This is a repost of my “Maspero massacre” piece on the occasion of yesterday’s events, with a series of seven door pictures made with my iPhone 5 and a video with footage of the September 2011 events and the Coptic Church version of the Lamentations of Jeremiah
“We never used to have sectarian tension”
Posted on October 20, 2011
That being, of course, a lie. And lies, however well meaning, just may be the crux of the problem.
Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism is part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship? As I wondered whether the Maspero protest of 9 Oct might be the “third revolution” promised but not forthcoming since March, I tweeted, “They are shooting at the Copts.” I remember this because coworkers who immediately saw the tweet – they presumably do not follow the same people – berated me lightheartedly for spreading unconfirmed (mis)information. What their notebooks and iPhones as well as security personnel in the building were telling them was that it was a mob of Copts who were wreaking chaos and, inexplicably armed, firing at the Central Security and Military Police personnel who were attempting to control them. Lying through their teeth, pro-Supreme Council of the Armed Forces news personnel from this building and elsewhere reported Armed Forces casualties.
As a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I feel this is an occasion to say how I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its being – understandably, since they were the minority – even more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!” Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful who they are speaking to, saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic or pragmatic arguments to say that, in effect, the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.
With the rise of Islamism since the Nineties this has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma may suggest that, simply by virtue of who they are, Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons). But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” – a concept which, though an essential part of its rhetoric, the regime established by coup d’etat in July 1952 has systematically rendered meaningless by excluding and discriminating against Copts, encouraging both Coptic deference and Muslim complacency – fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution.
Of homogeneity and bakshish
Posted on October 15, 2011
Long before a “revolution” could have been anticipated, people – especially urban Arabs – noticed something about Cairo. In a roundabout way, the title of a book of poems by the Lebanese globe-trotter Suzanne Alaywan, All Roads Lead to Salah Salem (a reference to one major road linking northern and southern ends of the megalopolis) accurately expresses that sentiment: Of all the world’s cities, Cairo seems to have the capacity to absorb people into its folds, to make them – in appearance and attitude if not in thinking or values – like other people already established inside it; it has the capacity, brutishly but somehow peaceably, to iron out difference.
The poet was not at cross purpose with the fact. I tend to think she, like others within and without, saw it as inevitable but positive, a possible answer to otherwise intractable inter-issue dilemmas which liberalism, with its emphasis on individual rights, could only solve with the help of economic and institutional hardware not available to the Arab or the third world. The more or less forced homogeneity of course has its roots in a culture of compromise and hypocrisy, in people’s willingness to lie about how they feel in order to benefit from other people, whose difference – in looks, tongue, dress code, income level – offers further justification for practically robbing them.
Yet, as the aftermath of events has demonstrated, there is more to that proverbial Rome of the mind than simple untruth. Decades of corruption were also decades of voluntary repression, in which excessive panhandling just might have been a sublimation of mugging, and pay-for-your-difference an ameliorated form of the marauding mob. The difference-eliminating software is after all as evident in Arab nationalism as it is in political Islam, and perhaps even Mubarak’s client government sought to accommodate the interests of global liberalism only insofar as the world order, up to and including Saudi Arabia (which as far as I am concerned is a greater threat to Egypt than Israel) could provide that government with the required alms.
That is over now, despite the military and its supporters, backed by said world order, doing all they can – hitting below as well as above the belt, even idiotically risking sectarian war in the process – to reinstate the beggar-mentality status quo. Egyptians should be thankful for the “revolution” not because it proved successful or achieved its goal, but because it will make elimination of difference by begging increasingly impossible. People can no longer pretend to be safe from their compatriots, the myth of “national unity” is no longer viable, not all those who are different can pay.
Whether they like it or not, the Other will assert themselves at last, bringing forth even through catastrophe all the many beautiful Egypts that have been squeaking for dear life.
Side effects of Revolution
Posted on October 6, 2011
I have developed an addiction since February:
Laptop in lap, voluntarily bedridden, I watch old episodes of al Ittijah al Mu’akiss (or, as translated by the relevant talk show’s self-possessed impresario, my fellow Hull University alumnus Faisal Al Qassim: Opposite Direction).
