Set in the fifth century AD in Upper Egypt, Alexandria and northern Syria, Azazeel presents two parallel fights of the new religion (Christianity) and its believers on the one side and the old pagan religions and their believers on the other side. The other parallel fight takes place inside the monk Hiba whose life is a permanent fight between the two elements of his personality: the heavenly and the earthly elements, the pagan and the Christian.
Azazeel is another name for Satan, who, in religious mythologies symbolizes man’s inclination to do evil things. In art, however, especially in poetry, the Arabic word for the Satan is shaytan. When combined with the word ‘poetry’, it symbolizes the inspiration sources.
So Yousef Ziedan’s Satan is all but negative, and has nothing to do with any rigid dogmas; it’s a symbol of man’s inclination to freedom, to dream and create.
Ziedan’s Azazeel is far more complex than that of the religious mythologies: he tempts Hiba into doing evil things, only to prove through the monk’s inner discourse that this evil is nothing but a human’s purest repressed wishes.
Azazeel is nothing but the hook on which we hang our taboo desires and our inclination for freedom. It is our inner voice, our pure ego, free of all religious and social rules.
The author has set tricky tasks for his two protagonists, Azazeel and Hiba alike: Azazeel’s tough challenge was to free a monk of his religious limits, and Hiba’s challenge was to handle a conflict between his human and divine halves.
Ziedan’s career as a researcher of religious scripts played an important part in reconstructing the world in which his novel is set. His characters move smoothly, both in their dramatic world and in the reality of fifth century Egypt and north Syria.