Christslave : A Gospel of Lie Story
A Gospel of Lie Story
An old, dust-covered copy of The Critique of Coptic Reason (Beirut, 1978), a colossal undertaking whose rarity, acuteness and bizarreness failed to attract scholarly attention or spark the interest of antique dealers, is perhaps the sole surviving testimony to the tragic life of Wahid Abdul Masseih.
The work is in many ways unconventional. It was written by a man who lived in a country where literature was praised in public while shunned in private; it dealt with a subject that was otherwise unexplored by any ingenious mind; and it had a peculiar, labyrinthine structure that blended paragraphs of quasi-scholarly value with autobiographical diary-like entries that screamed with subjectivist pain.
In the first chapter Abdul Masseih utilized the shock approach to alert the reader that “there are more things in scripture and history than those preached by the abounas [Coptic priests].” The chapter starts with a quote from St. Augustine that might be shocking to Copts. “If you expel prostitution from society, you will unsettle everything on account of lusts.” The whole chapter is made up of unrelated quotes and facts that Wahid thought would surprise and hook the interest of the Coptic layman. He started by pointing out how the account of creation differed between the first and second chapters of Genesis and elaborated on this point to introduce the reader to the documentary hypothesis^^1^. He dabbled throughout the chapter with occult themes in the Bible that he claimed were carefully avoided by the priests, like the Urim and Thummim, or Ashmodai’s dislike of fish liver odor as documented in the Book of Tobit^^2^^. He then quoted prominent church fathers regarding the identity of the children of God and the Nephilim in the sixth chapter of Genesis before going on to discuss Origen’s belief in the salvation of the Devil and eventually embarking on Pope Dionysius’ embarrassing comments on the Book of Revelation^^3^^.^
One of Abdul Masseih’s most daring endeavors, perhaps, was his refutation of the 1968 apparitions of our Blessed Virgin at Al-Zeitoun. He illustrated how easily the whole affair could have been forged and went on to express his contempt at how low the extraordinarily popular Pope Kyrillos the Sixth had gone in order to extract the papacy from the cradle of filth where the corruption of Yousab the Second had left it^^4^. “Resorting to the cliché of miracle-working is the filthiest expression of spiritual bankruptcy,” he emphatically wrote in one little paragraph of his book.^^5^^^
A good deal of another chapter is aimed at the refutation of the alleged miracles of the late Pope Kyrillos VI. Wahid believes that the pope has become an irresistible religious icon by masterfully personifying a number of powerful archetypes. “He is old and white-haired; a father; an ancient of days, if you like. He has this charming, half-mocking smile by which the laughing Buddha had captivated half the hearts of Asia. At times he frowns sternly at people and rebukes them, at other times he laughs like a child, but most often he does both at the same time. He gives you the impression that he is a man who is shocked by how seriously we mortals deal with our mundane affairs. He stands in front of you but skillfully gives you the impression that he is watching you from afar, that he has retracted his mahatma [great soul] to a remote place inside of himself and has veiled it with a simple persona with which you, earthly man, will be able to cope, a persona that expresses its enlightenment by childish laughter and hides its sanctity with feigned harshness.” In another paragraph, Wahid pokes fun at the Pope’s most famous quote, ‘Kon motmaenan gedan’ [Be very assured, and don’t think about your problems too much], calling it “an invitation to sloth”, and comparing it to “Don’t worry, be happy” of the Indian Guru Meher Baba. The reigning Pope at the time of the publication of the book, Shenouda the Third, didn’t receive much invective. Abdul Masseih simply dismissed him as being a chatterbox “…for it actually surprises me that someone can preach and write all that much without making the smallest mistake or elucidating the simplest of truths.”
In the fourth chapter of his book, Wahid traces the history of what he calls “the sanctification of banality within the Coptic Church,” where he quotes many accounts of contemporary Coptic saints whose evident stupidity was subtly veiled by the elusive term of “simplicity.” Wahid tells us, for instance, about the story of ‘Asaty Mezati’: A great theologian was contacted by God and told that, in spite of all his knowledge, he was not the greatest man in his town. Driven by horror and jealousy, the theologian hurried to the fields seeking the man who surpassed him in virtuosity before the eyes of the Lord. He was shocked at the sight of a poor, illiterate shepherd and quickly asked him about his spiritual practices. The man explained that he loved the Bible but didn’t know how to read it. He added that he couldn’t memorize any prayer, not even the Lord’s Prayer and that he had to content himself with reciting a five-word prayer day and night. Believing the prayer to be of exceptional depth, the theologian begged the shepherd to recite it. With closed eyes and praying hands the shepherd murmured ‘Asaty mezati yarab eghfer sayeati’ [My stick, my goat, O Lord forgive my evil thought]. Wahid contrasts this simplicity, which he asserts to be sheer foolishness in disguise, with the spiritual agnosia preached by the divine theologian Dionysius the Areopagite in his spiritual classic Mystical Theology. “The Areopagite tells us of the divine darkness, a darkness that is not caused by the absence of light, but by the abundance of light. The wise realize that no finite knowledge can delve into the sacred depth of divinity and consequently conclude that these depths are to be approached only through unknowing …. What was once a shrug of the shoulders before the mystery of the ineffable has now sunk so low as to become a celebration of mediocrity, a sanctification of banality, an assurance to the inane that morons like themselves are welcome in the holy city of New Jerusalem.”
