The Gospel of Damascus, by Omar Imady

Eight angels descend to earth with a mission: to supervise the life of Yune Bukhari, a boy born in Damascus to a Christian mother and Muslim father. After all, Yune is destined to be a modern-day disciple of Jesus whose job will be to proclaim the Second Coming of Christ.

To succeed in his mission, Yune’s upbringing must be “managed” properly by the angels to ensure he is exposed to the required spiritual and earthly experiences. Each angel specialises in a particular domain, so they take turns in guiding Yune (unbeknownst to him) through puberty and adolescence and help create the appropriate circumstances for him to make the right decisions. The angels are following a script handed to them by a higher authority, and are alerted to open scrolls that light up at designated points in Yune’s life and contain instructions in the form of poetic riddles.

GospelYune grows up and realises what he needs to do. He starts assembling the disciples in order to get ready for Christmas Eve, when he believes Christ will show up in Damascus. This is perhaps the best part of the book, as the people Yune collects make up a diverse and interesting group of characters. The eponymous Gospel of Damascus is one of the book chapters; it describes the events leading up to the return of the Messiah. This is perhaps the weaker part of the book, a failed attempt are creating a new gospel that sounds and imitates the originals.

This eschatological fantasy is built on themes from the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Islam and Christianity. It draws on mystical interpretations of the holy scriptures, creating a curious amalgamation of the three traditions. Yune’s name is derived from Jonah, the Biblical prophet.

This is not an easy book to read, especially for those who are not familiar with at least some of the religious texts of these religions. Although Imady denies this being an autobiographical novel, many elements of his life (as described in his short bio) feature in the book: he was born in Damascus to Christian and Muslim parents, he went to the same school Yune goes to, and so on and so forth. One can only wonder if the real life Imady has the same foot fetish that Yune has in the book…

But not only the themes of the novel make it a hard read. The writing is somewhat unwieldy and at times very repetitive; some of the dialogues could have been trimmed down significantly without hurting the story. Even more shocking are the multiple typographical and factual errors that appear on almost every page. Here are a few examples:

  • Page 5: it’s instead of its (!)
  • Page 6: the hebrew term “kefitzat ha-aretz” is wrong; the correct term is “kefitzat ha-derech”
  • Page 22: The prophet Jonah did not convert the city of Midian to monotheism. It was the city of Nineveh.
  • Page 29: Miriam (sister of Moses) did not follow her brother to the house of Pharaoh; she follows his basket down the river
  • Page 131: Buturs should be Brutus

And so on and so forth. A more careful proofreading (and editing) of this book would have made it much easier to read.

In summary, despite its shortcomings, this is an intriguing novel that might appeal to those seeking simplistic spiritual experiences by reading eschatological fantasy tales.

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4 thoughts on “The Gospel of Damascus, by Omar Imady

  1. Yasir, thank you for your thoughtful comments.

    To the best of my knowledge, the term “kefitzat ha-aretz” does not appear in the Talmud. The Talmud uses the phrase “kaftza lahem ha-aretz”, and all Hebrew texts I’m familiar with use the term “kefitzat ha-derech”. You’re right, it’s no big deal.

    I wasn’t aware of the Islamic tradition about Miriam arriving at the house of the Pharaoh or Yonah converting the “city” of Midian (wasn’t Midian a kingdom, not a city?). It would appear this tradition contradicts the Biblical text, written many centuries earlier.

    Your comment about Imady’s condemnation of the Holocaust is perplexing. Should the fact that Imady is a lone wolf in a pack of Muslim authors who do not condemn (or even outrightly deny) the Holocaust change my opinion about his qualities as an author of fiction?

    If “The Gospel of Damascus” is considered a “daring blueprint” for reform, I’m afraid the chances of reformation of Islam are rather slim.

  2. Having read and reviewed “The Gospel of Damascus” recently, I must confess to have been disappointed with the recent review which was posted on this site.
    The reviewer writes that the author used several autobiographical elements that contradict a statement he attributed to the author that “The Gospel of Damascus” is not an autobiographical novel. In fact, the author states the contrary in unmistakable terms in his disclaimer that the novel “is at times inspired by real people and events that crossed my path.” The reviewer is clearly not familiar with this genre of fiction which synthesizes the real and the imaginary in its attempt to share a story. I personally found this approach to be enticing.

    More problematic is the review’s subsequent assertion that the book is full of ‘factual’ and ‘typographical’ errors of which it lists some examples. However the examples the review refers to are entirely mistaken. I personally did some research and found the following:
    The reviewer declares the author used the wrong Hebrew expression “kefitzat ha-aretz” to refer to “those whom the earth jumped.” In fact this is the actual expression that appears in the Talmud and not the term “Kefitzat ha-derekh” that the reviewer poses as its correct replacement. (See:http://www.hebrewbooks.org/pagefeed/hebrewbooks_org_15505_271.pdf. And http://www.pantheon.org/articles/k/kefitzat_ha-derekh.html)

    Likewise, the other two purported “factual mistakes” cited in the review, i.e Miriam following her baby brother Moses to Pharaoh’s house and prophet Jonah converting the city of Midian, are in fact consistent with Islamic tradition ( see Ibn Katheer on Quran 20:40 and al-Qurtbi on “Surat Yunus”). One of the many aspects I enjoyed in this novel is how it alternates between biblical and Islamic traditions. What is sad that this review by this Israeli reviewer failed to notice that “The Gospel of Damascus” is the first novel, that I am aware of, that is written by a Muslim author which categorically condemns the Holocaust (I speak here as a Palestinian scholar who is very familiar with fiction by Muslim authors). What is equally sad that the review refers to this novel as “simplistic” when in fact it contains the most daring blueprint for an Islamic reformation that I am aware of. As far as typos are concerned, no new novel is entirely of free of them but in my opinion at least they are very minimal and do not at all diminish the value of this novel.

    Yasir Sakr, PhD

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