عد النجاح المدوي لعدد من المسرحيات التي أدت فيها دور البطولة مع المخرج عزيز عيد (1884-1942)، انتقلت روز اليوسف للعمل مع فرقة عكاشة المسرحية، إحدى أنجح وأشهر الفرق في منتصف العشرينات من القرن الماضى. أصبحت روز بطلة الفرقة الأولى، وطافت مع الفرقة مسارح مصر الكبرى في ذلك الوقت.
في الصيف كانت الفرقة تؤدي عروضها في الإسكندرية، ونزل أعضاء الفرقة في أحد فنادق المنتزه الفاخرة. صودف أن طلعت حرب، رجل الأعمال ومؤسس “بنك مصر” وأحد رموز الحداثة المصرية الليبرالية، كان نزيلاً في الفندق نفسه، وبالطبع كان طلعت حرب يمتلك حصة في الفندق، ويمول بشكل أساسي الفرقة المسرحية. وبينما كان يتناول إفطاره في الصباح، شاهد روز اليوسف تخلع ملابسها وتلج البحر بمايوه قصير. لم يكن “بكيني”، لأن “البكيني” لم يكن قد اختُرع بعد في ذاك الزمن. بل كان مايوهاً من قطعة واحدة يكشف الذراعين، والصدر، ويغطى جزءاً بسيطاً من أعلى الفخذ، تاركاً بقية الساقَين للشمس.
صُعق طلعت حرب من المنظر، ليس بسبب جمال روز اليوسف الفاتن، بل لما اعتبره تهجماً على الأخلاق والمثل العليا، وتهديداً لقيم المجتمع المصري. وبحُكم مركزه وموقعه كذكَر مصري يمتلك الكثير من المال والنفوذ، شعر طلعت حرب، كأي ذكَر في موقع سلطة، بمسؤوليته عن أجساد الآخرين، وعن قيم المجتمع الذي يعيشون فيه. أرسل مع “جرسون” رسالة اعتراض لروز اليوسف، طالباً منها أن ترتدي ملابسها وألا تجلس على الشاطئ بالمايوه، لأن هذا إخلال بسمعة الفندق والفرقة المسرحية التي يمولها.
في ذاك الزمن، كانت هناك قِيَم وأخلاق متاحة للأجانب المقيمين في مصر، وقِيَم وأخلاق للعرب والمصريين. فمُتاح للأجنبيات ارتداء المايوه، بل والمشي عاريات أن أرَدن، بينما كانت النساء المصريات تحت وصاية الأزهر، والمَلِك، والنيابة، والآن طلعت حرب و”بنك مصر”.
لم تستجب روز اليوسف لرسالة طلعت التحذيرية، بل سخرت منه، وقامت من مكانها لتتمشى بالمايوه في استعراض لجمالها ونفوذها الفنى. انفعل “زكيبة الفلوس الوطنية” من الإهانة، وأرسل مهدداً مدير الفرقة بوقف تمويله للفرقة. وآنذاك، لم تكن خسارة طلعت حرب تعني خسارة تمويل كبير فحسب، بل خسارة “بنك مصر”، البنك “الوطنى” الوحيد الذي يجازف بدعم فرقة مسرحية محلية. فذهب أعضاء الفرقة إلى روز اليوسف، وحاولوا إقناعها بأن تعتذر لطلعت حرب، لكن ممثلة مصر الأولى التي صنعت شهرتها في بطولة مسرحية عزيز عيد “يا ست ما تمشيش كده عريانة”، رفضت أن تعتذر عن المايوه أو أن تذهب إلى طلعت حرب، فهددها مدير الفرقة بالتخلي عنها وطردها، فقدّمت استقالتها وتركت الفرقة.
