Book review: The Televangelist by Ibrahim Essa - a glimpse behind Egypt’s curtains of power
Ibrahim Essa isn’t interested in novels that are “dark, complex and fragmented”.
In a 2013 interview, the controversial TV personality and journalist said that he prefers books that entertain. Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, Essa wrote half a dozen potboilers – one of which was banned under the Mubarak regime – before achieving acclaim with The Televangelist. This novel, shortlisted for the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, has now been translated into clear, brisk English by Jonathan Wright.
Essa said that he sees The Televangelist (titled Mawlana, or Our Master, in Arabic) as a relative of Dan Brown’s cryptology thriller The DaVinci Code and Umberto Eco’s classic The Name of the Rose. Yet The Televangelist shares perhaps even more genetic material with the newspaper Essa ran in the 1990s, Al Dostour. Like the newspaper, the novel promises a glimpse behind the curtains of power, into the interlocking worlds of Egypt’s reigning elite in politics, film, business, the military and religion.
The novel centres on an Azhar-trained sheikh, Hatem El Shenawi, who is described as the most popular and highest-paid TV preacher in Egypt. His fans see only part of his personality: the real Hatem is a classical, rationalist thinker, both erudite and witty. Hatem is also relatable because of self-criticism and his all-too-human failings, particularly when it comes to matters of the flesh.
The Televangelist, which weighs in at nearly 500 pages, gives free rein to Essa’s and Hatem’s love of words, particularly interpretating the Quran. The narrative thus meanders somewhat before it reaches the central plot driver around page 100. That’s when Sheikh Hatem is ushered into a meeting with the powerful, unnamed “president’s son”, told a family secret, and charged with fixing the family’s private problem before it explodes into public view.
Essa said in 2013 that he “can’t understand” why people assume the character of the president’s son is based on Gamal Mubarak. But it’s an obvious connection, particularly when Essa weaves so many nonfictional elements into his book, including real fatwas.
The ruling family’s problem pushes us toward the heart of sectarian conflict in Egypt. The unnamed president’s son, who holds the reins of power, tells Sheikh Hatem that his young brother-in-law has decided to convert to Christianity. The president’s son then asks the popular preacher to return his brother-in-law to Islam.
The president’s son insists that his desire to reconvert his brother-in-law has nothing to do with his feelings about Christians and that he and his family aren’t bigots. However: “People in the West and the racists will jump on the subject and make a big deal out of it, and the extremists and the terrorists, if they get wind of the story, they’ll set fire not just to us but to the whole of Egypt.”
In one of the many intertwinings of the fictional and the real, the president’s son makes reference to the story of Mosab Hassan Youssef, son of a Hamas leader who converted to Christianity. Youssef published the tell-all memoir, Son of Hamas, in 2010.
The brother-in-law, Hassan, isn’t a particularly fervent convert to Christianity. Instead, he seems confused and in need of affection. Hassan shows up to his first meeting with Sheikh Hatem like a defiant teen, wearing a cross and an “I Love Jesus” T-shirt. Although Hatem is annoyed by this burden, he develops a condescending affection for Hassan.
It’s hard to pin down how the slippery Hatem feels about any political or religious issue. Hatem doesn’t seem to care about re-converting Hassan, although he scorns Hassan’s desire to convert. He says that he sympathises with the Copts’ demands for fair treatment by the state but not “with the Copts themselves”. He insists that “the country’s divided into rich and poor, corrupt people and honest people, not Muslims and Christians[.]”
Hassan’s conversion and reconversion isn’t the only hot-button sectarian issue in The Televangelist. Hatem’s closest friend, the Sufi Sheikh Mukhtar, is accused of being a Shiite who’s colluding with Iran, and is denounced across the media. Hatem must choose whether to defend his (innocent) friend or stay out of trouble.
Like Essa’s changeable public persona, it’s hard to say what the novel ultimately believes about religion and religious minorities. But, as with much of Essa’s work, it makes for compelling entertainment.
M Lynx Qualey is a freelance writer based in Cairo who blogs at arablit.wordpress.com.
Updated: April 4, 2016 04:00 AM