A Lesson in the Dangers of Book Burning

Our family has a long history of disposing of books in various ways. As a boy in Egypt, I remember the regular routine when, every so often, my father would open the cupboards and drawers and arrange his books, magazines, and notebooks. Most dear to him were the notebooks which contained his commentary and notes on dozens of books, most of them concerning Sufism, Islamic exigency, and political Islam, in addition to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna, and various other Islamist leaders.

He arranged the books into bundles and then distributed them in various secret hiding places. Some were concealed in boxes on the roof next to the chicken coop. Others were left in the care of close relatives who did not take part in any political activities. Other books, the presence of which he believed jeopardized his and his family’s security, were burned. Assured he could attain other copies, these books would be thoroughly burned and their ashes discretely disposed of.

As a boy I did not take notice of this practice nor did I understand it, yet the ritual of collecting books and papers and setting them ablaze on the roof was seared into my memory forever. When I would ask my mother about it, she would fumble for the right words to explain to her child the politics at play, saying: “These books contain verses from the Qur’an and passages of our Lord and cannot be dumped in the waste, so it is best they are burned.”

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جرافيى لكيزر 2013 تصوير: أحمد

My grandfather, who had been a security guard at a local factory, also had a huge library to his name. My father told me that there had been a time when my grandfather could not afford to buy a bed, so he piled together astronomy textbooks and poems of Ahmed Shawki—which he had memorized by heart—and made beds of them for his children sleep to on. However in the beginning of the 1980s, he slipped into a depression and gave away most of the contents of his library. Thereafter he contented himself with reading newspapers, poems of Al-Maʿarri, and books on astronomy. The latter of these was his greatest passion, and was what prompted him to name his eldest son Galileo. Yet after some convincing and admonishing based on the pretense that this was an un-Islamic name, he settled for Nagy, contenting himself by writing “Nagy Galileo” in huge letters on the wall of the house.

Unlike his own father, my father did not dispose of his books because of a sudden depression or deterioration in his capacity to read. Rather he did this so because these books could be used as evidence against him in the event he was arrested, and the house was raided. Directives to dispose of these books came down from senior Brotherhood leaders to protect its members. The letters of al-Banna or of Al-Manhaj Al-Haraki Lissira Al-Nabawiya could have been used as irrefutable evidence that my father was a member of a ‘banned organization.’

Thus during slow summer nights in Mansoura, back from our stays in Kuwait, there was nothing to do but read the books of Anis Mansour and Khalid Muhammad Khalid and the plays of Tawfiq al-Hakim. If ever state security forces were to have raided our home and found these books, they would in no way incriminate my father, and thus they were spared from being used as kindling in his ritual campfires. I personally had no need for al-Banna’s writings in order to understand the world of the Muslim Brotherhood, for I lived and breathed it every day of my life.

In Kuwait, just as in Egypt and more than a hundred other countries, the Muslim Brotherhood runs a social welfare network which not only provides for individuals, but entire families. I would attend weekly sessions with other boys who themselves were also from Egyptian families with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood residing in Kuwait.

At that time, the usual program for children my age, aside from reading the Qur’an and becoming acquainted with the Prophetic biography, consisted of regular recreational activities organized over weekends. As a boy suddenly transported from a village on the outskirts of Mansoura to a new environment such as Kuwait, these outings with the Brotherhood youth (or ‘cubs’ as they are known) were filled with adventure and new experiences that helped allay any feelings of homesickness.

Life in Egypt moved to a slightly different rhythm. In our village I was regarded as somewhat special because of my father’s prominent position as a doctor in the Brotherhood. He was a role model for many of the other ‘cubs’, something of which I had not been aware.

Reserved and taciturn by nature, my father spoke little of his past and never spoke at all about anything regarding the Muslim Brotherhood.

He recently told me of his colleagues’ surprise at the hospital, at which he has worked for the past eight years, when they learned only a few months ago that he is a Brother. They only became aware of this after he began attending Doctors Syndicate meetings as one of the Brotherhood’s representative.

My mother was never comfortable with the “Sisters” and felt no urge to take part in Brotherhood activities. Before the revolution, some members of the Brotherhood leadership would coincidentally appear on the news, and she would utter a brief comment, such as, “He was a good friend of your father. They would come to visit and have dinner at your grandmother’s.”

The first thing Brothers in Mansoura and in our village would say upon meeting me was always, “So you are the son of Dr. Nagy Hegazy. You must be proud, God is good!”

Both in Kuwait and Egypt, I always attended private schools, the names of which always included the all-important words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Languages.’

The Guidance and Light School, in which I spent my third year of preparatory school after our return from Kuwait, was a Brotherhood school which my father helped establish. Since the 1980s, schooling and educational services had become a key aspect of Brotherhood activities and a means of proselytizing. We followed the same curriculum as the public schools, except that we took two additional courses twice per week; one was entitled ‘The Holy Quran’ and the other was a mixture of Islamic stories and proverbs. The only other change was that Music class was replaced with another class titled ‘Hymns.’

Except for drums and tambourines, musical instruments were banned and discouraged. Flyers and posters hung on the school’s walls warning about the dangers of listening to stringed instruments. The hymns which we were forced to memorize consisted of the most widely known nationalist melodies and songs except any mentions of ‘Egypt’ were replaced with ‘Islam.’ The school was of course populated with the children of local Muslim Brotherhood leaders in addition to other Muslim students of diverse backgrounds.

Only now do I realize that until the age of fourteen, I had never once met a Christian. I was in an exclusive world with its own moral values, worldviews, and perspectives on what it meant to be a good person.

Transitioning from the sheltered Brotherhood schools to the Taha Hussein Public High School was tantamount to setting foot on another planet. For the first time there were Christians in school, and the library contained books other than the standard morning and evening Islamic prayers.

The utopia free of insults and cursing in which Brothers moved about nibbling on siwak1 and smiling warmly seemed far away. With the second intifada I became more active, and despite the fact that I was still in high school, I would attend meetings with the Brothers at university. I crafted the chants which were shouted in unison during the demonstrations following the killing of Muhammad al-Durrah. I had become an integral member of the Brotherhood group at al-Azhar University. Then Haidar Haidar happened.

A Brother brought several copies of the newspaper Elshaab and placed them beside him. Like any other meeting, that day’s session began with one Brother reciting from the Holy Quran, followed by a second interpreting a hadith, and a third explaining an aspect of Islamic jurisprudence. Then the Brother opened the newspaper and read it aloud to the group.

He read that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture had published a novel by the Syrian writer Haidar Haidar. Aside from sexual references, the novel contained heretical insults directed at God and the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). In response, preparations for public rallies were made which would protest the publication of the novel and demand it be burned.

Word for word, this is what the Brother demanded, and I instantly objected. At that time I was the group’s writer, and I refused to write any chants which called for the burning of this book or any other book for that matter.

To this day, I do not know what compelled me to take this firm stance.

I showed one of them some excerpts from Haidar Haidar’s novel which were published in Elsh aab. From what I read, I found his writings ridiculous, but I insisted that this in no way justified it being burned. I entered into a long discussion with the Brothers which developed into shouting. The argument between me and the group’s leader grew increasingly sharp, and in an angry outburst he forbade me from taking such a stance. The argument grew even more hostile, and he told me, “Either give up these books you read and your stance on them, or do not meet with us!”

I left the room, and never went back.

—- —

1 A small twig (the tip of which is softened by chewing) from the Salvadora persica tree used for cleaning teeth. It is widely held that the Prophet Mohammed recommended its use.

Laughter in the Dark -by Zadie Smith

I first heard the name Ahmed Naji at a PEN dinner last spring. I looked up from my dessert to a large projection of a young Egyptian man, rather handsome, slightly louche-looking, with a Burt Reynolds moustache, wearing a Nehru shirt in a dandyish print and the half smile of someone both amusing and easily amused. I learned that he was just thirty and had written a novel called Using Life for which he is currently serving a two-year prison sentence. I thought: good title. A facile thought to have at such a moment but it’s what came to mind. I liked the echo of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual—the coolness of that—and thought I recognized, in Naji’s author photo, something antic and wild, not unlike what you see when you look at pictures of Perec. You could call it judging a book by its cover: I’d rather think of it as the readerly premonition that this book might please me. If he had written a book called Peacocks in Moonlight and posed for one of these author portraits where the writer’s head is resting on his own closed fist, I would have been equally shocked and saddened to hear he was in prison, but perhaps not as keen to read it.

