Coptic Nerves – Azazeel by Youssef Zieden

Azazeel is an historical novel set during the formative years of Christianity. It is narrated by a Coptic monk, Hypa, who states plainly that he is driven to tell his tale by the devil. This is a scholarly text, dealing with the granular distinction in forms of worship during the 4th century. It is a story about humanity, the perils of believing too strongly that you do the work of God and the horrors committed in his name.

Azazeel was a much more difficult read than I had anticipated. I found Ziedan’s prose dry and often unengaging. There is a great deal of interest in the book, but little excitement. I haven’t read very many Middle Eastern authors, so don’t have much to compare Zeidan too, but I found Azazeel reminiscent of Orhan Pamuk’s ‘My Name is Red’. In both books the devil is in the detail. Both require a great deal of concentration to read, both are rich and vivid in their portrayal of the culture in which they are set. Whilst I had to force myself to continue reading both books, when I may have preferred to give up, they rewarded my perseverance with powerful and thoughtful conclusions.

There are two main narrative strands to Azazeel. One centres around its narrator, the other on the circles in which Hypa resides. Hypa is the subject of continual temptation. He grew up in very poor rural Egypt, and he has seized the opportunity to escape his upbringing. He is a Coptic Christian with a burning desire to be a physician. Many distractions lie in his path. Pagan religions and beautiful women, books and philosopher queens are just some of the temptations he is confronted with.

The other strand is probably the most interesting, and certainly the most contentious. Azazeel has attracted a certain amount of controversy about its heretical depiction of the genesis of the Christian faith. The book portrays some of the most important tenets of Christianity as being the result of political infighting and one-upmanship. The players in the creation of the divine are fallible and human.

Not being terribly impressed by organised religion, I find nothing surprising or contentious about the author’s assertions. What impressed me is the clarity with which Zieden deconstructs the birth of Christianity. There are countless quotes in this book that should be compulsory reading for anybody convinced of Christianity’s superiority, or those who use right-wing religious rhetoric to justify their actions. The book is a sermon on the absurdities of intolerance.

Despite its scathing analysis of the church Azazeel remains a deeply spiritual book. Hypa tries his best to lead a holy life. He makes mistakes, he is fallible, but distinct from other characters in the book, he understands this. He devotes himself to God, whilst continually questioning exactly what God is. His understanding of God may be ambiguous, but his faith in Him is not. His bewilderment and humility gives the book its strength.

Azazeel is not the easiest book to read. It requires concentration and perseverance, but its rewards are great. Steeped in early history, it offers a fascinating window on the formation of Christianity, whilst its moral and philosophical observations chime with the modern world. The unusual subject matter and the skill with which it’s handled, make Azazeel a wholly worthwhile read.

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