By Sherif Azer and Youssef Faltas
“By the one two-faced God and by primordial wisdom, I speak the truth. There is none but Mother and Son. From the two, every mother and son come. An embrace to the mother, longing to her son, and to them together birth and recreation. God Eel begotten from Goddess Laat, the essence of all beings, and the origin of all active forms,” prophesies the Nabatean in Youssef Ziedan’s new novel “Al-Nabati.”
After listening to Youssef Ziedan citing the opening verses of his long-awaited novel “The Nabatean” at a recent book signing, devoted fans were under the impression that Arabic literature was finally about to receive one of the most crafted and well-written novels of all time. Despite its simple plot, Ziedan exerted all of his linguistic efforts to write a novel rich with all the rhetoric skills and poetic devices of the Arabic language.
“The Nabatean” tells the story of Coptic Maria who marries a Nabatean man years before the advent of Islam. Ziedan takes his readers through a detailed tour of the lives of Nabateans (a tribe living in modern day Jordan and Syria). She meets a Nabatean prophet, the Nabatean, and witnesses the major changes affecting the region in that sensitive era.
Readers can’t avoid comparing the side characters to their counterparts in Zidan’s award winning “Azazel”, a comparison that doesn’t favor the new novel. “Azazel” was a masterpiece rich with deep and well-drawn characters such as Hypatia and Nestorius. The way Ziedan described Hypatia, the way she looked and talked, made it hard to resist falling in love with her.
The side characters in “Al-Nabati” on the other hand fail to capture the same depth and richness displayed in Hypatia, in spite of the existence of potentially captivating historical characters, such as Amr Ebn El-Aas.
The genre which Ziedan specializes in writing in — and this is clear in his three novels — requires a historical as well as a literary evaluation. In the case of “Azazel,” a careful theological review was also needed. The historical examination is needed because the popularity of Ziedan’s novels has a noticeable effect in reforming our understanding of history but such examination remains to this moment unfortunately lacking.
In such a mix of fact and fiction, the reader without a strong historical background can not separate dramatic plots from accepted historical facts and Ziedan’s own historical theories. Ziedan makes it even more difficult, and definitely more interesting, by not including any historical references in footnotes or in an appendix. The reader can’t know the sources of the historical picture that Ziedan paints but in most parts of “The Nabatean” the picture’s vivacity overcomes this shortcoming.
With all considerations of rigor aside and with eyes only on literary appeal, the novel is weak on many fronts. Perhaps the major source of weakness is the writer’s initial choice of Maria as the narrator. While in “Azazel,” the narrating Coptic monk Hypa enjoyed a warm acquaintance with the main character, the devil, Maria lacks this privileged association with the Nabatean. She is simply unfit to portray the unusual world of Nabateans due to her narrow scope of interest and lack of analytic skills. However, what really stops the reader from engaging with Maria’s world is her emotional rigidity. She is a neutral observer lacking even slightly provoking opinions which would have invited readers to sympathize with or relate to her.
Ziedan’s choice of a Nabatean prophet as the main character promised readers entertaining language, but he delivers only glimpses of such promise. Perhaps the words of his prophecy quoted above are the finest example of Ziedan’s fascinating command of Arabic. In addition, Ziedan decided that his Nabatean prophet will remain silent when he encounters the then new Islamic prophecy. When he reads the Quran, the Nabatean only exclaims, “He delivers these words then sheds blood?”
It is either that the writer wanted to highlight the weakness of the Nabatean prophets or that he preferred to avoid any harsh public reaction to the criticism to Islam he might have delivered through the words of his prophet. In either case, the Nabatean’s reaction seems unnatural and consequently harms the novel. Ziedan missed an opportunity to present his readers with how Arab prophets viewed Islam as a new religion at the time.
One of strongest features in the novel, however, is the way Ziedan took readers on a journey of the surrounding environments, moving from the Egyptian countryside to the desert. He utilized all his knowledge in giving a detailed, almost eye-witness account of the daily lives of the Nabateans. Following the route of the caravan from Egypt to Petra, one can only marvel at the lively images full of geographical scenery inlaid with rich botanical and zoological details, signaling a thorough study by the author.
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.”