Sunday, December 15, 2013

My ambiguous self

One of the most beautiful books I read this year was Azazeel, by Youssef Ziedan, an Egyptian scholar who specializes in Arabic and Islamic studies. It won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 and has been condemned by the Coptic Orthodox church.

In a wonderful review, "In Case of Doubt, Choose Doubt," Andreas Pflitsch says that this historical novel is a plea against religiously motivated violence.

Set in the 5th century AD, these are the memoirs of Hypa, a Coptic monk who journeyed from Upper Egypt to Alexandria and then Syria.

It's not a period in history that I know much about, but several aspects of it are fascinating. It covers a culture in transition between pantheism and Christianity. It shows the significance of the life and death of woman mathematician and philosopher Hypatia of Alexandria.

And it features Nestorius, Archbishop of Constantinople, condemned by the Council of Ephesus for his belief that Christ's human and divine natures could not be reconciled. (Lucky for me I read this novel while studying Kierkegaard, who didn't care so much about reconciling them, so I had ample opportunity to consider the absurdity of faith.)

Hypa meanwhile is consumed with the problem of reconciling, or accepting, his own human and divine natures, that is, satisfying both physical and spiritual yearnings. Azazeel, the devil, is the voice inside him, a daimon, who does not lead him to temptation so much as reflect it back to his conscience.
I sat up, filled with a fear the source of which I did not know. I asked myself: should I go to church now, to feel a little peace of mind? The night prayers must have started. Being in a group would relieve the anxiety, since nothing is more conducive to fear than being alone. Or should I go to Martha's cottage nearby and mend what was broken in our relationship, then sleep on the floor under her bed? Does Martha sleep in the bed where we made love two days ago? Or does she lie on the floor like me? I don't know much about her. I've never seen her from the inside. In fact I've never seen anything from the inside. I always skirt around the surface of things and never go deep. In fact I think I'm afraid of looking deep inside myself, yet I know the truth about my ambiguous self. Everything about me is ambiguous — my baptism, my being a monk, my faith, my poems, my medical knowledge, my love for Martha. I am one ambiguity after another, and ambiguity is the opposite of faith, just as Satan is the opposite of God.

Azazeel is by turns adventurous, sensuous, thrilling, and mysterious; it is laden with historical detail and religious intrigue. It shows great insight and sensitivity to matters of spirituality and faith (or lack thereof, as I have none), and lends itself to slow and contemplative reading.

The Bookbag
The Guardian
Winston's Dad

There is also a sampling of international response to the novel on the book's website.

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