it wrong. So it is nice to see a book exploring how a Christian monk viewed his own faith in a mostly sympathetic fashion. Yet, I wondered if a book written about a Sufi Imam written by a Christian with a quote from the New Testament would ever be published in Egypt let alone be nominated to and receive a regional prize … I highly doubt it!

Yousif Ziedan is a gifted and wonderful creative story teller. The needless presence of the discredited Protocols of the Elders of Zion on his web site makes me very uncertain of his scholarship despite his tremendous credentials, his relative insensitivity to the improbability of a mirror image book from a Coptic Christian in Egypt hold me back from whole hearted enthusiasm for this work that I enjoyed immensely while actually reading it.

May 2009