The winner of last year’s Arabic Booker, Youssef Ziedan’s Azazil (or Beelzebub in English translation) caused a storm in his native Egypt, particularly among the country’s Christians (or ‘Coptics’). Ziedan’s novel charts the violence that accompanies Alexandria’s adoption of Christianity in the fifth century, with much of it caused by the Christians themselves. Egypt’s Coptic church has most strongly objected to the novel’s portrayal of one of its fathers, St Cyril, who appears as something of a violent tyrant. In spite of this, Ziedan’s book has sold tremendously both in Egypt and around the world, and is currently in its 17th edition. Ziedan talks to Time Out ahead of his appearance at EAFL next week.
Azazil is about the early history (and brutality) of Christianity in fifth-century Egypt. Why did you want to tell that story?
My novel is an invitation to reject religious intolerance, the claim that violent acts in society are done in the name of [God], and to reject those who have made themselves the congress of God on earth. These are ridiculous claims that both Arab and non-Arab and Muslim and non-Muslim societies suffer from. Religious violence is not linked to a particular religion – it is linked to people who have specific secular interests and use religion to achieve those interests.
There are voices that call for a ban on Azazil. Bearing in mind that censorship exists in all societies, how does this affect the development of literature in the Arab world specifically?
Government, religious and popular censorship lead to some problems, [but they] can be dealt with. That’s where literary festivals such as EAFL, and other Arab cultural events, play a part. They are candles lit in the darkness that dispel the current state of backwardness and illiteracy the Arab world is living in.
So you think things will change?
It is possible to improve and develop the current reality. We can do that by continuing to establish a base of rational thought and [championing] the values of enlightenment and tolerance in the community.
But are novels such as Azazil enough to reach the hearts and minds of the public? Can a novel really change a person’s outlook on society?
Social changes happen slowly. They are influenced by ideas presented in novels and books and published writings, even though these ideas may not be revolutionary! Azazil created a considerable movement in the Arab consciousness [surrounding] the issue of religious violence, through the ideas and discussions that were raised about the novel. Five books were written to oppose and complement Azazil, not to mention the thousands of responses and discussions that readers made with regards to the novel on the internet.
Azazil has been described as the Arabic Da Vinci Code. How do you feel about that?
The Da Vinci Code is an interesting mystery novel. The story starts with a murder and culminates in a romantic union – it fits to be made into a movie. Azazil, on the other hand, is a philosophical novel that talks about human anxiety and confusion, and addresses religious violence and the relationship between man and woman.
Besides being a novelist, you collect manuscripts relating to Islamic heritage and memory. You’ve even created an online archive. Why is this work so important to you?
Heritage research is my primary starting point, because without awareness of the past we cannot look to the future. What I am trying to do in my heritage studies, critiques and novels is to confirm that awareness of the past is necessary in order to have a deeper understanding of reality. This awareness is far away from stenography, vulgarity and simplistic explanations of social phenomena that do not lead to fundamental solutions to contemporary problems.
Don’t miss next week’s issue for our complete guide to EAFL. We’ll tell you who to see, where, when and why. For now, here’s a taste…
Marjane Satrapi: The Iranian author of graphic novel-turned-award-winning film Persepolis tells us why she doesn’t want to be an icon
Yann Martel: The Life of Pi author explains why he’s harassing the prime minister of Canada
Martin Amis: Britain’s controversial postmodernist
John Simpson: BBC reporter and war zone extraordinaire
Bahaa Taher: The world’s first Arabic Booker winner
Vikas Swarup: Author of the book that became Slumdog Millionaire
Shobhaa Dé: India’s answer to Jackie Collins