Wahid referred with grief to the scarcity of translated early Christian material. “Conspiracy theories usually don’t appeal to me, but I am starting to suspect that the Coptic Church has a hand in the present shameful condition of the Coptic library. After all, let’s not forget that William Tyndale was burned at the stake for having translated the Greek Bible into English. I have seen piles and piles of Arabic books that glorify alleged miracles and apparitions but not a single book written by Origen or Clement. The Coptic Church knows that theology is dangerous and has consequently kept it out of the reach of the Coptic layman. In the past the Coptic Church had the Gnostic Gospels burned, today they have Justin Martyr and Hippolytus banned. But the Church alone is not to blame; Copts never demanded these books be translated. Copts, virtually all Egyptians, are lazy potato bags who’d rather eat chips and fries in front of their TV sets than read a book. Literacy is considered a luxury.”
Another chapter is dedicated in its entirety to the investigation of the exorcisms carried out in the famous monastery of Mit Damsis. Abdul Masseih elaborately discussed many cases where this practice had led to permanent disabilities. He then questioned and dismissed any possible benefit that the Devil may harvest out of possessing people. “Possessions derive their strength from capturing the intangible in the tangible. You see the poor man turning and twisting without seeing the infernal puppeteer or his sly strings. Why would a possessed man gnash his teeth and foam at the mouth? Why not whistle and snap his fingers? Whenever I watch these cheap performances there calls a voice in my head that tries to fool me into believing that there is a secret reason for every movement that the possessed does. The poor fool themselves into believing that all that they are witnessing are but phenomena of an invisible mystery, that the least action, squeak or phrase uttered by the possessed has its unique and essential place in the economy of the devil. They sense the presence of explanations that cannot be uttered in earthly words, for they believe that they are seeing the reflection of the Devil, the shadow of Satan, without seeing him face to face…. If one of those times a monstrous form emerges out of the body of the possessed, if a roaring beast becomes visible to our eyes, then the veil will be torn and drama will descend to comedy. Yet this doesn’t happen, just as any skillful horror writer seldom describes his monsters in great detail. It is this lack of information that adds up a huge feeling of mystery and importance…. If a devil possesses a righteous man to commit evil, will such a man be punished for acts that he didn’t voluntarily commit? On the other hand, why would a devil posses an evildoer? Is it that the Devil is trying to prevent that man from repenting? Wouldn’t that conflict with one’s free will? Or is it that our abounas are using the Devil, that ingenious, underrated actor, to scare us? After all, we have already been warned by Clement of Rome that ‘God rules the world with a right and a left hand, the right being Christ, the left Satan.’ It seems to me excessively naïve to believe that the abounas would be reluctant to use a strategy that was first employed by their master.” Wahid finally unearthed and pitied the true psychological motivations that push people to commit such idiocies. “In the epileptic convulsions of those who frequent Mit Damsis, we can sadly observe how the elderly and the outcast are willing to humiliate themselves just to attract the attention of others. It is this same supplication for attention that I had once experienced when I was working in my pharmacy, and an elderly woman showed me of her age-worn flesh more than she should while taking a vitamin injection. I can still remember how she observed my face, trying to capture and exaggerate the least expression of lust.”
In another chapter that he suggestively titled ‘The Tainted Legacy of Gnosticism in the Coptic Church’ Wahid quickly traced the Coptic history, from the day when Anianus repaired the sandal of St. Mark till the reign of the present pope, boldly trespassing on Iris El Masry’s area of expertise. Wahid recounts a peculiar story about a book that he once discovered on a Coptic shelf. “The Orthodox Church! That was its name. I was very excited when I first skimmed through it but I was calmed down, and saddened, when I realized that the book was translated and was thus written by no Copt. I noticed how the Coptic translator truncated a chapter that dealt with the ecumenical councils, eliminating any mention of the council of Chalcedon and the councils that followed it [the Coptic Church, being part of oriental orthodoxy, accepts only the first three councils]. I honestly wonder how Copts reason. From the way they glorify St. Athanasius and claim that the conclusions of Nicaea I were guided by God I wonder how they reject the conclusions of the Council of Chalcedon. Why did God support the orthodox Athanasius in 325 and the saint-murderer Cyril in 431 yet let the pious Dioscorus down in 451?” Wahid also covered the brutal murdering of Hypatia and dedicated to her an ineloquent though incredibly moving poem.
