An Interview with Ahmed Naji: “I don’t think identity is a tattoo

Ahmed Naji is a collector of occupational labels—occasional journalist, blogger, intellectual masturbator, documentary filmmaker, agent for belly dancers—accepting any label, and prescribing to none. The one that feels most true is simply “writer.” For Naji, to be a writer is not an identity in itself, but an avenue for discovery: “Writing itself is a way to doubt and question,” he says in Rotten Evidence, his expansive, intimate account of his time in prison, which was excerpted in The Believer this past February.

Naji, 34, did not consider himself a writer until he went to prison for writing. In 2016, a private Egyptian citizen claimed that he suffered “heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure” after reading a passage from Naji’s novel, Using Life, which included descriptions of sex and drug use. Naji was arrested on charges of “violating public modesty”—it was the first time an author had been subjected to imprisonment for morality concerns in modern Egypt. As a result, Naji served ten months in Tora Prison.

In 2019, Naji moved to Las Vegas with his wife and infant daughter and began his term as the City of Asylum fellow for the Black Mountain Institute. Since then, Naji has published two books in Arabic: And Tigers to My Room, a love-story turned Middle Eastern sci-fi dystopian novel, and Rotten Evidence, a memoir about reading and writing in prison. Naji’s fiction has a subversive, experimental quality that hearkens back to his early days in the blogosphere—it blurs genre lines, mixing artistic mediums like music and graphic illustration with the written word. His prose is prophetic, yet unserious; it offers observations that are at once familiar, and singular in voice and perspective. When reading the excerpt of Rotten Evidence, I was struck by a sentence that dripped with typically Najian flair: “I’d known the power of the police, which was like the power of street dogs: they made a terrifying noise, but if you could keep your nerve, they’d get out of your way.” Naji’s work often offers these bits of irreverent wisdom; he has a unique ability to wax poetic and speak on universal truths in the same breath–it’s a tightrope that not many writers can balance with such sharp precision.

Naji and I first spoke back in 2019, a few months after he arrived in Las Vegas. We continued our conversation more than a year later, in a drastically different world. I met him for tea in Downtown Las Vegas, not far from where he lives with his wife, lawyer Yasmin Hosam El Din, and their young daughter, Sina. We talked about the trials of aging, the most full-proof method for distracting a detention officer, and reading and writing as strategies for survival.

—Summer Thomad

I. IBLIS

THE BELIEVER: How did you first find your way to writing? 

AHMED NAJI: I started writing poetry when I was in high school. I even won several competitions and prizes in high school, and then at college and university. I saw myself as a poet, and would even introduce myself as one. But then a very weird accident happened. Back then, I used to write my poetry on paper. It was in lovely, well-done handwriting, like calligraphy. And I had all my poems in one big folder. When I was in university in Cairo, every week or two, I would travel to see my family in Mansoura. And one day, I forgot the whole folder on the bus. Of course I went back asking about it, and I didn’t find it. I went to the guys at the bus station and asked for the folder, and they were like, “Are they government documents or important papers like contracts?” And I was like, “No, just poems.” and they were like, “Pssshhh.” So I lost them, and it was frustrating and very sad. After that, I tried to write some poems from memory, but then I thought, What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Maybe it’s a sign. And since then, my career as a poet was killed. I still write poems from time to time, but only for myself. I don’t publish or share them.

BLVR: Growing up, was there anything you were restricted from, or that you weren’t allowed to read?

AN: I wasn’t allowed to read anything. I was only allowed to study and study and study. My father is a doctor, so the plan was to be raised and trained as a doctor, and I was only allowed to read textbooks. But every year or so, I would be moving to a new school, and it was a lot of effort to get to know people and find friends, so I dove into books and comics and stories. When I was in high school, I would have my school book open and inside it, there would be a novel. And usually when my mom discovered that, [my parents] would take the novel and hide it. Or sometimes my mother would get angry and throw it out the window. They would blame every single thing on the books that I was reading. Like, “You don’t get high scores in school because you’re wasting your time with novels.”

BLVR: What role did religion play in your life, growing up in a majority Muslim country? 

AN: My family is practicing and they are a little bit conservative. I grew up going to the masjid and the mosque for all five prayers, and going to a bunch of religious, social, and political activities. So I was surrounded by this atmosphere. But then once I started reading intensely in high school, that made me have doubts about everything. When I was like fourteen or sixteen years old, I discovered Nietzsche and other writers, like Naguib Mahfouz—all of this pushed me towards this different way of thinking. By the age of sixteen, I was against religion, and I could say I was agnostic. Especially when you’re a teenager, you have this power like you’re inside of Zeus. You revolt to the extreme. 

That’s when I began writing and publishing. I started writing a blog in 2003 and started using the nickname “Iblis,” which means evil or devil. It was a nickname that was given to me by some of my friends, and there are still a lot of people in Egypt who know me as Iblis on the internet. This character that I created for the blogosphere was the first thing that got me a little bit famous in some circles. After three or four years I started to meet with other bloggers. Remember this was in 2005 and 2006, so everything was about blogging, and it was a huge, important movement in Egypt and in the Arab world that has had an impact politically, socially, and culturally. I met with other bloggers and they started to get to know my real name. I wrote my first novel, Rogers, when I was twenty-one years old, but I thought it was so chaotic and complicated that no one was going to be interested in it. I decided to publish it for free on my blog, but after the first month, I got offers from three different publishing houses who were interested in publishing it as a novel. So I signed this deal and it was published, and then it was translated into Italian and got a lot of attention and so on. But again, all of this happened because I started writing under this nickname Iblis as a blogger. And of course back then, part of writing under a nickname was because a lot of writing was critical of Islamic mythology and it had a lot of sarcasm. Religion was an interesting topic for sarcasm and cynicism and jokes. But it’s dangerous to do this with your name in Egypt.

BLVR: You’ve mentioned that you never considered yourself a writer until you went to prison, and that only then did you decide to take writing as a profession seriously. I’m curious if that’s connected to having written under a pseudonym for a lot of the early years of your career. Why did you not feel like a writer back then?

-Read the whole interview here: https://believermag.com/logger/an-interview-with-ahmed-naji/

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