في اليوم التالى، انتظرت روز جلوس “الباشا” في شرفة الفندق أمام البحر لتناول طعام الإفطار، وتعمدت أن تنزل بمايوه أجرأ من سابقه، ومكثت في الفندق أسبوعاً آخر، لا لشيء سوى لتستفز طلعت حرب وتتلذذ بتمريغ سلطته في رمال شاطئ الإسكندرية، بينما يطيّر الهواء شعرها الأشقر.
ليوم، وبعد حوالى مئة عام على تلك الواقعة، ما زالت مصر مشغولة، كما كل صيف، بمعركة البكيني والبوركيني، وما يجب أن ترتديه النساء وأين يرتدينه. وكما مصر العشرينات، حينما سادت التفرقة بين النساء المصريات العربيات، والأجنبيات، فهناك اليوم أيضاً تفرقة بناء على الطبقات الاجتماعية والحدود بينها.
عدد محدود من حمّامات السباحة والشواطئ الخاصة في مصر لا يسمح بنزول السيدات بالمايوه الشرعي “البوركيني”، ولا يقبل سوى البكيني أو ستايل “مايوه روز اليوسف”. الدافع المعلن هو ذاته دافع أبيهم التاريخي، زكيبة الفلوس، طلعت حرب، أي الدفاع عن قيم وأخلاق المجتمع. لكن حقيقة الأمر أن لا طلعت حرب، ولا أعداء “البكيني” أو “البوركيني” يهتم بأي قيم أو أخلاق. الدافع دائماً وأبداً هو السلطة، والنفوذ، والمال. وكيفية احتكار الثلاثة ووضع قواعد منظمة لعملية انتقالها وهرمية التسلط.
كان طلعت حرب يدافع عن قيم مجتمع جديد، يصفه بأنه المجتمع الوطنى المصري الناهض من طين الأراضي الزراعية، ليخلع الجلباب ويرتدى الطربوش، ويتخلى عن لقب فلاح لصالح لقب أفندي، ويرفع العلَم ويغنى “قوم يا مصري”. وفي تصوره وأقرانه، فإن قادة هذا التغيير هم المصريون الذكور فقط، كاملو المصرية والذكورة معاً. وبالتالي، فإن نهضة الحركة النسائية التي صاحبت ثورة 1919، لم يكن مسموحاً أن تعبّر عنها سوى هدى شعراوي المنتمية إلى الطبقة الاجتماعية نفسها التي يخدمها طلعت حرب، والتى تقتصر مطالباتها على الحقوق السياسية والاقتصادية.
أما النساء المتمردات مثل روز اليوسف، القادمات من قاع المجتمع، من حانات عماد الدين والأزبكية والمسرح، فلم يكن مسموحاً لهن بالحركة والتمرد إلا في المساحات المحددة سلفاً، المسارح والبارات وصالات الرقص. فليست المشكلة في المايوه أبداً. فمايوه الأجنبية لم يضايق طلعت حرب في العشرينات، كذلك، في يومنا هذا، إذا كانت السيدة التي ترتدي “البوركيني” أجنبية ونزلت حمام السباحة الممنوع فيه “المايوه الشرعي”، فلن يوقفها أو يعترضها أحد.
اللعنة ليست في أن تكون المرأة، امرأة. بل أن تكون امرأة ومصرية. مِصرية المرأة تضعها تلقائياً تحت وصاية مجموعة من المؤسسات والأفراد، ساعتها يتم تحديد ما هو مسموح وغير مسموح لها بناء على وضعها الطبقي.
الأماكن المعدود التي لا تسمح بدخول المحجبات أو نزول النساء بالبوركيني إلى البيسين، تفعل ذلك لأنها تبيع امتيازاً طبقياً لجمهورها. الامتياز ليس نزول الإناث في مياه البحر أو البيسين، الامتياز هو أن تنزل في البيسين ذاته حيث يتبول أبناء وأحفاد الوزراء والرؤساء السابقين.
