Award-winning book from Youssef Ziedan gets translated into English
Tomorrow, the International Prize for Arabic Fiction will be announced in Abu Dhabi. For the winner: US$60,000 (Dh220,000) and instant global attention. But he - and all the nominees are male this year - may have to wait a few years for the real impact of the victory to sink in. Success at the "Arabic Booker" virtually guarantees that a novel will be translated into a wide variety of languages. And almost two years to the day since Youssef Ziedan took home the award, his winning book, Azazel, is finally available in English.
Ziedan is noticeably excited. Many Arabic novels are taken up by niche publishers, but it won't be long before he can count Aravind Adiga, Damon Galgut and Joyce Carol Oates among his stablemates: Azazel is being published by Atlantic Books. "And I thought this novel was just for the specialist," he laughs. "Genuinely, I've been shocked to find that it has such an audience."
No doubt Atlantic was encouraged not just by its success in the Arab world but elsewhere, too. As Ziedan points out, the first editions were moderately well-read, but the prize, he says, "cracked it open". Now it's been published in more than 27 editions, and there have been more than one million downloads. Undeniably, however, it has been Azazel's controversial subject matter that has driven sales. Ostensibly it tells the story of Hypa, a fifth-century Egyptian doctor-monk who goes on a journey of personal discovery from Upper Egypt to Alexandria and Syria. But the depictions of the violence taking place at that time in the name of Christianity offended the Coptic Church so grievously, one bishop filed a complaint with Egypt's public prosecutor.
"To be honest, winning the Arabic Booker Prize meant I had a chance to clarify the situation," explains Ziedan. "I couldn't seem to make people understand that this wasn't a historical manuscript I'd found, but a novel. The prize made it easier to explain that this wasn't a work of theology - but still it seemed to frighten some people."
Nevertheless, Azazel does blur the boundaries somewhat. The first chapter explains that these are the memoirs of a monk, whose scrolls are discovered by a 20th-century translator. Soon afterwards, the murder of the famous female philosopher and mathematician Hypatia by followers of the Christian faith - which is historical fact - is retold in gruesome detail. But Ziedan defends his right to use it in a novel.
"Her death wasn't just an event in Alexandria among Christians - she was one of the last eminent scholars. After, there is barely any science, mathematics, astronomy for another five centuries. There is a silence. So it was a very important moment in human history, I think, the start of a dark age. I don't see why I can't use my imagination to explore such things."
And if Ziedan's critics actually read the novel - although it does start quite slowly - they would soon understand that at its centre isn't theological controversy at all, but a kind of fifth-century road trip. The monk, Hypa, is on a journey through Egypt and Syria to find himself. Along the way he encounters lovers, fighters and fanatics, but is always striving to be a better person.
"You know, I think that's why it's already been so successful in Italy," he says. "Because Hypa is a human being who has dreams and temptations. The language might change but those feelings are the same wherever you are."
Nevertheless, controversy remained - perhaps because Ziedan practises Sufism and the character who comes out of the book least well is St Cyril, one of the fathers of the Coptic Church. I barely have the chance to point this out before Ziedan explains himself.
"Judaism, Christianity, Islam - you can't understand one without the other, and I wanted to try and explore how the past still works in the present. And what I came to believe is that religious violence isn't only wrong, it's ugly and dangerous. You just haven't the right to kill someone else because he doesn't believe the same thing as you."
All of which sounds so eminently sensible, it's no wonder Ziedan was relieved that his Booker win gave him the chance to explain himself. It also gave him confidence as a writer that perhaps was lacking previously.
"I have a readership," he laughs. "But I also had the feeling that people were waiting to see what came next - which is why it was so incredible when the first edition of my new book [The Nabatean, also longlisted for this year's prize], sold out in one day. I think this might be the first time this has happened in Arab culture."
He might not have such exceptional first-day results in the English-speaking world later this month. But for Ziedan, that's not the point.
"We have to read each other," he says. "We can't stay apart. There are, of course, different circumstances, different religions, different languages. But essentially, the human being is the same."
• Azazel (Atlantic) is out in April
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Updated: March 26, 2012 04:00 AM