Youssef Ziedan, Azazeel (translation, Atlantic 2012)

Where should I begin my narrative? The beginnings are intertwined, teeming in my head. Perhaps, as my old teacher Syriana used to say, beginnings are merely delusions we believe in, for the beginning and the ending exist only along a straight line, and there are no straight lines except in our imagination or on the scraps of paper where we trace our delusions. In life and in all creation, however, everything is circular, returning to where it began, interwoven with whatever is connected. There is in reality no beginning and no ending, only an unbroken succession. In the universe the connections never break, the weft never unravels, and the branching never ceases, nor the filling and the emptying.

I know exactly what he means. I’ve spent a couple of days now staring at my computer screen, or mulling over how to write about this book, and I still don’t know. The theme of writing is, indeed, part of the book, but it’s a book that has many themes, and which one stands out at any moment is likely to be more about the reader than the book itself.

Like most stories, this one is told out of order. Let’s start with the basic plotline: a 5th century Egyptian monk/physician who refers to himself as Hypa (we never learn his given name; he renames himself after Hypatia of Alexandria) leaves his Coptic monastery/school and travels to Alexandria to study medicine, in the hopes of returning to his homeland. He runs into some trouble in Alexandria, but eventually settles in, then runs into more catastrophic trouble, at which point he heads eastward in despair. He spends a few years wandering the Holy Land in the footsteps of Christ, then makes his way to a monastery in Jerusalem, where he meets up with the priest Nestorius. At his urging, he heads towards a monastery between Aleppo and Antioch, where things go fine until they don’t. After a fevered illness, he writes up the story of his travels, buries the manuscript in a chest, and heads off for who knows where. The manuscript, which is the novel itself, is discovered in a 1994 archaeological dig, though occasional margin notes indicate someone writing in an Arabic script of the 10th century had found the manuscript, and reburied it with the notation: “I will rebury this treasure, because it is not yet time for it to appear.”

So this gives us several levels of storytelling: we have the monk Hypa writing his autobiography; we have a 10th century commentator; we have a fictional contemporary translator presenting the work; and we have the reader and the book in reality (or what passes for it these days). The novel opens with a “Translator’s Introduction”; this is the fictional translator, not the actual translator (the book was originally written in Arabic), whose translator note appears at the end.

I adopted a time-consuming but necessary reading process for most of the book: I’d read 20 or 30 pages, then spend an hour or two at my computer, looking up references for the people, places, and events referenced. I’ve had some introduction to all of this through a variety of moocs, but I wanted to be sure I understood what I was reading. Several of the characters and events are historical, some (including Hypa himself) are fictional.

I also wanted to figure out the timeline, since the story starts in Jerusalem and refers back to some horror in Alexandria for the first half, then proceeds more or less chronologically, referring forward to a character named Martha who will have some major impact later. I still don’t feel confident about the timeline. Hypa seems to be 20 years old in Alexandria, 30 in Jerusalem, and 40 at the end, but don’t quote me on that. And then there’s all the fifth-century ecclesiastical and political history. Oh, and philosophy: knowledge of Plotinus (and the fine points of Catholic Christology) helpful.

See why it took a while to read? But oh, I enjoyed it. It’s a book that’s going to require several readings over time to really nail down.

Let’s go back to a basic question: who or what is Azazeel? Those who paid attention in Sunday School might recognize it as a word for the devil, but it’s a lot more complicated than that, and there’s little agreement. The Bible mentions Azazel (one e) in Leviticus as part of an annual cleansing of sin from the Hebrews wandering around the Sinai after escaping Egypt:

6 And Aaron shall offer the bull as a sin offering for himself, and shall make atonement for himself and for his house. 7 Then he shall take the two goats, and set them before the Lord at the door of the tent of meeting; 8 and Aaron shall cast lots upon the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Aza′zel. 9 And Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin offering; 10 but the goat on which the lot fell for Aza′zel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Aza′zel.

Leviticus 16:6-10 RSV

The King James Version translates the word to scapegoat (the goat that escapes with the sins of the people). So it isn’t the goat itself that’s evil, but the sins of humanity placed on it. Other material shows the goat was led to a cliff, where it was hurled to its death, and it was the cliff that was called Azazel.

In the non-canonical (to most religions) Book of Enoch, Azazel comes up again, this time more clearly as a person, angel, or demon who teaches people to make weapons, and jewelry: “And there arose much godlessness… and they were led astray and became corrupt in all their ways.” Yep, you throw weapons and money into the mix, that’s gonna happen. Devil knows how to corrupt.

I advise a grain of salt here since I have no idea of the reliability of this source, but I’m very taken with one particular interpretation, as it relates extraordinarily well to Hypa:

Each goat represents one type of person. The goat selected for YHWH represents the obedient servant who is committed to God; this one sacrifices his life to serve before YHWH. The other goat represents the haughty and proud who is free to live his life his own way, separate from YHWH and sent out into the wilderness.
While it would seem that the goat released into the wilderness has the better deal, this is not true, the goat that is sacrificed to YHWH is completely dedicated to YHWH while the other is sent out into the wilderness, probably to die from starvation. The Jewish tradition actually says that the goat was taken to a high place, a cliff, and thrown over it.

