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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


The Televangelist

Ibrahim Essa

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To purchase The Televangelist

Title: The Televangelist
Author: Ibrahim Essa
Genre: Novel
Written: 2012
Length: 481 pages
Original in: Arabic
Availability: The Televangelist - US
The Televangelist - UK
The Televangelist - Canada
The Televangelist - India
  • Arabic title: مولانا
  • Translated by Jonathan Wright

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Our Assessment:

B- : decent ideas, but long-winded

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The National . 4/4/2016 M. Lynx Qualey

  From the Reviews:
  • "Like Essaís changeable public persona, itís hard to say what the novel ultimately believes about religion and religious minorities. But, as with much of Essaís work, it makes for compelling entertainment." - M. Lynx Qualey, The National

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The 'televangelist' of the (English) title is Sheikh Hatem el-Shenawi -- also called 'Mawlana' (the Arabic title) --, a rising star in the evermore crowded field of preachers appearing on Egyptian television and answering the knotty questions of Islam:

     "You're the most famous sheikh in the country, Mawlana. And the most popular, and highly paid, the most influential, and the most widely viewed.
       It's not all his doing -- the powers that be have to be behind him in order for him to enjoy this success -- but he knows and does his part well. Hatem is a crowd-pleaser who manages to navigate the minefield of Islamic teachings -- understanding also, however, that in this particular role precise and detailed explanation aren't the top requirement:
(H)e would only say the part of the truth that was fit for television consumption. He was a businessman addressing his customers, and his answers -- both the content and the way he delivered it -- was responsible for bringing in advertising revenue, not charitable donations, to keep the producer and the program sponsor happy. As for keeping God happy, well, God would judge him by his intentions..
       What he doesn't quite realize, and only comes to learn over the course of this story, is how political everything is, and how much of a pawn he is.
       Hatem and his wife, Omayma, have suffered some personal tragedy, their son Omar suffering brain damage in a swimming pool accident, and now being treated abroad -- with Omayma keeping Hatem out of touch, so that he has little sense of how his son is doing, something that weighs terribly on him.
       Professionally, there is some jousting with fellow televangelists, but Hatem can hold his own, expertly parrying the various blows and accusations that come his way.. But his success does get him roped into a sensitive matter that he would prefer to avoid.
       It is very sensitive:
Disaster has struck, Hatem, and it's struck you, not because of the mission that within minutes you ewill obviously be asked to carry out, and not because it's very possible that you will fail in that mission, but simply because you've been told. Just knowing means there's a dagger at your throat. But the question that pounded the loudest in Hatem's head was "Why me ?"
       Hatem's popularity finds him constantly besieged by fans looking for guidance; indeed, he can barely escape his role, regardless of where he is:
(H)e was like a religious doctor. As soon as people met him, they would ask him about trivial things, matters they weren't really interested in or bothered about. They would take advantage of the fact that a sheikh was around. They were making up questions to obtain a service that was there for the asking, though these days some people were crazy about seeking fatwas on anything.
       These casual demands are generally, at worst, minor annoyances, but the demanding situation Hatem finds himself in is considerably more difficult to deal with. A carefully orchestrated meeting brings him to one of Egypt's most powerful families -- the son of the president, the son in law of: "the richest of the rich in Egypt, in fact number twelve on the list of the richest people in the world , or so he had read and heard". The family has what they now fear to be a black sheep, young Hassan going down a path that can only cause problems for the family (and, given their importance, the nation). Wise man Hatem isn't the first one they've approached to straighten the young man out, but they're now pinning their hopes on him -- a burden he can't refuse.
       In posing a danger to the family, Hassan poses a danger to himself, too. Hatem doesn't see the situation as being as dire as the family does -- fairly certain that it's simply the case that: "Hassan is basically confused and he isn't thinking straight" -- but the impulsive young man doesn't make it easy for Hatem -- and Hatem may not be seeing things quite as clearly as he should.
       Early on, a Sufi colleague, Sheikh Mukhtar el-Husseini, had approached Hatem and poured his heart out about the how he was being harassed by the authorities (and one of Hatem's benefactors, in particular); he also entrusted Hatem with some materials to look after. Sheikh Mukhtar's fate, and the interest of the authorities in the personally damning material in Hatem's possession -- which they are willing to go to considerable lengths to acquire --, are a (very late) lesson to Hatem, of just what a precarious position he too finds himself in (and of the duplicity of some of those he is associated with).
       The president's son reminds Hatem:
Religion is a matter between the individual and God while the country belongs to everyone.
       But it's not quite that simple, and Islam and Christianity clash here -- while Sheikh Mukhtar is charged with nothing less than: "leading an Iranian organization promoting Shi'ism in Egypt". Personal issues also complicate Hatem's life: his concern about his son, the distance from his wife -- and then the provocative girl, Nashwa, that comes into his life (Hatem's mind drifting to thoughts of: "how, behind the hijab and the loose skirt, a sexy young woman might be hiding" ...). And there's that damn Hassan, with whom he finds himself: "trapped in a sealed box at the bottom of the ocean, and we have to find a way to get out and escape drowning" -- even as determined Hassan seems to have his own ideas about what should happen (ideas Hatem remains blind to).
       It's a solid set-up and interesting scenario, a clash of religion and politics (with values of any sort distinctly left as after-thoughts) and powerful personalities. But Essa unfolds the story in a baggy, long-winded, and often unfocused way, limiting how effective the tension gets. There are some nice twists here, especially in the novel's conclusion, where there are several unexpected reveals that clarify why some of the characters have been acting the way they have, but most of this is rather late in coming. The Televangelist is a political-religious thriller that is blunted for too much of its considerable length.
       Essa devotes considerable space to Hatem-at-work, dispensing his (supposed) wisdom -- making for a lot of small-talk about the finer (and, while controversial, generally only of minor or limited concern) points of Islam. Some of this is moderately interesting, and some of the debates with fellow religious experts makes for a bit of entertaining intellectual-religious frisson, but most of it is rather numbing, from the very first debate (about the bizarre question of the propriety of adult breastfeeding). Perhaps an accurate representation of what passes for entertainment on Egyptian talk-shows, it is minutiae that, on the page, isn't exactly gripping. (Presumably a similarly detailed depiction of American-style talk shows (and/or evangelical programmes) would be just about as (un)exciting.)
       The meat of Essa's novel is rich, and there's a good (and topical) story in here -- but it's almost suffocated in the layers of padding he wraps it in. There's a lot in, and to, The Televangelist that's interesting and rewarding -- but there's also far more that's not; Essa doesn't quite lose the plot -- in fact, he ties it up quite nicely -- but he doesn't stick to it nearly closely enough.

- M.A.Orthofer, 27 February 2016

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The Televangelist: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Egyptian author Ibrahim Essa (إبراهيم عيسى‎) was born in 1965.

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© 2016 the complete review

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