Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison

During the 1921 obscenity trial involving James Joyce’s Ulysses, a dispute broke out between the prosecuting attorney and the defense team in the New York courthouse. The assistant district attorney angrily announced he was going to read an extract from the novel out loud to establish before the court that it posed a threat to society and morality. Protesting that there was no need to subject the court to such obscenity, the judge stopped him. Around a century later, in Cairo, during the obscenity trial of my novel Using Life, the assistant attorney for the prosecution challenged my defense attorney and the respected literary figures we had called as witnesses to read a section of my novel out loud.

Whatever the time and place—twentieth-century New York or twenty-first-century Cairo—no sooner does literature enter the courtroom than the same techniques of attack and defense come out. The accused litterateurs mount their case from the ramparts of expertise, demanding to be regarded, like engineers or doctors would be, as authorities in their field. The prosecution’s argument, on the other hand, is premised on the idea that literature is for everyone, which gives the criminal justice system the right to protect society from its harmful effects. If the prosecutor can read literature, then he’s also qualified to pass judgment on it. 

Language is the raw material of both literature and the law, but judges and lawyers claim their own mysterious authority over it. While the practitioners of the law permit their courts and prisons to encroach upon literature, they won’t allow literature to be read in their courts. Writers will defend themselves with tongues of fire, but on the stand they are stripped of their power, because their language is the proof of their guilt.

I’ve always found interviews with the media excruciating. Pressing me to explain my work and state what it is I’m trying to achieve, journalists seem to think that writers understand the full dimensions of the writing process. They don’t realize that writing is itself a way to understand, a way to doubt and question. When forced to defend myself, I always felt like the defense itself became a prison in which my relationship with literature was to be confined. I became trapped in a cage that they and I had together constructed out of sex, obscenity, taboos, and my conflict with censorship. I was being framed as a writer with an obscene agenda. But prior to my trial and conviction, even though I had published three books with literary presses, I never saw myself as a writer. Occasional journalist, day laborer in the arts market, often unemployed, intellectual masturbator, three-legged chair, daydreamer, mental adolescent, but a writer? Not sure. I was only thirty; I hadn’t decided what I wanted yet, and I didn’t see any reason why I should.

Read the full article here: https://believermag.com/rotten-evidence/

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