Dozens of them from before the Arab Spring are freely available on YouTube – the Nakba, Hezbollah, torture, hijab, George W, Iraq, Iran, Sudan – many as relevant to Tahrir Square as anything. Sidling into bed of an evening, high on Revolution, I would select a topic that suited my mood, listen with mounting suspense to Faisal’s retro rhetorical intro, and lick my lips over the promised discursive violence, not to say deranged bawling. That, at least, is how it started.
All very civilised and edifying. Each head-butting match has a compelling topic, a thought-out script and, seemingly, the right pair of contestants ready to express two sides of an issue. Ah, objectivity! Yet as with so much else on Al Jazeera, something somehow remains askew.
I do not mean the channel’s populist bias, the systematic and directionless manner in which it incites viewers (often to embrace political Islam), nor the unspeakable hypocrisy it sustains by doing so while it remains an organ of the Qatar government.
I do not mean Faisal’s brand of impartiality, which is to argue each case with vehemence irrespective of whether he might actually be spreading misinformation, never taking into account the implications of a given argument for the larger picture. It is okay, for example, to present Saddam Hussein as the wronged hero of Arab glory and call him the Martyr, so long as you are pointing up dependency, corruption and sectarianism in the current Iraqi regime; you only get to describe Saddam as he was if you happen to be bestowing blessings upon Iraq’s US Army-controlled experiment with democracy…
Yet what I mean is something, slightly, else: the obscene polarisation, the rhetorical opportunism, the insolent lies; the ultimate vapidity of a good 40 out of each 45 minutes, which forms the substance of my addiction. If al Ittijah al Mu’akiss is what it means to be politically engaged, I must say that political engagement is not a good thing. Just below the surface, it is very uncivilised and profoundly delusional. And it is a condition of which I have not been cured since I went out to chant slogans and endure tear gas.
It wrings my heart to think that, in six months, Tahrir Square has turned into something not all that different from al Ittijah al Mu’akiss.
(1) A stock portrait of a contemporary woman in niqab is made up of the nude picture of Alia Mahdi, which was called a revolutionary gesture by the subject in November, 2011
(2) A Google Earth image of Tahrir Square and surrounds is made up of a graffito of “the finger”, one of the most popular statements of defiance since January, 2011
(3) A detail of an archival photo of a funerary mural in Thebes is made up of an iconic picture of a protester killed in Tahrir in January, 2011
(4) One of the portraits of Pope Shenouda III used by mourners following his death in March, 2012 is made up of images of casualties of the October 9, 2011 Maspero massacre of Coptic demonstrators (which the Pope is believed to have condoned)
(5) The flag of Egypt, with the eagle replaced by the famous blue bra exposed during the brutal beating by SCAF of one female demonstrator in Tahrir in November, 2011, is made up of images of Salafi and Muslim Brotherhood figures and symbols (along with “honourable citizens“, the “Islamic movement”, then in alliance with SCAF, condoned the suppression of demonstrators)
(6) A Muslim young man, reportedly gay, from a Cairo shanty town who crucified himself on a lamppost in Tahrir in April, 2011 as a gesture of protest is made up of anti-SCAF graffiti
(7) An American passport is made up of images of the hardline Islamist and vociferously anti-American former presidential candidate Hazim Salah Abu Ismail, who was legally disqualified from entering the race due to his mother holding US citizenship
cf/x photo mosaic as well as Adobe Photoshop CS5 were used to make these pictures
(Use the image location link ending with the file name to access the high-resolution version. Feel free to use the images but please acknowledge my copyright)
Not quite a day later, a secular Muslim employee at one of Egypt’s largest media institutions begins to unpack the events of 9 October at his office, not far from the site of blood in downtown Cairo
Yesterday evening, while I sat at this desk dreaming up cultural content for the pages I am in charge of, Twitter began turning up news of protesters being fired at and pelted with stones – but not run over by combat armored vehicles, not beaten repeatedly after they were dead, nor thrown into the Nile as bloodied corpses. Not yet. The location was outside the Radio and Television Union Building, along a stretch of the Nile known as Maspero.
This fact (of protesters being fired upon) along with some of the slogans suggested that the march under attack was Coptic. I in fact knew that most of those tweeting from the location of the shootings were Muslim, but every Coptic protest since 11 February had included Muslims. Ironically, no Arabic term has been coined that might translate CNN’s far more civil “pro-Coptic,” which is also the more accurate by far.
