This is my review of Azazeel by Youssef Ziedan.
It is interesting to be reminded that the Middle East was once briefly Christian, and as unstable and riven by violent dissension as it is now.
In the ruins of a monastery near Aleppo, archaeologists unearth a tightly sealed wooden book, containing parchment manuscripts, the memoirs of a fifth century Egyptian-born monk and self-taught physician called Hypa, whose wanderings took him to Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch.
A thoughtful and observant man, his avid reading, including of “forbidden books” has stimulated his questioning mind. In a period preceding the rise of Islam, he sees Christians behaving with a savage bigotry to rival a modern-day IS fighter: their brutal murder of his father, for quietly following his pagan beliefs, or of the gifted female mathematician Hypatia (from whom he has taken his adopted name), denounced for heresy by the vicious Bishop Cyril of Alexandria. On a personal level, he wrestles with the overwhelming desire to love the beautiful Martha, which is incompatible with his chosen life as monk. On a larger scale, there is the use of abstruse differences in doctrine as a weapon in power struggles over a religion divided between Cyril who looks to Rome, and Bishop Nestorius, who has become Hypa’s friend through a shared love of books, based at Antioch.
As he writes, Hypa is continually distracted by Azazeel, one of many names for the devil, yet clearly the voice of Hypa’s own “inner voice”.
At one point, Azazeel asks Hypa, “Did God create man, or was it the other way round?” He answers his own question: “Hypa, in every age man creates a god to his liking and his god is always his visions, his impossible dreams and his wishes”. When Hypa whispers, “But Azazeel, you are the cause of evil in the world.” Azazeel responds, “Hypa, be sensible. I’m the one who justifies evil. So evil causes me.” Later he urges, “Wake up, Hypa, and come to your senses. Your desire for her (Martha) is crushing you and breaking your heart. Go to her, take her and leave this country. Delight in her and make her happy, then heap curses on me because I tempted you. Then all three of us will thrive, having fulfilled ourselves.”
The book may be an “acquired taste”, perplexing and tedious for someone with either little knowledge of or no interest in religion. Although the translation from Arabic is in general excellent, some descriptions are over-detailed, dull and hard to follow. Yet the book creates a vivid impression of what life might have been like fifteen centuries ago, with realistic characters revealing all too recognisable human flaws. The author also shows the appeal of a life of contemplation: there is a striking passage in which Hypa observes the habits of the wild doves, who mate indiscriminately with each other, care jointly for the young, living together in a seemingly peaceful community, causing him to wonder why humans cannot do the same. It occurs to him that another monk throws stones at the birds because he is afraid of the fact that at heart, he likes them.
I do not know to what extent the slow pace and precise detail are a feature of Arab writing. Some readers have criticised the Muslim author’s interpretation of rival early Christian doctrines but this does not seem to me to matter. What is important is the portrayal of a humane and conflicted individual to whom we can relate, despite the radical differences in our lives.