Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

The Uses of Geography in Youssef Ziedan's Azazeel

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

The Uses of Geography in Youssef Ziedan's Azazeel

Article excerpt

When Youssef Ziedan's novel Azazeel was published in 2008, it quickly became the subject of controversy. The novel describes the historical events that led to the Council of Ephesus in 431 AD where the status of Mary as Theotokos, Mother of God, was decreed. Given its harsh representation of the Alexandrian Church, Azazeel was generally politicized in the context of Muslim-Coptic relationships.1 Even after it won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2009, Azazeel did not receive the scholarly attention it deserved for its innovative narrative structure and literary technique.2 Interviews with the author tried to seek out hidden motives as to why he wrote Azazeel in the first place. For example, in an interview with the Egyptian magazine Al-Musawwir, Ziedan was asked about his decision to set the novel within this particularly tumultuous period in the history of the Coptic Church. He responded that Egyptian history did not consist of "periods" but should be viewed as a "continuum" made up of different elements. Each element could be (re)arranged, much like in a work of fiction, to highlight or efface certain trends.

Ziedan's general position on religion, politics, and violence is available in his book Al-lahūt al-'Arabī wa Usūl al 'Unf al Dīnī (Arabic Theology and the Roots of Religious Violence). Published toward the end of 2009, it should be viewed as a companion piece to Azazeel. Both in the novel and in the book, Ziedan views religious violence as the outcome of the inevitable "transgression" (al-ta'addī 221) between religion and politics. The outcome of the Council of Ephesus in 431, he writes, is an example of this transgression because it was politically motivated. The Council upheld the Alexandrian Church's position on Mary as Theotokos to protect the Roman Empire's colonial interests in Alexandria as a strategic port. This is referenced toward the end of Azazeel when Hypa is told that Nestorius was denounced because "for well-known reasons the emperor and the pope of Rome did not want to anger Alexandria" (299). However, despite superior Byzantine military presence, increased persecution of Egyptian Copts facilitated the Muslim conquest of Egypt in 640. Although Ziedan does not explicitly make this point, the conquest was no divine miracle. It was the result of complex historical factors similar to the ones which later caused the deterioration of the Muslim Empire. Ziedan defines this cycle as a "dialectic" (210): "initial conflict" (213) between the state and the religious movement is followed by a period of "initial compromise" (215). However, this compromise only protects the state's hegemony and its sanctioned interpretations of religion. Over time, this hegemony leads to the rise of radical movements, which initiates another conflict followed by another compromise. Azazeel intervenes in this dialectic by enabling its narrator to think beyond the Theotokos/Christotokos antithesis.

This article argues that geography is used in Azazeel to create a virtual space outside the restrictions of the dominant religious discourse. Geography enables the narrator to imagine freedom as a destination toward which he travels. To this effect, every landscape in the novel is given the potential to actualize aspects of the narrator's self that otherwise would be "latent" (134). This explains the invention of "Hypa the monk" at an open area where "the land merges with the water and the sky" (134). Like this land, the narrator aspires to merge with the divine. Throughout the novel, writing about geography enables the emergence of a new space that is neither physical nor metaphysical but the poetic rendering of travel framed as pilgrimage. Asked about how much of his main character is "real," Ziedan explained that the role of the narrator is to "mirror the fictional idea, i.e., the creative space in the novel" (Al Masry al Youm, 2009). Geography provides the narrator with a way to articulate this fictional idea. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.