Egypt: Crackdown on the Egyptian Da Vinci Code

Published in 2008, Dr Youssef Zidane‘s Azazeel (Beelzebub) created a stir, followed by resentment. Today – in 2010 – he is being accused of blasphemy and defaming Christianity and as insulting any of the ‘heavenly faiths’ is illegal in Egypt, Zidane could face up to five years behind bars.

Back in 2008, Zeinobia described the novel saying:

We got our own Da Vinci Code and our own Dan Brown whom the Church is currently fighting. Our Da Vinci Code is Azazel and our Dan Brown is Dr.Youssef Zidane, the historical researcher and the director of Manuscripts Department; as well as Supervisor of Acquisitions at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

The novel is about Christianity in Egypt in the fifth century and the fight between the new religion and its believers from one side and the old pagan religions and its believers from another side. The hero of the novel is “Hiba”, the Egyptian monk whose mother, the Christian conspired with other Christians to kill his pagan father. “Hiba” had these conversations with his own Azazel inside him.The novel covers historical events that took place like the tragic death of Hypatia of Alexandria by the hands of the Egyptian radical Christians along with other events mostly theological ones based on real manuscripts from early centuries.

This made the church angry and accuse Zidane of using biased and false resources as I read for instance “The Holy blood and holy grail” and some of the catharses beliefs beside fabrication of manuscripts “The novel starts with acknowledgment that it was based upon real historical manuscripts found in Syria”

Nermeen Edrees reported that he won the Booker prize in 2009:

Dr Youssef Zidane's controversial novel Azazeel has won the Arab Booker Prize for 2009. This is the second year in a row for an Egyptian to win this prestigious prize. Last year's winner was Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis.

Juka - an avid reader – wrote a review saying:

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Zidane in person and can assure you he is nothing short of remarkably fascinating. True to his background and education he was an interesting conversationalist who could cite evidence to support his claims from holy books and literature across the ages in multiple languages. When asked about the title, he responded that religions since the dawn of time had offered versions of God’s or deities who represent the higher power and embody all that is good or righteous. With the rise of Judaism; man sought the other end of the spectrum, a higher entity which embodied all that is evil, for otherwise man himself would have had to bare responsibility for his evil actions, hence the birth of Azazeel.

And Whispers from the Sea wrote:

by shedding light on a historical period in Egypt and the Middle East and on the 5th century theological differences regarding the nature of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary, underlines how religions – all religions – are often manipulated for wordly purposes/interests and how countless injustices and cruelties have been committed in the name of God. It is a message relevant to all religions whether Christianity, Islam, Judaism or other faiths and it is relevant to our present times as much as it was 16 centuries ago. History is evidence enough that no religion/faith can claim the upper moral ground when it comes to what its followers have sadly perpetuated in its name throughout the centuries. And it is the average man/humanity at the end that has paid a high price for this.

Criticizing fanaticism, The Chronikler wrote a post titled: Following the lead of Islamists, Egyptian Christians are trying to ban an award-winning novel because it ‘insults’ Christianity. In this post, the blogger wrote:

in recent weeks when a group calling itself (without a hint of irony) Lawyers Without Shackles tried to shackle the reading choices of Egyptians by calling for a ban of a newly released version of the classic One thousand and one nights saga, with its ensemble of popular and ageless characters, including Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad. Their reason? The centuries-old collection is “obscene” and could lead people to “vice and sin”.

Luckily, Egyptian intellectuals have rallied to defend the classic tales, warning against the increasing “Bedouinisation” of Egyptian culture. This is, perhaps, the most ridiculous example of the recent trend towards, what I call, the retroactive condemnation of published works.

Not to be left out of the banning fad, Christians have also joined the fray. A group of Copts in Egypt and abroad have filed a complaint with the public prosecutor against the controversial novel Azazeel (Beelzebub) by Youssef Zidane, which won the 2009 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, an award backed by the Booker Prize Foundation. As insulting any of the ‘heavenly faiths’ is illegal in Egypt, Ziedan could face up to five years behind bars.

The exact charges are:

“He insulted priests and bishops and said many things with no proof or evidence from books or history,” said Mamdouh Ramzi, a Coptic lawyer involved in the action, adding that Ziedan was “not a Christian man, what does he know about the Church?”.

And The Chronikler still does not see where Dr Zidane went wrong:

But even if it were insulting to the Christian clergy, my natural reaction is: “So what?” Not only do we all have differing definitions of what constitutes an insult, everyone is free to express insulting views, if they so wish, and if you don't like it, then don't read it and, by all means, encourage others not to.

As to Ramzi's second assertion, is he seriously suggesting that, in order to write about a faith, you need to belong to it? This is nonsense on so many levels, not least because it stifles freedom of inquiry and speech, and also because most religions do not require their followers to be knowledgeable of the history and philosophy of their faith. Besides, Zidane is a renowned professor of philosophy and the director of the manuscript centre at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

So, what in Zidane's award-winning novel has specifically irked the Coptic establishment?

Bikya Masr said that:

The complaint was singed by each of the following organizations:

Coptic Organization of the United Kingdom, the Egyptian-American Friendship Organization, Canadian Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, Youth Organization of the Copts in Australia, , the Copts of Austria , the Coptic Dutch Organization, French Coptic Organization, the Organization of Copts in Kuwait, Kelma center for human rights.

Despite the assault on freedom of expression, there are a handful of Christians speaking out against what they call “misled” sentiments.

Bikya Masr reported :

“Sure, there is something to be said about the statements and things in the book, but at the end of the day it is a book, a good one at that, and if they don’t want to read it then they don’t have to,” said Hani Fahmy, a 32-year-old pharmacist in Cairo who has said much of the conversation in recent weeks has been surrounding the novel. “I just find it hypocritical that they can say these things and at the same time there are Coptic leaders who say Muslims are the problem. We need some tolerance.”

In solidarity with the author of the controversial novel, Sherif El Sakka wrote:

في ظل الأزمة التي يعيشها الباحثين و الأدباء و الكتاب في محاولة لإعادة محاكم التفتيش و محاكمة القلوب و النوايا ….و الأن يقدم احد أكبر الكتاب في مصر د. يوسف زيدان لنفس الحملة التي استهدفت سيد القمني و محد عمارة و الكثيرين غيرهم و لكنني أري إليوم إن الكثيرين ممن ادعوا الليبرالية و الدفاع عن حرية الرأي التزموا الصمت لذلك أرجو من اصدقائي إن يعلنوا تضامنهم مع الكاتب الكبير ….
Researchers, literary figures, and writers are now facing the dark ages of reviving inquisition lawsuits and trying people based on their beliefs and intentions. Today one of Egypt's most prominent authors – Dr. Youssef Zidane – is facing the same charges that once targeted Dr. Sayed El Qemany, Mohamed Emara, and many others. Today I call upon Egyptian liberals and defenders of freedom of speech to show their solidarity with Dr. Zidane.

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