As I was having these unserious thoughts the contents of the novel were being roughly outlined for us all from the stage. It sounded intriguing: a kind of hybrid, with certain chapters illustrated as in a graphic novel, and with a comic plot concerning a dystopian Cairo, although it was in fact the novel’s sexual content that had landed its author in jail. Though the novel had been approved by the Egyptian censorship board, a sixty-five-year-old “concerned citizen,” upon reading an excerpt in the literary weekly Akhbar al-Adab, had felt so offended by it that he made a complaint to the local judiciary, who then charged Naji and the editor of the weekly with the crime of “infringing public decency.” (The editor is not serving a jail sentence but had to pay a fine.) There was, to me, something monstrous but also darkly comic about this vision of a reader who could not only dislike your prose but imprison you for it, although of course at the dinner the emphasis was necessarily on the monstrous rather then the ludicrous. But when I got home that night I found an online interview with Naji in which the absurdity of his situation was not at all lost on him:

I really enjoyed the dramatic statement of that plaintiff reader. He told the prosecution that he buys the journal regularly for his daughters, but that one time, his wife walked into the room showing him my published chapter and ridiculing him for bringing such writing into their home. He said his “heartbeat fluctuated and blood pressure dropped” while reading the chapter.

Naji seemed bleakly amused, too, by the months of semantic debate that had led to his prosecution, in which the judges sophistically tried to separate fiction from a non-fiction “essay,” determining finally that this extract was in fact the latter, and so subject to prosecution as a kind of personal revelation:

According to their investigations and official documents, my fiction registers as a confession to having had sex with Mrs. Milaqa (one of the characters in my novel), from kissing her knees all the way to taking off the condom. They also object to my use of words such as “pussy, cock, licking, sucking” and the scenes of hashish smoking. Ironically, this chapter speaks of the happy days of Cairo, as opposed to the days of loss and siege dominant in the remaining chapters. This specific chapter is an attempt to describe what a happy day would look like for a young man in Cairo, but perhaps a happy life feels too provoking for the public prosecutor!

Which sounded even more intriguing. A few days later I’d managed to contact Naji’s friend and sometime translator Mona Kareem, who sent me a PDF of Using Life (itself translated by Ben Koerber) to read on my Kindle. It opened with a beautiful line of Lucretius, and I felt immediately justified in my superficial sense of kinship: “Forever is one thing born from another; life is given to none to own, but to all to use.” And as I read on, the novel’s title took on a different resonance again, for here was a writer not content to use only one or two elements of life, no, here was a guy who wanted to use all of it:

In September, as the city’s residents were just beginning to recover from the most traumatic summer of their lives, there came a series of tremors and earthquakes that would be known as “The Great Quake.” It resulted in the destruction of nearly half the city. The there was an eruption of sinkholes that swallowed entire streets, and distorted the flow of the Nile…The sinkholes did not spare even the pyramids, and nothing could be done for the Great Pyramid itself, which was reduced to a simple pile of rubble. All that was left of our great heritage—our civilization, our architecture, our poetry and prose—would soon meet a fate even worse than that of the pyramids. Everything collapsed into the earth or was buried under oceans of sand.

So here was the epic mode—the fantastical analogy for a present political misery—but right up next to it, unexpectedly, was the intimate, the bathetic, the comic:

[She] went back to rolling the joint, twisting one end into a little hat. She took out her lighter and set the little hat on fire. Watching the slow, dark burn gave me a tingle on my cock, which I put out with a scratch.

Aymen Drawings in Using life

The girl in question is Mona May and she’s impossible. The narrator is a young man in a failing state but he is also just a kid in love with a (slightly older) woman who happens to drive him up the wall: “I looked at my face in the mirror, and asked myself a serious question: what am I doing here? If I could put up with her arrogance, her stupidity, her hallucinations, her mid-life crisis…what should I expect in return? At the very least, if I loved her, was still obsessed with her, then there was no reason for me to be here, since my presence clearly causes some kind of disturbance in her world.” Angst! Romance! Sex! Dicks! And illustrations, though these I could not see in the PDF, and had to content myself instead with the tantalizing captions. (“The leftover particles of shit that stuck to our bodies resulted in certain deformities. Marital relations suffered, and many died.”) Using Life is a riotous novel about a failing state, a corrupt city, a hypocritical authority, but it is also about tequila shots and getting laid and smoking weed with your infuriating girlfriend and debating whether rock music died in the Seventies and if Quentin Tarantino is a genius or a fraud. It’s a young man’s book. A young man whose youth is colliding with a dark moment in history.

In an attempt to draw more attention to Naji’s cause, Mona recently translated three very short, flash-fiction type stories for PEN’s website. They published one, “The Plant,” which begins like this:

I will not come through the door or the window,

but as a plant you cannot notice with your naked eye.

I will grow day after day, to the sound of your singing and the rhythm of your breath at night. A small plant you will not notice at first, growing beneath your bed.

From door to bed, to bathroom to closet, standing or sitting against the mirror. Through all these acts, and to the sound of your humming, I will grow. A small green plant. With grand slim leaves sneaking out from beneath your bed.

I read this voice first as the spirit of underground resistance, then as the essence of pervasive dictatorship, and then back to resistance once more. The second story, unpublished, was called “Ambulance” and began like so: “She was sucking my dick when suddenly she stopped to ask if I had given grandmother her medicine.” The last, also unpublished, was called “Normal,” and it opened this way: “One time as I was heading back to Sixth of October city, a prostitute showed up on the way dressed in the official uniform, a black cloak without a headscarf, and instead she had bangs and black hair falling over her shoulders. She was carrying a huge neon bag.”

Mona seemed a little perplexed that PEN had chosen only one of these shorts, but I could understand it. An imprisoned writer is a very serious thing indeed and should not be treated lightly, so it puts an activist in a certain sort of bind when the writer in question turns out to be lightness itself. Naji’s prose explicitly confronts what happens when one’s fundamentally unserious, oversexed youth dovetails with an authoritarian, utterly self-serious regime that is in the process of tearing itself apart. It’s very bad historical luck—of the kind I’ve never suffered. It’s monstrous. It’s ludicrous.

But the fact that the punishment does not fit the crime—that prison is, at this moment in Cairo, the absurd response to the word “pussy”—is exactly what shouldn’t be elided. In another historical moment, or so it occurs to me, young Ahmed would be at that PEN dinner, sitting right next to me, having come over from Cairo for a quick jaunt to see writer friends in Bed-Stuy, and he’d be a bit bored by the solemn speeches, sneaking out the back of the museum to smoke a joint perhaps, and then returning to his seat in high humor just in time to watch a literary giant whom he didn’t really respect come up to the stage to receive an award. That, anyway, is the spirit I detect in his novel: perverse and brilliant, full of youth, energy, light! Some writers, in the face of state oppression, will write like Solzhenitsyn. Others, like Naji, find their kindred spirits in the likes of Nabokov and Milan Kundera, writers who maintained their instinct for unbearable lightness and pleasure, for sex and romance, for perversity and delight, in the face of so much po-faced violent philistinism.

“I think I understand now,” writes Naji, in Using Life, “that the bullshit inside of us is nothing but a reflection of the bullshit outside. Or maybe it’s the other way round. In either case, the outside bullshit eventually seeps inside, and settles into the depths of our souls.” But on the evidence of his own writing the bullshit has not yet settled in Naji, not even in his jail cell. He is part of a great creative renaissance in Cairo, of young novelists and poets, graphic novelists, and—perhaps most visibly—graffiti artists, who have turned the city’s ever increasing walls into a staging site for political protest and artistic expression. Since 2014, President Sisi has cracked down on this community, with new restrictions on the press and multiplying arrests of artists and writers, and yet the Egyptian constitution guarantees both artistic freedom and freedom of expression. Naji has been prosecuted instead on Article 178 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes “content that violates public morals.”

An attempt to appeal was rejected in February. Naji’s last appeal is on December 4. If you read this and feel so moved, tweet #FreeNaji and any other social media action that occurs to you. Hundreds of Egyptian artists and intellectuals have signed a petition in support of Naji but there are also loud voices who feel that his example should not be used in a “freedom of literature” argument because they see his writing as not really literature, as fundamentally unserious. Using Life is certainly comic, sexual, wild—the work of an outrageous young man. We should defend his freedom to be so. “Falling in love in Cairo,” I learn, from his novel, “You have to prepare for the worst. You just can’t walk over to her and say, ‘Mona May, I’ve got the jones for you.’ Words like these could get a man hurt.” Over here, in New York, words won’t get you into too much trouble—not yet, anyway. What would we dare to write if they did?

Editor’s note: Ahmed Naji was released from prison on December 22, after Egypt’s highest appeals court temporarily suspended his sentence; a hearing will be held on January 1 to determine whether he will face another trial or be sent back to prison.

Ahmed Naji’s novel Using Life, in an English translation by Ben Koerber, will be published by The Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at The University of Texas at Austin next year.


