Sam Sacks on Using Life

Published first on: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-best-new-fiction-1513970981

In 2015,shortly after Ahmed Naji published his novel “Using Life” (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 196 pages, $21.95), a sexually explicit dystopian fantasy that imagines the destruction of Cairo under a tsunami of sand, an elderly reader wrote the authorities to complain that the book had caused him heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure. To most in the West, so strong a reaction would be taken as an endorsement of the writer’s gifts, but under Egyptian President Sisi’s authoritarian rule, the consequences were severe. Mr. Naji was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for, in the words of the prosecutor, “misusing writing to create foul stories that serve artistic lust and mortal joy.” And though his conviction was eventually overturned he is still, as of now, forced to await a retrial.

Mortal joy, indeed. “Using Life,” which has been vividly translated into English by Benjamin Koerber, is a ribald, streetwise, outrageously inventive speculative fiction that hammers at the chaos and dysfunction of Egyptian life while testifying to the vitality of its counterculture.

The story is told from the near future, following a sequence of natural disasters known collectively as the “Setback,” which left Cairo buried in sand and led to the construction of a new and far more efficiently organized capital. As the narrator, Bassam Bahgat, wryly relates, these acts of God were anything but: They were actually manufactured by a shadowy international syndicate called the Society of Urbanists, which aims to “change the direction of humanity as a whole” by aggressively re-engineering its cities.

Bassam recounts the revolutionary years when he was a documentary filmmaker hired by this illuminati of architects to produce a series of videos about Cairo’s neighborhoods. He takes a fatalistic view of the transformations. Pre-catastrophe Cairo, he mordantly admits, is a cesspool of graft, pollution and standstill traffic, “where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere.”

But Mr. Naji comes both to bury Cairo and to praise it. “Pessimistic on the outside,” its residents are “idealistic on the inside,” and the howling anarchy of the city is infinitely preferable to the soulless utopia envisioned by the Urbanists. Bassam’s encounters with the Society alternate with graphic episodes of party-going, drug use and lovemaking. Similarly, interspersed within the story are lurid, Ralph Steadman-esque panel illustrations by Ayman Al Zorkany. The alleged immorality for which Mr. Naji has been prosecuted is really a tribute to Cairo’s irrepressible life force. Even as Egyptian authorities play to the dystopian script by attempting to punish the author for his heterodoxies, his book memorably celebrates the country’s underground seams of freedom and individual expression.

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