في الفيديو الذي انتشر مؤخراً، وتشكو فيه إحدى الفتيات من منعها النزول إلى البيسين بالبوركيني، حددت الفتاة بيسين أحد النوادي الفخمة، وأشهر مَن يسكن في تلك المنطقة ويمتلك عضوية في النادي، مثلاً، عائلة جمال مبارك، ونخبة من أثرياء وأغنياء ولصوص مصر الكبار. بالنسبة إليهم، إذا سمحوا بنزول النساء بالبوركيني، فهذا يعنى خسارتهم أرضاً جديدة، وامتيازاً طبقياً جديداً يفصلهم عن جموع الشعب الوطنى الذي وضع طلعت حرب أولى لَبِناته منذ قرن من الزمن.
قبل مئة عام، لم تفاوض روز اليوسف على حريتها وقرارها، لم تبكِ أو تحاول الاعتماد على إيقاظ التعاطف بين الجمهور، بل كان اختيارها أن تستغل أدواتها (الفن/المسرح/الصحافة) لتغيير هذا الوعي، ولفرض رؤيتها وأفكارها حتى تصبح جزءاً من المجال العام، ولو خسرت وظيفتها وتركت فرقتها المسرحية.
في مجال سياسي مغلق، وفي لحظة خضوع المجال العام وكل وسائل التعبير، للتأميم، لا يجد الاحتقان الاقتصادى والكبت السياسي وسيلة للتعبير عن نفسه، سوى أجساد النساء. فتُعاد المعارك نفسها حول مايوه النساء ولباسهن، مثلما كان الحال قبل مئة عام… لكن المرء يبحث حوله فلا يجد روز اليوسف ولا مِشعلها.
We encounter no scenes of people lining up in Renaissance paintings, neither is there evidence of the existence of lines among the Romans or the Greek. In the workers’ city by the pyramids, detailed records have been found regarding workers’ wages, their diet, food and beer rations, yet lo and behold, not a single record of any queue appears in any of them.
In an article by Jamie Lauren Keils on the sociocultural history of the line, she wrote that the first mention of lines appeared in Thomas Carlyle’s book on the history of the French Revolution in which he first documented the uncanny scene of people lined up in rows in front of Paris bakeries to buy bread.
Lines are born out of the womb of revolution and rebellion.
The line is in fact a manifestation that confirms the equality between human beings. So it follows that the revolution that caused feudal heads to roll, abolished nobility titles and called for equality and brotherhood, found in the line an exemplary embodiment of its principles as well as a behavioral practice that best reflected the values and laws of the new era.
Prior to the revolution, not only was the consideration of the line near impossible but it was inconceivable as a concept and regarded by many as one that went against the natural order of things. How could one expect a count, for example, to stand in the same line as a commoner? Or for a slave to precede the noble Sheikh Alazhary in a another one?
Ancient societies, monarchical and feudal states typically imposed a pyramid-like organizational structure of hierarchy that ranked individuals according to social, ethnic and religious status, thereby nullifying all chances of equality between those at the top of the structure and those at the bottom of it, or even for the two to ever align in one row.
It was not until the early 19th century, with the advent of the Industrial Revolution and the construction of the modern state, that lines became more profligate, albeit confined to the ranks of the workers. The gentry, however, continued to enjoy privileged back door access.
By the start of the early 20th century, lines were no longer considered a peculiar sight, but rather a highly regarded aspiration and encouraged observance. Complete egalitarianism, all equal in one line, with privileged treatment awarded to none.
In the 21st century, lines have come to symbolize professionalism, order, and efficiency, even when they fall short of these attributes.
I started my career in journalism seventeen years ago. In a series of unplanned incidents, I ended up covering musical activities and the contemporary music scene as my main focus.
In a pre-2011 world, there were quite a few regulations and limitations controlling music production in Egypt and three adjacent, non-interlocking circles:
The first circle is official music production. This circle includes production funded by the government or giant Egyptian or Arab companies that are allowed to operate in this field, such as the Saudi-based Rotana and Al-Mamlakah or Egypt-based Mazzikaand Free Music.