In another part of the chapter, Wahid recalled how a Coptic poster printed to celebrate the journey of the holy family to Egypt had once fallen into his hands. “The abomination depicted a cracked Pharaonic column and tablet, both standing feebly, about to crumble at any moment. St. George’s Church of Sporting emerged from behind, clothed in a most spectacular light, like a victorious rising sun. The picture of the holy family constituted the background. The phrase ‘Behold, the LORD… shall come into Egypt: and the idols of Egypt shall be moved at his presence…In that day there will be an altar to the LORD in the heart of Egypt. (Isaiah 19)’ was written in the lower left corner. The message is clear: Isaiah was prophesizing the coming of the holy family to Egypt. This would eventually lead to the collapse of paganism and founding ‘an altar to the Lord’ which turns out to be nothing other than our beloved Church of Sporting! The motif is as old as the hills: we read Zoroastrian texts demonizing Alexander the Great, Arabic sources claiming that the sacred fire of Ahura Mazda was extinguished when Mohammed was born, Mandaean legends making a villain out of Moses and a Jewish Tanakh ranting about the ‘Whore’ of Babylon. Here, the author of this perpetuation has deliberately hijacked a wholly unrelated and unfulfilled Hebrew prophecy and recycled it to serve his goals… It is interesting how he mutilated the first verse, omitting any mention of the ‘swift cloud’ upon which the Lord will ride when he comes to Egypt. It should come to us as no surprise, seeing that the ‘Lord’ had actually arrived on the back of a one drowsy ass!”
In the remaining part of the chapter, Wahid went on to illustrate with contempt how the Coptic Church ended up accepting the foulest aspects of Gnosticism while rejecting the highest. (hence the name of the chapter.) “because those abounas are willing to assert the despicable nature of the flesh and find great interest in the tales of angels and miracles while at the same time maintaining the moral superiority of the Old Testament deity and discouraging mystical insight or spiritual independence.” Wahid tells us about ‘Al Sowah Al Mujahideen’ [The struggling tourists] and how he first learned about them. “When I was six my mother took me, in one of her infinite attempts to raise me as a good orthodox, to the Monastery of Marimina [St. Menas] at Marriot Desert. The monks were very excited that day; the tools of the altar have changed their positions and a monk claimed that he had overheard numerous voices chanting hymns at three o’clock in the morning. There was only one rational explanation: Al Sowah Al Mujahideen had paid a nocturnal visit to the monastery. Al Sowah Al Mujahideen are a group of devout Christians who have ventured to the desert, led celibate lives, renounced every earthly possession and seldom ate or drank. They thus were just Sowah: tourists who no longer belonged to this world and were only partially governed by its laws. Their bodies, tamed by their spirits, were extremely fragile and thin; they could walk on water and ‘be carried away by the wind’ for long distances in a few seconds. They could work great miracles and often met at late hours in old, abandoned churches where they held masses and glorified the Lord with their unearthly voices…. I wonder if Madame Blavatsky had ever heard about Al Sowah before she started believing in the Tibetan Masters!”
Wahid also criticized the church for burdening people with guilt in order to control them in what he called “a maneuver worthy of clandestine cults alone”, a maneuver that evidently took its toll on his own conscience as a young believer. In an unrelated paragraph, for instance, we find Wahid writing about a dream that he had as a teenager, shortly after discovering the ‘forbidden ritual of the hand’: “Our blessed virgin stood before me, with weary, half-dead eyes, eyes of a woman who had just witnessed the crucifixion of her own son. She was covered with sweat and mud as she wrestled to push a brick-loaded carrel. ‘Your sins have grown beyond measure, Wahid.’ She wearily exclaimed at a guilt-ridden me.”
Wahid’s book could have become a sensation for the Egyptian Islamists who easily identify with anything anti-Coptic, were it not for its sharp-edged attack on Islamism. Writing in the seventies, an era when the Islamists, no longer prosecuted under the Nasser regime, were experiencing an unholy upheaval, Wahid was keen on pointing out the impeding horrors that Egypt would have to face in case the Islamists took control. Wahid made it clear that he was writing a book that would “challenge Copt fanatics but please no Islamist.” In the penultimate chapter Wahid claimed that the sole merit of the Coptic Church was its ardent resistance to Islamization for fourteen centuries. Yet he expressed his concern that the Coptic Church had actually absorbed Islamic values in the process. He pointed out with irony, which spoke of grief more than of pleasure, how cowardly Pope Shenouda the Third was when he discussed the doctrine of the Trinity, trying to ‘water down’ the interpretation of the trinity against the Islamic accusations of shirk [polytheism]. He concluded the chapter with a quote from the aforementioned pope where he illustrated the Trinity by means of the sun, its rays and heat. He then showed how this same allegory had been used by the abominable Sabellius to propagate his nontrinitarian heresy as attested by Saint Epiphanius of Salamis in his Medicine Chest, also known as The Panarion^6.^
I believe that the last paragraph of the chapter summarizes Wahid’s position much better than any attempt from my side. “… for every action there is a reaction; even Tertullian, who thought that Athens had nothing to do with Jerusalem, still had a faint spark of light in his writings; his words still caught the fragrance of Hellenism. Now the church faces no Neo-Platonists, Stoics or Gnostics. The foe is new: one who neither cares about reason nor mystical experiences. The church is no longer faced by the important questions; the priests are not asked whether meaningful myths are spiritually superior to historical events or whether personal experience is more authoritative than scripture. The orthodox now deal with a like-minded foe and the debates are about the historicity of events. The disputes concern the actuality of the crucifixion, not its spiritual meaning. The absence of a third party has fooled both the orthodox and the Muslims into believing that disproving one religion will instantaneously justify the other.”