Realizing that this was the first major event in quite some time, I must confess to excitement. Perhaps a terminally deflated revolution was picking up speed after all? I must also confess to the hope that the demonstration was not, or at least not solely, pro-Coptic.
I had distanced myself from Maspero – the Tahrir Square of “the Copts” – because demonstrating for specifically sectarian rights seemed beside the point. Such rights would presumably be granted anyway, once freedom was institutionally enshrined. This was motivated less by sectarian affiliation than anti-sectarianism. However, I was to discover soon enough that there was plenty of room for confusing the two.
I should explain at this point that as a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its allegedly being more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!”
Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful about who they are speaking to—saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic, or pragmatic arguments to say that—in effect—the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.
Since the rise of Islamism in the 1990s, in place of denial, anti-Coptic sectarianism has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma might suggest that by virtue of who they are, Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way, the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian but Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons).
But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution. And national unity is a concept which, though an essential part of the regime and accompanying rhetoric established by coup d’etat in July 1952, has systematically been rendered meaningless by excluding Copts from positions of power and employing the majority’s bias to discriminate against them in public affairs, encouraging both Coptic deference (often through Church-dictated conservatism) and Muslim complacency.
Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism can only be seen as part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship?
Still, here as with protests involving a specific portion of the population—and some trade-specific strikes had seemed ultimately distracting –I felt it was rather more important to come up with a political formulation of an alternative to military dictatorship under pressure from political Islam. The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has, after all, been ruling the country dictatorially since Mubarak stepped down on 11 February, while various factors conspire to make Islamism—in many ways the political current least relevant to the protests that got rid of Mubarak—the most visible and powerful on the political landscape.
A week later, I could remember every minute of that hour or so at the office. Already, while I wondered whether this might be the “third revolution” promised but not forthcoming since April, pandemonium was striking downstairs, with word of the demonstrators attempting to storm the building in anger over the false news that had come out of it since the march set off. Already, TV anchors working out of the Union, absurd as that seems, were calling on the Egyptian people to defend their national army against protesters.
I tweeted, “They are shooting Copts.”
I remember this because coworkers who immediately saw the tweet berated me lightheartedly for spreading unconfirmed (mis)information. What their notebooks and iPhones, as well as security personnel in the building, were telling them was that it was a mob of Copts who were wreaking chaos and, inexplicably armed, firing at the Central Security and Military Police personnel who were attempting to control them.
No one was in fact armed in any way. To cries of silmiyyah, Obama’s pet word for the Arab Spring, meaning “peaceful”, the Muslim mob had responded, violently: Islamiyyah. But such is the insidious nature of Egyptian sectarianism and the fear of chaos instilled in the people by the former regime, then the military, that no one stopped to ask questions.
Lying through their teeth, pro-SCAF news personnel from this building and elsewhere reported seven, then nineteen Armed Forces casualties. It would later be revealed that only one soldier actually died, as opposed to nearly thirty confirmed deaths among the protesters, many of them with grotesquely battered skulls).
But what was really happening as I sat here watching my Twitter timeline? A pro-Coptic march had set out to Maspero from the nearby neighborhood of Shubra, then?
Then the march was subjected to stone and Molotov cocktail attacks from mobs of Muslims, where practically all-Muslim Central Security and, especially, Military Police troops—aided not only by misinformed “honorable citizens” (as the military has taken to putting it) but apparently also by baltagiyya or the hired thugs deployed by the authorities against protesters since January—proceeded to massacre “the Copts” by every means available, not excluding live ammunition and at least one armored vehicle purposefully crushing heads. The carnage, widely recorded in downtown hospitals, was horrendous.
And why were Copts protesting in such numbers? Because, during a TV appearance, the governor of Aswan (a Muslim and a retired military general, by default) commended the burning of a church under his jurisdiction on the pretext that it was not officially registered as a place of worship (hundreds of functional churches across Egypt are not registered because of official—Muslim—reluctance to give Christians the right to practice their faith).
A fact-finding committee had recommended the immediate dismissal of said governor on Tuesday 6 October, indicating in its report that failure to act would result in large-scale unrest. It is now 21 October and the governor retains his post.