This “commercial” for-profit music genre is closest to pop music and can sometimes take in classical music rearrangements such as Om Kolthoum’s concerts and other songs inspired by Arab tradition and heritage. Combined with the music of most popular names such as Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram, Mohammad Abdo, or even Samira Said, this music makes the largest portion of the music market.
The second circle encompasses a small number of cultural institutions that are funded either by the community or by the European Union. These institutions in turn fund the musical production of some experimental “underground” artists. The market share of this music is rather small, and the only way to listen to it is by attending performances by these singers in small theaters. While these songs are not usually broadcast on radio or television, they are the closest to middle class Egyptian culture. Examples of this “underground” music are bands like Cairokee, Fareeq West Al Balad, and Yaseen Hamdan.
The third circle, which is the most widespread of all and the least-funded, is “shaabi” singing. This genre did not find homes in public or private theaters; rather, shaabi singers often sang in wedding parties and street theaters. And in spite of the popularity of their songs, they were not aired on TV but rather widely available on cheap cassettes recorded in modest studios. This music was easily accessible everywhere.
Then, the January 25 Revolution happened. At that point, public squares across the country became melting pots for these three circles of music—places where loudspeakers were installed at every corner and where all kinds of artists and singers were invited to sing through the loudspeakers. As I was walked in Tahrir Square, I kept noticing the classic old nationalist songs from the sixties returning to life. Soon, “underground” singers invaded the squares and immediately started producing songs that adopted the Revolution’s rhetoric. In the meantime, pop singers were hesitant to take part, while some were already involved in endorsing Mubarak and attacking the Revolution.
I remember the one week preceding February 11 very well. At that time, I visited the Tahrir Square and found about this unidentified, new song being sung everywhere. It later came to be known as the “mahraganat” song “Ya Husni Seebna Haram Aleik.”
After Mubarak stepped down, and during the street celebrations, I saw circles of youth dancing to this song. The music was not like any music I had ever heard, and the dancing style was not like anything I had ever seen.
Mahraganat was born within the January Revolution as a byproduct of the Revolution’s spirit and overflowing energy. Today, however, police patrols chase down mahraganat singers, with support from the Musicians’ Syndicate.
The January Revolution undermined the old rules of music production in Egypt: commercial, for-profit music that had always dominated the market was completely destroyed with the fall of Mubarak. The masses went on further to curse singers of this genre because of their support for Mubarak, and their sexually and emotionally charged music seemed distant from the true feelings of the people at that time. In its replacement, “underground” music grew and rose for a few reasons. First, the European Union and Western organizations increased their funding to these institutions. Second, the public domain was open and ready for this kind of music. Instead of being restricted to small theaters, musical activities spread everywhere, and a series of “Al Fan Midan” concerts was given in a different public squares every month, where a stage would be constructed and “underground” singers would come to sing in open concerts free of charge.
Shaabi singing, however, underwent a more violent transformation as a new musical wave started to grow in marginalized neighborhoods in the outskirts of Cairo, thus displacing the older traditions of popular music. Popular wedding music that depended on a band and singer was replaced with a DJ and a young boy synthesizing music with a computer—accompanied with singing to a fast, violent beat in a style that mixes rap with traditional Egyptian wedding music.
The main instrument in mahraganat music is the computer, with the keyboard being the figurative strings. Rather than mimicking Westernized electronic music, it synthesizes oriental rhythms and beats into its melodies.
In 2012, we would hear statements by mahraganat singers such as “We are the music of the street.” In separate interviews with artist Al-Sadat at that time, he often said “We are the voice of those deprived, of the underprivileged neighborhoods.” This discourse seemed in harmony with the heat of the revolutionary moment as the masses sang festival songs against military rule and mourned martyrs of massacres.