In the last chapter Wahid expressed his deep desire to see Copts develop a secular concept of ethnic identity. This chapter clearly differs in style and attitude from the other chapters; the language is obscure and the words are ambiguous. I have a certain feeling that Wahid was trying to draw parallels between his hoped for Al Haweya Al Kebteya [The Coptic Identity] and a certain movement that had transformed another religious identity into a national one.
This extraordinary book haunted me, I tried to slip away from it but it somehow chased me in my solitude and in my dreams (I was tempted to believe that I had run into the latest incarnation of that sinister Argentine coin that almost drove Borges mad^^7^.) Finally, I concluded that my encounter with the book was not accidental, and admitted that I had the moral obligation of bringing the forgotten life of Abdul Masseih into light. This task turned out to be exceedingly difficult and soon I realized that I had to rely on the only two available sources of information in my quest: the autobiographical paragraphs scattered in his book and the fading memories of the few who were condemned to be his neighbors.^
Wahid Abdul Masseih was a fragile, pale, and sickly man who, not unlike Kafka or Poe, led a miserable life and died prematurely. His whole life was an error, a burden on existence that only a blind god could permit. The mere fact of his existence shamed all those who knew him, as if they had a secret hand in it. An elder Greek neighbor described him to me: “At times his mind had exhausted his body and reduced him to a mere phantom. I remember how he went out hastily on moonless nights, cloaked with darkness, to buy some food. He never took off his old fashioned sunglasses, not even at night. At a few times I could catch sight of his protruding eyes from underneath the thick glasses, they were always glowing, echoing Paul’s prophetic assertion that the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” He lived most of his life in strict seclusion. In one paragraph of his book he wondered whether he was a Gnostic soul that lost its way during its descent through the planetary spheres^^8^, eventually arriving at the right place (Alexandria) in the wrong time (the twentieth century instead of the second). In another chapter he admitted that he was tempted to believe in reincarnation for he felt that he was living the mirror opposite of an earlier life, perhaps that of Alexander the Sixth (an idea that once tempted Aleister Crowley^^9^^). He prefigured in rejection and solitude an exalted, though rarely trodden, road to purification. Of all the things that he detested two stood out the most: unrehearsed optimism and the belief that monotheism is more justified than idolatry: “At least Marduk could stop a well-aimed stone. Compete with that, Adonai!”^
Of all the themes that run through Wahid’s book, the most prominent one is that of madness. Wahid recounts how he, at the tender age of five, had once eaten water colors, only to be quickly held back and rebuked by his mother. “It was a glorious moment,” he writes, “when I ‘discovered’ that I could eat these colors without harm. An ineffable feeling of jubilation stormed my soul. It was liberation from the undermining confinements of reason. A whole new array of experiences and delights was now possible and unspeakable adventures awaited me. I felt irritated for not having made this discovery earlier and desired to vindicate myself against a secret enemy who kept me from participating in this new world for all that time. I have been blessed by reliving this experience over and over again in those frequent dreams when I can, with due concentration, fly.”
Einstein’s General Relativity teaches us that massy objects bend light and distort the fabric of space and time. I couldn’t stop thinking of that as I examined certain paragraphs of Wahid’s book – the most important ones. As a skillful surrealist twists lines, Wahid deformed the structures of phrases around important words. As if those words had enough might to defy the laws of logic and, consequently, the laws of grammar. To Wahid those words and terms represented transcendental truths that couldn’t be reduced to human language save at a high price.
Far from being the beast of the Apocalypse or the Antichrist, some paragraphs of Wahid’s book suggest that he had his own radiant religious experience. “Schopenhauer once said that Christianizing India would be as useless as a bullet fired at a cliff. Now I place the statue of the revered Buddha at one extremity of my room and erect a Catholic crucifix opposed to it. On one side I have peace, prudence, unattachment and Nirvana. On the other side I have a juvenile god who fell immensely in love and suffered precisely because of that passion. He was caught in the trap of Maya, his flesh was entangled in the barbed net of Samsara that pervades the very fabric of existence. Yet it was here that the paradox shone. For I could see how that feeble god, with his bones protruding from beneath his pale skin, has purified himself from passion by passion; had bathed himself with pain until it lost every meaning. Neither was he intimidated by jeers and insults nor was he reluctant to mention them in his own gospels. Many are ashamed of participating in this world and when they do it they do it reluctantly. They hide behind masks and pennames. They limit themselves by their foolish desire to affect the world without being affected in return; to criticize without being criticized. The crucifix is the paradox of life sprouting out of death, of divinity and will shining from a consumed body that hangs resiliently in a last act of self-assertion. The crucifix is the paradoxical symbol that is designed for death but stands for life. On the other side of the room, I could still observe the Buddha as he serenely reposed, his golden skin as glittering as metals. In his ceaseless efforts to quit suffering, he has altogether ceased to be a human. He could no longer be a father or a saint… he was an unloving alien worthy only of the pity that he agreed to offer.”
