Banning books by the book

By Khaled Diab

Following the lead of Islamists, Egyptian Christians are trying to ban an award-winning novel, Azazeel, because it ‘insults' .

18 May 2010

I am no fan of fanaticism and I wish fundamentalists would just have some fun, or at the very least learn to live and let live. But, in , they have gone from being a nuisance to becoming a real threat, not only to and expression but also to the country's very cultural heritage.

This was demonstrated 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 in Egypt and abroad have filed a complaint with the public prosecutor against the controversial novel Azazeel (Beelzebub) by Youssef Ziedan, 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.

“He insulted priests and bishops and said many things with no proof or evidence from 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?”.

In his own defence, Ziedan told the Guardian: “Many Orthodox bishops and monks welcomed the novel, and some of them wrote positively of Azazeel, whether in Egypt, Syria or Lebanon.” He has previously described his novel as “not against Christianity but against violence, especially violence in the name of the sacred”.

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, Ziedan is a renowned professor of philosophy and the director of the manuscript centre at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

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

The events of Azazeel take place around the turbulent and troubled period of the Nestorian schism in the Orthodox church, and the book highlights, through the eyes of a fictional Egyptian monk, not only the tensions between different Christian factions, but also between the new official faith of the Roman empire and the “pagan” religions that preceded it.

The has denounced the novel as offensive for its violent portrait of one of the church's founding fathers, St Cyril, the so-called ‘Pillar of Faith‘. The trouble for the Coptic church is that, its reverence for Cyril of Alexandria notwithstanding, the historical evidence does strongly suggest that he was violent.

Cyril was involved in the expulsion from Alexandria of Jews and of newly declared ‘heretical' Christian movements, such as the Novatians, not to mention the persecution of adherents of the old-world polytheistic faiths, and the murder of the Alexandrian philosopher and first notable female mathematician, Hypatia, one of my favourite Ancient Geeks.

With all this fuss about Ziedan's novel, I wondered what Ramzi and the other Copts involved in this legal action would make of Alejandro Amenábar's wonderfully evocative Agora – in which Rachel Weisz portrays beautifully – and whether they'll also be calling for its banning.

Agora, which I had the pleasure of seeing last weekend, covers the same historical period as Azazeel and dramatises the clash of ideals and ideas between Cyril and Hypatia, as well as the power struggle between by the Patriarch of Alexandria and the city's Roman prefect.

Although Amenábar perhaps over-romanticises the rationality and tolerance of the Greek tradition and exaggerates Hypatia's achievements, we saw clearly the parallels he was drawing between that ancient clash between rationality and dogma, as well as tolerance and intolerance, and our own times. More specifically, the Egypt he portrays is eerily familiar – what with its huge socio-economic inequalities, an elite far removed from the populace, foreign meddling from a distant great power that often makes matters worse, and religious puritans and fundamentalists taking care of the neglected and hungry populace in return for their blind obedience.

Both Azazeel and Agora are timely works of art because, by contrasting past and present tragedies, they may help us understand our times better and realise the possible consequences of our actions. Egyptian Copts are justifiably nervous about their worsening status on the back of the rising wave of Islamic fundamentalism but dialogue, not stifling , is the answer.

As Brian Whitaker has observed, Egyptian law and how it is interpreted is giving fanatics increasingly free rein. In order to avoid the abuse of Egyptian law by the government and religious reactionaries to shutdown debate and silence dissent, Egyptians need to band together to change Egypt's antiquated laws and protect freedom of expression for all.

This article appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 12 May 2010. Read the full discussion here.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the UK, and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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11 thoughts on “Banning books by the book

  • Pedestal Table

    Rachel Weisz should have been always the leading lady of the Mummy movies because she really fits that role

  • Ditto! Rachel Weisz is lovely! (Sigh’s!)

  • Lol, nice pure intentions ;o)

  • Yeah, right on! Reminds me that I need to see Agora. And not only because I really fancy Rachel Weisz

  • Indeed, Manon. Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn a way to put the fun into fundi!

    Budd, Egyptian law prohibits all ‘insults’ to Islam, Christianity and Judaism – which protects the sensibilities of the religious but is a curse for freedom of expression, when that law is applied.

  • Take that a little further Khaled. Do Egyptian Christian have the right through the democratic process to try to ban what they feel is insulting???? Does the government have the right to stop them from voicing their opinion????

    Last week a government official in Sweden was beaten because he referred to Mohammed in a way that three men objected to.

    Comment please.

    Via Facebook

  • Manon Fuller

    This banning business seems to be catching on..morons of the world, unite!

    Via Facebook


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