With the arrival of Muslim Brotherhood in office, the Egyptian music scene witnessed a state of fear and restlessness, with the threat of new restrictions. When Abdel Fattah El-Sisi first started publicly cultivating his image as then-Minister of Defense, he have a group of singers and artists accompany him wherever he went in a not-so-common display, whether to exploit their fame or to appear as the guardian of Egyptian identity, art, and culture. While streets filled with demonstrations against the Muslim Brotherhood and Mohammad Morsi in 2013, televisions was transmitted footage of El-Sisi inspecting a military unit, accompanied with singers such as Muhammad Fuad, Hani Shakir, and other older names from the commercial music circle.
When El-Sisi came to power, the state sought to immediately control media discourse from all angles. Controlling the music scene was therefore a prime target and was done gradually through a few direct and indirect legal and security procedures and steps.
This was first done by prohibiting “Al Fan Midan” and forcing any place intending to host a musical events to obtain a number of clearances and permissions, starting with the fire department and ending at the National Security Department. Such pressure pushed a number of artist organizations, such as “Al Mawrid Al Thaqafi” which managed the Al Juneina Theater, to leave Egypt and resume work in Lebanon and Jordan.
“Underground” music faced successive blows as it was dealt with as an extension to the January Revolution. This situation pressed a number of singers and musicians of this genre to travel outside Egypt after they had been directly threatened because of their music. Examples include Ramy Essam, Hamza Namira, and Abdullah Miniawy—all prominent voices in the post-January-25 world and who, because of their political songs and affiliations, were threatened and went into exile.
Those who could not travel for various of reasons stopped singing, such as Aly Talibab. On the other hand, those who continued singing were sometimes obliged to give up their old songs and remake their artistic personas in accordance with state censors, such as Abou who used to sing to the rebels in the Tahir Square and then turned into the “official” singer for El Gouna millionaires.
As El-Sisi took office and the 2014 Constitution was approved, a few modifications on the Law of Arts Unions were enacted, based on which many regulations controlling the work of these institutions changed. Then-Minister of Justice Ahmed El-Zend provided judicial investigation powers to the president of the Musicians’ Syndicate who in turn launched war on all that was new on the music scene.
After that, under these judicial powers, the president of the Musicians’ Syndicate, or anyone representing them, had the authority to inspect hotels and restaurants and check clearances for singing or playing music by any singer or musician. In this respect, Hani Shakir and those around him turned into a “music and singing police” that mainly targeted mahraganat music under the pretext that it ruined public taste.
For anyone to become a member of the Musicians’ Syndicate, they would have to undergo an audition before a union committee—one whose tastes are based on its Arab musical traditions. For example, it does not recognize rap, hip-hop, or mahraganat music. Consequently, singers of these genres face difficulties in obtaining syndicate membership or permits to perform.
Some mahraganat singers were successful in becoming members of the Musicians’ Syndicate by registering as “DJ’s” and not as singers, whereas some others work and sing unofficially and illicitly—syndicate representatives are susceptible to bribes, provided you do not cross any red lines in your song choices.
Despite that, mahraganat music kept growing and developing. Hamo Bika, for example, ranks is one of the most listened-to artists but is banned from singing in public parties or concerts, by Hani Shakir’s commands.
El-Sisi’s regime has a tight grip on the world of music production. To be able to sing in Egypt, one would requires clearance and permission by the Musicians’ Syndicate. Moreover, song themes must be pre-approved and any that come close to political issues would be flagged and could lead to a prison sentence, and even death. Young director Shadi Habash who was arrested on grounds that he simply took part in filming a political song by Ramy Essam and passed away in prison. Poet Galal El-Behairy is currently serving a sentence of imprisonment for writing the song “Balaha.”
Giant music production companies that are allowed to operate in Egypt and that make the stars are either funded by Gulf countries or the ones funded and managed by Egyptian intelligence, such as the Egyptian Media Group and DMC Channels. Most often, these bodies handle the production of national songs and the organization of musical festivals accompanying the inauguration of infrastructure projects that El-Sisi takes pride in.
