Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed: In Search of the Missing Commandment


I begin the ascent at 4p.m. After leaving my personal details at the Tourist Police Office and convincing the officer that no, thank you very much, but I do not need a Bedouin guide, I set off on the dusty road to St. Katherine’s monastery. The monastery lies at the foot of a winding path that leads after a two to three hour strenuous walk and hike to the summit of Mt. Sinai, or Moses as the locals call it. A strange mood has taken hold of me the past hour or so; a vague paranoia, a slightly heightened self-awareness. Perhaps it is the alienation of passing through a dozen checkpoints on my way here from Cairo, or the Army conscript and Police detective who requested a hike and whom I had taken on board at a checkpoint a hundred kilometres before St. Katherine’s. Maybe it is my botched sleep the past couple of nights, or the unsettling bizarreness of returning to Egypt while most of my family are elsewhere for the first time in my life. I don’t know, but I feel ill at ease. So it is with a sense of relief that I leave the Monastery behind and take the first steps to the summit. I really want to be alone. To tell you the truth this is the reason I am here. I have compulsively and hurriedly left our home in Cairo and drove 500 kilometres into the middle of the Sinai Mountains because I need to be alone. Since arriving to Cairo on the 24th of December, I have been avoiding answering the phone or talking to anyone unless it is absolutely necessary. I am starved of my own company; I am hungry for loneliness.

This is not the first time I climb Mt. Sinai, it will be the third. The first time, now to me, may very well have been in another life. The year was 1992 and I had gone on a school-trip hiking with two good friends. I recall the exhaustion on the way up, the freezing cold at the summit (it was November) and, on return to Cairo, my mother’s smile and hug as she received me at home, our dog jumping on my bed and greeting me. But I recall not much else, not much that has escaped idealisation anyways: I was sixteen, and I was the kind of sixteen year old who was stuck, more-or-less, in the latent stage; everything was right and in its place, which is another way for saying that nothing much happened. This time feels different.

I proceed along the path to the summit. I notice that I am the only one going up at this time of day; I encounter many tourists and pilgrims heading down, some of them establish eye-contact complementing it with a slight nod of recognition or a curt ‘hi’. The sun is going to set just before 6p.m., and it’s already after 4; no chance of catching the sunset then. That’s fine; I am not here to watch pretty sunsets, I am here to be alone. To be honest I am pleased that I am the only one going up the mountain. The way up is more tiring that I thought it would be; I am not sure why but this slightly unsettles me. Some of the Bedouin guides I meet along the way greet me in English, and whether they do or not I throw at them a bold ‘salamu-3aliko’ which, given the expressions that form on their faces, they did not expect. They probably instinctively do not think I am Egyptian. I am already familiar with this from Dakhla. I, of course, am not blonde or fair, and my eyes are not blue, what they pick on rather is class, body-language and context: the unusualness of going for a trip like this on my own. As I was to learn a couple of hours later from one of the Bedouins who sells drinks near the summit: there is no Egyptian individual tourism here, you must be here for work, aren’t you? The explanation here is simple: act beyond people’s conception of what you are and where you belong and you will invite speculation first about your motives and, if you fail to convince, about your sanity.

I am, in fact, so accustomed to this experience that I have come to expect it. It is a class-based issue, but one that also betrays a lack of desire and, perhaps, ability or imagination to relate – everyone would experience it if they place themselves in vulnerable situations, something I willingly and regularly do out of my complete volition. I do it not because I am a masochist but because I do not see how one can keep one’s moral compass pointing in the right direction without exposing oneself to oneself and to others. It is a particular calling of mine you can say. But just this trip, this hike, that moment in my life I want to be spared this experience. I really just want to be away, and this includes being away from mutual identity-intention-motive deductions with men who are unable to broaden their horizons sufficiently to see nothing unusual in what I am doing.

It’s well after 5 and with every minute the light diminishes further. I negotiate a hairpin curve in the path while hollering playfully at the nearest mountain-side and waiting for my echo. I expect a dramatic time-lag then an eerie hello hello hello hello hello hello hello hello hello but, instead, I receive a muffled and barely recognizable single rendition of my voice. A few metres away I notice a brick shed with a colourful blanket shielding the entrance; one of many sheds along the path selling tea and water to exhausted climbers. I am about to pass it as I did many others along the way – I didn’t want to suppress my momentum – when a young man peering through the entrance of the shed calls at me offering some rest and tea. I oblige.

My father works at the Monastery, he says while switching on a small gas-stove to boil water, we are from Suez, and I joined him to make some money of my own. I am uncharacteristically disinterested. Sometimes I wonder whether the year I spent in Dakhla writing my ethnography had not only depleted my anthropological interest, but also my interest in others. Back then in 2009 I thought I was killing two birds with one stone: immersing myself in an Egyptian working-class, traditional-conservative community – something I had wanted to do properly for years – while researching the subject of my fascination: insanity. Dakhla with its many villages and distinctive isolation was the perfect setting. At the end of my time there I was truly exhausted; I had had enough of maintaining a morally and socially acceptable persona in the midst of people who were friendly and helpful, yes, but intrinsically paranoid and limited in imagination, their world so narrow it suffocated me. This young man, who by all means is pleasant and interesting in his own right, and the Bedouin guides I have so far encountered remind me too much of Dakhla. They force me into a mode of relating and being that I no longer feel the need to maintain, at least not in this era of my life, and certainly not right now.

