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by Youssef Ziedan
Translated by Jonathan Wright
Atlantic Books, UK, 2012, hbk, 312pp, ISBN: 9781848874275
Winner of the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction
Azazeel is indeed a “rare” novel, as the back cover promises. What might the reader be expecting? It’s a prizewinning novel, the Arabic edition winning the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, and is set in early Christian times in Egypt, Palestine and Syria. This reader was expecting a kind of Name of the Rose thriller, or a historical saga-cum-travelogue, maybe similar to Kate Mosse’s intricate Labyrinth, or even William Dalrymple’s engrossing From the Holy Mountain, in which he retraces the journey of two monks in 587 AD, but travelling in the opposite direction to Youssef Ziedan’s Hypa.
A device to whet one’s appetite was the introduction, by a “translator”, who explained he was translating a bundle of ancient parchment manuscripts, found in a wooden box in ruins near the Syrian city of Aleppo and written in old Syriac or Aramaic about 450 AD/CE. He spent seven years working on the 30 scrolls – a perfect foil for Youssef Ziedan, whose day job is director of the Manuscripts Center and Manuscripts Museum at the Library of Alexandria. In fact, so successful was this device that Atlantic Books’ editors accredited copyright of this so-named “Translator’s Introduction” to Jonathan Wright, the English translator of the originally Arabic novel.
The scrolls were written by the monk Hypa, who begins by asking for mercy and forgiveness from the Lord, and is almost immediately confronted by the accursed Azazeel, demanding that Hypa records his life on the scrolls. He will spend the next 40 days writing.
An early mention of Nestorius is a firm hint that a “maverick” will accompany Hypa on his journey, and that the great schism in the eastern Christian Church will be central. Hypa is a bright young man, about 23 years old when his story starts, full of reverence for those of high rank – the bishops and the priest Nestorius. He is an everyman, a type of “man for all seasons” who is, in the end, true only to himself and his conscience. He is unlike his fellow monks and priests, having read the “banned” works of many pre-Christian philosophers, Romans such as Plotinus, Greeks such as Pythagoras and Plato, as well as the works of Bishop Theophilus. Hypa is tormented by the prejudice and dogmatism he meets, describing travelling to Alexandria and being warned not to wear his monk’s cassock because it was a troubled city. He plans to go to a lecture given by mathematician and neo-Platonist Hypatia, the so-called “pagan savant of the ages”, but on the way, with his cassock hidden at the bottom of his bag, he meets the voluptuous siren Octavia, who becomes his lover. Hypa proves to be easily tempted and seduced by beautiful women.
He eventually meets Hypatia, whom he describes as a “dignified and beautiful woman” having “the appearance of Jesus”, and then as he leaves, witnesses her brutal assassination at the ends of a hysterical Christian mob, and berates himself for keeping silent. He contemplates leaving the church, especially after meeting the Patriach of Alexandria, Bishop Cyril, with his bright gold crown – the opposite of Jesus’s crown of thorns – and hearing him dismiss as “mere pagans” the ancient Egyptian and Greek doctors such as Imhotep and Hippocrates, and declare that “the Lord Jesus Christ” was the only “polymath of medicine”.
Hypa is also a physician, healing people with herbal remedies and infusions that he mixes himself. He makes his way through the Sinai to Jerusalem and the Dead Sea, where, in a meeting with Nestorius, the latter explains that bloodshed and the killing of Hypatia has nothing to do with religion. He persuades Hypa to go to a monastery north of Aleppo, a day’s journey from the Christian centre of Antioch. Hypa becomes an indispensible member. He builds a library to house his books, among them the prohibited mathematics and philosophy tomes, and a clinic, becoming “famous in the nearby villages and towns”. He has the “unexpected delight” of meeting Nestorius again, who needs him to compare Greek and Coptic translations of an epistle written by Bishop Cyril and which could carry hostile invective against Bishop Nestorius.
Asked for his views on the implacably held opposing positions of Pope Cyril and Bishop Nestorius, Hypa tries to sit on the fence, though leans towards support for the latter, his mentor and confidante.
Throughout his journey, Azazeel challenges Hypa, finally facing him with Martha, a beautiful young woman with a “magical” voice. During a steamy affair with her he is thrown into spiritual turmoil by the news of Bishop Cyril arriving in Ephesus for the forthcoming Ecumenical Council, at which he fears the schism can only widen until “conflict and then war”. Haunted by fears and doubts, Hypa begins to find himself “at the bottom of a deep chasm from which there was no return”. Azazeel torments him mercilessly.
But who is Azazeel? Hypa at first sees him as a separate entity but later realises, as his spiritual torment and indecision increases and he succumbs to fever, that Azazeel is his alter ego – “this is another me”. As Hypa falls into a coma, the Council excommunicates Nestorius, sending him into exile. When Hypa recovers, all seems lost – Martha has gone, Azazeel, too, seems absent. He starts on his last scroll, writing about the Council’s new “rigid, hard-line creed”, and manages to strip away its earthly episcopal context to leave bare “belief in God”. He plans to bury all 30 scrolls, and then depart, free . . . “Hypa the strange”, as he is called, is an anti-hero, a loner. He confounds stereotypes and expectations, and he is, as he says, a true Egyptian and a firm believer in tolerance of difference (and struggles with himself – and Azazeel – to be such).
The impeccable translation of Jonathan Wright allows Hypa to pitch his tone as quiet and erudite, then informal and colourful, as his mood changes. Azazeel is a brilliant and innovative novel that opens up this transformative period of ferment in human history. Hypa, the fictional poet monk, refuses the apparent clash of creeds and civilisations and demands the right to ignore them or sit on the fence, and go his own way. He gives the reader the chance to be a time traveller back to an ancient era that in many ways seems to echo present times.
Published in Banipal 45 – Writers from Palestine