Yet, despite this grip of power in security and music production, there exists a crack in this wall that could give Egyptian music the opportunity to flourish and develop. The last five years in Egypt, for instance, witnessed increased popularity of music streaming platforms such as Youtube, Spotify, and Anghami.
Consequently, it is now possible for any Egyptian youth to produce music using a laptop, record in a home studio, and upload songs to these platforms—and have the change to earn income based on streams. This new production style has revolutionized Egyptian music, known as the “New Wave”, which mixes of rap and mahraganat music with rising names such as Wegz, Marwan Pablo, Abyusif, Sadat, Mostafa 3enba, Double Zuksh, Molotof, and Dj Tito.
All these are singers and music producers who eluded the grip of the music companies of the Gulf and Egyptian intelligence, and most of them are not even members of the Musicians’ Syndicate. Despite that, they have been at the forefront of the music scene over the past year, and their music has become a staple in public. They also top online charts, and their popularity and influence, particularly on the rising generations, are constantly increasing.
The New Wave of rap and mahraganat music has breathed new life into the Egyptian music scene. Up until now, the state with its laws and institutions have taken no heed towards them. Media platforms that support the regime, however, have started talking about the sources of income for these young artists and the numbers they are earning through “selling music” online. Sooner or later, the government will try to crack down on this music scene or at least control the money that is flowing to these musicians through international music platforms out of state control.
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan talks to Ahmed Naji, author of Using Life, about how the experience of imprisonment and then living in exile, particularly exile in America, changed his feelings about writing and about his own identity.
From the interview:
Ahmed Naji:Being an exiled writer is not as it used to be. During, for example, Nabokov’s time or other Russian writers who will flee out of the Soviet Union and come here to United States, and some of them, like Nabokov or Kundera in France, they will choose to leave their language and to adopt a new language and writing it. They will choose to burn the ships and to forget about the past. But now, in our lifetime, it’s not like that. You are not an exile, because you are still able to know what is happening in your motherland through the internet and the source of news. The world’s become so connected. Everything affects everything.
Ahmed Naji is a writer, journalist, art critic, and criminal. He is the author of Rogers (2007), Using Life (2014), and And Tigers to My Room (2020). He has won several prizes including a Dubai Press Club Award, a PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, and an Open Eye Award. He is currently a City of Asylum Fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute. ahmednaji.net.
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.
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.
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?
A ravishing tale about a time when political and social world orders have been turned on their heads.
It gives us great pleasure to present this proposal for a flagship museum commemorating the history of white people as part of an initiative to recognise and celebrate the ethnic and cultural diversity of Gharbiyya Governorate, Egypt.
The museum aims to harness the power of art and education for social change by honouring the painful history of the white diaspora. It will address the complex and troubling stories of how the Great Pandemic, and the Arab revolutions whose centenary we are soon to celebrate, devastated the white race over the course of the twenty-first century.
The revolutions of the Arab Spring taught us that history is not written by the victors, and that no matter how long injustice lasts, there will come a day when the oppressed will tell their tale. Taking inspiration from this legacy, the museum will recognise and rewrite white history in an effort to educate the white minority and contribute positively to their integration into contemporary Arab society.
One hundred years ago, a wave of revolutions known as the Arab Spring swept across the Middle East and North Africa, bringing hope to the people of those countries and inspiring kindred movements across the world. Under the slogan “Bread, Freedom, Social Justice!”, the revolutions profoundly transformed political and cultural life across the region.
The immediate aftermath saw the downfall of the monarchies and tribal regimes of the Gulf states, leading the Arab peoples into a crucible of political and social change which established democratic rule and led initially to the electoral success of right-wing Islamist parties. As foreseen by Middle East experts such as Edward Said, Joseph Massad, Wael Hallaq and Talal Asad, the Arabs realised that national identity was a concept foreign to their culture—a hangover from the age of Orientalism and Imperialism. This period saw borders and nation-states exchanged for systems of decentralised local administration under the aegis of the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.
