Ahmed Naji — winner of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award — remains on trial for his novel Using Life, for its alleged violation of “public morals.” The novel recently appeared in English, and Naji and translator Ben Koerber talk about the book, the legal case, and what Naji’s working on next:
Ben Koerber: To start off, could you give us a brief update on your case and the legal (and extralegal) sanctions against you and the novel?
Editor’s update: The North Cairo Appeals Court has ruled it has no jurisdiction over Naji’s case and has referred it to a criminal court. PEN America has called the situation “half free.“
Ahmed Naji: In the meantime, I remain banned from leaving the country. As for the novel, no ruling has been issued against it, but due to the increasing censorship of the book market in Egypt, we’re having difficulties publishing a new edition (in Arabic). The owners of some presses have refused to print it, since the National Security Investigations Service have obligated them to report any book before printing. At the same time, we’re worried about printing it outside Egypt, since this means it will have to pass through the office of censorship for artistic works at the Customs Administration. This office has banned several books from entering Egypt as of late.
BK: Some commentators have tried to link the case against you to the rise of fascism in Egypt, or to the police state. Yet it seems that Using Life — and indeed some of your other works — conceptualizes politics and repression in somewhat different terms. Do you agree? How might the novel itself be used to reflect on your case, or politics in Egypt more generally?
AN: I finished the novel’s first draft at the end of 2010 [i.e. before the Egyptian uprising of January-February 2011]. The novel itself does not specify its political context, but provides the general contours of two worlds. The first world is governed by a nameless general, while the second world – after the “Tsunami of the Desert” – is ruled by a conglomeration of multinational construction firms. At the time I was writing the novel, I had been preoccupied with the idea of the nation state – which began to take shape in the late nineteenth-century – and its potential demise. Politically, the novel is about this imminent moment of change.
Now, it seems this moment has come to pass. In the western world, for example, we see the rise of far-right movements, who view the nation state as a unified racial entity, and at the same time as a lucrative commercial enterprise that bestows its benefits on a racial elite. Perhaps Trump in America is the best embodiment of this state of affairs. We see it too in the Third World and the Arab countries, where a new generation of dictators present themselves as CEOs capable of making profits through brokering deals and selling their real estate assets.
In Egypt, 6th of October City hasn’t yet become the fantastical, futuristic city of the novel. But to the east of Cairo, the state is siphoning its entire economic resources into building what they’re calling the “New Administrative Capital.” It’s supposed to be a “city of the future” where the president and government will be relocated, far from the present Cairo. I don’t like the image of the writer as a predictor of events, but I can only be amazed that the end I wished for Cairo in the novel is presently taking place in reality. The plan announced by the government is to let the city choke and die while they flee along with their presidential palaces, administrative buildings, and security apparatuses to a new city that’s completely fortified.
BK: Who or what are the “Animals of Cairo”? Can we live with them? Can we live without them?
AN: They’re portraits of characters and personality types that grow and reproduce in Cairo. The reason they took this shape – Ayman’s drawings together with some abstract prose poems – is because I didn’t want to write about the city as it’s typically been portrayed in the Arabic realist novel, where you choose a well-defined geographic location – a working-class neighborhood, a residential building, a city street – and follow the fates of a group of characters and their class struggle. Instead, I wanted to write something more fantastical, based on the city’s most widespread characters.
BK: Bassam has a complicated relationship with “ass-kissing” (ta’ris) and “cocksuckery” (khawlana). I’m not sure the translation is able to communicate the cultural baggage of these terms. Could you explain?
AN: I really like Ben’s translation of both expressions, and I think the reader can grasp their cultural connotations from the context of the novel as well. I find the topic of “ass-kissing” in Arab culture really quite fascinating. In one sense, it’s a way of surviving and making do in a culture dominated by an ethos of control and subjugation, as is the case with Arab political culture. It’s a topic that’s garnered considerable attention in the Arabic novel, as for example in the works of Muhammad Mustagab, or with some of Naguib Mafhouz’s famous characters – Mahgoub Abd al-Dayim in Cairo 30, or Anis Effendi in Adrift on the Nile. There’s also, of course, the works of Albert Cossery.
BK: What role do the footnotes play in the novel?
AN: The novel is the art of polyphony, of voices in the plural. The footnotes were a way of experimenting with this idea. Sometimes they provide clarification or explanation of the main text, and sometime they conflict with it by raising doubt about its accuracy or presenting a different narrative of the same event.
BK: The novel is a very “open” text, with gestures toward reader participation at many levels. What did you hope to achieve with these gestures, and how have readers responded?
AN: I strive to let writing become an open dialogue. I like for the text to contain many spaces and secrets, so that the reader can fill in the gaps and become more immersed. The readers responded to this in different ways. The responses I always get for these types of experiments gives me a sense of personal fulfillment, as well as the opportunity to form new friendships. With Using Life, some readers colored in the novel’s illustrations, and others send me their ideas and images of other “animals of Cairo.”
The text’s openness to interpretation helps achieve another artistic goal that I strive for, which is that writing induce others to exercise doubt and ask questions about the work, its subject, and their own lives.
BK: Your thoughts on seeing the novel in English? What do you think American readers will make of it?
AN: I’m really excited about it. I remember, years ago, when my first novel [Rogers, 2007] was translated into Italian [Rogers, et la Via del Drago divorato dal Sol, 2009], and I expressed my concerns to the translator, Barbara Benini, that it wouldn’t find an audience in Italian culture. But I was surprised to find myself invited to Italy for the book tour, and to hear from Italian readers their reactions and the connections they made between the novel and their own personal experiences. I don’t know how it will be with American readers, but I’m eager to know how they respond.
BK: Can you share any details about your upcoming projects?
AN: Currently I’m trying to finish a nonfiction book on my trial and time in prison. Starting with my own experience, it looks at the broader issue of literary language vs. the language of the law, and asks why literature goes to the courtroom. I review various cases brought against literary works in Egypt and France, since that’s where the charge of “obscenity” or “offending public morals” has been brought against literature, beginning with Voltaire. I also look at the case brought against James Joyce’s Ulysses in New York, and the case against Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”.