In another chapter Wahid recounts a folk tale spun in Coptic circles as a real story: A renowned professor, tormented by the devils of doubt, secretly smuggles the Host of the Holy Communion in her purse to her home where she observes it under the microscope and, to her bewildering shock, distinguishes red blood corpuscles and other human tissues. The professor is blinded instantaneously because ‘no one may see God and live.’ After poking fun at the folktale and after emphasizing the role that fear plays in peppering such idiocies, Wahid shared with us his own interpretation of the Holy Communion. “One may question how the poor fellow who invented this miserable tale accepted that the professor could see wine really turned to blood under the microscope while it still retained its taste to the tongue and appearance to the naked eye. The mystery of communion, in effect, has deep roots that are unearthed only by a chosen few. First we can see bread and wine. The priest performs the rite. The bread and wine still look the same, but we are told that now they have changed. I dare question the resurrection of the Lord, the conversion of Paul, the inerrancy of the Bible, but I dare not dismiss this mystery as meaningless. For here shines the paradox; the bread is both bread and flesh; the wine is both wine and blood. Had the bread and wine really turned to flesh and blood we would have witnessed a miracle, but not a paradox. Miracles appeal to the psychics^^10^; they are cheap alternatives to the misunderstood paradoxes that are aimed to the pneumatic few… the wine that has turned to blood is not as holy as the wine that has turned to blood without ceasing to be wine.”^
Sudden outbursts of nihilism must have been his sworn enemy. In one chapter he writes “Corpses are useless…carefully joined bones, elaborately woven networks of vessels, and finely-chiseled muscles that are of no use. Corpses are virtuous, for they recognize the futility of their existence and erase it with the most obscene of ways. With maggots and stench they purify themselves of the guilt of a purposeless existence in a blind world. Now my body is no more useful that a long-dead corpse, yet it takes blasphemous pride in its existence. I stare at my hands and they shamelessly stare back at me… no matter how hard I try to awaken them to their secret vice, I fail…they just refuse to decompose.” In another chapter, while elaborately contrasting Christian theosis with Greek henosis, Abdul Masseih abruptly stops and starts talking to himself “and it is in this sense, and in this sense alone, that one is apt to see how henosis is unfathomably [space] Sometimes I wonder whether what I have to write justifies my ceaseless defiling of white papers. My soul is restrained in the very paradigm that it’s trying to invalidate. If Heaven is a lie then I’d be pitied more than all men, for I can’t resist the belief that somehow God will reward me for showing him how absurd he and his world are. Sometimes I wonder who I am or what I have become… a sepulcher of archaic terms, a friend of the dead, a refutation of Hellenism that writes for a bunch of fools about a bunch of falsehoods. Every abouna leaves the church, even in a late hour, to go back to his wife and children [Coptic priests marry] but I have no place to lay my head. Some priests enjoy the sight of the moon and the stars while dining with their families in open air but my eyes are condemned to stare endlessly at the sacred body hanged on the cross. I live for the mere purpose of overthrowing Christianity but I am more Christian than any Coptic priest. Nay, I am more Christian than the Pope!”
Wahid’s agony was probably reflected upon his artistic taste. He once discussed the case of a serial killer who staged the corpses of his victims in a religious manner, crowning their heads with halos and engraving occult talismans on their torsos. “Religious imagery is psychologically charged. Thus it should come to us as no surprise that it appeals to the psychologically disturbed. It is tricky to understand what makes it psychologically charged. It might have been created by psychotics who tried to project their madness upon their own followers or it might have been designed in order to exploit this noble, mad experience in humankind and make people vulnerable to faith and belief.”
Abdul Masseih’s father abandoned his mother when he was three, fleeing to Poland where he settled down and married again. His ultra-orthodox mother, encouraged by the culture of sacrifice that unhealthily saturates the airs of the Coptic Church, decided to renounce any future marriage and dedicated her life in its entirety to her son. Her incredible insistence on bringing up her son within the confines of the religious institution availed to naught. “There was something in me that resisted religious dogmatization and brainwashing. My attitude towards my asatza [teachers] during the Sunday School was less the attitude of a student towards his teachers and more the attitude of a hostage to his kidnappers. I still remember how that vermin Edward used to scare us, a bunch of helpless eight-year-olds, by telling us that the Devil is prowling around like a lion, looking for someone to devour. Yet I thought that God was actually the roaring lion and I remember having momentarily resorted to the Devil seeking asylum from this wrathful God… for I realized that existence must have gifted the Devil with some light and warmth, seeing that it equally didn’t spare God from a lofty sum of cruelty and ignorance.”
He loved St. George’s picture and placed a huge one in his living room, as we are told by the few courageous men who dared to enter his apartment after his death. The explanation for that love is not absent from the book. In a paragraph in the second chapter he narrates how he used to rejoice at the picture since he was a suckling infant. “Poor mother, she thought that I was pleased to see St. George, with his manly moustache, noble armory, and white horse. Had she only known that it was the Gothic dragon that lay under his feet, with this glorious aura that suggested the perfection of forbidden knowledge, that had always mesmerized me… later on I even unearthed more depth in the picture… to me it signified how superficial monotheists were, trying to identify with light as opposed to darkness. If only they could perceive the complementary nature of the opposites and learn how to celebrate their cosmic dance of totality!”