الأحد القادم؛ قرار محكمة النقض في قضية محاكمة الخيال

يطيب لى أن أوضح ونؤكد مرة آخري أنى خرجت من السجن بقرار إخلاء سبيل من محكمة النقض على ذمة القضية. وأن القضية لا تزال منظورة أمام محكمة النقض التى حدد لها جلسة 2 أبريل (الأحد القادم)، وأنا لا أزال متهم على ذمة القضية وممنوع من السفر. الحضور في محكمة النقض للمحامين فقط. لكن دعمكم وحبكم بكل الأشكال حتى لو بالصمت العاجز هو أكثر ما نحتاجه وهو ما يؤكد على حقنا (طبقاً لما أقره دستور 2014) في الخيال والكلام.

الأحد القادم من المتوقع أن تصدر محكمة النقض قرارها. شخصياً مع فريق المحامين نطمح في البراءة أو إحالة المسألة للمحكمة الدستورية للبت في مدى دستورية المادة 187 التى تجيز حبس الكتاب والمبدعين بما يخالف المواد الصريحة في الدستور التى تكفل حرية الرأى والتعبير. لكن وكما علمتنا تجربة العام الماضي فالأحلام الكبيرة قد تنتهى بكوابيس أكبر أيضاً. لذلك فاحتمالية تأييد الحكم السابق، أو الحكم بالإدانة مع تخفيف العقوبة كلها أيضاً احتمالات مفتوحة.

في كل الأحوال ومهما كانت نتيجة ما سيحدث يوم الأحد القادم. أحب أن أتوجه بالشكر لكل أعضاء فريق الدفاع الأساتذة نجاد البرعى، ناصر أمين، خالد على، ياسمين حسام الدين، محمود عثمان وفريق مؤسسة حرية الفكر والتعبير. تحملوا معنا على مدار الشهور الماضية الكثير من الاجراءات والخطوات القانونية المعقدة. ومنحونى متطوعين من الدعم والمحبة ما لا أعرف وسيلة مناسبة لرده.

الشكر أيضاً لكل من دعمنا في القضية بكل شكل، حتى لو كان ذلك باستيتوس أو تغريده. ففي الليل الحالك حينما يرتفع الموج مجرد سماع أصوات أخري يجعلنا نتأكد أننا لسنا لوحدنا في تلك اللجة وأن هناك أيادى ممدوة لنا يمكن أن نعتمد عليها. وليقضي الله أمراً كنت تحسبه بسوء ظنك مستحيلا، ولكن عنده سهلاً يسيراً، وإن كنتم تألمون فإنهم يألمون كما تألمون وترجون من الله ما لا يرجون


الطلاق مسيرة من الفخاخ المتوالية

voأحدهم نصب لى فخاً! في الأفلام والمعالجات الدرامية والروائية، وحتى في النبرة التي يحكي فيها الذكور متفاخرين بتجاربهم العاطفية، يرد الانفصال أو الطلاق كوصمة عار ونقطة حزن في حياة المرأة، ولحظة قوة وحزم في حياة الراجل… وقد وقعت في الفخ.

سواء أكانت المقدمات للطلاق أو الانفصال من سفاسف الأمور التي تتراكم ببطء وصبر حتى لحظة انفجار تدمّر السد، أو جلمود صخر يسقط فجأة فيولّد معركة تتنهى بنهايات درامية… مهما كانت المسببات أو النتائج، أو عدد المحاولات المتوالية لإصلاح ما انكسر، أو البحث عن مخرج للحفرة، هناك نقطة يصل الظلام فيها إلي أقصى درجاته: نقطة تتوهم أن الطلاق أو الانفصال هو بصيص النور الذي يمكنك أن تهرب عبره من سواد الظلمة إلي شمس البدايات الجديدة. هذا أيضاً فخ.
بينما تستسلم إلى حل نهاية الطلاق وتسير نحوه، تجد المسائل تتعقد أكثر. العائلة تبدأ في التدخل. وفي الغالب هذا أسوأ ما يمكن أن يحصل. فأولاً سيطالبون بالحق في معرفة كل التفاصيل والمبررات للطلاق، وتحت ضغطهم و”الزن على الودان” المتواصل سرعان ما ستستسلم وتخبرهم بالتفاصيل. وحتى إذا التزمت الصمت، وتمسكت باحترام خصوصية العلاقة، في اللحظة التي سيعترف فيها الطرف الآخر لعائلته ستندفع أنت في حماقة أخرى لتعترف بدورك لعائلتك. حينها ستتضاعف المشاكل وتتصاعد الدراما.

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تصوير: أحمد

سينفجر الأمر

الخطأ الثاني الذي وقعت فيه وغالباً ما يتكرر في العائلات العربية أن تقرر تحت دافع السأم واليأس ترك مناقشة التفاصيل المادية للانفصال وتوكيل العائلة بتولي الإجراءات القانوينة والبيروقراطية، أو أن تفقد أعصابك في أي لحظة من لحظات التفاوض. سينفجر الأمر، ومع العائلات سيتدخل المحامون، ليبدأ فصل آخر مساره المحاكم والقضاء الشامخ، ورشاوى للأمناء، وبلطجة وقلة أدب وقيمة في بلد لا تعرف من القضاء إلا شموخه.
شاهدت رجالاً ينهارون تماماً مع دخول المسائل في مرحلة المحاكم. يتحولون إلى مضطربين بردود أفعال عنيفة تجاه كل شيء، بل يصبح من الصعب التنبؤ بأفعالهم. لم أدرك الداعي والسبب إلا حينما مررت بذات الموقف. كان هناك بركان من المشاعر الجديدة كل يوم تخرج إلى الملأ لأول مرة. نعيش كذكور خلف قواعد وأقنعة تحدد لنا ما هي الرجولة، وما هي صفاتها، وكيف ينبغي أن نتحرك ونتفاعل كي نكون “ذكراً”، وكل هذا من أجل جذب الطرف الآخر. لكن حينما يتبدد الحلم، ونقترب من فقدان الطرف الآخر، تنهار أقنعة الرجولة ونرى أنفسنا في مواجهة فيض من المشاعر المختلطة والمتضاربة، والتي لم يخبرنا أحد كيف يجب أن نتفاعل معها. في المقابل، تمر حالة من السكينة والهدوء والثقة والقوة الغريبة على كل امرأة عرفتها مرت بمرحلة الطلاق والانفصال. قد تصاب بالحزن والإحباط، وربما حالة عدمية ولا مبالة، لكن تظل مسارات المشاعر ذات كينونة معروفة وهي الحزن والاكتئاب. أما الرجل، فبسقوط القناع، يسقط في “حيص وبيص”، وتضارب واندفاع جنوني من أقصي اليمين إلي أقصي اليسار.
تجاوزتُ إجراءات الطلاق والانفصال بهدوء وسكينة وقدر من الاحترام والود. لكن ما بعد الانفصال: هذا الفراغ لم أعرف كيف أواجهه!. ظننت لفترة أنني حالة خاصة، مميز ومختلف، لكني سرعان ما وجدت أن قصتى متكررة. صديق طيار حربي جاء منهاراً بعد الطلاق يحكي كيف أنه، ولأول مرة، شعر بالتشتت حينما خرج في مهمة.
إذا اتجهت للخارج ستجد أن الهوة تتسع أكثر فأكثر
دورة مؤسفة. ففي الزواج اندفعت في دوامة العمل حتى تركت العلاقة تغرق في بحر من الرمال، وحينما انفجرت المشاكل، بدا الطلاق كوسيلة للتخلص من المشاكل والتفرغ للعمل. لكن بعد الطلاق، لم تعد هناك حاجة للعمل، وفكرة الادخار أو الاستقرار المادي تضاءلت. تحاول أحياناً تعويض الفراغ بالانطلاق في رحلات استشكافية جديدة، لكن إذا اتجهت للخارج ستجد أن الهوة تتسع أكثر فأكثر. ذلك أن ما لا تبحث عنه، وإن كنت تحتاجه، سيكون بالداخل وهى رحلة أكثر وعورة. لا تتوقع أبداً أن تجد ما فقدته، أو تجد أي شيء عموماً. فالمهم هو ما ستتركه الرحلة من آثار عليك. حينها ستتغير أنت وستجد أن ما تبحث عنه قد تغير، وأصبح شيئاً أو أشياء لم تكن لتراها دون العبور من هذا النفق وترك ما ظننته يوماً حياتك، وتعيش ولادة جديدة وإن حملت جينات وتاريخ الحيوات السابقة.
المدونات تعبّر عن رأي صاحبها وليس بالضرورة عن رأي الموقع.

The plant (short story) translated by: Mona Karem

will not come through the door or the window, but as a plant you cannot notice with your naked eye.

I will grow day after day, to the sound of your singing and the rhythm of your breath at night. A small plant you will not notice at first, growing beneath your bed.

From door to bed, to bathroom to closet, standing or sitting against the mirror. Through all these acts, and to the sound of your humming, I will grow. A small green plant. With grand slim leaves sneaking out from beneath your bed.