The water is boiling. He serves me strong, sweet tea (which he subsequently refuses to be paid for) and offers me a cigarette which I accept despite having quit smoking four months before. Are you Christian, he asks. No, I say, and a long silence ensues. I fix my gaze on the mountains outside the shed, and I notice off the corner of my eyes that he is glancing at me. I want to leave.

It’s completely dark outside now. I am only fifteen minutes away from the 750 steps that lead to the summit. I am still the only one going up. Many of the tourists and pilgrims are wearing powerful LED head-lights. A short scream bursts into the silence; a woman had tripped and fell. She is helped up and quickly joins the rest of the lights heading down the side of the mountain. I arrive at the base of the 750 steps; steep, roughly hewn rocks piled on top of each other and taking you up the final 300metres to the peak of Mt. Sinai. Every step is crucial; a small hand held torch shows me where to place my foot, and my walking stick gives me much needed balance. A half-crescent provides some light, and occasionally I can see the steps right on the edge of an abyss with a small wooden warning sign: DANGER. This, is exciting. I proceed further up the mountain, my knees now slightly aching. By 6.30p.m. I am 50 steps below the summit and I find four shacks, or ‘cafeterias’. Light escapes through a narrow gap in the wooden door to a shack that has the number four painted on the front. I walk towards the shack and step inside.

I am immediately enveloped by the warmth of a fire at the far end of the shack. Four men are seated around the flame, their shoes and sandals scattered near the entrance. A faint whiff of burned wood and feet lingers in the air. Clearly excited by the sudden presence of a Cairene in their midst, they immediately welcome me around the fire and offer me a tea. The more talkative and worldly of the four Bedouins dominates the conversation, at times eyeing me suspiciously. I can sense he does not believe I am here just to climb the mountain; he’s never seen an Egyptian coming here on his own he argues. The other three men recede to the fringes of the conversation, the one on my right – an older man with a seriously weathered face – reduced to emitting occasional grunts which I surmised where in approval of whatever was being said at the time, contradictions and all. It is too cold to sleep on the peak, one of them finally says, sleep here in the shack with us. I feel nervous at this otherwise kind suggestion: the idea of forsaking the loneliness that I have come here to seek distresses me. I want to sleep under the stars, I reply with a confidence that surprises even me. A few awkward moments of silence are finally broken by a grunt of understanding that seals the conversation. Half an hour has passed and I am becoming impatient. The eloquent Bedouin then suddenly asks me what I think of the political situation in Egypt. The third stage of the elections – which includes South Sinai – starts tomorrow. I try to avoid talking politics, after all I know exactly what they think and why: they all will vote for the Muslim Brotherhood or El-Nour, they think we should never have a Christian president (look at France, will they ever have a Muslim president?), and of course Mohammed El-Barad3i (whom I think is the only man in Egypt who has the rare combination of integrity and experience) is an ‘agent’. Against my better judgement, I launch a brief attack on the Salafi El-Nour party and to my surprise I find that we temporarily share a sliver of the most superficial agreement: in so far as El-Nour will hamper tourism (the source of the Bedouin’s livelihood) they are against it. Covering women (another potential El-Nour edict) is something they do not object to: making the veil compulsory can only be a good thing, one of them orates. On that note I excuse myself. They offer me two rental blankets and a thin mattress which I lug the remaining fifty steps to the peak of the mountain. Its only 7p.m. and the cold is biting.

I am on the peak of Mt. Sinai. I walk around taking in the view; rows of jagged peaks stretch into the distance. I am the only one here, the prize for coming up at an unusual time. The crescent is still in the middle of the sky, and the constellations do not require a searching gaze: they present themselves as if someone has highlighted them just for me. It is freezing cold: three layers (one of which is bona fide Lambs’ Wool) and a particularly heavy coat do not seem to be able to keep the chilling winds out. I refrain from contemplating my surroundings and decide to settle in a corner ‘under the stars’, make use of the blankets, warm-up, and have something to eat. Within a few minutes I begin to experience the first effects of my self-imposed isolation on the peak of Mt. Sinai. As I nibble through a sandwich I have prepared this morning, I reflexively reach into my pocket for my mobile phone. Half-way through I remember that I have left it in the car: loneliness cannot be complete with this bane of a gadget on your person. I pull my rucksack towards me and have a sip of Guava juice and as I replace the carton the first of a succession of intense pangs of fear hit me. It is an undefined, object-less fear: I am not afraid of being the only one here, or of the height or the cold. What am I afraid of? A powerful desire to leave the mountain takes hold of me, but dissipates as quickly as it forms. I calm down temporarily: there is nothing to be afraid of, I say to myself. There is nothing, indeed. Nothing. I am afraid of nothing. The thought of a target-less fear terrifies me even more. Off the corner of my eye I notice a dark object just about the height and width of a person standing near the beginning of the steps. I am convinced it is a person. I stare in its direction, searching for any signs of life but I detect none. I look away, shifting my gaze to the moon and stars, seeking some comfort in the objects of my childhood fascination. But the urge to look back towards the steps is stronger than my resolve; the dark object is still there. Lost in the confusion of uncertainty, treading on the line separating subjectivity from reality, I hear a man’s sharp voice: “It is too cold outside… are you Muslim?”