So … It has been nearly three weeks since Sunday 9 October and I am astonished. Not so much by the war crimes of the army or the actions of the mob that so readily “came to its aid”; I am astonished, rather, by the responses of educated Muslims, including allegedly secular intellectuals.
Condemnation of the massacre has not been nearly as vociferous or as unanimous as you would expect. With very few exceptions (notably the human rights activist Hossam Bahgat), the discourse has centered not on the Council’s sectarianism as an unchanged wing of the Mubarak (and by extension the July 1952) regime, but on the Council itself –the the regime—as a conventional object of dissent in conveniently dire straits. Evidenced by the indubitable fact that the instigators of protests on 25 January were neither traditional dissidents (left-wing or Islamist) nor politically organized except on the Internet, such dissent (exemplified most clearly by the Muslim Brothers) seems in retrospect to be not only opportunistic and rhetorical but also futile by default.
Once again the discourse of the mainstream Left regarding human rights abuses is practically identical with the discourse of the powers that be; once again, the proposed transcendence of religious affiliation rings hollow in the absence of a viable concept of citizenship for which enough people are prepared to die. Even the Copts, it strikes me as if for the first time, are only prepared to die for Jesus. And so does the patriotic identification with nationalist, Marxist and pan-Arab constructions that have long since proven untenable. Why if not for the resounding failure of the postcolonial nation state would a creed that had remained more or less depoliticized for centuries re-emerge as the only, quasi-fascist framework for opposition, ideology and “struggle”?
In the wake of 11 February, “Islamic thinkers” along with the Muslim Brothers and other agents of political Islam had quickly allied themselves with the Council. While the latter remained silent, Muslim intellectuals railed against “sedition” and dictatorship, but people spoke as if sectarian hatred had nothing to do with it. In subsequent televised discussions, out of three popular left-wing commentators—Ibrahim Eissa, Alaa El Aswany and Bilal Fadl—only the last paid any attention at all to the sectarian dimension of events.
Fadl is evidently a true believer, just not of the nut-case persuasion; yet, in a Muslim Brothers-style move that has quickly become the standard “grassroots” reaction to “sympathy with the Nazarenes,” the point he made clearly about what happened being hurtful to Muslim conscience was appropriated and subverted into a question about his own religious correctness, seamlessly substituting the relevant discursive space for another, infinitely more trite one: from “what was done to Coptic protesters because they are not Muslim” to “is Bilal Fadl a true Muslim based on what he said.” Thus paving the way, however subtly, for a justification of sectarian violence.
Aswany, for his part, took it upon himself to preempt possible attempts—led by the Coptic-American activist Magdi Khalil, admittedly, a rabidly sectarian partisan—to bring the relevant parties from the Council to international justice, while Eissa made his usual neither-here-nor-there critique of the performance of “the rulers.’”
Two weeks on, past months of thinking about the Arab world, particularly the tribulations of Iraq since the 1990s, it strikes me more clearly than ever before that, while the politics and economics of the world’s powerful (and at least originally Christian) loci are ultimately inhumane, they are heterogeneous enough to provide institutional frameworks for something approximating justice. Such frameworks have simply never existed in the Arab-Muslim world.
This has nothing to do with the substance of each creed. It just must be admitted that, where the predominant (post-Christian) civilization is racist, murderous and hypocritical, so too are the quasi-civilizations that purport to do battle with it, including the post-Ottoman Arab state. Six or seven decades on, the anti-imperialist struggle has resolved itself into the nauseating mirror image of imperialism, prompting the people in some cases to call on the former imperial powers themselves for help against criminal “leaders.”
The Maspero Massacre, as it has come to be called by the more rational among us—and, especially, the heinous aftermath of the Maspero Massacre, which has yet to be described—demonstrates that even revolutionary Egypt’s sense of self lacks not only an effective concept of citizenship but also any collective capacity for non-sectarian conscience.
Holier than thou wherefore, O Anti-Imperialist Hero?
Judging by what happened and what was said about it, when people speak of “loving Egypt” they mean something that is only Muslim or at least more Muslim than either Christian or secular. In much the same way as the British Empire ruled over subjects it deemed not fully human, Egyptian patriotism involves an individual and national self-definition that places non-Muslims in subjugation with impunity; and once again reflecting colonialism, the most disturbing part is how people are capable of perpetuating such thinking without even realizing, let alone admitting they are doing anything wrong.