I once read about plants that survive on light and prey on other creatures. With their glowing green leaves, they surround them and lure them in with a pleasing, lustful smell, then devour them. For hours and days and years, sucking on them. Sucking your toes one by one, making my way up.

What should I do with the bee? What should I tell the flower?

You become one with the flower. You grow up. You become a tree. While I remain a plant, in need of your humming, awaiting a song. A part of me is falling every morning, and I cannot catch it. A part of me flies off every time I lie in bed. But when I wake up I cannot remember what.

Sometimes I am reminded to look under the bed. But I don’t find the green plant. Nor do I find you.

ورد الوردوش: رسالة الخروج من السجن

كتبت هذه التدوينة مباشر بعد الخروج من السجن، ونشرت لأول مرة على صفحة “وسع خيالك” وصفحة “ضد محاكمة الخيال” بتاريخ 24 ديسمبر 2016

صباح الخير، وورد الوردوش على الجميع..‏

بعد أكثر من 300 يوم من العزلة عن العالم الخارجي والانترنت الحبيب، يدور المكن ببطء ‏في محاولة لاستيعاب ما يحدث في العالم وإيقاع اللحظة حتى أكون قَادراً على التحدث بما ‏يمكن فهمه، لذلك عذراً على التأخر في الكتابة.

‏ لا أزال في المرَاحل الأولى لاستيعاب ما حدث وكل رسائل الحب والتضامن التى فاقت كل ‏توقعاتى ولم أكن أعلم عنها شيئاً طوال فترة السجن حيث كان يتم حجب هذه الرسائل لذلك لا ‏أزال في صدمة استيعاب كل ما كان يدور بالخارجِ طوال عشرة شهور مضت ومعرفة كل ما ‏فعلتوه. الموضوع مُذهل خصُوصاً بالنسبة لشخص غير اجتمَاعى مثلي، ولا مُثقف تنويري. ‏كل ما حدث وما يحدث من حُبكم يبدو مُفاجأة مُتجددة أحتاج لوقت طويل لاستيعَابها. أدين لكل ‏هذه الرسائل بالطاقةِ والدفء التى كانت أفضل عون للاستمرار والتماسك والقدرة على ‏ممارسة وتجاوز التجربة.‏

أدرك أيضاً أن الكثير من هذا التضامن ليس لشخصي الضعيف ولا لـ #استخدام_الحياة بل ‏يأتى من أفراد يهمهم أن يكونوا في مُجتمع صحى أكثر بحد أدنى من سقف لحرية الرأى ‏والتعبير. من أخرين لديهم هذا الشغف بالأدب وبالايمان بأخوته العابرة للحدود القومية ‏والأعراق الجنسية. وأنا لم أكن أتخيل أن يكون عدد أفراد الفئات سابقة الذكر بمثل هذا العدد ‏وهذا الاهتمام والحماس للتعبير عن أنفسهم، وعن ما نحب. فشكراً لهؤلاء الذين لا أعرفهم ‏لأنهم فتحوا عينى عل عالم كنت أظنه في هشَاشةِ الزجاج بينما أتضح أنه في قوة الماء.‏

الشكر بالتأكيد في القلب من كل ذلك لفريق المحامين الأساتذة ناصر أمين، نجاد البرعي، خالد ‏على، ياسمين حسام الدين، محمود عثمان وكل فريق عمل موسسة حرية الفكر والتعبير. إلي ‏جانب كل الأساتذة والزملاء الذين حضروا معانا جلسات الاستشكال المتعددة. أدين للجهد ‏القانونى والصبر وتكاتف جهود الجميع بخروجى الآن وكتابة هذا.‏

الزملاء الكتاب سواء في مصر أو الدول العربية، على عهد المقاومة والمرواغة وسعيد بأنى ‏جزء من هذه الفيسفَاءالمُتنَاقضة المُتنافرة الشَاردة وسط خرابات الشرق الأوسط الكبير، وفي ‏زمن عودة الانحطاط القومى الغربي مُدججاً بقوة سخَافة الديمقراطية فأخوة الكُتاب مُمتدة ‏ومتمَاسكة، وسعادتى لا توصف برسائل التضامن والمحبة التى وصلتنى بشكل خاص من ‏كتابي المفضلين وبعضهم كانت أعمالهم اللذة الوحيدة المتاحة في السجنِ، والبعض الآخر ‏قرأت لأول مرة له أيضاً داخل السجن.‏

أما مفاجأة العام فقد كانت هذه التيار من السياسيين والبرلمانيين المصريين الذين أظهروا ‏انحيازهم للدستور أولاً الذي أقسموا عليه، ولتعزيز حرية الرأى والتعبير من خلال تغيير ‏القوانين المعوقة لحرية الرأى والتعبير أو التى توقع عقوبات سَالبة للحرية على النشر أو ‏التعبير الفنى مما يحمل تناقض صريح مع الدستور. صحيح أن جهود هؤلاء لا تزال جزء من ‏عملية الشد والجذب في حلبةِ الصراع اللاسياسي في مصرنا الحنونة. لكن شهدنا زمن يكون ‏فيه البرلمان هو المبَادر بتغيير العقوبات السَالبة للحريةِ في جرائم النشر والعلانية بينما ‏تعترض الحكومة. وهى خطوة أولى على طريق طويل.

بشكل شخصي أوجه الشكر للنواب ‏أحمد سعيد، ود.نادية هنري على مبادرتهم بتقديم مقترح لتغيير العقوبة السالبة للحرية في مادة ‏خدش الحياء بما يتماشي مع الدستور وعلى التكاتف والتأييد الذي أبداه عدد من النواب ‏أبرزهم أعضاء حزب المصريين الأحرار. وخارج البرلمان كان التكاتف والاهتمام من جانب ‏عدد من الأحزاب السياسية دليل آخر أنه حتى وسط وحش التضخم الذي نهوى جميعاً داخل ‏أحشاءه لا نزال قادرين على التفكير في حقوقنا الطبيعية.‏

أيام السجن بصراصيرها وعرقها وبردها ومهانتها. لم أكن بقادرٍ على تحملها ‏وتخطيها إلا بسبب رفقة الزملاء المساجين، وبشكل خاص زملاء عنبر 4-2 بسجن الزراعة، ‏والسادة البكايتة والدباديب من كل الجنسيات الأفريقية واللاتينية والعربية في عنبر 1-2. ‏وأمنيتى للجميع أن يأتى الغد بتعديل أكثر انسانية لقوانين الحبس الاحتياطى بحيث لا يكون ‏عدد مرتدى الأبيض في السجون أكثر من مرتدى الأزرق.‏

الزملاء الصحفيين والإعلاميين. شكراً على المتابعة والاهتمام والتغطية. لدي ظروف صحية، ‏والتزامات عائلة تحتل الآن ولأيام قَادمة الجزء الأكبر من وقتى إلي جانب عدم وجودى داخل ‏القاهرة. فقدت خط هاتفي لكن سأحاول الحصول على رقم جديد في أقرب وقت. ليس لدى ما ‏أضيفه أو أرغب في التعليق عليه في الوقت الحالي، والأولوية للالتزامات العائلية الآن، ‏أعتذر عن عدم قدرتى على تلبية أى دعوات لإجراء أى أحاديث أو تصريحات في الوقت ‏الحالي حتى نرفع المكن ونزيت الماتور وأفهم ما الذي يحدث يدور في الكون الذي يدور، ‏شكراً لاهتمامكم وتفهمكم.‏

الأصدقاء والصحاب والأحباب نفر نفراية وفرد فردايه، في سويداء القلب ومحبة موصولة ‏دائماً وليالينا قادمة وكلام وأحضان كتير في انتظارنا.

أخيراً، لا تزال القضية مفتوحة، ولا تزال هناك جلسة مصيرية يوم الأحد بعد القادم أمام محكمة ‏النقض. تضامنكم وحبكم حتى نتجاوز تلك الخطوة الأخيرة بكل الخير وبسعادة.‏


تيريسا بيبِه: “الأدب” يُحاكم في مصر

نشر هذا المقال في مدى مصر بتاريخ 11 ديسمبر2015

في أغسطس 2014، وجد مواطن مصري يدعى هاني صالح توفيق مصادفة العدد رقم 1097 من جريدة أخبار الأدب الأسبوعية. أثناء قراءته لصفحات قسم “إبداع”، قال إنه أصيب باضطراب في ضربات القلب، وانخفاض في ضغط الدم، وتعرض لوعكة صحية شديدة. ذهب توفيق إلى المحكمة وقدم بلاغًا ضد كل من صاحب النص، الروائي والصحفي المصري أحمد ناجي، ورئيس تحرير أخبار الأدب طارق الطاهر لنشره “مقالاً جنسياً” أصابه بأضرار ليست فقط صحية وأخلاقية، ولكنه قال إن المقال يُسيء للأخلاق والآداب العامة.

