INTERVIEW: Novelist Magued Wahib on Judas, as a defied revolutionary rather than just a traitor

Dina Ezzat , Sunday 5 May 2024

In his novel Alam Yahoudah (The Passion of Judas), partially inspired by the biblical account of the disciple who gave away Jesus to the crucifixion, novelist Magued Wahib revisits and reconstructs the life and motives of the world’s most condemned traitor: Judas Iscariot.

 Novelist Magued Wahib


The novel starts with the imaginary escape of Judas from the massacre of the innocent, with the secretive departure of his parents, Sarah and Simon, from the village, in the land of Judea, through Gaza into Egypt and follows an imaginary cross-path point in Egypt between Jesus and Judas before their return-trip that landed them both at Bethlehem and their reunion at a later point when Judas becomes one of the 13 disciples of Jesus.

It ends with Judas committing suicide after having seen the crucifixion of Jesus. Judas has given away Jesus to the chief priests for 30 silver coins. The novel does not follow the day after with the rise of Christ from the dead in testimony to his divine nature.

“This novel is about Judas not about Jesus; we see Jesus only in settings and contexts where Judas appears or is said to have a role,” said Wahib.

“This is the whole idea, to give a narrative to someone who does not have a narrative in the gospel, beyond being the one who betrayed Jesus,” he added.

In his little over 260-page volume, published by El-Maraya in 2022, Wahib does more than give a narrative of Judas. He gives a voice to Judas to tell an alternative and much more layered story of his account that goes beyond but does not negate the moment of treason, with all its details from the agreement with the chief priests to the kiss at the Olive Garden.

“I did not alter or amend the biblical narrative on the treason and crucifixion of Jesus and the role that Judas played there; I just created a parallel world for Judas to offer his side of the story,” he added. Consequently, the Coptic Orthodox Church expressed no remarks over the novel, he stated.

In this parallel world, Judas is far from being an evil man. He is a compassionate soul who would fully empathize with Henna, an ill-fated woman who had to pursue the path of prostitution for a living. Judas had a long affair with Henna where compassion took over from sexual pleasures. He, however, had to break the relationship upon the pleading appeal of a devastated mother.

Abandoning Henna was one of the most significant moments in the adult life of Judas as it begged very serious questions about those whose hearts are immaculate from all evil, if when their bodies sin, and those who are sinful in the heart even if their bodies have known no sin.

“The true meaning of good and evil and the battle between good and evil is essential to the making of this novel,” Wahib said.

Equally crucial, he added, is the battle over the road towards the liberation from occupation. Like the Zealots, Judas wanted Jesus to oust the Romans for the Jews to reign. Jesus, however, was preaching a heaven beyond the narrow scope of this life and this world of the living.

“The imaginary conversations between Judas and Jesus about the road to liberation and the making of a militant revolution or a peaceful rebellion movement are the peak of the intellectual ordeal that Judas as portrayed in this novel is going through,” Wahib said. 

It is “really interesting that the debate over militant resistance to occupation and peaceful resistance are persists today, exactly in the same land where Jesus and Judas met and separated,” he added.

“In this sense, it is interesting to remember that the Zealous was a militant Jewish movement that wished to expel the Roman occupation by the use of force – not excluding killings and assassinations,” he said.

Ultimately, The Passion of Judas is about the deep and existential questions that challenge faith and confidence rather than about any specific biblical account, Wahib argued.

“It is about the unfulfilled dream of a Utopia,” he said.

“This is why I was not happy when the novel was dubbed a Coptic novel,” he said.

“There is no such thing as Coptic novels or Coptic literature and I think that it is wrong to assume that any literary text written by a Christian author is a Coptic novel.”

“Religion and literature are not exactly interwoven even when the author is Copt and when the story has a clear underlying Coptic theme,” he added.

Wahib argued that the shades of the character of Judas could be traced in many volumes of contemporary and modern Arabic literature including Naguib Mahfouz’s Al-Less Wal-Kelab (The Dog and the Thieves) – one of his favourite Mahfouz titles.

“Elish who gave away Said Mahran has so many similarities with Judas; and this is just one of many other examples,” he said.

Wahib added that he was hoping that his novel would be seen in the same context of other biblical inspired novels including José Saramago’s The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, The Last Temptation of Christ of Nikos Kazantzakis, The Gospel according to Pilate of Eric Emmanuel Schmitt or The Kiss of Judas of Hubert Prolongeau. All of these titles, he argued, offered as sort of an alternative read to the biblical text one way or the other.

Published by El-Maraya, The Passion of Judas is Wahib’s third novel. His first was El-Marg (named for the neighbourhood in east Cairo with a sizable Christian presence), and Al-Aalam fi Hafla Tankoriya (The World at a Bal Masque).

“There are not many Christian families or characters in these two volumes,” he said.

As a writer whose main call is the pursuit of justice, Wahib is convinced that his role – similar to that of Jesus perhaps – is to tell the story whereby the hands of God were always extended to remedy, but not necessarily remove, acts of injustice.  

Meanwhile, Wahib said that the question of justice and its pursuit should be an essential issue for everyone. “Justice is the ultimate test for humanity and humans,” he said.

The question of justice was also very pressing in Wahib's most recent novel, published by El-Maraya, in the early weeks of the year, Assrar Al-Ayyam Al-Oula (The Secrets of the First Days). There too, it is the question of the first two brothers of the world: Cain and Abel.

To continue with the theme of giving a voice to those biblical characters whose voice and profile are so underrated, Wahib gives a layered context to Abel and tries to follow him in a life that he comes back from the dead to live.

“It is curious to see how people act when put to the test,” he said.

However, unimpressed by the generalization and assumptions that labelled The Passion of Judas and The Secrets of the First Days, as Coptic texts by a Coptic writer, Wahib decided to abandon a third sequel that he had planned to visit the life and the characters around yet another biblical figure: Prophet Job. Instead, he is working on Al-Ghad Yabaa min Al-Ams, a family saga novel that follows the trial of 13 generations across 300 years.

Magued Wahib was born in Minya in 1986. He has a degree from Al-Minya University, Faculty of Tourism and Hotels. He is currently at an administrative job at a construction company.

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