Many were offended by a subsequent tweet of mine: “Ashamed of being a Muslim.” I even lost some Facebook friends following a status in which I replaced “Islam” with ‘almaniyyah (secularism) in the well known slogan, “Islam is the answer.” Others, I am sure, have labeled me an apostate or a traitor or an agent of the Zionist-American Conspiracy. All of which, in a manner of speaking, of course, I am. I would have been eager to latch onto something I could be proud of whatever it was called. But there is no longer much room, in the human rights context, for differentiating between “misguided Muslims” and “Islam”. And there is no longer a halfwit crusader from Texas to fuel the false sense of victimhood that underlies all political Islam.
The fact to note is that Saudi Arabia remains America’s closest ally in the region after Israel, and that whatever else Magdi Khalil will do to “soil Egypt’s reputation” (to use the retarded “nationalist” expression), Washington approves of SCAF; even after our homegrown crusaders were massacred en masse, in much the same way as it maintained a client government headed by Mubarak, Washington blesses the military dictatorship to which his regime gave way.
Looking, behaving and speaking in exactly the same way – to the point, indeed, of using Quranic expressions among themselves in daily life—Egyptian Christians are just as dispensable to present-day Rome as their Muslim counterparts. Perhaps it makes sense to vehemently condemn the international community after all, but the nationalists and Islamists who do so unthinkingly forget that it was in the defense of Muslims against Christians in Bosnia and Herzegovina that the international community rose up.
If the Arab Spring is not the occasion for nationalists and Islamists to practice self-questioning regarding their own racism, murderousness and hypocrisy – if it is not the occasion to unequivocally denounce not only Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein but also Omar Bashir and supporters of the Assad regime, not to mention the cold-blooded murder of their own compatriots on the streets, perhaps the Zionist-American Conspiracy is the answer, after all.
Press Street, steps away from Maspero in downtown Cairo
I should explain at this point that as a Muslim-born Cairo-dweller, I grew up in an atmosphere of sectarianism partly justified by its being – understandably, since they are the minority – even more intense among Christians. It was normal to be told by a quasi-religious acquaintance about a third party, for example, “True, he’s Christian – but he’s actually a good man!”
Unlike the average Copt, who will just be careful who they are speaking to, saying little if anything on the topic to an interlocutor they deem unsympathetic, an educated urban Muslim will reflexively, categorically deny the existence of a sectarian problem in Egypt, citing religious, patriotic or pragmatic arguments to say that, in effect, the position of the Copts in Egyptian society could not possibly be better than it already is.
Since the rise of Islamism in the Nineties, in place of denial, anti-Coptic sectarianism has taken on variously sinister motifs: identifying salib (Arabic for “cross”) with salibi (Crusader), for example, an adherent of fanatical dogma might suggest that – simply by virtue of who they are – Egyptian Christians are in fact the enemy. In this way the historically pro-Muslim Conquest Copts – and Copt simply means “Egyptian”, as opposed to the equally Christian but Greek rulers of the land – are turned into allies of “the Jews and the Americans” (as in those responsible for the existence of Israel and their Roman-like, Muslim-hating patrons).
But even among “moderate” Muslims, arguments for “national unity” fail to take into account centuries of inequality including occasional persecution. And national unity is a concept which, though an essential part of its rhetoric, the regime established by coup d’etat in July 1952 has systematically rendered meaningless by excluding Copts from positions of power and employing the majority’s bias to discriminate against them in public affairs, encouraging both Coptic deference (often through Church-dictated conservatism) and Muslim complacency.
Had a truly secular state ever emerged in Egypt, perhaps it would have made sense to blame Copts for their sectarianism. As it is, surely Coptic sectarianism can only be seen as part of the struggle for an effective concept of citizenship?
Still, here as with protests involving a specific portion of the population – and some trade-specific strikes had seemed ultimately distracting – I felt it was rather more important to come up with a political formulation of an alternative to military dictatorship under pressure from political Islam: the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces or SCAF has, after all, been ruling the country more or less dictatorially since Mubarak stepped down on 11 Feb, and various factors conspire to make Islamism – in many ways the political current least relevant to the protests that got rid of Mubarak – the most visible and powerful on the political landscape…
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