Azazeel, which won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2009 and has been newly translated into English by Jonathan Wright, is a sexy, gory, fiery, thought-provoking masterpiece.
Its impact stretches far beyond the desert lands of sixth century Egypt and Syria in which it is set, and raises, brilliantly, fundamental questions about the role of religion in societies both ancient and modern: about its corrupting influence, its myriad hypocrisies, its theological inanities.
Above all, it addresses the nature of so-called evil; of constant temptation manifested here in Azazeel, an Arab word for devil, whom Ziedan submits is ever-present and personal to each of us.
If 'Azazeel' is ostensibly a book about the calamitous schisms caused by subtle dogmatic differences in early Christianity, then it is difficult to conceive a better book being fashioned from so unpromising a premise.
The greatest of this novel's many triumphs - and make no mistake, this is a triumphant novel - is that the clarity of Ziedan's complicated central message never blurs; and that it is frameworked within a narrative which, though necessarily gruelling at times, and benefiting from occasional dips into Wikipedia pages on religious orthodoxy, evolves into something quite irresistible: a remarkable feat for a book of this nature.
'Azazeel' takes the form of a series of newly-discovered scrolls, buried by a monk, Hypa in the fifth century AD, at a time of enormous upheaval in the Church. The newly-constituted Bishop Cyril is wreaking havoc in Alexandria - a 'city of whores and gold' - purging the city of its pagans and banishing those, led by his rival Bishop Nestorius, a confidant of Hypa, who espouse a different dogma concerning the nature of Christ. Throughout the chaos, Hypa is embarking on a physical and spiritual journey, plagued by self-doubt at witnessing such violence in the name of religion, and dogged by Azazeel at every turn. Azazeel tells him:
'I don't come and go. It's you who conjures me when you want to, because I come from within you and through you. I spring up when you want me to shape your dream, or spread the carpet of your imagination or stir up for you memories you have buried. I am the bearer of your burdens, your delusions and your misfortunes. I am the one you cannot do without, and nor can anyone else...'
Hypa's distractions are many. He becomes embroiled in a passionate affair with a pagan woman, Octavia, whom he encounters after almost drowning whilst swimming in the sea: to her, his bedraggled figure emerging from the waves represents the physical incarnation of Poseidon, the sea god; a notion Hypa explicitly rejects, and yet cannot help considering in the context of his existing, wavering beliefs, and in the temptation he finds before him.
'she is a pagan woman and believes in the foolish myths about the Greek gods, the gods who trick each other, wage war on mankind, marry often and betray their wives. What sick imagination produced the gods of Greece? And what is stranger still is that there are people who believe in them - such as Octavia, who believes that the sea god Poseidon sent me to her. But the sea has no god and nobody sent me, yet how can I know for sure that she is wrong and I am right? The Old Testament, which we believe in, is also full of deceptions, wars and betrayals, and the Gospel of the Egyptians, which we read although it's banned, contains material which contradicts the four orthodox Gospels. Are the two of them fantasies? Or does it mean that God is secretly present behind all religious beliefs?'
Later, Hypa's faith is further shaken when he bears witness to the murder of the eminent philosopher Hypatia, with whom he has become obsessed, on the streets of Alexandria (nameless until this point, he later baptizes himself in her honour). The passage concerning Hypatia's death is shockingly gruesome, and at the heart of the controversy over this book is Ziedan's implication of the involvement of Cyril in provoking it. Some in Egypt's Coptic Church called for blasphemy laws to be levelled at Ziedan for his ogreish portrayal of Cyril; others questioned his right, as an Islamic scholar, to wade into Christian concerns.
Of his first encounter with Cyril, Hypa writes:
'I looked at the ragged piece of cloth on the statue of Jesus, then at the bishop's embroidered robe. Jesus's clothes were old rags, torn at the chest and most of the limbs, while the bishop's clothes were embellished with gold thread all over, so that his face was hardly visible. Jesus's hands were free of the baubles of our world, while the bishop held what I think was a sceptre made of pure gold, judging from how brightly it shone. On his head Jesus had his crown of thorns, while the bishop had on his head the bright gold crown of a bishop. Jesus seemed resigned as he assented to sacrifice himself on the cross of redemption. Cyril seemed intent on imposing his will on the heavens and the earth.'
There is some kind of irony in the fact that an author presenting an example of the folly of religious hatred, of bodies being burned in the name of the most inane dogmatic differences, should find himself being held up for such censure. Even worse, though, perhaps, are the efforts of some to portray 'Azazeel' as an 'Arab Da Vinci Code', which quite rightly drew short shrift from Ziedan in a recent interview, where he said that those who sought such comparisons were 'ignorant of the essential difference between an adventure novel based on historical fabrication like The Da Vinci Code, and a philosophical novel written with blood, sweat and tears like Azazeel.' I'll put it another way: it's like comparing a sumptuous banquet with a drive-thru burger.
'Azazeel' is a truly magnificent book, quite the best thing I've read in a long time. Its controversy, while, in a sense, part of its charm, ought not be allowed to disfigure its extraordinary success in addressing issues in both the Church and in life which are as pertinent now as they were fifteen hundred years ago. But Ziedan's real genius is this: far from crushing you under the weight of religious doctrine, he has crafted a book light in touch, sharp in plot, and which will leave you craving more.