It was only after 1974 that Abdul Masseih started speaking out against the church. I know for sure that Mervat El Masry (to whom he alluded in his work with the overly-significant name of Regine Olsen^^11^) was the reason. One must exercise caution while approaching this very detail of his life, for it is as nebulous as it is crucial to unlocking his mystery. What we know for sure is that he had loved her more than anything, more than himself, more than his mother, and more than the most blasphemous of heresies. Some claim that she never returned his love; others assert that she initially showed him some attraction before suddenly withdrawing and blaming her brother’s tragic death in the Yom Kippur War on her willingness to associate with a man of questionable orthodoxy. After paying attention to one paragraph in his book, I started to believe that Mervat somehow figured out that Wahid was not the sincerest orthodox. “… for trained orthodox eyes have learned to distinguish the pneumatics and capture the light of the mark of Cain that shines from underneath the skin of their foreheads.” From that time on, Abdul Masseih closed his pharmacy, locked himself up in his home and dedicated his life to disestablishing the tenets of the Coptic Church.^
The last Coptic service that he attended was the Vigil of Christmas on the 6th of January 1974 [Copts celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January] when he sat on a remote bench, his eyes fixed on the ground and his face frowning sternly, a pathological twitch possessing his lower lip and his right index finger. In the middle of the sermon, while the abouna was explaining how God was wholly good and how the expression “God curse you” was a blasphemous contradiction, Abdul Masseih immediately jumped off his seat, barked at the abouna with the seventh verse of the forty-fifth chapter of the Book of Isaiah and left the church.
His mother suffered in silence. She was paralyzed in 1975 and died near the end of January 1976, one week short of her son’s twenty-seventh birthday. Thousands of the poor to whom she dedicated her life blocked Al Teram Street and crowded Saint George’s Church, a rare scene that was to be repeated three years later when the soft-spoken Father Bishoy Kamel died of cancer. Abdul Masseih was not there; some claim that he was present somewhere in the crowd, disguised as a veiled woman.
Wahid’s eccentric character and ghostly appearance made him a perfect candidate for projection and a body of legends was woven around his life. Some claimed that he was a magician who sold his soul to the Devil or went mad when he was able to see him. Others asserted that he was a guilt-ridden homosexual who locked himself up in his house as all good monsters do. The tragic death of El Masry in her bathroom three mere days before her wedding to a wealthy merchant from Upper Egypt solidified Abdul Masseih’s reputation as a devil-manipulating monster. An old grave keeper from Al Shatbi claims that Wahid used to make regular nocturnal visits to his mother’s grave where he’d spend long dark hours staring at the bone-concealing mud with silence just to burst out in disturbing laughter that drove away the creatures of the dark. (I wonder if he was tempted to replicate Carl Tanzler’s perpetration and steal the corpse to keep it at home, after reconstructing it with wax and glass eyes.)
Abdul Masseih stood no chance of having his hideous manuscript published, were it not for a Lebanese publisher, of unknown religious and political background, called Fares Ayyash. Nobody knows why the wealthy Lebanese businessman came to Egypt or why he agreed to publish this encyclopedia of futility. All that is certain is that two hundred unrevised copies of Abdul Masseih’s book were printed in Beirut, while the civil war was at its height, and distributed to a number of Egyptian libraries. A few superstitious locals claim that Abdul Masseih sealed a pact with Ayyash where he would resurrect his bomb-shattered son in return for his favor.
The book debuted silently on the Egyptian shelves. There it remained virtually unnoticed. Few copies were sold; the one that is on my desk at this moment was bought by the grandfather of a dear friend of mine who has gladly lent it to me. Most copies were sold as scrap paper after failing to sell for years. One copy caught the attention of a monk who reported it to his mentor, Father Matta El Meskeen, the controversial father of St. Macarius Monastery. When the monk was on his way from Cairo to the monastery, the car crashed, killing him instantaneously and consuming the copy in the fire. Father Matta thought the incident as an omen and decided to never read a book that may have augmented, or mitigated, the heated conflict between him and Pope Shenouda.
Wahid’s book infatuated me. I got used to reading daily portions of it. It nurtured my soul, was my daily bread. As I neared its end I felt threatened and abandoned. The book was my life. It was inconceivable that it would come to an end. I grew desperate to find any other publication by Wahid. My quest was wholly futile; Wahid hated publishing books. His Greek neighbor told me that he was working on a novel that never seemed to end. He tried to convince him to publish it but Wahid declined, stating that “to publish a novel is to abort it. A novel is the reflection of the soul, always evolving, deepening, and expanding. It can never be complete. It matures with its author just as the universe matures with God.”
