Egypt’s Youssef Ziedan Phenomenon

Dr. Ziedan is the chain smoker on the right.

Last night, a glance at the (Korba) Shorouk bookstore’s bestseller rack showed, unsurprisingly, that three of the top five slots were taken by books written by scholar-cum-novelist Dr. Youssef Ziedan.*

The first place was occupied—as it is on the Kotob Khan bestseller list—by Ziedan’s latest novel, The Nabataean. The historical novel, released last month, is already on its fourth edition. Although each edition represents the sale of only 5,000 copies, this represents big business in Egyptian book sales.

In third place was Ziedan’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)-winning Azazel (2008), and in fifth was his nonfiction Arab Theology and the Origins of Religious Violence (2010).

What gives? Is Youssef Ziedan the next Stieg Larsson?

Well, maybe not. None of these are a Lost Symbol, an عايزة أتجوز or an Girl with Hornet’s NestArab Theology in particular is heavy material for a bestseller list. As Omar Cheta notes in Al Masry Al Youm:

Al-Lahut is densely written, heavily footnoted and full of cumbersome terms such as kristuluijia (Christology) and al-munuthiliyya (Monothelitism).

Neither was Ziedan’s IPAF-winning Azazel a light historical ditty. Some, in either insult or ignorance, tagged the novel as “the Arabic Da Vinci Code,” which surely rankled the historian Zeidan. He told The National that anyone making such a comparison is “ignorant of the essential difference between an adventure novel based on historical fabrication like The Da Vinci Code, and a philosophical novel written with blood, sweat and tears like Azazel.”

Indeed, Ziedan told The National, he didn’t intend to write a “popular” novel at all:

The novel wasn’t written for the average reader in the first place. I wanted the reader to participate in the novel, to get involved, to be as confused as I got; then to set out through the novel on the middle path between reality and imagination, pouring on to the text a lot of his own reality, and his own imagination, until finally invisibly connecting with the hero, seeing his reflection in him. I did not want to present an entertaining story or tale, I wanted to present him with a provocative text that would interact with the readers on a deep level.

Regardless of Ziedan’s intentions, the book hit a nerve in Egypt, where novels that discuss religion are relatively rare. Those that do emerge (or nearly emerge), such as Anis Deghreidi’s Trials of the Prophet Muhammad, are often attacked or preemptively censored.

Azazel has not been banned in Egypt, but the book certainly has been under fire since its release. The novel, which purports to be the memoirs of a passionate fifth-century monk, was seen by some as a broadside attack on Christianity. It was not officially condemned by the Coptic church, but it did spark press releases, protests, and a book-length response from Coptic Bishop Bishoy. A “hesba” lawsuit was also filed against Ziedan by a Christian group.

However, while Cheta asserts that Arab Theology sells because of “Ziedan’s unfortunate [and incorrect] reputation as a scholar exposing the falsity of Christianity,” Ziedan hasn’t been particularly popular with Islamic scholars, either. His public events in Egypt and the Arabic-reading world are regularly tumultuous; he’s also had a lawsuit filed against him by an Islamist-affiliated group.

In an interview last month with NileTV, Ziedan said that he believes the novel “was attacked by some people who want the Egyptians to stay an ignorant people.”

In the same interview, Ziedan spoke about his new novel, The Nabataean, another historical novel:

The novel is about a young lady, eighteen years old. She is married [to] a merchant, a Nabatean, and she moved from the Delta of the Nile to Sinai, of course, and then she lived in Jordan…and she was an eye-witness of this reparation of the Muslims and Arabs…coming to Egypt.

The Daily News of Egypt’s year-end special on Egyptian novels of 2010, written by Sherif Azer and Youssef Faltas, ranked The Nabataean beneath Azazel, while still including it on their “top 9” list.

News reports in Al Shorouk and elsewhere note that Ziedan has received offers to translate The Nabataean into Italian, English, and Turkish. However, Ziedan’s IPAF-winning Azazel—long since translated into English by Jonathan Wright—has not yet appeared.

It’s due out next summer from Atlantic Books, and, as I wrote elsewhere:

Had the book been under attack solely by fringe Muslim groups, one would assume this to be a selling point for many Western book-buyers. But the novel has also been decried by an Arab Christian minority, even if mistakenly, and how this will affect the award-winning novel’s reception is difficult to predict.

Read more:

Khaled Diab, “Egypt’s Coptics Find Book Insulting,” The Guardian

Omar Cheta, “Youssef Ziedan: Misrepresentations of an intellectual,Al Masry Al Youm

Laura Chubb, “Youssef Ziedan interview,” Time Out Bahrain

Yusuf Zeydan: Beelzebub,” The National

M. Lynx Qualey, “Religion vs. Fiction in Egypt,” Sightings


Ziedan’s books are discussed on GoodReadsZiedan’s official website is full of information, mostly about ancient manuscripts; he also has a yet-unused Twitter account.

*Yes, I do realize that Dar el Shorouk is Ziedan’s publisher, and that his books get very good placement in the stores. However, his two most recent novels and Arab Theology also regularly appear atop bestseller lists at Kotob Khan and Diwan.