Thursday, April 09, 2009


An Egyptian writer reminds the Christians that intolerance is not limited to Islam alone.

From the Guardian (26/03/09) by Maya Jaggi

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.

In the realm of books, there are encouraging signs. The IPAF is awarded during the Abu Dhabi international book fair, a joint venture with the Frankfurt book fair that has zero tolerance of book piracy. Curbing piratical presses, improving distribution and building industry pressure against censorship are crucial steps towards enabling more writers in Arabic to earn a living from their books. (Good luck with this. How about improving the readers' living standards so that they can buy books, or eradicate illiteracy??)

The IPAF was launched last year to some heavy attacks in the Arab press, not least for aping western models. But the longlists and shortlists are widely discussed, and disputed, across the Arab media. In its aim to widen readership of new Arabic fiction, both in the Arab world and in translation,­ it has already chalked up successes. Last year's inaugural winner, Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis, is to be published by Sceptre in the UK in September - and soon in seven other languages. Set in the 19th century at the Siwa oasis on the Egypt-Libya border, and obliquely reflecting the political despair of successive generations in Taher's native Egypt, it was translated into English by Humphrey Davies with funds pledged by Granta owner Sigrid Rausing. According to London literary agent Andrew Nurnberg, who has represented Taher since the prize, the availability of an English translation to sample will open the gates to many more.

Quick off the mark, Nurnberg also took on Ziedan on the strength of the shortlist announced last December. He read sections of Beelzebub translated by Reuters journalist Jonathan Wright, who was intrigued by Cairo pavement vendors flogging stacks of the bestselling novel. Like Sunset Oasis, it was published by Dar El Shorouk in Cairo,­ also publishers of Alaa Al Aswany's phenomenal bestseller The Yacoubian Building. Judging from deals struck by other shortlisted writers, the prize will widen access to novels that might otherwise never have been translated.
Over morning coffee, this year's winner told me enthusiastically about the award. Born in upper Egypt, Ziedan moved as an infant to Alexandria, where he is professor of Islamic philosophy and history of science at the university, as well as founding director of the new library of Alexandria's manuscripts centre. He has written more than 50 books, but turned to fiction in his 40s, his mission to turn dessicated parchment into live debate. Beelzebub, his second novel, purports to be the memoirs of a fifth-century doctor-­monk and passionate lover named Hypa, whose scrolls are unearthed by a 20th-century translator. Born in AD 391, when Christianity was imposed as Roman Egypt's official religion, Hypa wanders east to the Holy Land after witnessing a mob of Alexandrian Christians lynching a woman, Hypatia, the neo-platonic philosopher and mathematician who defended science against religion. Ziedan sees the lynching as a symptom of religious intolerance, and the start of a scientific dark age.

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.

My comment: Anything Davies has translated so far, and he has translated a hell of a lot, is as much representative of Arabic literature as Salman Rushdi's drivel is representative of Indian Islam. But Davies translates for money, and the real stuff would not sell in the Occident. The Occident, still showing serious signs of Orientalist fever, wants now to believe that the Arab World, no longer full of exotic harems and odalisques, can be reshaped to become more Occidental.

One day, Davies will go. I pray someone more ideologically and politically aware will then come to translate, not novels, but works of modern Arab philosophers and writers such as Ashmawi, Sadek Nayhoum, Hamed Abu Zaid, Al-Alem, Emara, Al-Jabri, Foudah, Firas Al-Sawwah, Tarabishi and Qimni.

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