In April 2007 I went on a road-trip with my father; the first of only two trips we had taken together in our newly found friendship. I climbed Mt. Sinai on my own, not out of choice but to spare my father a hike his health would not have withstood. So he stayed behind in the town of St. Katherine and I set off at midnight together with tens of pilgrims to watch the sunrise. At the time my father had only just resigned from his position as Minister of Justice, and the recency of his resignation meant that he was still some ‘one’ in the eyes of the establishment, which by the unspoken laws of proxy required that his son cannot be allowed to climb the mountain on his own and had to be accompanied by an army cadet as guard and escort. I was not really alone, nor was I seeking loneliness. Then, it was different or, perhaps, now it is different. My father died twelve weeks ago. The eloquent Bedouin was right: what am I doing here? This is not the first time I venture on a road-trip alone. But before the motive was clear: I wanted to be away from real and imagined and, in any case, increasingly subtle familial and paternal constraint. And I wanted to explore, away from the suffocation of life on the Island. Driving hundreds of kilometres into the wilderness of my favourite spot on Earth – Sinai – was always the obvious, uncontroversial choice. But my father is gone, and I can no longer fall back on the tired and clichéd narrative of escape, of ‘finding myself’. I am alone. I am here to confirm it, to confirm to myself that he really is dead. I am seeking loneliness and avoiding people because I want to see for myself what my father’s death really means away from the noise and distraction of life and the forced social engagement that characterises the way we deal with death. But what I am looking for, what do I want to find?

“Are you Muslim?” the voice repeats. Instinctively, I pull the blankets further up my face and answer back without thinking: yes I am. A man appears from a hidden cove, he is wrapped in a blanket and clearly has been sleeping: “I’ll unlock the mosque for you then, and you can sleep inside, you won’t be able to tolerate these winds.” He vanishes behind a small brick building that is the mosque and I can hear the sound of a gradually building stream that crescendos to a peak then begins to decline to a trickle and stops. He is human. He returns back to the cove and I do not see him again. Within a few minutes the cold bypasses my fortifications and reaches my skin; he was right. If I stay here, I think to myself, I might die of hypothermia. I wrap up the blankets and the mattress and head to the mosque. This mosque, I was told, was built four centuries ago. It stands a few metres from a much older Chapel that, unlike the mosque, is mostly closed to pilgrims. The mosque is a humble affair: constructed of large grey bricks, it is very unassuming from the outside and inside is inlaid with a worn-out green carpet and its walls decorated with amateurishly painted Qur’anic verses. As I step inside I notice the warm scent of musk and sandal wood, a much better olfactory reception than I have been expecting. Contrasting with the relative light provided by the moon outside, here it is pitch black. After a brief struggle with a torch in one hand and blankets in another, I prepare the closest thing to a bed that I can muster and at 8p.m. I decide that I must try to get some sleep.

When I get to it at 3a.m., I find that I have been trapped in sleeper’s limbo, having spent the past seven hours turning incessantly in search of that elusive comfort spot and, later on, in the throes of confused images. I open my eyes and there is nothing but total darkness. Thoughts begin to populate my mind, recollections of the past few hours of tortured sleep. Did I actually attempt to masturbate when I first settled in under the blanket or was it just a dream? I begin to wonder if men have masturbated inside mosques before, and whether this is the most serious profanity one can perform. The idea intrigues me, and I seriously contemplate entering the unwritten book of history:

On December 30, 2011, Mohammed Abouelleil masturbated inside A Mosque built in the 11th Hijri Century (17th Century gregorian) on the peak of Mt. Sinai. He was the first man to do so and has rightfully reserved a place in basest Hell.

But I abstain; too messy.

I fold the blankets and decide I will spend the remaining hours of darkness outside. I am still the only person at the peak, apart, that is, from the Bedouin who vanished into the cove. I settle next to the chapel, wrap myself up as best as I could, and finish off the fruit that I have left. Only half an hour has passed and the cold has, again, found its way to my skin. I shift around and wrap the blankets snugly around my legs. By 4a.m. I can see quivering, flickering dots of light moving slowly in the darkness that envelops the side of the mountain; constellations of pilgrims making their way up to witness the sunrise. This means that I have, at the most, two hours before the end of my isolation. I feel that I am on a mission searching for something that I cannot define or conceptualise. And I feel that my mission is drawing to a close. I resign, my mind blank, to the silence and the cold, and descend into a state of semi-sleep…

I am woken up to the sound of foreign tongues. I can hear German, Spanish, and some East Asian language. There are at least one hundred people on the summit. They have all arrived together and their head-lights are still on. Just before 6.a.m. loud Spanish religious POP music bellows from what must be a portable CD or Tape player, and a large group of young Spaniards join in. The unmistakable rhythm of a mantra comes from a closed circle of East Asians, perhaps Malaysian or Indonesian. In the strong winds on the summit, a young man nearby struggles to find the right page in a Hebrew text. Right next to me a couple huddle together in a single sleeping bag. All are patiently awaiting the sunrise. The anticipation infects me and I find myself gazing East. Light breaks, and all have their cameras ready to capture the moment. The sunrise will be filtered through a hundred Japanese lenses to the retinas eagerly waiting on the other side. Ten minutes pass, twenty, and the sun remains hidden behind thick grey clouds. A few minutes later it begins to rain.

On my way down the mountain I take the other route, the Steps of Penance – 3000 rocks laid by a monk as atonement for a sin only three people know about. It continues to drizzle and the air is cold and crisp, astonishingly refreshing. Although no reason for this comes to my mind, I am unexpectedly euphoric and positive. I embrace the mood I am in. As I negotiate the uneven, sometimes dangerous, rocks I recall a warning given to me by a Bedouin who saw me embark on the beginning of the Steps of Penance an hour ago: be careful, he said, two months ago a Russian went down this route and lost his way; it took us a week to find him, dead. The image of a dead man lost in the midst of these ancient rocks keeps pinging in my mind. If I die here my father will not know about it. He will be spared the pain, devastation and guilt. If I die here my father will not care. If I laugh or cry, if I have another child or get married, if I kill someone or save ten, my father will not be around. I have come here hoping that loneliness will reveal something to me, and I am leaving realising that there is nothing to be revealed. If father is a commandment, I now have one less reason to do the right thing.

Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed 2011

Surat Youssef, 2008


فَلَمَّا سَمِعَتْ بِمَكْرِهِنَّ أَرْسَلَتْ إِلَيْهِنَّ وَأَعْتَدَتْ لَهُنَّ مُتَّكَأً وَآتَتْ كُلَّ وَاحِدَةٍ مِنْهُنَّ سِكِّينًا وَقَالَتِ اخْرُجْ عَلَيْهِنَّ فَلَمَّا رَأَيْنَهُ أَكْبَرْنَهُ وَقَطَّعْنَ أَيْدِيَهُنَّ وَقُلْنَ حَاشَ لِلَّهِ مَا هَذَا بَشَرًا إِنْ هَذَا إِلَّا مَلَكٌ كَرِيمٌ

Chapter and verse
Youssef Rakha

Recently, The New Yorker magazine ran six first-person articles describing encounters with members of the monotheistic clergy, all published under the heading “Faith and doubt”. It is not clear what the occasion was for remembering Knowers of God, as clerics are sometimes honorifically referred to in Arabic. The pieces were engaging, but too short and inconclusive to say much. Four reflected a Christian universe of thought; one was set in a tree outside a synagogue. The only vaguely Muslim piece – about the headmaster of a religious school in Ghana – detailed this man’s unusual belief that no plane could stay aloft if the aviation engineer in charge did not recite the required verses of the Quran during take-off.

It seems right to supplement the latter, if not with the recollections of a memorable cleric – Muslims have students and teachers of theology, not an ordained clergy per se – then with this personal allegory of faith and doubt:

Medical opinion had unanimously declared pregnancy impossible. Some vital channel had been blocked in my mother’s body – some irrevocable fault of physiology. I will spare you the details, which I do not know. All that is clear in my memory is that she was forced to forego the project that had informed her entire life, and which for Egyptian women of her generation was the only real project: she had never had a child. Now she was told she never would. If she conceived, which was extremely unlikely in the first place, she would be unable to keep her foetus for longer than a few days.
But my mother was not devastated; she was not resigned, she simply dismissed medical opinion. She dismissed any opinion, in fact, that agreed with the bogus conspiracy seemingly hatched to deprive her of the one thing she lived for.

Then one day, she conceived. When tests confirmed that it was not a false pregnancy, she was not particularly surprised. After all, for weeks after receiving the initial discouraging medical reports, she claims, she had been convinced it would happen. Also that she would manage to keep the foetus, the miracle foetus, and never have another child.
My mother is an extremely devout woman. But as she has grown older, her spiritual energy has been fossilised in increasingly reductive religious dogma. Only through cautious retellings of her past does the thrill of the unknown – the drama of faith before it has been validated – come through in her religious experience. She will never admit it, but that largely unarticulated faith is the treasure that is buried beneath her religious practice.

There are two very distinct experiences of any religion. On the one hand you have the codified set of beliefs: the dos, the don’ts, the heaven, the hell. And on the other hand there is that mystery. By codifying the unknown, dogma murders the mystery. I have always thought that was the worst thing about it. If you can have both dogma and mystery in one package, then all the better.

So my mother mysteriously believed that she would keep the foetus. Because she wanted it enough, she felt divinely entitled to a child. Seven months after the initial surprise – which, of course, she claims was no surprise – she had turned into a jaundiced, bloated version of herself, perpetually fatigued and more or less immobile. But the foetus was still there and she had no doubt she would keep it.
Family lore has it that, at two separate instances during those seven months, she was on the verge of doubting whether she would have her child when she heard verses of the Quran drift through the window, which quelled her fears. On both occasions, it was a verse from the chapter called Youssef, the Quranic story of Joseph, the son of Jacob, not so very different from its earlier version in the Bible.

I was the unlikely foetus, and I quickly learnt to associate whatever state I was in – the intractable mystery of whatever was happening to me as I grew up – with that Quranic chapter.

Youssef the chapter is a favourite of professional reciters; you are likely to encounter it wherever and whenever you hear Quran in Cairo. (And you are just as likely to hear Quran wherever and whenever you are in Cairo.) Verses of Youssef are often quoted in print, too. You see them inscribed in bold lettering in the most unlikely of places.
So there was never any reason to believe that encounters with that chapter should bear secret messages. If anything, there was reason to believe that the more I paid attention to such messages, the further ahead on the road to madness I would be. And yet I believed it; I believed it deeply and unreservedly, later seeking to decode the messages I was receiving. Whenever I heard or saw a verse of that chapter, it stopped me in my tracks. It still does, somewhat.

At first it was simply a matter of coming in contact with Youssef – that was a good omen in itself. There was never any question about what else it could mean. But sometimes, after hearing a given verse, bad things would happen: an accident, sickness, low examination marks.

I had to pay attention.

Eventually I realised that different verses could mean different things, and I tried to reconstruct my existence based on the storyline, whose basic outline is: a boy dreams that the sun, the moon and the stars have all knelt before him, but he ends up in a ditch on the way to Egypt. He is enslaved, he resists temptation, he goes to jail. Then it turns out he can interpret dreams. He interprets the Pharaoh’s dream and saves the world.
That worked for a while. A specific verse would illuminate a certain incident or exchange: temptation, rise, fall, Pharaoh. It worked until I realised I could replace one verse with another and still have the same illumination. I realised I have my mother’s superstition, but neither her sense of divine entitlement nor a very clear idea of what I might be entitled to, much less the dogma that would bring it all together.