Of the three men who were courageous (or foolish) enough to venture into Wahid’s apartment after his death, two had to consult psychiatrists. The elder Greek recalled the testimony of one of them. “When I entered his apartment I felt as if I had stepped into a thicker medium of an arcane time, as if I was stepping from air to water. The first thing that caught my attention were nude white mannequins that were thrown everywhere and at times fused together in masses of plastic orgy. I remember having heard a clock that ticked blindly, unknowing that it could now spare its effort without risking lamentation. An impersonal feeling of peril and cruelty pervaded the place. Two bright eyes glowed in the darkness and I knew that they weren’t the eyes of another mannequin when they started to move. It was Wahid’s black cat. I shall never forget its sharp teeth and long, spider-like legs. The air was so heavy; taking a breath was a painful act of necessity that asphyxiated my lungs and brought an ache to my heart. Everything, the dusty blankets, the inarticulate furniture, the scattered clove-flavored cigarettes, the wax-bathed mannequins, and the sun-denying curtains were staring at me with inexplicable malice.”
Numerous paintings, no less disturbing than the Black Paintings of Goya which were discovered in the Quinta del Sordo, were scattered on the walls of his house, hung in between his mother’s Coptic icons which he oddly never removed. One of them looked like a hybrid between the Gnostic Abraxas and the Baphomet that welcomes the reader to the second volume of Eliphas Levi’s Dogme et Rituel de la Haute Magie(1855) except that the monstrous being was seated on the globe and the Latin ‘Princeps Mundi’ was engraved underneath. Water was dripping in the kitchen. Half burnt black candles were scattered on the dining table and an exotic piece of lingerie challenged the conventional belief that Wahid died as a virgin. Paper scraps were ubiquitous. One of which, whose authenticity didn’t escape my skepticism, suggested that Abdul Masseih believed that certain arrangements of human and animal body parts could cause immense archetypal fear. The simplest of these, and least effective, was a floating hand with an eye embedded in its palm.
Demolished a couple of years after his death, the sole memory of the crumbling building that once stood at Memphis Street in Camp Cesar is a picture of the empty apartment where the Copt lived. It shows a divan on which many volumes, embellished with dust, were piled. Two pictures were hung on the wall. One of them was that of Schopenhauer (to whom lengthy paragraphs were unsurprisingly devoted in the book) and the other was that of Saint Menas. There was also a mirror that multiplied the gloominess of the scene and harbored a dark shadow in its left extremity, a shadow that couldn’t escape the eyes of the locals who immediately asserted it to be demoniacal.
There is universal consensus among his one-time neighbors that Wahid experienced a strange metamorphosis about a month and a half (I will not be surprised if it was precisely forty days) before his death. They could hear him cheerfully sing with other voices. An old man who now lives near Saint George’s Church of Sporting told me that he once overheard Wahid and a mysterious feminine voice cry as if in orgasm. Earlier that morning he had heard Wahid talk loudly and laugh with other people, though he didn’t see anybody enter or leave his apartment. “I could hear footsteps, some of which seemed to be made by high heels. There were laughs, cheers that implied games, lengthy discussions, and knocking of glasses.”
Some examine dams to learn about beavers, others study cocoons to explore the world of silkworms. In a similar fashion did I approach Wahid’s book, this extravagant, monstrous elaboration, closely observing the fine threads that intermingled to form that distorted fabric of logic, agony and madness. I felt that there was something personal in the copy that I read. After all, I thought, the sold copies were few, and it is not foolish to assume that Wahid distributed some of them personally to book dealers. There was something translucent about the pages. They seemed as portals or mirrors. I could see Wahid from the other side of the portal, and I could see my reflection in the mirror, and the two images superimposed with disturbing harmony. I felt Wahid inseminating me with every letter that I read from the book. He was impregnating me with these spiny fragments of his soul that he had carefully concealed between the pages of the old volume. The more that I studied him the more he studied me and the deeper my dissecting tools delved into his soul the deeper his delved into mine. I felt violated, invaded and I found it disturbing that this deflowering was met in my soul with secret pleasure.
Now that my recount is nearing a close my hand starts to fail me, for I risk spoiling this sincere tribute to Wahid because of my weak, superstitious nature. Neither do I want to be considered a lunatic nor can I hold myself from penning down those last lines which have nothing to do with Wahid but concern me and my troubled head. Yet considering that my humble narrative turned out to be as complex and bizarre as the life that it was supposed to cover, and convinced that this paper will follow Wahid’s own book all the way down to the cold hell of oblivion, I feel relieved from treating it with exaggerated seriousness and find it harmless to add my own spoonful of folly.
In effect, my life hasn’t been the same since I first learned of Wahid. My taste in art, literature, and women is growing darker and my old interest in the occult is experiencing an unholy revival. My eyes, which once delighted in the innocence of daylight, have now divorced the sun and I have started to wear sunglasses. I have started to be chased by a beautiful, evil, half-aristocratic melancholy that was never of me, but now had a natural affinity to me, as if we were bound together by invisible threads. Hordes of demons are hovering above the folded mountains of Arabian sand. They are preparing themselves to encounter me, to worship me as the legitimate heir to their throne, to serve me willingly for many a year and to celebrate a ritual sacrifice where I will be the priest and the victim.