النص الذي أحدث كل هذا هو فصل من رواية “استخدام الحياة“، أحدث أعمال ناجي (دار التنوير – 2014). وهو يحتوى أوصافًا جنسية صريحة- كما هو الحال مع الكثير من الأعمال الأدبية العربية (انظر كتاب “الحب والجنسانية في الأدب العربي الحديث”، 1994).

في 14 نوفمبر، ذهب ناجي وطاهر ليدافعا عن نفسيهما وعن الرواية أمام محكمة الجنايات. (وسيمثلان مجدداً أمام المحكمة غدا السبت الموافق 12 ديسمبر). يواجه المؤلف ما يصل إلى سنتين من الحبس أو غرامة تصل إلى 10 آلاف جنيه إذا وجد مُذنِباً، إذ تقع التهمة تحت طائلة المادة 187 من قانون العقوبات، والتي تتحدث عن حماية الآداب العامة. الطاهر أيضًا متهم لإهماله مسؤولياته كرئيس تحرير أخبار الأدب، حيث قال للنيابة إنه لم يقرأ الفصل قبل أن يسمح بنشره.

كتب ناجي على حساب فيسبوك الخاص به أن الاتهام الموجه إليه يعد النص المنشور مقالاً، وليس جزءاً من رواية، والتي هي بطبيعة الحال عمل أدبي. لم يُفهَم الفرق بين “الصحافة” (المفترض أنها تستند إلى أحداث حقيقية) و”الرواية” (المعتمدة في الأساس على الخيال). لذا وجدت النيابة أن أفكار بطل الرواية “باسم بهجت” وسلوكياته، المُضِرة بالأخلاق العامة، تعود في الواقع على المؤلف نفسه.

يُسرَد الفصل في الواقع بضمير المتكلم؛ يحكي عن يوم عادي من حياة باسم (23عامًا) في القاهرة، المدينة المُنفِّرة، التي لا تنام، بل يتمدد نشاطها وتنفث بحركة غير عادية. يجد باسم عزاءه وسط أصدقائه، فمعهم يقضي الليل في تدخين الحشيش، شرب الكحول، الاستماع إلى الموسيقى والحديث عن الجنس. تبدو هذه المجموعة من الأصدقاء هي الشيء الوحيد الذي أعطته إياه هذه المدينة. يقضي باسم اليوم التالي في جزيرة الزمالك، الحي الأكثر هدوءًا وخُضرة، مع حبيبته السيدة “ملعقة”، كما يحب أن يدعوها بسبب الأقراط التي ترتديها. تُوصَف بأنها مسيحية مصرية، تعلمت في الخارج وتكبره بتسع سنوات، وقد قررت أن تعيش الباقي من حياتها في مصر، ولكنها لم تعد تُرجِح احتمالية أن تكون هناك علاقة بينها وبين رجال من عمرها. تبدو جزيرة الزمالك والراحة التي يشعر بها في منزل حبيبته ملاذاً في مدينة غير مستقرة. يتوَّج الفصل بوصف مشهدي وشعري لممارستهما الجنسية. وينتهي بباسم محاطًا من جديد بأصدقائه، محدّقين في الغروب من على قمة جبل المقطم.

مُستخدِماً لغة القرن التاسع عشر ومصطلحاته، يصف وكيل النيابة الفصل بأنه “مادة شهوانية” ويتهم ناجي باستخدام عقله وقلمه لـ”أغراض خبيثة تنتهك حرمة الآداب العامة”، متجاهلًا حقيقة أن الرقابة المصرية سمحت بدخول الرواية إلى مصر، عند استيرادها بعدما طبعتها دار التنوير في لبنان.

رواية ناجي ليست الكتاب المصري الأول الذي يذهب إلى المحكمة لنشره أموراً “لاأخلاقية”. ففي 2008، حدثت تجربة مشابهة لذلك مع مجدي الشافعي بعد نشر روايته المصورة “مترو“. وقد غُرِّم المؤلف وناشره خمسة آلاف جنيه، وصودِرت “مترو” ومنعت من النشر حتى قبل سنتين من وقتنا.


ولكن أخبار محاكمة ناجي ذكرتني لحظة سماعها بقصة محاكمة المؤلفة اللبنانية “ليلى بعلبكي” عام 1964، وهي موجودة بالكامل في كتاب “نساء شرق أوسطيات يتحدثن” (1977). مثل ناجي، اتهمت بعلبكي بنشرها محتوى جنسياً صريحاً في كتابها “سفينة حنان إلى القمر” (1964). وُجِه إليها السؤال حول عبارتين: “كان يستلقي على مؤخرته، أخذ بيدي ووضعها على صدره، ثم تنقل بيده على بطني، لعق أذنيّ، ثم شفتيّ، أحاط جسده بي كلياً، استلقى فوقي وهمس وهو في نشوة أنني نضرة، ناعمة لدرجة خطيرة. وأنه لهذا، افتقدني كثيرًا.”

مثل حالة ناجي، كانت رواية بعلبكي قد نشرت قبل ذلك بتسعة أشهر، بعد أن حصلت على تصريح قانوني بطبعها ونشرها. وقد صودر الكتاب بعد هذا الاتهام (لا تزال رواية ناجي متاحة في المكتبات).


بعد ما يزيد عن 50 عام، يبدو تقرير محاكمة بعلبكي مكتوباً بلغة قانونية جافة، ولكنه ما زال يعطينا إشارات ويسلط الضوء على بعض المسائل الهامة المتعلقة بالأدب كممارسة، ومعنى الكتابة الروائية والرقابة. يُظهِر التقرير بعض النقاط التي يجب أن يشار إليها في الدفاع عن ناجي ككاتب، وفي الدفاع عن الأدب والإبداع عمومًا.

محامي الدفاع الخاص ببعلبكي، الذي أُشير إليه فقط بـ”سالم”، حصل على خطاب دعم من لجنة مفكرين لبنانيين معروفين، والذين طُلِب منهم قراءة الرواية وباقي أعمال بعلبكي قبل المحاكمة. قال سالم إن لجنة من هؤلاء سوف تكون قادرة بشكل أفضل منه على توضيح أن هذا العمل الذي يقع تحت المساءلة القانونية هو عمل أدبي؛ هدفه الارتقاء بالأدب عامة، وهو هدف بعيد بقدر ما يمكن عن إثارة الرغبة الجنسية لدى القاريء والإضرار بالأخلاق العامة. ومن بين النقاط التي أثارها المحامي واللجنة أثناء المحاكمة، واحدة تهتم بإيضاح دور الكُتاب وطبيعة الكتابة الأدبية:

أود أن أُذكِر المحكمة أن المدعى عليها هي كاتبة هامة. ماذا يمكن أن يكون الكاتب؟ هو الشخص الذي يحاول أن يتواصل بأفكاره/ا وعواطفه/ا مع الآخرين عن طريق الكلمات كوسيط. المؤلف/ة، أو الكاتب/ة، هو بمثابة الكاميرا، ولكنه/ا يصوّر الحياة بالكلمات، يخلق الصور بحيث يمكننا أن نرى أفكاره/ا ومشاعره/ا بوضوح.

في هذه الفقرة، يشرح المحامي أن كُتاب الأدب وُهِبوا حاسة خاصة تُمكِنهم من تفكيك الواقع المحيط وتصويره من أجل القراء. وعلى عكس الصحفي، الذي تعتمد كتابته على الحقيقة الواقعية والموثوق بها، يكتب الأدباء عن حقائق عاطفية وموضوعية مستندين إلى أفكارهم، ومشاعرهم، وعواطفهم.

في الفصل المنشور من “استخدام الحياة” والذي هو تحت التدقيق القضائي الآن، يبدو ناجي بعيدًا عن إعطائنا معلومات تفصيلية عن الشخصية؛ يركز على عواطف باسم ومشاعره عندما يتجول في المدينة. العلاقة الجنسية مصورة بطريقة واقعية، وهو أسلوب كتابة سائد في معظم الأدب العربي من بداية القرن العشرين. ناجي، تمامًا مثل بعلبكي، أعطى الأفعال والعواطف أسماء محددة ليُضفي واقعية على الفكرة التي يقدمها. قراءتي بيّنت لي أن الفقرة لم تكن تهدف لإثارة الرغبة الجنسية، ولكن لتُظهِر أن الجنسانية هنا تُمارس كملاذ آمن بعيداً عن المدينة الصاخبة الفوضوية، مدينة تميل لمحو إنسانيتنا. الجنسانية هنا تُمارس كفعل تحرر في مجتمع محاصر بالسلوكيات القمعية والمحافظة تجاه الجسد. هذا ما يؤكده باسم وهو يجتّر: “في هذه المدينة، محظوظون أولئك الذين يتخطّون مرحلة القمع الجنسي ويجدون أنفسهم في وضع يكون فيه الجنس مكوِناً صغيراً في علاقات الصداقة. غير ذلك، يصبح الجنس هاجساً.”