Still, I have the sense of possibility – however vague – that my existence is a blessing to be explained by reference to a chapter of the Quran.

The Letter Arrived سركون بولص


أنك تكتب والقنابل تتساقط، تُزيلُ تاريخَ السقوف

تَمحقُ وجهَ البيوت.


أكتبُ إليك بينما اللّه

يسمحُ لهؤلاء أن يكتبوا مصيري. هذا ما يجعلني أشكُّ في أنه الله.

كتبتَ تقول:

كلماتي، هذه المخلوقات المهدَّدة بالنار.

لولاها، لما كنتُ أحيا.

بعد أن يذهبوا، سأستعيدها

بكلّ بَهائها كأنها سريري الأبيض في ليل البرابرة.

أسهرُ في قصيدتي حتى الفجر، كلَّ ليلة.

قلتَ: أحتاجُ إلى جبَلٍ، إلى محطّة. أحتاجُ إلى بشَرٍ آخرين.

وبعثتَ بالرسالة.

You said
that you write while the bombs
rain down, erase the history of the roofs,
eradicate the faces of the houses.

You said:
I write to you while God
allows them to write my destiny;
this is what makes me doubt He is God.

You wrote to say:
My words, these creatures threatened
with fire. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to live.

After “they” are gone, I will regain them
with all their purity like my white bed
in the barbarians’ dark night.

I keep vigil in my poem until dawn, every night.

Then you said:
I need a mountain, a sanctuary. I need other humans.

And you sent the letter.

Retroactive History: 622-2001

The Ally at the Gate: Muslims, Christians and Jews


An 11th-century Mozarab (i.e. Arabic-speaking Spaniard) Antiphonary folio from Léon Cathedral

