The influx of recent books exploring the world and history of Copts has reached its zenith recently with the publishing of Youssef Zidan’s highly controversial sophomore literary effort “Azazel.
Not long following its release, the Coptic Orthodox Church condemned Zidan’s novel, which examines the Church’s response to the heretic wave of the fifth century, for its subjectivity and portrayal of the church as a scheming villain. Shortly afterwards, several reports claimed that the Church attempted to bar the book, but eventually failed.
The Church’s stance propelled further debate, where the author was forced to repeatedly defend his creation and declare his novel a work of fiction. The fact that Zidan, a revered historian, is a Muslim writing about Christian history impelled several Coptic groups to question his intentions behind writing such a story at problematic time in Muslim/Christian relations in Egypt.
Controversy aside, “Azazel is a truly accomplished novel, brilliantly conceived and philosophically engaging, shedding light on an era hardly tackled in Egyptian literature.
The hero of the novel is Hypa, an Egyptian monk haunted by his inner demons at a time when the Coptic Church was persecuting heretics. Embarking on a journey from Upper Egypt’s Akhmeem to Alexandria, Jerusalem and finally north east of Halab, Hypa finds no resting place and neither does his soul.
With the Devil breathing down his neck, Hypa recounts his spiritual battle in a series of confessions that chronicles the church history, his sexual escapades, and his philosophical struggles with Azazel – an enigmatic name from the Hebrew Scriptures and Apocrypha that refers to the devil.
Zidan’s masterful use of the distinct old Coptic prose, humbled and remorseful yet graceful and enlightening, is epic in scope yet thematically intimate. Combined with vivid descriptions and plenty of historical detail, Zidan’s narrative, which blends fact with fiction, guides the reader into an alien era with, initially, little to relate to. Nevertheless, Hypa’s clash with the Church’s authority and his sincere search for the truth is timeless, while his sense of bewilderment and the false alibis he employs to mask his weaknesses and justify his misgivings are as contemporary as ever.
The introductory presentation of the novel is quite peculiar. In place of the author’s introduction, a passage, signed by an unknown writer who refers to himself as the translator, explains that the original text was found in the ruins of North East Halab. After spending seven years translating it from Aramaic to Arabic, the translator, according to his will, stated the novel shouldn’t be published until he dies.
The introduction can be misleading. Zidan has toyed previously with the rather standard structure of introductions in his first novel “Zel Al-Afaa (The Snake’s Shadow). Still, the literary purpose of both introductions is unclear.
In “Azazel, the introduction hints that Hypa’s story is a non-fiction record rather than a piece of historical fiction. Or is Zidan trying to emphasize the historical credibility of Hypa’s notes? With the novel set in violent times, perhaps he is cunningly trying to bring to light glances of Christianity’s not-so-peaceful history as a mirror to Islam’s similar debatable history.
Born in the midst of religious tension, young Hypa finds peace in Christianity and its teachings of love and forgiveness. The new religion is spreading in Egypt as the older pagan faiths are receding. Having decided to study theology and medicine, Hypa heads towards Alexandria where his first romance with Octavia, a Roman goddess who dislikes Christians, begins.
In a mad outbreak of religious cleansing, Hypa witnesses the notorious true event involving the brutal murder of pagan Roman mathematician Hypatia at the hands of a Coptic mob who blamed her for religious turmoil (Hypatia was known for her science- against-religion stance).
Consequently, he decides to flee Alexandria to Sinai, and later to Jerusalem. Reveling in the murder’s brutality, Zidan portrays Hypatia as anti-Christian, overlooking to mention her friendship with Orestes, the Christian prefect of Alexandria at the time.
As Hypa experiences another confused but intense love story with Marta, a member of the church’s choir, his affair with Azazel grows stronger. Contrary to many Coptic stories depicting the Devil as a monster tempting and torturing monks, Azazel tells Hypa he is an illusion. “I am you, Hypa, and I am them … You see me wherever you or they wanted me to.
In one of Jerusalem’s monasteries, Hypa lives in peace and tends to patients until he meets Nestorius, the Archbishop of Constantinople who objected to the popular practice of calling the Virgin Mary the “Mother of God.
Nestorius was famously accused by Coptic scholars and theologians, headed by Cyril Archbishop of Alexandria (better known as Cyril Pillar of Faith), of heresy.
His discussions with Nestorius bring him closer to Antakya to settle down in an almost isolated monastery. He distances himself from the Church’s politics and theological disagreements to “evade the teeth and claws of the Markian lion, keeping his questions about the nature of God and his son to himself. Hypa later learns the news of Nestorius’ excommunication in 431 at the Council of Ephesus.
In the discussions between Hypa and Nestorius about the nature of Jesus (man, God, or both?) and whether the Virgin Mary is the Theotokos (the Mother of God) or (Christotokos) the Mother of Jesus, the man, Zidan avoids presenting the Coptic theological point of view. Instead, Coptic theology is described as naive and immature, while Nestorius’ is portrayed as that of the prosecuted philosopher. Balancing both perspectives, or at least explaining the church’s viewpoint, would have actually enriched the drama, but perhaps not the book sales.
Cumulating at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, philosophical disputes instigated by Nestorius’ teachings led to the greatest division within Christianity and the creation of separate Nestorian churches. Zidan deprives his readers from explaining several crucial theological questions that are currently under the spotlight as the two churches aim at closing the theological gaps between them.
The Coptic Church’s harshness with its critics was never a hidden matter and the reputation of its Archbishops as the defenders of faith against heretics precedes them.
Yet the heart of “Azazel is Hypa’s simple human nature. Hypa is not the typical monk who leaves the world behind and inhabits a cave. He sees God around him in the kindness of people, not in theology books. Sometimes he questions whether the Christian God is indeed the true God, and at other times, he breaks his vows of chastity when his heart is overwhelmed with beauty. He is human, all too human, and in his confessions, he is wholeheartedly genuine and truthful.