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A flawed draft of history

Critics of Youssef Zeidan's historical novel Azazeel, postulates Gamal Nkrumah, are far less interested in the rigour of his meticulous method than in the import of its implications

"These people discredit themselves by opening their mouths and speaking ill of the Church. They have long accused the Patriarchs of the Coptic Orthodox Church of all sorts of charges. This one condemns them as terrorists," Anba Basanti, Archbishop of Helwan and Maasara, proclaims, protesting vigorously. "The Patriarchs were not fanatics," he told Al-Ahram Weekly.

Youssef Zeidan's historical novel Azazeel is set in a time when the Church in Egypt was not obliged to play the double game of hunting with the hounds while running with the hares. It was a time when churchgoers had no delusions about their ability to contain atheism and paganism. Church leaders shrewdly exploited class animus against the pagan philosophers and men and women of learning. It is against this dramatic backdrop that the events of Zeidan's novel unfold.

Church leaders and Coptic laity take offense. It is of course vital to separate Christian fundamentalists from mainstream churchgoers, Copts argue. However, the prevailing Coptic ethos of struggling against all odds, against the powers that be, pervades the Church's philosophy to this day.

"Christians in Egypt were always persecuted. The early Christians of Egypt were persecuted first by the Romans and then by the Byzantines," the Archbishop stresses. "It is bizarre that the novelist portrays Copts as the oppressors. The Coptic Church is the only church that has consistently carried the cross since its inception, even though it has enjoyed brief spells of respite such as currently enjoyed by the Church in Egypt under the wise leadership of President Hosni Mubarak."

It is hard to overstate the political import of the separation of church and state in modern Europe and America. In the West, is not the separation of religion and politics a cornerstone of the secularism on which modern multi-party democracies are based? That was the legacy of centuries, the Dark Ages and beyond, when the Church fought tooth and nail for supremacy and political preponderance. The Spanish Inquisition, the religious wars between Roman Catholics and Protestants were dark chapters in European history. Then there was a consensus in Europe that there was no way forward for Western societies without containing, and even curtailing, the power of the Church.

The Church must stop appeasing the state. And the state in turn must stop placating the Church. This is the dominant political philosophy of the West. "The Western world today is secularist and is biased against monotheistic religions -- especially Christianity and Islam. I suspect that was the real reason why Zeidan's book received the Booker Prize."

It is historically documented that in AD 391, the Roman appointed Bishop Theophilus marched from his quarters in the Brucheion Royal quarter of Alexandria, at the head of a colossal riotous Christian mob, heading west for the Serapeum in the heart of the Egyptian quarter of Rhakotis. Theophilus promptly ordered the burning and sacking of the Alexandrian Library. Hundreds of thousands of papyrus rolls and parchments, inscribed with ancient science were unceremoniously done with into bonfires.

"Contrary to what the novel contends, Christianity has always respected science," Anba Basanti insists. He refutes the notion that the early Christians burnt the fabled Alexandrian Library. But his criticism is not restricted to questions of artistic license. There is also the vexatious question of semantics, philology and the lexicon. Policymakers whose policy needs dictate that they engineer a situation where Islamic fundamentalism recedes as a threat to Western civilisation often use language.

"I strongly object to the alleged use of Syriac as a liturgical language in Egypt. Syraic was never used as the official Church language in Egypt, so it is strange that a Coptic monk would write his memoirs in Syriac. I suspect that there was no such manuscript, and if there was such a manuscript written in Syriac then it was written by someone who was anti-Coptic."

Anba Basanti insisted that Coptic Orthodox manuscripts were written either in Coptic or in Greek. "The earliest manuscripts, papyri, were sometimes written in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphic and Demotic scripts," he contends. "But never in Syraic".

Then there is the equally vexacious question of Hypatia's assassination. It was not murder, but a political act. It was a premeditated terrorist crime. Demoniac delight by Christian mobs in the torture and assassination of Hypatia, who taught the philosophy of Plato in Alexandria, in AD 415, signaled the end of an Age of Enlightenment and the drift of Egypt into the Dark Ages. Zeidan is not the first writer to romanticise Hypatia, daughter of Theon. She was a neoplatonist philosopher whose life was well documented both during her own lifetime and after her gruesome murder. Her assassins were exalted to the status of saints. And the mystical philosophy she preached, based on the teachings of Plato, was declared pagan theurgy and sorcery. Summoning and invoking the presence of the pagan gods of Rome, Greece and ancient Egypt was pronounced witchcraft.

Ancient Egypt was the source of knowledge -- pagan wisdom, science and scholarship that is. The fundamentalists of early Christian Egypt deemed Hypatia a sorceress. Next, both the Roman Catholic mass and the Greek Orthodox were viewed suspiciously as a form of theurgy. Parallels are drawn with contemporary militant Islamists.

Alexandria, the beacon of science, turned from a bastion of secularism to a Christian stronghold. Ancient Egypt was in its death throes and it was a painful death. Paganism was dying a most cruel death and the nascent monotheism was rising like a vanquishing Phoenix in the ashes of the ancients.

The Monad (Source) of Hypatia's teachings inevitably influenced the perception of the primal aspects of the Gnostic God, or Monad. Achieving henosis, perfecting oneself, conveniently was reinterpreted, perhaps even refined, in Christian doctrine. Esoteric Christianity survived long after the demise of Hypatia and her ilk. Freedom of expression failed to follow suit.

In response to the criticism directed at Zeidan, the Secretary General of the Arab Writers' Union Mohamed Salmawy insists on the freedom of speech as a fundamental human right and the inalienable prerogative of the novelist. "Without freedom of expression, there is no art, no literature. We have begun a new tradition, when I took over as head of the Arab Writers' Union, to document in regular reports, the state of freedom of expression in the Arab world. We issue such reports twice a year. We are meeting, for instance, next week in Kuwait. We will report on the state of affairs as far as freedom of expression in the Arab world is concerned, and we will be critical of those who try to restrict the freedom of expression and take them to task. I personally believe that we cannot judge a work of art, a novel, on a religious basis, whatever the religion in question. We must judge it on a literary basis."

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