يبدو هنا أن ناجي لا يأمل أن يتحدث باسمه فقط، أو باسم شخصيته الخيالية، ولكنه يصوِّر حال قطاع كبير من الشباب المصري الذي يكافح في العاصمة من أجل البقاء. يعكس “باسم” حقيقة أنك لو نظرت إلى القاهرة سوف ترى “البشر يظهرون مثل نمل يبيع، يشتري، ويتبول بينما عجلة الإنتاج لا تتوقف أبدًا.” ولكنه بالوقوف على قدميه بين الزحام، يشعر وكأنه “فأر صغير تم الإيقاع به بين تروس عجلة الإنتاج”، غير قادر على الخروج من قفصه، ولا حتى إدراك نتائج تحركاته.

هذا الشعور بالتيه والاغتراب في المدينة والمجتمع عامة يظهر في أحيان كثيرة في النتاج الأدبي لناجي. فقد قُدِم في روايته السابقة “روجرز” (دار حروف، 2007)، والتي تحكي حياة بطل الرواية الشاب من خلال تقنية “الفلاش باك”، وتقدم أوصافاً للهلوسة التي يسببها الكحول والحشيش وكلمات ألبوم “بينك فلويد” (الحائط). نفس التيمة أيضًا موجودة في مدونته “وسع خيالك كأنك تلعب” والتي تحوي كتابات تنتمي لما يمكن تسميته “السيرة الروائية”. في هذه المدونة، يختار ناجي “إبليس” اسمًا متخيّلًا ليغري القراء بإطلاق خيالهم ومشاركته عالماً مأهولاً بسفن الفضاء والحيتان؛ حيث يجلس بجوار تروتسكي، وجوني كاش، والراقصة الشرقية المصرية سامية جمال. إنه أمر مثير للسخرية بشكل ما أن يختار ناجي هذا الاسم عنوانًا لمدونته، ثم يُدفَع به إلى المحكمة لأن عمله يُقرأ بوصفه تسجيلًا لحقائق.

يستمر محامي بعبلكي في عرض حجّته:

إنه من المهم للمحكمة أن تنظروا سعادتكم في الكتاب إجمالًا؛ بدلًا من اقتطاف عبارتين من العمل كنموذج دلالي أو شاهد على أنه قد يكون عملًا مضرّا بالأخلاق والآداب العامة.

يبدو هذا تكرارًا لمطالبة سانت أوغسطين المكتوبة قبل ما يزيد عن 1600 عام فيما يتعلق بالكتب المقدسة، والتي تشير إلى أن المعاني التي توجد في جزء من النص يجب أن تكون متسقة مع المعنى الموجود في باقي الأجزاء. بعبارة أخرى، يجب أن تُطَبق التأويلات والتفسيرات على النص بأكمله. وبالمثل، ناقش ريني ويليك وأوستين وارين في عملهما “نظرية الأدب” (1949)، فكرة أن العمل الأدبي “منظومة بالغة التعقيد تتشكل من طبقات عدة ذات معانٍ وعلاقات متعددة” تحتاج إلى تحليلها كُليًا.

بقراءة الرواية بأكملها، يفهم المرء أنها ليست عملًا عن الجنس وكيفية تناول المخدرات. “استخدام الحياة” هي عمل مركب من الرواية العادية والرواية المصورة، فهي تحتوي على النص السردي لناجي ورسوم لرسام الكاريكاتير المصري أيمن الزرقاني. فالقصة تدور حول شخصتين أساسيتين: باسم والقاهرة. باسم في صحبة مجموعة من أصدقائه، وجمعية “مخططو المدن السرية”، والتي تهدف إلى إحداث تحول راديكالي في معمار العاصمة. ومن بين أعدائه، نجد الكاتب ما بعد الحداثي إيهاب حسن، والساحر بابريكا، وهو الأمر الذي يُظهِر مرة أخرى أن الرواية تُقدِم شيئًا من السريالية، وفي الوقت نفسه تشتبك مع ثقافة “البوب”.

محامي بعلبكي يلخِّص دفاعه بقوله:

يجب أيضًا أن يُناقش مبدأ الآداب والأخلاق العامة، كما أن التشريع اللبناني لا يُعطي تعريفًا تفصيليًا لـ “الأخلاق العامة”، علاوة على أنها شيء قابل للتغيير والتطور تبعًا للزمن. فهي عرضة للتغيير والتطور تبعًا لزمن الكاتب.

خلال العام الماضي، قامت الحكومة المصرية باعتقالات وملاحقات قضائية لمثليين وشيعة وراقصات شرقيات تحت مسمى الدفاع عن “الأخلاق العامة”. وفي مناقشة أجرتها المبادرة المصرية للحقوق الشخصية في أغسطس 2015، أشار الباحث عمرو عزت إلى أن المناقشات التي تلي إلقاء القبض على هؤلاء المواطنين، تستخدم تعبير “الأخلاق العامة” استخدامًا متكررًا ولكن في الوقت نفسه بطريقة غامضة جدًا. حالة ناجي، مرة أخرى، تجلب الانتباه إلى المعنى المتناقض لهذه العبارة، في وقت تملأ المشاهد الجنسية والمواد الإباحية الإنترنت والتليفزيون، نجد أنه- في بعض الأوقات- ليس مسموحًا أن يوجد شيء مثل الذي تحدثنا عنه في عمل روائي. يمكن القول أن أي اتهام يشير إلى الأخلاق العامة يجب أن يُعرّف ما المقصود بـ”الأخلاقي” في الوقت الذي يعتدي فيه المسؤولون في الدولة على حقوق الإنسان الأساسية، ويضطهدون صحفيين، وفنانين، ونشطاء سياسيين، بل عموم جيل الشباب الذي قاد انتفاضة يناير 2011.

بُرِئت بعلبكي في النهاية، وعادت الكتب المصادرة إلى أصحابها، في ختام مسيرة قضائية شاقة. مع ذلك، اختفت بعلبكي تقريبًا من المشهد الأدبي، وفضّلت أن تمارس الصحافة بدلًا من ذلك. في الوقت الحالي، يُظهِر مؤلفون وكُتاب في العديد من الدول دعمهم لناجي عن طريق ما يكتبونه على مدوناتهم، وفيس بوك الخاص بهم، وفي مقالاتهم، كما يشاركون في الكتابة على هاشتاج #لماذا_يذهب_الكلام_للمحكمة لدعم الروائي أحمد ناجي.

لتفاصيل وقفة التضامن مع ناجي ومتابعة تطورات جلسة الأمس وباقي المحاكمة تابع صفحة “ضد محاكمة الخيال” https://www.facebook.com/EgyptArtOnTrial/وعلى تويتر @EgyptArtOnTrial

Teresa Pepe: ‘Literature’ is on trial in Egypt

In August 2014, an Egyptian citizen named Hani Saleh Tawfik came across issue 1097 of literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab, and upon reading the pages included in the section Ibda (Creativity), declared that “his heartbeat fluctuated, his blood pressure dropped and he became severely ill.” Tawfik went to court and filed a case against the author of the text, Egyptian novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji, and the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Tarek al-Taher, for having published a “sexual article” that harmed not only his health and morals, but also the morals of Egypt as a whole.

The text in question is a chapter from Naji’s most recent novel, Istikhdam al-Hayah (The Use of Life, 2014), as was specified by the magazine. It contains explicit sexual content – as many works of Arabic literature do (see the 1994 book Love and Sexuality in Modern Arabic Literature). On November 14, Naji and Taher will have to defend themselves and the novel in front of a criminal court. The author faces up to two years in jail or a fine up to LE10,000 (US$1250) if found guilty, as the charge falls under Law 59, Article 187, which covers defaming public morals. Taher is also accused of neglecting his responsibilities as editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Adab, since he told the prosecution that he did not read the chapter before allowing its publication.

In a Facebook status, Naji has explained that the accusation assumes that the text published is an article, and not part of a novel, which would make it a work of literature. It fails to understand the difference between journalism (supposedly based on true events) and fiction (based on imagination). It thus attributes the harmful thoughts and actions of the novel’s protagonist, Bassem Bahgat, to the author himself.

The chapter is actually narrated in first person. It recounts a normal day in the life of the 23-year-old Bassem spent in the alienating city of Cairo, a city that never sleeps, but rather “branches out” and “erupts.” Bassem finds consolation among his friends, with whom he spends the night smoking hashish, drinking alcohol, listening to music and talking about sexual fetishes. This group appears to him as the only gift he has received from the capital. Bassem spends the day after in the greener and calmer neighborhood of Zamalek with his beloved Lady Spoon, as he likes to call her because of the earrings she wears. She is described as an Egyptian Christian, educated abroad and nine years older than himself, who has decided to live the rest of her life in Egypt but has lost faith in men her age. The island of Zamalek and the comfort of her house are like a shelter inside the unstable city. The chapter culminates with a graphic and poetic description of their sexual intercourse. It ends with Bassem surrounded again by his friends, staring at the sunset from the top of Moqattam hills.

