November 11, 2010
Religion vs. Fiction in Egypt
— M. Lynx Qualey
Two years ago, a relatively unknown Egyptian professor of Arabic and Islamic studies took home the second annual International Prize for Arabic Fiction—or “Arabic Booker”—for his novel Azazel.
It was only while in his forties that Dr. Youssef Ziedan, who has written 50-some books about Sufism, Islamic philosophy, and Arabic medicine, turned his attention to fiction. He published his second novel, Azazel (sometimes translated as Beelzebub), at the age of 50. Ziedan’s prize-winning book purports to be the memoirs of a passionate fifth-century monk named Hypa, whose scrolls are unearthed by a twentieth-century translator.
In writing Azazel, Ziedan became one of a few contemporary Egyptian novelists to tackle religion in his literary work. After all, writing about religion has had its dangers: The newspaper Al-Youm Al-Saba’a’s website was hacked because of their reported intention to publish Anis Deghreidi’s fictional Trials of the Prophet Muhammad earlier this year. Authors have had their books preemptively censored by publishers, such as Mohamed Mansi Qandil’s lovely Moon over Samarqand, which has since been printed in full. Others have been dragged to court by fellow citizens such as author Nawal El-Saadawi.
It is thus not surprising that Ziedan and Azazel have caused controversy. Members of Egypt’s Coptic Christian community, including the outspoken Bishop Bishoy, have written extensive rebuttals to the 2008 fictional work. Coptic Christians make up most of Egypt’s Christian population, the largest in the region. The word Copt once simply meant "Egyptian," and the current Copts remained Christian during Egypt's shift to Arab-Muslim rule. Exact population figures are not known, but the most commonly given figure is six to eight million Copts among a total population of 80 million Egyptians.
It was late this spring when a group of Coptic Christian lawyers filed a hesba lawsuit against Ziedan demanding a five-year prison sentence. They claim that, in statements made during a symposium, the author defamed Christianity. A group of Islamist lawyers also filed suit, because of Ziedan’s statements about religion.
Such hesba cases, through which citizens can file suit against other citizens, have become increasingly popular in Egypt. The attorney Nabih El-Wahsh—according to a suit filed against him—has filed more than a thousand such cases. Most of these have reportedly been against TV producers, filmmakers, and authors.
It was El-Wahsh who dragged prominent novelist Nawal El-Saadawi and her husband, Sherif Hetata, to court in 2001, seeking to divorce the couple—against their will—on the grounds that El-Saadawi expressed views that made her an apostate. El-Wahsh filed suit against El-Saadawi a second time in 2007, seeking to have her Egyptian citizenship annulled because of her views on religion. Fortunately, these cases, like nearly all those filed by El-Wahsh, were dismissed.
Hesba is a long-established principle in Islamic jurisprudence. Guardian reporter Brian Whitaker quotes Egyptian scholar Gamal El-Banna as saying hesba was originally “used to promote the good and criticize the bad. Every individual in an Islamic society is responsible for the actions of the society.”
Lately, however, hesba cases have been used by interest groups, often to intimidate novelists, filmmakers, and poets. One was recently brought by a group called “Lawyers without Shackles” against the editors of a new edition of 1,001 Nights. The case has since been dismissed, as has the Islamists’ case against Ziedan.
The Christian lawyers’ case against Ziedan, meanwhile, is still under consideration. When I recently told the author mish mumkin (it’s not possible) that he could be sent to jail because of this case, Ziedan’s publisher, Ibrahim El-Moallem, agreed. But Ziedan did not: “Mumkin,” he said. “In Egypt, anything is possible.”
It is not really the contents of the book that matter but rather Ziedan’s broader reputation and general outspokenness. Most critics agree with Ziedan’s own assessment that the book is "not against Christianity but against violence, especially violence in the name of the sacred." Indeed, the lawsuit particularly mentions statements Ziedan made at a symposium held by the daily Al-Youm Al-Saba’a.
"He insulted priests and bishops and said many things with no proof or evidence from books or history,” lawyer Mamdouh Ramzi told Reuters. “He is not a Christian man, what does he know about the Church?"
The case has been supported by Coptic groups in the United States, the Netherlands, Canada and Austria.
Ziedan, who in mid-October was given the shield of St. Mark in recognition for his preservation of Christian manuscripts, is clearly not anti-Christian. Nonetheless, he has become a target of some Copts’ frustrations in a country where the minority does have legitimate grievances. The author has also remained a target of Islamists.
The English translation of Azazel is set for a summer 2011 release from Atlantic Books. Had the book been under attack solely by fringe Muslim groups, one would assume this might be a selling point for many Western book-buyers. But the novel has also been decried by an Arab Christian minority, even if mistakenly, and how this will affect the award-winning novel’s reception is difficult to predict.
Khaled Diab, “Egypt’s Coptics Find Book Insulting,” The Guardian, May 12, 2010.
M. Lynx Qualey, “In Support of Anis Al Degheidi,” Arabic Literature (in English), August 5, 2010.
Brian Whitaker, “Egyptian law gives fanatics free rein,” The Guardian, April 28, 2010.
Nadia Abou el Nagd, “'Abuse' of Islamic rule lands lawyer in court,” The National, October 9, 2009.
Yasmine Saleh, “Egypt Christians want action on ‘insulting’ novel,” Reuters, May 5, 2010.
M. Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature for a variety of newspapers and magazines, including Al Masry Al Youm, The Believer, World Literature Today, and The Quarterly Conversation. She blogs daily at http://arablit.wordpress.com.