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Friday, March 27, 2009

Youssef Ziedan's controversial novel Azazeel is the worthy winner of a literary award that is widening access to Arabic fiction around the world

I was in Abu Dhabi last week to see the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, won by Youssef Ziedan of Egypt for his novel Azazeel. The book, whose English title is given as Beelzebub, has disturbing echoes for today with its tale of religious fanaticism and mob violence -­ in this case among early Christians in Roman Egypt. Ziedan, a genial scholar aged 50, told me it sparked an outcry among some of Egypt's 10 million Coptic Christians, who wanted it banned. Yet beyond dispute is that the IPAF, dubbed the "Arabic Booker", has made its mark as an influential literary award in only its second year.

The fictional monk stumbles on another historical conflict, between the Coptic Bishop Cyril of Alexandria, and Nestorius, the Syrian-born patriarch of Constantinople whom Cyril deposed as a heretic in a schism of AD 431. The novel by Muslim-born Ziedan was controversial partly for portraying Saint Cyril as a fanatic who kills Jews and pagans, and partly for wading into theological disputes over whether the Virgin Mary was the mother of God. Ziedan traces this notion of heresy to underlying differences between Greco-Egyptian and desert Arab cultures and their view of divinities. But in an urgent parallel with the extremists of today, he sees the novel as "not against Christianity but against violence, especially violence in the name of the sacred". That such humane, questioning -­ if provocative - voices should be more widely heard is an auspicious beginning for the prize.


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