International Prize for Arabic Fiction Longlist Profiles: ‘The Nabatean’

The Nabatean, Egyptian author Youssef Ziedan’s third novel, has not been as well-received as his bestselling, controversial, and prize-winning second novel, Azazeel.

Azazeel, which won the second International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2009, for a while put Ziedan atop the Egyptian bestseller charts. Ziedan was on the charts with two and sometimes three works: Azazeel, The Nabatean, and his bestselling Arabic Theology, which received a lucid critique from Omar Cheta in Al Masry Al Youm.

Azazeel has been translated into English by Jonathan Wright and should be forthcoming next year from Atlantic.

Ziedan, who prior to the publication of Azazeel was a relatively unknown academic writer, shot to prominence as a novelist in 2009. He seems to be enjoying this work as a fiction writer. In a recent interview, he told IPAF organizers that he began work on The Nabatean “a week after my book Arabic Theology had been printed” in the summer of 2009. He also has a new novel, Impossible or Places that has just been released. 

He told IPAF organizers that The Nabatean took “a whole year,” or a bit more.

The novel was, in a sense, a flip side of Azazeel, Ziedan told the IPAF:

…generally speaking I can say that the character of Maria (Mawia) was the other, opposite face of the character of the monk Haiba in “Azazeel” – the girl and the woman instead of the youth and the man. In contrast to the intellectual, aware of theology and Greek philosophy and the languages spoken at the time, is the simple girl who has not learned much because “the walls of the house don’t teach”, as Maria says in “The Nabatean”. Whereas the Haiba is assiduously searching for the truth, Maria passively accepts whatever comes to her and only has simple desires and hopes.

From the novel’s synopsis:

…Youssef Ziedan brings history to the reader in intimate detail, removing the halos from famous historical characters and transforming them into flesh and blood, with real dreams, mistakes and achievements, strong and weak points. This novel focuses on the fabled Nabateans – an ancient Arabic people living across the Middle East before the arrival of Christianity and Islam – who helped prepare the way for the Muslim conquest of Egypt.

Reviews of the book have been generally underwhelming:

Daily News Egypt – The Nabatean: A false literary prophecy 

From Sherif Azer and Youssef Faltas:

The novel’s ending summarizes its best and worst elements. Although ‘The Nabatean’ is certainly historically entertaining, the effect it leaves on the reader after putting it down is fainter than expected from the writer of “Azazel.”

Al Ahram Weekly – Arab Theology and the Origins of Youssef Ziedan

From Soha Hesham:

In Arab Theology as much as in this book, he reiterates the idea that the Abrahamic religions are but three manifestations of the same response to the world; and he links their being known as the heavenly religions…. Once again, as in Azazeel, Islam prevails as the final layer of a three-stage construction…

The book’s GoodReads page.

If you like video, he talked about Azazel, The Nabatean, (and other things) with Nile TV:

Also, Ziedan told his IPAF interviewer a bit about his new novel, which seems very different from his first three:

[The new novel is] inspired by the experience of incarceration in the famous American prison camp, Guantanamo and follows a young man in his twenties living in Aswan far away from his family who are resident in Um Darman (Sudan). During his work as a tourist guide he falls in love with a girl from Alexandria who lives in the working class “Karmuz” area and is visiting Luxor and Aswan on a university trip. Then, after the massacre of tourists in Deir al-Bahri in Luxor and the setback in Egyptian tourism, he is forced to travel to the Gulf, then Uzbekistan and Afghanistan where he is arrested by the American army and imprisoned in Guantanamo. In the background to the main events of the novel, Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaida, appears but in a different guise to the well-known one found in the media.

Other longlist profiles:

Fadi Azzam’s Sarmada

Habib Selmi’s The Women’s Orchards

Ezzedine Choukri Fishere’s ‘Embrace at the Brooklyn Bridge’

Hawra al-Nadawi’s ‘Under the Copenhagen Sky’

Jabbour Douaihy’s The Vagrant