The tension between ascendant white nationalist movements in Western states and the new political order in the Arab world seemed to fulfill predictions of a “clash of civilisations,” and many were bracing themselves for the worst. Prominent voices on both sides were promoting war, especially after an evangelical celebrity pastor was elected president of the USA with the support of the American pope, who threatened undecided voters with the prospect of the End Time and the fall of the Messiah.
Once in office, the new president spearheaded the formation of an alliance of Western states committed to climate change denial. Climate change believers were imprisoned, while environmentalist organisations and think tanks were accused of performing the “devil’s work” and closed down.
The pace of climate change accelerated, and huge swathes of Europe and the Americas were affected by rising sea levels. The state of Louisiana was submerged in its entirety, and melting ice at the North Pole flooded most of Denmark and Sweden and rendered Northern Europe largely uninhabitable.
Then the pandemic struck. Although scientists showed that the virus had been trapped under permafrost and released by rising temperatures, the US evangelical pope chose to call it the “African virus,” a designation quickly adopted across much of the West.
In collaboration with China and other Asian and African countries, Muslim Arab nations worked furiously to develop a vaccine for the virus and halt climate change—efforts in which Western nations refused to participate. Led by renowned Indian scholar Dr. Roy Sontag, a team of scientists soon succeeded in developing an effective vaccine.
The vaccine was found to have an unforeseen side effect for white people: it led to an increase in skin pigmentation, which made white-skinned individuals turn brown or black. Although this side effect was also shown to strengthen resistance to skin cancer and a number of other conditions, vast numbers of white people refused to participate in vaccination programs, which they claimed were an affront to Western civilisation. French President Marine Le Pen said: “This is not a vaccine, this is a biological weapon designed to destroy the values of the French revolution.”
The white race was facing environmental and humanitarian crises. Birth rates dropped to a third of their former figure, mortality rates skyrocketed, political opposition was brutally crushed and the best minds fled the collapsing West for the safety and economic opportunities offered by the Arab and Islamic world, where they were welcomed with open arms.
It was only a matter of time before a series of uprisings across the West ousted the incumbent right-wing regimes, with Chinese and Islamic support. The revolutions brought about far-reaching social change in Western nations, which ultimately grew to embrace racial diversity and leave behind the delusions of white supremacy. But decades of upheaval and disease had ravaged the white race, which became a minority in most Western countries, and with the rollout of vaccination programs some white people lost their whiteness altogether, while many intermarried with other races. With only a few exceptions, the last generation of formerly white people gave birth to a generation of dark-skinned children.
Some of the dwindling white population fled the West for Africa and the Middle East. Thousands lost their lives attempting to cross the Mediterranean, and those who arrived safely at its southern shores found themselves forced to assimilate to new cultures that were foreign and even anathema to their own. Americans had to adapt to free universal healthcare, even though it contravened the teachings of Christ and the US constitution. Even their history was rewritten under the hegemony of Arab Muslim culture in the lands, which they made their new home.
In its January 1917 issue, the Egyptian magazine Illustrated Fancies reported on the efforts Egypt was making to support European refugees and victims of the First World War. In March of that year, a charity market was held in Tanta to raise money for war orphans, some of whom had found homes in the city. To shield them from the trauma of bereavement, the children were told that their parents were still alive and encouraged to write to them. The report didn’t say why this approach had been adopted. It featured a picture of a young boy hunched over a pen and paper, writing a letter to his father who had been killed in the war.
Documents like this reveal the humanitarian role played by the cosmopolitan city of Tanta throughout its long history. Whether in the century of World Wars, or the century of pandemics and climate change, Tanta has a proud record of welcoming white refugees with open arms.
Taking its inspiration from this historical event, the museum will centre on the orphaned white child who wrote that letter to his parents, whose voice will guide visitors through the exhibits.