Reading recent books on the history of the encounter between Islam and the West, both Christian and post-Christian, Youssef Rakha posits a single civilisation adjusting its constituent elements through the centuries
“My fellow Christians love to read the poems and romances of the Arabs; they study the Arabs’ theologians and philosophers, not to refute them, but to form a correct and elegant Arabic. Where is the layman who now reads the Latin commentaries on the Holy Scriptures, or who studies the Gospels, prophets, or apostles? Alas! All talented young Christians read and study with enthusiasm the Arab books; they gather immense libraries at great expense; they despise the Christian literature as unworthy of attention. They have forgotten their language. For everyone who can write a letter in Latin to a friend, there are a thousand who can express themselves in Arabic with elegance, and write better poems in their language than the Arabs themselves.”
Thus Paul Alvarus of Córdoba, writing in Latin in the mid-ninth century: a Jewish convert, Alvarus was nonetheless a zealot whose approach to creed and identity is evocative of Bin Laden. After the monk Eulogius, Alvarus was the principal chronicler of the Martyrs Movement which, from 851 to 859, involved both clergy and laypeople individually declaring Islam evil and Muhammad a false prophet, thereby incurring capital punishment on themselves. Had such statements not legally required death unless recanted – and the Martyrs delighted in refusing to recant them – the Ummayyids under Abdur Rahman II and Muhammad I, it is often said, would have happily spared the utterers. It is something of a post-9/11 cliché to point to Muslim Iberia as a hodgepodge of identities where Christians and Jews enjoyed almost as much freedom as Muslims: a model for the kind of medieval multiculturalism Stephen O’Shea, author of Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World (St Martin’s Press, 2006), calls convivencia. What is interesting in this quote – one of the most popular on the period – is the light it sheds on the Spanish Arabs’ comparative modernity.
In bewailing the decline of grassroots Visigothic tradition, among other proto-European manifestations of Christian identity, Alvarus ironically says more about the rival culture: among other things, that it is more advanced, more interesting, more appealing to the young regardless of ethnicity. That this culture happens to be Muslim and therefore by definition unholy merely facilitates his tirade. Dogma is apparently a prerequisite for the existence of any institution of thought; limiting or negative as it can be, dogma nonetheless remains simple. Where it fits and how it is brought to bear on social and political change, however, is complicated. As dialogue- rather than clash-of-civilisations historians never tire of pointing out, since the emergence of Islam at the threshold of Europe in the mid-seventh century, there have been just as many wars (and alliances) between Muslims and non-Muslims as there have been between Muslims and Muslims, or non-Muslims and non-Muslims. Conflict was seldom over creed or culture, though creed and culture were often used as pretexts for starting a conflict.
Much like “fundamentalist” Muslims today – to a far greater extent than defending the faith or even, necessarily, revolting against injustice – Alvarus was horrified of difference and change. It was the Arabs’ more sophisticated and decadent ways, not what they believed, that threatened him: magnificent architecture, effective medicine, and advanced philosophy-cum-science, not to mention powerful armies. He decried not the Quran’s denial of the divinity of Christ, for example, but the influence of the Baghdadi musician and dandy Ziryab, who not long after arriving in Al Andalus (much like Western pop icons today) was already dictating taste across cultures, not only in music and dress but, even more frighteningly, in language and literature as well. Once again, this is not so different from the way present-day extremists on the Muslim side of the supposed divide regard Western tastes in art and attire, not to mention the fear, far more widespread in the Muslim world, of Western morality and science. Eulogius was one of the last Martyrs and Alvarus duly wrote him a hagiography, but he did not die for Jesus, justice, or even the glory of Rome – Alvarus died for insularity.
In a seemingly unprecedented departure from so called Orientalist norms, non-academic history books written in English have for a decade now sought not simply to “understand”, reconcile with or tolerate Islam. Instead, they are finally claiming it as part of their own heritage; one shudders to think what it actually took for Westerners to pay enough attention to Islam to rethink it: 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Guantanamo… how many more Palestinians dead? Yet worked through backwards, Islam re-emerges not as a threat to Western civilisation but as a worthy contestant (rival or ally), necessary for the ongoing process of generating it. These historians’ interest in Islam is in many ways diametrically opposed to the interest that “enlightened” Muslims have taken in Europe since the 19th century. Rationalists like Sheikh Mohammad Abduh or Ali Pasha Mubarak were driven by a linear view of progress and impressed by the technological and humane achievements of the West; they saw the Enlightenment as a universal legacy to be adopted and emulated. This involved the humbling admission that the West was now clearly at the forefront of modernity (to some minds, a concession to imperialism), but it also involved the assumption that Muslims and Westerners were made of the same substance, separated not so much by some essential or irrevocable breach as by variable political, economic and social circumstances, capable of being in harmony.
The Arab-Muslim contribution to the earliest pangs of Enlightenment, notably through the transmission back into Europe of ancient Greek learning from Baghdad via Al Andalus, is widely acknowledged anyway. By reassessing the past directly and specifically in light of a seemingly more troubled present, this new genre of retroactive history has only served to emphasise it. Books like The House of Wisdom: How the Arabs Transformed Western Civilisation by Jonathan Lyons (Bloomsbury, 2008), Aladdin’s Lamp: How Greek Science Came to Europe Through the Islamic World by John Freely (Knopf, 2009), or The Great Arab Conquests: How the Spread of Islam Changed the World We Live In by Hugh Kennedy (Da Capo Press, 2007) all detail aspects of how Arabs, Arabised Persians, Berbers and later Turks frequently had the scientific or humane edge over eastern and/or Catholic Christendom. But only David Levering Lewis, author of God’s Crucible: Islam and the Making of Europe, 570-1215 (W W Norton & Co, 2008), clearly argues that, if not for the existence of Muslim Spain, the many disparate proto-European cultural elements then in existence would never have merged into the West as a cultural entity or a seemingly whole civilisation – an astounding admission.
Sea of Faith beautifully portrays many of the major the interactions that took place between Islam and the West in the last 1,500 years starting with the Companion Khalid Ibnul Walid’s triumph over the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius in 636. But its author, in common with almost all the others, falls short of Levering’s lucidity – or the promise God’s Crucible seems to hold. O’Shea clearly has no wish to emphasise conflict or difference, in the end, but Sea of Faith presents the Mediterranean not as the alchemical crucible in which the substance of the modern world was brewing over the centuries, consuming offerings from Muslims, Christians, and Jews, but as a sort of arena pitting two sets of players against each other – which periodically metamorphoses from stadium to battlefront and back again. As Zachary Karabell writes in People of the Book: The Forgotten History of Islam and the West (John Murray, 2007), war in the middle Ages was a far more physical, acceptable, everyday presence – and holy war aka Jihad was regarded as the best kind. That is why almost every armed conflict was touted as holy war, even when it pitted Sunnis against Sunnis or Catholics against Catholics.
But O’Shea does not sufficiently separate these two facts from what he terms “confessional competition” – the them-against-us assumption of some essential difference, however understated, subtly conveyed or cloaked in erudition and high morals – a quality that tends to confine his perspective to the religious dimension of the interchange and thereby limit it largely to conflict: Ideas, practises, even people like Leo Africanus (also known as Hassan Al Wazzan) could move fluidly between faiths; but however much they agreed or indeed coalesced culturally or politically, neither Muslims nor Christians could accept one faith without giving up the other. O’Shea’s outline of the conflict is extremely useful in itself, but it does not significantly undermine the perennial notion (espoused in very different contexts and in very different ways by Sayyid Qutb, Samuel Huntington and, well, Paul Alvarus) that there exists, eternally or fundamentally separated on the opposite shores of some Mediterranean of the mind, a Them and an Us; and that the one must seek to eliminate the other if it is to thrive or prosper.
Likewise Andrew Wheatcroft: his two books – Infidels: A History of the Conflict Between Christendom and Islam (Random House, 2004) and The Enemy at the Gate: Habsburgs, Ottomans, and the Battle for Europe (Basic Books, 2009) – are constructed around the respective themes of enmity and fear. Each demonstrates everything the author would need to establish that all three religions belong to the same universe of thought, however dogmatic or racial a form they take, and that their adherents – whether debating the finer points of their respective theologies, engaging each other in profitable commerce, or roaring a blood-spattered “Infidel” – have on the whole had more in common than not. Yet in both cases – once again, with the best of intentions, no doubt – Wheatcroft sustains the age-old mental construction that places Muslims and Christians on the opposite sides of some impenetrable rampart. Sad but perhaps inevitable that, in such potentially explosive times, the emphasis should be on the mental space where a large-scale, media-oriented, appropriately globalised explosion can still occur, not on the possibility of transcending the baser human drive to be at the other’s throat.
Of all Alvarus’s possible heirs, Karabell is perhaps the most renegade – in the sense that he is the least like that fundamentalist Christian ancestor of the retrograde historians’ – though Karabell too fails to conceive of Islam and the West as a single civilisation adjusting its constituent elements through the centuries. But somehow, in his unique formulation of a Muslim-Western comity, this shortcoming does not seem to matter. Karabell is also the author of Peace Be Upon You: Fourteen Centuries of Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Conflict and Cooperation (Vintage, 2008) as well as the compelling book Parting the Desert: The Creation of the Suez Canal (Knopf, 2003); but it is in People of the Book that he combines universal compassion with the down-to-earth urgency required by the times: “In a world where technology will make it easier for the angry few to do great harm, the perpetuation of a model of conflict is dangerous. Remembering that each of the three traditions carries the seeds of peace will not by itself heal the world… But if these stories” of conflict and alliance, especially of alliance “are integrated into our sense of the past and the present, it will be more difficult to treat religion as destiny.”