This morning, while accompanying a friend to the mall, I was caught gripping a mannequin. I have no idea what was going in my head at the time. I can remember myself apologizing to the assistant as he rebuked me and took my hands off the voluptuous breasts of a white mannequin. My friend thought that I was tired and bought me a pack of cigarettes. My lips shivered when they distinguished the taste of clove. I hurried back home to find that a packet of black candles that I bought a decade ago had mysteriously appeared on my dinning table – the only packet of candles that I ever bought in my life! I felt surrealist dimensions converging upon my head and squashing it in between. I sought refuge in an old pile of papers that was forgotten for a year or two when my eyes fell on these lines of Arabic poetry.
But when you knew not nature’s ways
And thought yourself a man worthy of praise
A problem-solver you invented
And he your problems has augmented
I quickly skimmed upwards to the title; It was Ismail Adham’s paper “Why I am an atheist.” Ismail Adham was another Alexandrian writer whose legacy was dramatically toned down for having been an atheist. He committed suicide at the tender age of twenty-nine and his body was found floating in the Mediterranean Sea at Gleim’s beach in 1940. It seems that he and Wahid took the same way and reached the same end. I know that my feet are already on the beginning of the same road. Am I to follow their trail? Am I to become another lonely slave of Christ or Muhammad? No. I don’t have the least desire to become a martyr. I want to be free. I will live and breathe. I will fight against Wahid, will squeeze him out of my soul and think him out of my head. I will reach for my pen and write down about his tragic life. I will confine him to paper. I know this is the only way to exorcise him out of my soul.
The name Wahid Abdul Masseih can be literally translated into English as ‘the lonely slave of Christ.’ Lonely Wahid doubtlessly was, but was he really a slave of Christ? There is a certain satisfaction in slavery, a certain peace of mind. Slavery relieves the slave of the hell of making choices and shaping one’s own way. I don’t think that Wahid has ever intended to enslave himself. He wasn’t born a slave and never desired to be one. Yet I must admit that Wahid was really a slave of Christ. His slavery has been imposed upon him by the real slaves, those who were slaves of their own will.
Abdul Masseih died in May 1982. His cadaver was discovered at a considerable level of decomposition in his apartment upon the neighbors’ complaint of obnoxious air. He was buried at a deserted Jewish cemetery after the Coptic clergy not unexpectedly refused to give him a blessing or offer him shelter in his own grave. His headstone mentions his death-year to be 1981. Perhaps someone tried to obfuscate his real age at the time of his death.
1 1- The documentary hypothesis is a theory proposed by Julius Wellhausen. It holds that the Torah was derived from originally independent, parallel and complete narratives, which were subsequently combined into the current form by a series of redactors. According to this theory, the first chapter of Genesis recounts the story of creation as mentioned by the so-called ‘priestly’ source while the second chapter recounts the ‘Jehovic’ story of creation.
2 The Book of Tobit is considered canonical by the Coptic Orthodox Church.
3 Pope Dionysius regarded the Book of Revelation as an apocryphal work.
4 Pope Yusab II of Alexandria was the Coptic Pope from 1946 till 1956. In an unprecedented event in the history of the Coptic Church, he was removed from his office in 1954 after being charged with supporting his corrupt secretary. Yusab II is highly praised in the Ethiopian Church for granting it autocephaly.
5 I may disagree with Wahid on this issue. I think the apparitions were staged, primarily, to boost the morale of the Egyptians after the 1967 defeat.
6 The sun is classically employed as an allegory of the trinity in the Coptic Church. Sabellius used this same allegory to promote his heresy. “For he, and the Sabellians who derive from him, hold that the father is the same, the son is the same, and the Holy Spirit is the same, so that there are three names in one entity. Or, as there are a body, a soul and a spirit in a man, so the father, in a way, is the body; the son, in a way, is the soul; and as a man’s spirit is in man, so is the holy spirit in the Godhead. Or it is as in the sun, which consists of one entity but has three operations, the illuminating, the warming and the actually shape of the orb. The warming, or hot and seething operation is the spirit; the illuminating operation is the son; and the father is the actual form of the whole entity.” The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis. Books II and III translated by Frank Williams page 121. Against Sabellians.
7 See The Zahir by Jorge Luis Borges
8 The Gnostics believed in the reincarnation of the souls. In order to descend to earth, the soul had to pass through the planetary spheres, there the archons (rulers of the planets) could imprint its fate upon it.
9 Crowley thought he was the reincarnation of Alexander VI.
10 There were three kinds of humans according to the Gnostics. The hylics were materialistic and perishable, the psychics were moral and followed conventional religion, and finally the pneumatics were the spiritual elect who didn’t need conventional religion and its limitations.
11 Regine Olsen was the fiancée of the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. She eventually broke up with him and married another man. This failed relationship deeply troubled Kierkegaard and had a profound impact on his philosophy.
Christslave : A Gospel of Lie Story
- Author: Fady Riad
- Published: 2017-06-12 09:05:08
- Words: 8361