The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs — Book Review

by Zaher Alajlani

Mosebach, Martin. The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs. Translated by Alta L. Price, Plough Publishing House, 2020. Amazon:

In 2015, on an isolated Libyan beach in Sirte, ISIS terrorists beheaded twenty Egyptian Coptic Christians and a Ghanian Christian. The murderers released the gruesome execution footage, causing worldwide outrage. The tragedy reminded us of martyrdom’s significant role in shaping the Christian worldview. From the crucifixion of Christ to the martyrdom of many believers, sacrifice remains a master Christian narrative. The latter is stretched over centuries of different cultural, political, and social zeitgeists. Yet, we encounter the same themes within it: faith, dignified suffering, and courage. Although saints are the archetypal representations of such ideals, the notion of sainthood is complicated. It requires a close examination of the lives of the saints, their culture, and the history of their communities. Martin Mosebach deftly tackles such complex issues in his book The 21: A Journey into the Land of Coptic Martyrs.

Alta L. Price did a remarkable job translating the book from German. Her translation is only enhanced by the author’s elegant style and clarity of argument. The book’s purpose is thus perspicuous: It is neither to study Islamic extremism nor to oversimplify Christian history. In his foreword, His Eminence Archbishop Angaelos Coptic Orthodox Archbishop of London writes:

The 21 is a necessary work that will shed light on the contemporary meaning of martyrdom and what it truly entails to live out one’s Christian faith regardless of the consequences. (ii)

Mosebach travels to the martyrs’ home villages in Upper Egypt to familiarize himself (and the readers) with how they lived, worshiped, and even behaved. In the book, Egypt is not construed through dull description or tedious narrative, but is rather animated and portrayed in vivid detail. Hence, the reader can get a valuable glimpse of life in Coptic rural areas, the poor parts of Egypt that possess rich spiritual tradition and history.

Pope Tawadros II of Alexandria canonized the twenty-one martyrs as saints shortly after their death. Sainthood fascinates Mosebach and prompts him to wonder about the near impossibility of finding a straightforward narrative for it. He sees the notion as both intriguing and complex. His reflection on the matter, thus, strikes us as apt and timely:

[W]hat really appealed to me [about martyrdom is] the possibility of turning — in one swift moment a life full of mistakes, humiliations, half-heartedness, and dishonesty into a meritorious life by making one simple declaration, a declaration made countless times before and which, if one were to live longer, could be made countless more times but which, upon death, became one’s sole, final important act… Martyrdom seemed to be a uniquely positive omen, morphing a misguided life into a holy prophesy. (31-32)

The 21 is rife with such insightful passages. Mosebach shows his readiness to deal with difficult questions in an imagined conversation between a believer and a doubter. The latter sees life and its pleasure as the greatest truth and argues that “being clueless to the point of complete ignorance is the main requirement for martyrdom” (34). On the other hand, Mosebach assumes the believer’s role, showing us how empty life is without a sense of transcendence. Through his dialectical engagement with the doubter, he makes the case that “Christianity’s concept of truth is not a mathematical formula” (34). And he is undoubtedly correct.

The author displays an impressive grasp of theology and history. This guides his probe into the intricate relationship between Eastern and Western Christianity. Egypt, much like Mesopotamia, is one of the cradles of the faith. In this ancient land, the Desert Fathers lived in ascetic isolation and paved the way for Christian monasticism. The author reminds us of this, further outlining the overlap between geography and religion in the East.

Considering the failure of secular governments, the rise of extremism in recent years, and the decline of religious freedoms in Egypt and the wider region, one cannot help but see the tragedy of the twenty-one martyrs as symbolic of the current state of affairs. But as one reads through The 21, the silver lining becomes increasingly more apparent: The paradigm of violence has been reversed by the twenty-one’s faithfulness to Christ. The criminals of ISIS ended up in total obscurity, whereas the martyrs’ memory will live on and inspire generations to come. This peaceful subversion of evil may be the closure the martyrs’ families need. The author puts it as follows:

It was as if the families [of the martyrs] wanted nothing whatsoever to do with them [the murderers], because the martyrs’ sheer splendor outshone them, leaving them to become immaterial lemures, as the ancient Romans referred to such spirits — the wandering, formless, vengeful ghosts associated with darkness and condemned to be hunted by Satan for all eternity. (93)

Overall, Mosebach’s The 21 is an excellent example of a book that clearly states its goal and successfully achieves it. The choice of diction, the stylistic approach, the commitment to not overgeneralize, and the deep understanding of history and theology all come together to take the reader on a remarkable journey into the heart of Coptic Egypt.

Zaher Alajlani is a Syrian short-story author, researcher, and translator living between Romania and Greece. His stories and articles have appeared in various publications, including The Infinite Sky, Revista Echinox, Active Muse, Bandit Fiction, The Creative Launcher, Visible Magazine, The Journal of Romanian Literary Studies, Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory, The Experimental Museum of Literature, Masharif, and Tadween. In addition to reading fiction submissions for Bandit Fiction (UK), he is a proofreader for the peer-reviewed Metacritic Journal for Comparative Studies and Theory (Romania). Zaher is a Ph.D. candidate in literature at Babes-Bolyai University of Cluj-Napoca and speaks English, Arabic, Romanian, and Greek.

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