Egypt: land of the ancients, the pyramids and the Nile. Where there was once A Death… on a river cruiser… the culprit for which was identified by a fictional Belgian with a penchant for moustache protectors.
Agatha Christie aside, I was struggling to think of novels I’d read that either concerned or were set in Egypt. More fool me, I thought, when I read about 2009’s winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, Youssef Ziedan. His book, Azazeel, published here this year, was a sensation. For weeks it could be seen piled up on street stalls where it was sold to busy commuters. It was, without a doubt, a massive, popular hit.
And yet Ziedan is no Dan Brown, no chick-lit queen. He’s a 50-something academic who specializes in early Islamic texts and religious studies. I’ve spoken to him via Skype so I know that he is a rather unglamorous bald gentleman who smokes. He told me Azazeel sold well, but another of his books, an academic work about early Islam, sold even more. But then his broadband connection was a bit dodgy though, it’s possible I misheard.
Narrated by a fifth century Coptic monk, who writes on scrolls he then hides, Azazeel features Christian atrocities against Pagans, some rather exotic sexual adventures with a servant girl called Octavia, and a lot of discussion about alternative gospels.
I’ve been trying to imagine how you would pitch this as a concept to a London agent. You might mention Umberto Eco and Name of the Rose, but this is no murder in the monastery. You could go heavy on the sex, but while a touch fruity, Ziedan is no EL James. What I guess you wouldn’t mention is the numerous conversations about the finer points of religious belief around the time of Emperor Constantine. “Hey, yeah, we’ll get back to you… never.”
The book, I must admit, is baffling. Structurally it feels like something from another decade, not just another country. There’s a charm to this – a different pace, another culture. A novel which takes work.
Does it reflects life in Hosni Mubarak’s police-state Egypt? Ziedan told me the regime wasn’t the reason why he chose a 5th century setting rather than a contemporary one, but went on to reveal that his next book is about a contemporary terrorist. So perhaps the Arab Spring has had an effect.
Early in his career, the journalist Paul Sussman wrote for The Big Issue. He died, prematurely, earlier this summer and his last novel, The Labyrinth of Osiris, is out now. Set in Israel and Egypt, Sussman’s Middle East couldn’t be more different from Ziedan’s. Like Christie, Sussman was an archaeology enthusiast and his novel a well-paced mystery starring a do-or-die Luxor-based Inspector Yusuf Khalifa.
Fittingly, Sussman’s plot has many historical layers. His goes back decades rather than millennia – as Azazeel makes clear, in Egypt, history stretches far further than anywhere else – and his plotting is far more recognizable as a work of contemporary fiction too. You can’t compare these novels. They are as different as Poirot is to Faust. But it was good to spend so much time in such an interesting, multi-faceted part of the world.