Azazeel: Disillusionment

The Quixote Code
Remembering Borges, Youssef Rakha courts sedition
He did not want to compose another Quixote – which is easy – but the Quixote itself. Needless to say, he never contemplated a mechanical transcription of the original… – Jorge Luis Borges, Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote
As a literary exercise – or novel – to imagine a diary composed 1,500 years ago: what could be more challenging to a contemporary writer? Few would think to accomplish the task as literally as Pierre Menard, the author imagined by Jorge Luis Borges in his first short story, who rewrites Cervantes’ Don Quixote, word for word, without ever reading it. An author about to produce a 1,500-year-old fictional diary would certainly affirm the kind of human connection that makes characters in books interesting regardless of when the books were written and when the characters lived, but they might also be curious as to how different the world was so long ago, and the ways in which its difference necessarily affected the people they deal with. In the fifth century, for example, the earth was still flat, there was no such thing as penicillin, demons (whether Christian or pagan) had far more physical presence, and slavery was the norm.
But for Youssef Zeidan, author of the year’s most talked-about Arabic novel, Azazeel (or Beezlebub: winner of the 2009 Arabic Booker, upsetter of the Coptic Orthodox Church and, in Arabic-translation-of-Syriac-diary format, resuscitator of the fifth-century Levant), none of these things or the myriad others that separate us from medieval times have any part to play in the action or in thought processes of the characters. Zeidan treats the time gap simply as a technical obstacle, which he overcomes through the device of impersonating the present-day translator, into modern Arabic, of a fictional manuscript. This works for a while – even though at many points, Zeidan’s modern world view seems to burst out of the veneer of the manuscript – but eventually you realise that there is little if any engagement with the otherness or mystery of the past. The author makes no attempt to demonstrate the difference in people’s experience of time, in their sense of authority, in their capacity for spiritual transcendence or thier greater tolerance for bloodshed, sectarian bias, or material hardship. It is almost as if Zeidan is writing generic fiction, the early Christian setting no more than one among many possible palettes to paint the same, atemporal picture.
Still, Azazeel makes a compelling read, which is more than can be said for most Arabic novels published today; then again, generic fiction is by definition compelling. What sets Azazeel apart, in addition to the convincing impression Zeidan gives of an edited manuscript in translation, is the historical accuracy of the major events he covers and the accessible way in which he charts, in outline, the Christological debate between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople, the latter condemned at the Council of Ephesus in AD 451. Not far into the book, however, Zeidan’s engagement with the universe he depicts begins to feel skin deep. Hipa, the protagonist, is less and less convincing – especially as regards his interactions with the Beezlebub of the title: an all-too-innocuous devil whose medieval identity, presumably different from that of the better known Satan or his Muslim cousin, Iblis, does not come through.
Hipa is a Coptic monk doctor who, on leaving Alexandria as it were in a huff, decides to take this name out of guilt over failing to stop (or indeed object to) the massacre by his fellow Christians of the Pagan philosopher Hipatia of Alexandria (AD 355-416), whom he admires – an event for which Zeidan blames Cyril I and which Hipa helplessly witnesses before he leaves the Alexandrine Church of Saint Mark monastery, travelling first to Jerusalem, where he meets an even less lifelike apparition of Cyril I’s archenemy, Nestorius and, on the advice of the latter, moves onto the minor monastery in which he composes this diary in his third language – after Coptic and Greek – north west of Aleppo on the way to Antioch. When you wind down and reflect after turning the last page, you feel Hipa might as well have been a present-day Muslim medical student at the Qasr El-Eini university hospital who, repelled by secular corruption and/or fundamentalist excess, decides (against the dictates of Islam) to live the life of a recluse treating men of religion at an out-of-the-way mosque clinic somewhere in northern Syria; so indistinct are the ancient dimensions of Hipa’s constitution, both material and mental – and so disinterested Zeidan in them.
It is in this context that you are tempted to ask why Zeidan, an Islamic studies scholar and a Muslim, apparently a believer, should choose to express his views on religious tolerance in the framework of the pre-Islamic past. The motivation behind Azazeel seems to have little to do with the world in which this precursor of Satan’s existed; and while the book testifies to immersion in texts and ideas of the period, it does not demonstrate a deep interest in the daily life of its people on the part of Zeidan (at least not to this reader). The motif of Christian brutality towards non-Christians – by far the most recurrent – can be read as a general statement on sectarianism (applicable, even, to Muslims); but why side so wholeheartedly with the one man the entire Eastern Orthodox world considers a heretic? Cyril I (a saint to Zeidan’s former friends at the Coptic Church of Mar Murqus, where Hipa supposedly lived so many centuries ago) may well have been capable of violence and dogmatism, but other than his being the underdog in the relentless march of history, there is no reason to believe that Nestorius, whether or not one agrees with his views, did not have it in him to commit the same crimes. The one line of thought that could justify Zeidan’s bias is the fact that the Muslim account of Jesus’ nature is significantly closer to the Nestorian.
Could it be that Zeidan is making a very roundabout statement about Islam’s theological difference with the Coptic Orthodox Church? Surely, then, in the Egyptian context, he is neither siding with the underdog nor – as the Booker jurors claimed he was – promoting tolerance. Perhaps the ultimate book of this learned and readable book is no greater than mud raking, after all.



