Photo by Doris Poblekowski

By Youssef Ziedan
Dar El Shorouk, 2009

Last month, at a symposium in Kuwait, I bumped into the Iraqi writer Samuel Shimon, head of the jury of the first round of the Abu Dhabi–based International Prize for Arabic Fiction, better known as the Arabic Booker and administered by the Booker Foundation. While bitterly complaining about the lack of alcohol, which is illegal in Kuwait, Shimon told me the story of a recent visit to Wadi El Natroun, the site of some of the world’s oldest monasteries in Egypt, and how he asked the resident monks there why in the world they maintained a grudge against a man who had died over 1500 years ago. I wondered aloud to whom he was referring. It turned out he was speaking of Nestorius (circa AD 386–451), the archbishop of Constantinople, about whom Archbishop of Alexandria Cyril I wrote the Twelve Anathemas. I knew that like the late poet Sargon Boulus, Shimon was born Syrian Christian; what I didn’t know was that while the Coptic Christians of Egypt reject the teachings of Nestorius as heretical, Syrians belonging to the Oriental Orthodox rite of Syria, Iraq, and Turkey are in fact Nestorians.

What struck me was not the nature of the ecumenical dispute, but how Shimon brought a seemingly arcane drama to life. As it happened, just around the time we spoke, an Egyptian novel by the name of Azazeel (translated to Beelzebub in English) took the second Arabic Booker. A historical work, it addressed the very same fifth-century controversy and, what’s more, took the side of the heretic.

Did the Virgin Mary give birth to God, a human being, both, or something in between? All Nestorius had done to earn his condemnation at the Council of Ephesus in AD 431 — his would-be supporters, most notably John I, the archbishop of Antioch, were tricked into arriving too late — was reject the term Theotokos (Mother of God) in favor of Christotokos (Mother of Christ). The question sounds absurdly disproportionate to the amount of bloodshed that followed in its wake. But in Azazeel writer and scholar Youssef Ziedan manages to communicate a sense of how widely relevant and incendiary such an abstruse internecine debate can still be, and how horrific its consequences.

While reading Azazeel some weeks back, I spoke to a devoutly Coptic colleague about Nestorius. “But of course he’s a heretic,” my colleague said, as if he’d just had coffee with the archbishop. “He denies that Maryam is the mother of God!” In a slightly lower voice, he continued, “You know it was a follower of Nestorius who taught Mohammed.” Mohammed? “Yes, your Mohammed,” he hissed. “And that’s why Muslims share in the heresy that Jesus was not divine.” The fact that the author of Azazeel is himself a Muslim has only stoked the fires. After all, what right does he have to participate in a Christian debate?

Set in fifth-century Alexandria, Upper Egypt, and Syria, Azazeel purports to be the Arabic translation, completed in April 2004, of seven fictional rolls of parchment discovered ten years earlier in the vicinity of Aleppo, near the Turkish border — “on the ancient road linking Aleppo with Antioch,” as Ziedan’s translator tells us. Written originally in late Aramaic (Syriac), the seven rolls constituting the book’s seven chapters recount, in the first person, the life of a Coptic-speaking monk/doctor from Upper Egypt, named after the female pagan philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria (died AD 415). Hipa adopted his name in honor of the woman he met upon his arrival in Alexandria and whose lynching by the Christian mob — initiated by Cyril I — he later witnessed on the streets of the Greatest City. As a frustrated student of medicine at the Monastery of the Church of St. Mark, Hipa was repelled by the dogmatism and violence of Cyril I. He chose not to return to his homeland near present-day Akhmim, where as a child he witnessed the equally barbaric lynching of his father, a pagan fisherman — a crime his mother incited in order to marry a Christian. Instead, Hipa traveled, eventually reaching Jerusalem, where he met Nestorius and on his advice moved again, not to Antioch, where Nestorius was a bishop at the time, but to the monastery north of Aleppo. There — encouraged by Beelzebub, as the devil is called throughout — he recorded his life story.

Through Hipa’s travails, we encounter Nestorius’s claim that, unlike that of God the Father, the divinity of Christ was not an intrinsic, everlasting attribute but something that happened to him after he was born and grew up like anyone else. In subtle ways, Ziedan uses the experiences of Hipa and his conversations with Nestorius to suggest, for example, that in Egypt the mother-and-child motif was but an extension of the ancient tradition of Isis and Horus — a less definite break with paganism than Nestorius’s (or, indeed, Islam’s).

For questioning the traditional narrative (on which point Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches agree) that Cyril I was a saint and “a pillar of the faith,” Ziedan has been taken to task by the Coptic Orthodox Church, notably in a statement written by Anba Bishoi, secretary of the Holy Synod in Egypt. He’s accused of “destroying the faith,” misrepresenting facts, and “inciting sedition.” The case was also taken to court by a team of Coptic lawyers headed by Ramsis Al Naggar, member of the Church’s consultative committee, in an as-yet futile attempt to ban the book. It is worth noting that some Copts, like the novelist Robert Al Faris, have argued that Ziedan has neither misrepresented the facts nor undermined Christianity, arguing that, in dealing with history, nothing and no one — not even a saint — is sacred. “No one can claim the saints did not make mistakes,” he said. The work, many have pointed out, was well researched and executed.

For his part, Ziedan — who is head of the Islamic manuscripts department at the Alexandria Library — carries out the task of mimicking manuscript editing brilliantly, and his message — that Beelzebub’s truest evil, far from heresy or even sin, is his capacity for getting people to excommunicate, massacre, and otherwise do wicked things to each other in the conviction that they’re actually doing good — comes through beautifully. And though extremely classical in language and style, the novel makes for an engaging and intelligent read from beginning to end. One is inclined to overlook the more obviously modern interpolations (as when Octavia, the woman with whom Hipa sins on his arrival in Alexandria, calls Aristotle “backward” for his classification of women and slaves as below men; or when Hipa, whose rationality chimes with Nestorius, begins to sound like an agent of the Enlightenment). The book may be appreciated as a comment on contemporary political Islam and sectarian strife both within the Umma and between Muslims and Christians. In a roundabout way, Ziedan seems to be reminding readers — perhaps Western readers in particular — that “dogmatism and violence existed, you know, long before Islam came into being.”