Jeff A. Benner, Ancient Hebrew Research Center

This is Hypa’s primary dilemma, the choice between the monastic life and the joys of the world, which range from sex to philosophy to music. This conflict is made more real by his conversations with an imaginary voice in his head who he comes to call Azazeel, a voice that can only be from a part of Hypa himself; a repressed subconscious, if you will. It is this voice that expresses doubts and alternate interpretations, and eventually tells Hypa to write his story. But it is his own voice that raises questions like, Was Jesus really crucified? And, did Mary truly bear this child? Throughout there are references that could be interpreted as biblical allusions: the walk across the Sinai out of Egypt, the three temptations over his life, and, of course, this conversation with the devil.

All of this plays out in a time when not only was the Church of Alexandria on the warpath against pagans (several slaughters in the book are historical events), but divided in itself over the fine points of the nature of Christ: homoousios or homoiousios. Priests and bishops were excommunicated as heretics, even murdered, over that one letter, this fine point over whether Jesus was begotten or created, as the lyrics of “O Come All Ye Faithful” put it. Nestorius, Hypa’s eventual friend and confidant, rejects the doctrine of Theotokos, Mother of God, in favor of Christotokos, mother of Christ, and thus is one of those cast out. This final loss breaks Hypa.

Several characters refer to this conflict over insanely small details – which lasted for the first thousand years of the Church, by the way, and eventually caused the Great Schism in the 11th century – as motivated more by power than by the love of God. Nestorius, for example, privately denounces both events in Alexandria, and the Council of Nicaea of 325, to Hypa:

The truth is, Hypa, that it is all a fraud. Satan was the driving force behind everything that happened one hundred years ago at the council of Niceae. By Satan I mean the devil in the form of temporal power, which goes to people’s heads. Then they challenge the authority of the Lord and tear each other to pieces, then they lose heart and are scattered to the wind. Their passions overwhelm them and they act foolishly and violate the spirit of the faith in seeking to obtain the vanities of the transient world. What happened in Nicaea, Hypa, was null and void through and through.

This fictional conversation is particularly interesting, since I have read in several places that Nestorius was in fact vigorously anti-Arian. I don’t have the background to assess the issue, but I wonder why Ziedan would include it, possibly to further underline the confusion of the time. Towards the end of the book, when Nestorius is proclaimed Bishop of Constantinople, Hypa finds many of the reports he hears of his edicts to be disturbing and not at all in keeping with the priest he came to admire and consider a mentor of sorts.

A very interesting language trick caught my attention. Remember, the book was originally in Arabic, so I have no idea if this language is in the original: during a particularly important murderous rampage, the Christians shout, “We will cleanse the land of the Lord” as their rallying cry. Notice this can be read two different ways: We will cleanse (the land of the Lord), that is, we will cleanse Alexandria, OR We will clean the Lord out of Alexandria. It’s a particularly brilliant turn of phrase at a particularly important moment in the book. And, by the way, the rampage follows a particularly vicious sermon preached by Cyril which blamed pagans as the root of all sorts of trouble; historians vary on how much blame falls on him for the subsequent murders. Nestorius will later tell Hypa that an investigation found no fault with anyone. “The people of Alexandria have no mercy and do not fear punishment for their deeds,” says Hypa. It’s interesting to read a novel, written by an Egyptian scholar of Islamic manuscripts and set 1500 years ago, that seems so terrifyingly relevant to today’s America.

Another theme, mentioned a couple of times, is the association of ignorance and bliss. Hypa puzzles over this:

Why was the Lord angry when Adam ate from the Tree of Knowledge? …. Why in the first place did God want man to remain ignorant? Was the knowledge that Adam obtained a prelude to him obtaining eternal life? Who are those about whom the Lord said that Adam had become one of them? If Adam and Eve had remained ignorant, would they have lived forever in the Garden of Eden? Is it right that immortality should go along with ignorance and disregard for nature?

Theologists through the ages have had various answers for that one. Again, it rings so true with the contemporary climate, where history and philosophy and art are being forsaken for computer science, where truth itself is what power says it is.

It’s something of a niche book. I don’t remember where I came across it, but I would have been attracted to the historical aspect. It was awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 (a division of the Booker prizes), and created quite a bit of controversy in Egypt where Cyril is regarded as a saint in the Coptic Church. To be fair, we have to remember many early Christians were slaughtered by the Romans, so it isn’t completely unexpected that they would become bloodthirsty once power was obtained.

I’ve often said that I’m never happier when a book teaches me something. I did a lot of extra reading while reading this book, and I think I’ve at least gained some idea of the breadth of what there is to learn, even if my learning is still incomplete. I’m glad I got to know Hypa, and I will know him better next time I read this book. He vanishes from our sight with the last sentence of his manuscript; I hope he found some measure of peace.