Using 19th–century jargon, the prosecutor describes the chapter as “lustful written material,” and accuses Naji of using his mind and pen for “malicious” purposes in “violation of the sanctity of public morals.” The accusation seems to disregard the fact that the novel had already received a pass from Egyptian censors, when it was imported to Egypt after being printed in Lebanon by Dar al-Tanweer.

Naji’s novel is not the first Egyptian book to be taken to court for spreading immorality. In 2008, Magdy al-Shafie experienced a similar accusationfollowing the publication of his graphic novel Metro. The author and his publishers were fined LE5,000, and Metro was confiscated and barred from publication until two years ago.

But the news of Naji’s trial immediately reminded me of an account of the trial of the Lebanese author Layla Baalbaki in 1964, which is included in the 1977 book Middle Eastern Women Speak. Like Naji, Baalbaki had been accused of having published explicit sexual content in her book Safīnat hanān ilā al-qamar (A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon, 1964). The questioning concerned two sentences: “He lay on his back, his hand went deep under the sheet, pulling my hand and putting it on his chest, and then his hand travelled over my stomach,” and, “He licked my ears, then my lips, and he roamed over me. He lay on the top of me and whispered that he was in ecstasy and that I was fresh, soft dangerous, and that he missed me a lot.”

Just like in Naji’s case, Baalbaki’s novel had been published nine months before, and after she obtained legal permission to print and publish it. Following the accusation, however, the book was confiscated (Naji’s novel is still available).

After more than 50 years, the account of Baalbaki’s trial, written in arid juridical jargon, can still highlight some important issues concerning the work of literature, the meaning of fiction and censorship. It raises some points that should be mentioned in defence of Naji as an author, and in defence of literature and creativity in general.

Baalbaki’s defense lawyer, only referred to as “Salim,” obtained a support letter from a committee of well-known Lebanese intellectuals, who were asked to read the novel and the rest of Baalbaki’s works before the trial. Salim argued that such a committee would be able to explain better than him “that the work under discussion is a work of literature; that its goal is to elevate literature in general, and its aims are as far as possible from arousing sexual desire in the reader and thus harming public morality.” Among the points raised by the lawyer and committee during the trial, the first concerns the role of writers and the nature of literary writing:

I would like to remind the court that the defendant is a serious writer. What is a writer? A person who tries to communicate his/her thoughts and emotions to other people through the medium of words. The author, or writer, is in a sense a camera, but one which photographs life with words, creating pictures in which we may see her thoughts and feelings clearly.

In this passage, the lawyer explains that writers of literature are endowed with a special sensibility that allows them to decipher and depict the surrounding reality for their readers. Unlike the journalist, whose writing is based on factual, reliable truth, writers of literature write about an emotional, subjective truth, based on thoughts, feelings and emotions.

In the The Use of Life chapter currently under scrutiny, Naji, far from giving us detailed information about the character, focuses on Bassem’s emotions and feelings while he wanders in the city. The sexual intercourse is depicted in a realistic manner, a mode of writing dominant in most Arabic literary production since the beginning of the 20th century (see Selim S., “The Narrative Craft: Realism and Fiction in the Arabic Canon.” Journal of M.E. Literature, vol 14, issue 1-2, 2003). Naji, just like Baalbaki, gives acts and emotions specific names in order to actualize the idea he is presenting. My reading shows that the passage is not meant to arouse sexual desire, but show that sexuality is experienced as a refuge from the bustling and chaotic city, which tends to erase humanity. Sexuality is experienced also as a liberating act in a society permeated by repressive and conservative attitudes toward the body. Indeed, Bassem ruminates: “In this city the lucky ones who overcome the phase of sexual repression find themselves in a situation in which sex is only a small component of friendship. Otherwise, sex becomes an obsession.”


It seems here that Naji is hoping to not just speak in his name, or in his fictional character’s name, but to depict the condition of a large part of Egyptian youth who struggle to survive in the capital. Bassem reflects on the fact that if you look at Cairo from above, you see that “human beings appear like ants that buy, sell and pee while the wheel of production never stops.” But standing on his feet among the crowd, he feels like “a small rat entrapped in the production wheel,” unable to get out of his cage, and not even perceiving the consequences of his own movements.

This feeling of loss and alienation in the city and in society in general appears often in Naji’s literary work. It is present also in his previous novel, Rogers (Dar Malamih, 2007), which recounts the life of a young protagonist through flashback descriptions of hallucinations induced by alcohol, hashish and the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s album The Wall. The same theme can be also found in his autofictional blog Wassiʿ Khayālak-ʿIš kaʾannak talʿab (Widen Your Imagination, Live as if You’re Playing). In this blog, Naji, adopting the fictional name Iblis (Diabolos, the devil), tempts readers to enlarge their imagination and join him in a world inhabited by spaceships and whales, where he sits beside Trotsky, Jonny Cash and Egyptian belly dancer Samia Gamal. It is somehow ironic that Naji chooses this blog title, and is then brought to court because his work is read as merely reporting reality.

Baalbaki’s lawyer goes on to argue:

It is important, for the court, your honor, to look at the book in its entirety, rather than singling out two sentences in the work as representative and stating that these two sentences alone are harmful to public morality.

This echoes Saint Augustine’s claim, written over 1,600 years ago with regard to scriptures, that meanings found in one part of a text must be congruous with meaning found in other parts. In other words, interpretations have to work for the whole text (for more on the wholeness of narrative fiction, see H.P. Abbot, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative Fiction, 2008). Likewise, René Wellek and Austin Warren, in their Theory of Literature (1949), argue that a literary work is a “highly complex organization of a stratified character with multiple meanings and relationships” that needs to be analyzed in its entirety.

By reading the novel as a whole, one understands that it is not only about sex and drug use. The Use of Life is a hybrid work between an ordinary novel and a graphic novel, as it includes prose by Naji and drawings by Egyptian cartoonist Ayman Zorkany (some of them can be seen here). The story rotates around two main characters: Bassem and Cairo. Bassem is accompanied by his group of friends, the secret “Society of Urbanists,” who aim to radically transform the capital. Among its enemies, we find Egyptian postmodern writer Ihab Hassan and the magician Paprika, which again shows that the novel plays with surrealism and pop culture (a detailed analysis of the novel is provided by Elisabetta Rossi, translator of the novel into Italian, here).

Baalbaki’s lawyer concluded his defense by arguing that:

The concept of public morality must also be discussed, as the Lebanese legislation does not give a detailed definition of public morality, rather it is subject to change and development according to the time. They are subject to change and development also according to the writer’s time.

In the course of the past year, the Egyptian government has subjected gay men, Shias and certain belly dancers to detention and prosecution in the name of defending ‘”public morality.” In a discussion held by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in August 2015, researcher Amr Ezzat pointed out that in the debates following such citizens’ arrest and prosecution, the expression “public morality” is recurrent, but used in a very vague manner. Naji’s case, once again, brings attention to the ambiguous meaning of this phrase, at a time when sex scenes and pornography abound on the internet and television but are — sometimes — not admitted in a novel. Arguably, an accusation referring to public morality must define what is meant by “morality” in a time when leaders transgress basic human rights and persecute journalists, artists, political activists and in general the young generation that led the January 2011 uprising.

Baalbaki was finally declared innocent and the confiscated books were returned to their owners. Following the tortuous legal process, however, she almost disappeared from the literary scene and decided to privilege journalism instead.

Naji will have to wait until November 14 to see how his trial will evolve. In the meantime, authors from many countries are showing their support in form of Facebook status, blog posts, articles and joining the Twitter campaign in support of the novelist using the hashtag لماذا يذهب الكلام للمحكمة# (Why do words go on trial?) in support of Ahmed Naji.

Translations of The Use of Life by Teresa Pepe.

Farewell to the youth

I first saw the beast in 2005, in downtown Cairo, in front of the Journalists Syndicate steps. Young men and women gathered and chanted “kifaya” (enough). The beast, dressed in military uniform, stormed out of police vehicles. It was also disguised in civilian attire, beating up protesters and dragging them along the ground. In the streets of downtown Cairo, security forces undressed and sexually assaulted female protesters. It was a great shock. We thought this was the worst the beast could do to us. We thought this offense was enough to destroy the beast. These presumptions reflect the naivety and arrogance of our youth, and are telling of its pure heart and true emotions. Repelled by the consequent feverishly confrontational rhetoric, I withdrew from all battles with the beast.