Syriac book, late fifth century

Azazeel, Beezlebub, Youssef Zeidan, Cairo: Dar Al Shurouk, April 2009 (seventh edition)

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 because it is administered by the Booker Foundation). While bitterly complaining of lack of alcohol, which is illegal in Kuwait, Shimon told me the story of his visit to Wadi An Natroun, the site of some of the world’s oldest monasteries in Egypt, and how he argued with the monks there for still holding a grudge against a man who died over 1500 years ago. I asked him who he meant.

Of course I knew that, like the late poet Sargon Boulus, Shimon was born Syriac Christian; what I did not know was that, while the Coptic Christians of Egypt (along with all other Eastern Orthodox denominations) reject the teachings of Nestorius (AD 386-451) – the Archbishop of Constantinople, about whom the contemporary Archbishop of Alexandria, Cyril I wrote the Twelve Anathemas – Assyrians belonging to the Oriental Orthodox rite of Syria, Iraq and Turkey are Nestorian. It did not seem to matter what the ecumenical dispute was about – not that Shimon, a secular who has spent practically all of his adult life outside the Middle East, would have been able to explain it to me had I asked. It just struck me how he was able to give something so weird and arcane the necessary relevance, talking about a recent experience.

Did the Virgin give birth to God, a human being, both, or something in between? All Nestorius had done when he was declared a heretic at the Council of Ephesus in AD 451 – his would-be supporters, notably the Archbishop of Antioch, John I, were tricked into arriving too late – was reject the term Theotokos (Mother of God) in favour of Christotokos (Mother of Christ). The question sounds absurdly disproportionate to the amount of bloodshed it caused, especially considering that the Virgin’s conception was, anyway, immaculate. But in his novel Azazeel, or Beezlebub – just like Shimon in Kuwait – the head of the Alexandria Library Manuscripts Department, an Islamic studies scholar, Youssef Zeidan manages to communicate a sense of how relevant such issues can still be, and how horrific their consequences.

While reading Azazeel, I spoke to a devoutly Coptic work-mate about Nestorius. “But of course he’s a heretic,” my work-mate said, as if he had had coffee with the Archbishop only yesterday. “He denies that Marium is the Mother of God!” In a slightly lower voice, my work-mate continued, “You know it was a follower of Nestorius who taught Muhammad.” Muhammad? “Yes, your Muhammad. And that’s why Muslims share in the heresy that Jesus was not divine,” he hissed; it occurred to me that he must be thinking, “So the greater heresy, the ecumenical disaster that is Islam is all Nestorius’s fault.”

It is in the context of Zeidan being Muslim that Nestorianism should be nuanced. As he presents it, the claim was 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 to be a human being like any other. Zeidan uses Nestorius to suggest, for example, that in Egypt the Mother and Child was but an extension of the ancient tradition of Isis and Horus – a lesser break with paganism than Nestorius’s (or indeed Islam’s). Azazeel is unequivocally on the side of “the heretics” – how much does this reflect a bias for Muslim theology? Much, I think. With ruefully sectarian irony, while thinking it, I have been listening to Sheikh Mustafa Ismail’s beautiful recitation of a verse in the fourth chapter of the Quran, An Nisa (The Women) which, amazingly, says practically as much: “the Messiah, Isa son of Marium is only a messenger of Allah and His Word which He communicated to Marium and a spirit from Him…” So much for Islam.

Azazeel purports to be the Arabic translation, completed in April 2004 (some four years before the book was published) of seven rolls of parchment discovered ten years earlier in the vicinity of Aleppo, near the Turkish border – “on the ancient road linking Aleppo with Antioch,” the fictional Translator tells us. Written originally in late Aramaic (Syriac), the seven rolls making up the book’s seven chapters recount, in the first person, the life of a Coptic-speaking monk doctor from Upper Egypt named, even more confusingly, after the pagan woman philosopher Hipatia of Alexandria (AD 355-416), Hipa.

Hipa adopted this name in honour of the woman whom he met on 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 Saint Mark, Hipa is repelled by the dogmatism and violence of Cyril I, but he does not 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 travels, eventually reaching Jerusalem, where he settles down as a monk-physician, meets Nestorius, and on his advice moves not to Antioch, where Nestorius is a bishop at the time, but to the monastery north of Aleppo where – encouraged by Beezlebub, as the devil is called throughout, without explanation – he records his life story in the present text.

Zeidan carries out the task of mimicking manuscript editing brilliantly, and his message – that Beezlebub’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 are doing good – comes through beautifully. And though extremely classical in language and style, the novel makes for an engaging and intelligent read. You are inclined to overlook the more obviously modern interpolations: 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, for example; or when Hipa, whose rationality chimes with Nestorius’s, begins to sound like an agent of the Enlightenment. But it is with the same sectarian irony, perhaps, that the book should be appreciated as a comment on contemporary political Islam and sectarian strife both within the Umma and between Muslims and Christians. In a beautifully roundabout way what Zeidan seems to be telling the West is, “Dogmatism and violence existed, you know, long before Islam came into being.”

Copyright: Bidoun Magazine