Egyptian Novelist Youssef Ziedan: Religious terror of fanatic people starts when they speak in the name of God

Youssef Ziedan

Youssef Ziedan is an Egyptian scholar who specializes in Arabic and Islamic studies. He worked as director of the Manuscript Center and Museum affiliated to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. He is a university professor, a public lecturer, a columnist and a prolific author of more than 50 books. The study of Arabic and Islamic manuscripts has been his primary interest, and cataloguing, editing and publishing these manuscripts constitute the bulk of his work. He has worked as a consultant in the field of Arabic heritage preservation and conservation in a number of international institutions, including UNESCO, ESCWA and the Arab League, and has directed a number of projects aimed at the delimitation and preservation of Arabic manuscript heritage.

Ziedan was born in Sohag in 1958. He moved with his grandfather to Alexandria when he was still a child and was raised and taught in this Mediterranean metropolis. He joined the philosophy department at the University of Alexandria and graduated summa cum laude. His postgraduate studies focused on Sufism and its philosophical underpinnings. He obtained his PhD degree in 1989 for his dissertation on The Qadiri Sufi Order, with a study and edition of the poetical works of Abdul Qadir al-Jilani or Abdul-Qadir Gilani. He lives in Alexandria, and has a son and two daughters.

Ziedan has also written fiction. His novel Zil al-Af’a (“Shadow of the Serpent”) treats the notion of the sacred female through a contemporary setting with humdrum personae in the first part; in the second part, letter fragments from a female anthropologist to her daughter, the heroine of the first part, explain how the role of the female has been misshapen, abused and diabolically transformed throughout history. The novel has been criticized[citation needed] for its abnormal structure and superfluous intellectualism.

Ziedan’s second novel is the historico-theological work Azazil, which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the so-called “Arabic Booker”). According to the book, it is written as a translation of scrolls that had been discovered in the ruins of a monastery northwest of Aleppo, in Syria. An Egyptian monk called “Hypa” wrote the original manuscript as an autobiography in the Aramaic language in first half of the fifth century AD. This was a time of great internal turmoil in Eastern Christianity. We’ve had the chance to have this interview with him.

Youssef Ziedan signs one of his novels for Radwa

Q: There’s a saying that “Poets start their creativity phase at their youth while novelists start that phase usually late”, how does this apply to Youssef Zidan?

This saying isn’t very accurate, as we’ve known in the Arabic Poetry, prodigies like “Thubiani” and “Shaibani”, and the word “prodigy” itself means that he’s writing poetry at an old age, not at their youth. But it’s true I’ve mentioned before that the novelist needs to be a little late so as to acquire the writing tools and the knowledge he needs, but it’s not set at a certain age.

Q: It’s known that you’re specialized in philosophy, so how did you get into history? And does that mean that there’s a relation between pPhilosophy and history?

OF course, there’s a relation. Philosophy itself has a history of its own. Philosophy means “The Love of Wisdom” and you can’t truly complete this “wisdom” if you neglected the historical part. Philosophy and history certainly complete each other.

Q: Why did you choose in “Azazil” such an old period from the Egyptian history?

Because that period specifically from the Egyptian history is completely neglected and I think it should get more attention. I’m seeking to establish a deeper understanding of history through creativity. That period suffered from a lot like oppressing the weak, being immersed in ignorance, proof of this killing Hypatia the scientist, and finally killing people using religion as a cover.

Q: Some see that a novelist choosing a certain period comes from his present state, what similarities do you encounter between present time and “Azazil” period?

The mechanisms and techniques of religious violence are the same, that’s the biggest similarity there is between the two periods, even if it existed in different ways. I’ve said before that the novel isn’t Anti-Christian, but it’s actually Anti-Violence and the allegation that the Pope speaks in the name of God. Using “Speaking in the name of god” was the beginning of all violence and massacres as it was the right environment for extremists to spread chaos.

Q: How did Sufism affect Youssef Zidan’s life and work?

Sufism affected many aspects of my life, like the way I write, how I see the world, or the way I generally live. Sufism made me rebel on fear instead of being afraid. It’s apparent in my style whether I liked it or not.

Q: You once said that “Maria” in “Nabati” is the other face of “Hypa” in “Azazil”, how is that possible?

Maria & Hypa are both the opposites of each other. Hypa is a monk and a philosopher, he know many languages and have been through a lot in his life, while Maria is the complete opposite. It was a challenge for me to do that.

Two of his novels (I attached instead his novel Azazil and its translation covers).

Q: You’re one of the novelists specialized in “Historical novel”, what kind of writings affected you the most?

I actually didn’t start with historical novels, my first book was about Sufism and I wrote it in my last year in college. But in literature, I’m affected mainly by Ibn Sina and Jorge Louis Borges.

Q: You once said that “Secularism” is illusion in the minds of those who call for it, if it’s really an illusion then why would Dr. Abdel Wahab Al Masery classify it?

It’s not possible to separate religion and politics as some people call “Secularism.” Secularism in Jewish religion used to refer to non-religious Jewish who still treated as a Jewish being born from a Jewish mother. In Christianity, it meant that one chose to work instead of serving at the church, without convicting anyone doing so. But in Islam, it has become equivalent to atheism. There are some countries who take their origins from religion, like Israel, who is trying to get Palestine from its owners using religion.

Q: Is “Holiness” really a pure social act as you attributed to the French sociologist, Emile Durkheim?

The act of holiness is in fact a social act, as there’s nothing holy by itself but it’s something that people worship, so it’s a social act done by people. Holiness is all about veneration, it’s the highest level of respecting something, and it’s totally different from faith. Faith is religious-based; you don’t really use your mind, while the act of sanctification depend on reflection and checking how important and deep your respect to it. Thus, it’s said that marriage is holy, work is holy….etc.

Q: You once said, so did the poet Adonis, that women aren’t like how many see her, only a way to produce children, what did you mean?

Some retarded groups still hold the same primitive look on women. It originally started with Jewish and back then it was when women turned from a holy goddess to a defiled being. Still it was in-between two civilizations that respected the women, ancient Egyptians and Mesopotamia civilization. Advocating women’s right is a humane act, as humanity is about both femininity and masculinity, so anything that disregards women, disregards humanity.

Q: “Muhal” is your last novel, there have been some negative feedback saying that it’s not how you usually write or that it’s not as strong as your previous works, how do you reply to those comments?

This usually happens with every new release from me, at the first people would be a little suspicious, but as time goes and more people start to read it carefully, all that goes away. “Muhal” despite being a modern novel, it still has that traditional touch, my main motive during writing it was to take care of language and humanism.

Q: Are there any new releases in the near future?

Of course, “Muhal” is actually a part of a trilogy; the second part would be named “Guantanamo”. Also right now I’m working on “Septets” and it’s a collection of my articles, then I’ll complete the trilogy.

One Response to Egyptian Novelist Youssef Ziedan: Religious terror of fanatic people starts when they speak in the name of God

  1. maratus solehah 12 December , 2018 at 11:16 am

    Thank u so much for your information, its too much helpme

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