I had encountered the same naivety five years earlier. I was a high school student in 2000 when I joined a students’ protest in solidarity with the Second Intifada. The former Israeli prime minister and war criminal, Ariel Sharon, had visited Al-Aqsa Mosque and sparked the Palestinian uprising. Israeli forces then assassinated a 12-year-old, Mohamed al-Durrah, while he was in his father’s arms. Our schoolteachers encouraged us to protest, but did not demonstrate themselves. They encouraged us to walk in small angry groups, chanting for the liberty of Palestine, vowing never to forget retribution for Durrah. The security forces then allowed us to demonstrate in bigger groups outside the schools gates, roaming the streets of Mansoura, where I spent my teenage years. The children and students surrounding me were in ecstasy because they had obtained the right to scream and found freedom in the streets for the first time. And when groups of marching students encountered each other they embraced theatrically. Schools in Mansoura, as across the country, are segregated by gender. It was amazing to watch boys and girls mingling in these protests, as opposed to the usual scene of male students waiting outside of girls’ schools to harass them, pick them up, or engage them in emotional adventures. But the crowds, screaming, over-excitement and the egoism of those miserable souls dying to lead the chants, left me mentally disassociated, despite being a part of it all.

I would learn five years later, upon my graduation from university, how Hosni Mubarak’s regime not only allowed the anti-Israel protests but supported and even instigated them. Mubarak wanted the cameras to film the angry crowds as they burned the Israeli flag in order to point at the image, address the gods in Oslo’s mountains and Washington’s valleys and say, “I am here to control these beasts, so that they don’t burn down everything.” When the anti-Mubarak protests later took to the streets, security forces encircled them. Because they had not become beasts yet, Mubarak’s regime made sure they did by undressing female protesters and sexually assaulting young protesters. Instead of becoming beasts, however, they chose defeat and sought revenge through victimhood.

I became jaded by the ridiculousness of the charades we are summoned to participate in, such as elections. This was in addition to the calls for limiting religious and sexual freedoms in the name of religion, and other travesties that conjure up the idea of the nation. They instruct you on the importance of loving the nation and tell you how to do so. These directions did not suit me or various other people I met online. We thus preferred to create our own virtual reality, outside authorities’ control. We created a space that contrasted with the tedious moral principles of our fathers. Egypt was passing through great times. Everyone on television was talking about a democratic transformation. In the authority’s blind spot, we made small venues to hold parties and play music prohibited from broadcast radio and television (both public and private), because it doesn’t contain the usual tacky love song lyrics. In one of these parties, Alaa Abd El Fattah suggested we create a parody of the president’s website, and that I compose its comic content. These were the kinds of games we played. We used delve to into our virtual bubbles and make fun of the naked king, and how his entourage and slaves praised his garments.

I met my first wife on an online forum for the fans of [popular Egyptian singer] Mohamed Mounir. We were teenagers, barely 18 years old. Together we spent an often turbulent 10 years of love, marriage and divorce, a complete cycle of life. Others met on the forums and blogs of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Revolutionary Socialists, the “foot fetish club,” the “Bin Laden warriors” or the “‘Fatakat housewives’” forum. In contrast to the [political stagnation] that manifested in catting about Mubarak’s unfading pitch-black hair dye, the internet was a new home for those holding similar views to get together. The faint humming of these groups’ discussions gradually became audible. With the help of hearing aids, the old guards began to describe that humming as the voice of youth. They labeled young people as aliens to society, and then agents of the West and immorality. In any case, they did not take young people seriously or understand them.

“The old corpses should make way for the new corpses.”

The old zombies were taking up all the seats. The zombie general, the zombie sheikh, the zombie president, the zombie businessman, the zombie ruling party, the zombie opposition, the moderate Islamist zombie, and the radical Islamist zombie. And all they offered the youth was to be zombies and let go of their idealistic dreams and ethics. We were forced to mingle with these zombies. We were forced to converse with them, coax them, sometimes praise them, in order to protect ourselves against their evil. “With cold hands, we got into their midst; we looked but could not see,” is how poet Youssef Rakha described the situation years later in his great poem, On Sleeping with Reality. When we opposed them or refused to consume their archaic understanding of the nation and religion, we were faced with torture, marginalization and siege.

photo by : Pauline Beugnies

“Live like your parents have lived,” said the zombies. In his movie The Mummy (1969), late Egyptian filmmaker Shady Abdel Salam tells us that our parents lived as scavengers. Girls walk in the streets with their shoulders curved forward and heads looking down with a desire not to be noticed. They don’t look left or right, often getting catcalled and harassed in silence. When they decided to stand up against mass sexual assault in the heart of the city, zombies accused girls and women of attracting criminal harassers and arousing them.

Demonstrators first took to the streets to protest police brutality and torture. They were accused of insulting the police. Protests kept growing in size and magnitude, eventually calling for the removal of the zombies’ leader (who taught his disciples his hair-dying technique). The zombies then congregated to address the youth. “Consider him your father,” they said, in reference to their leader.

Common traits of young people include passion and emotional vulnerability. As much as passion fueled the revolution, gushing blood in the veins of the agitated masses, it also prompted mercy and pity. It was precisely this passion that transformed the revolution into a quest to seek retribution for the martyrs, and prevent the children from killing their zombie fathers.

In many of Pauline Beugnies’ images in her photo book Génération Tahrir, we can see heated discussions between girls and mothers, between the young and the old. What’s not audible, however, is the sound of the screams, debates and opposing views. But the photos do make clear to us the magnitude of the authority the zombie fathers possess and the immense pressure young people are under.

I knew many young men and women who took to the streets, burning car tires and occupying the frontlines in the battle against the criminal elements of the police force. But the moment their phones rang, they would quickly escape to a quiet spot to answer their mothers’ calls. “I’m fine and far away from the clashes,” they would say. They must have thought rebellion could exist in a parallel reality away from familial life. I have also known activists who work on LGBT rights and are brave enough to advocate this issue in a [conservative] society like Egypt’s. They defend these rights in a court of law, in front of the police, and so on, yet cannot muster the courage to announce this to their parents. My female friends who gave officers the finger as they were being shot with the police’s rubber bullets used to weep in the face of parental and societal pressures. They are pressured to assume a single path in life, a future that includes nothing but marriage and bearing children in a cycle of reproducing more zombies.

This cowardliness and hesitancy led young people to always try to find a middle ground, only to eventually be deprived of everything by their fathers. They cheered for moderate Islamists, as the Brotherhood youth claimed that Islam is an identity and a moderate religion compatible with democracy. The Brotherhood youth claimed there was no place for secularism in our national identity. Then the Islamist zombies announced that there was no difference between Islamic State militants and us. They called those militants “mujahidin” and pledged to send their young people to fight on their side in Syria. When young democrats cheered for the civilian coalition led by a military general, they justified this. “Look at Sisi’s eyes,” they said. “They radiate warmth and love; he will save this nation and build a secular state.” The general responded by prohibiting speech and jailing everyone. Others were killed in public squares and football stadiums.

The Gulf sheikhs, the agents of the Western gods in the region, backed up the general. Along with the zombies and the general, they opted to deprive young people of all spaces, even virtual reality. Internet surveillance systems were put in place and a single tweet could put its writer behind bars. They invested millions in the internet, turning it into a mega shopping mall, controlling its content through social media companies that decide what’s trending. If a single story surfaces on a new torture case inside an Egyptian prison, it is quickly buried under piles of entries and clicks on the new shapes of Kim Kardashian’s butt.

A few weeks ago, I began sensing a faint, dull pain in my left testicle. The doctor told me I’m suffering from a case of varicocele in my testicles. He advised me not to stay standing for long periods of time, cut back on sexual intercourse and refrain from prolonged erections. When I asked him about the cause, he simply said, without taking his eyes off his newpapers: “Most probably it is genetics and age.”

No more prolonged erections for our generation; we are dispersed all over the world. Some are in jail, some are exiled and some are willing to be drawn to the Mediterranean’s European shores. Others aim for an exit from hell to God’s promised heaven through a path of beheadings. Those who have stayed have secured a place among the zombies. They appear on television as youth representatives, take selfies with the zombie general and sheikhs, and compete over the crumbs Gulf amirs and sheikhs often throw at them.

Now it is time for documentation, archiving and preservation before we depart with the past and our youth. Let’s bid farewell to our sorrows and ghosts. Let’s search within for a new path and revolution. The greatest danger lies in giving into nostalgia, to the old ideas and principles, and to assume there is a golden moment in the past that should be retrieved. The greatest danger is in revering the picture. Any form of reverence — for the revolution or the martyrs or higher ideologies — is enough to turn you into a zombie without even noticing it.

This essay was first published in French as an introduction to the book Génération Tahrir, for which photographer Pauline Beugnies followed the stories of various artists and politicians during the 25 January revolution in 2011. Mada Masr published the original Arabic text here.