The attached catalogue provides details of individual exhibits. The central themes of the museum are:
Celebrating White History
No history has been so distorted and abused as the history of the white race. Accused of imperialism and racism, white people were portrayed in the past as intrinsically evil, and their historical achievements downplayed or hijacked by slaves, colonised peoples, and immigrants.
The museum will shed new light on the great ideas produced by white minds of the past, such as the Catholic church, the US constitution, the successful imprisonment of leftwing thought in university humanities departments, high-interest loans, and other landmarks of white creativity.
The last century witnessed the near-total marginalisation of white cultural figures by the forces of political correctness. Silenced and made to feel ashamed of their white heritage, they were sidelined by immigrants wielding the weapon of “cancel culture.” The museum will showcase white culture’s most trailblazing figures, incorporating lifelike wax models and exhibits exploring their biographies and legacies.
Among the historical personalities featured will be:
Steve Bannon, the last white prophet, who foresaw and fought against the extinction of the white race but was defeated by the forces of cultural diversity.
Jordan Peterson, a pioneering clinical psychologist nicknamed “the white Franz Fanon” who identified the psychological crises of the white race, and studied the phobias and schizophrenia caused by the presence of immigrants in white environments. Vilified during his lifetime, his ideas have since been neglected and forgotten.
J.K. Rowling, a famous writer beloved even of black and brown readers who was nevertheless cancelled for her efforts to defend white women from the predations of trans people and other less-than-female individuals seeking to invade women’s public toilets.
Not only have white voices been silenced—their ideas and achievements have been appropriated by other cultures. A classic example of this phenomenon is the figure of the “Karen.”
The “Karen” we know today is a simple-minded, lower-class white woman who appears in children’s stories and comic films in the role of the housekeeper and is made the butt of practical jokes and mockery for the entertainment of audiences. Surprising though it may seem, many high-profile actresses who have played “Karen” roles are in fact not white.
But one hundred years ago, a “Karen” was a strong white woman who was prepared to defend her family, her home and her neighbourhood from ethnic parasitism and cultural invasion. Only with the later domination of the values of the Arab Spring was “Karen” transformed into a figure of ridicule and a byword for hysteria and limited intelligence.
The Karen exhibit will tell the true history of these brave women and their battle to defend white cultural values.
EQUAL OPPORTUNITY AND DIVERSITY POLICIES
The museum’s founders are committed to racial and cultural diversity in the workplace. We will operate quotas to ensure we employ individuals from white backgrounds. The cleaning, sanitation, and accounting departments will be staffed entirely by white people. The museum is proud to be the first major cultural institution to hire a white deputy director of finance.
The attached document gives a full breakdown of the museum’s proposed budget. We would like to highlight here that a large portion of the museum’s funds will be invested in creating positions for Muslim and Arab residents of Gharbiyya Governorate. Employee salaries account for approximately 65% of the overall budget proposed here. We have policies in place which aim to reduce the pay gap between Muslims/Arabs and white immigrants, and are committed to ensuring that 10% of the salary budget is spent on white employees within the first ten years of the museum’s operation.
We also have a pay-gap reduction policy in place for the employment of independent curators and artists. We are committed to narrowing the pay imbalance between Muslim/Arab and white freelancers to 3:1, from the current local average of 7:1.
We do not aim to appropriate the history of the white race but to create space for white voices as part of an international and diverse institutional culture and commitment to positive leadership.
This article is an extension of the festival, Re:Writing the Future, taking place from February 25 to 28. It is going to be published in print in the Extrablatt of the upcoming issue of Arts of the Working Class.
The Arabic original was translated by Katharine Halls.
This publication was made possible by the DAAD ARTISTS-IN-BERLIN PROGRAM, as part of its engagement with ICORN, the International Cities of Refuge Network.
The publication was edited by Mohamed Ashraf and Elisabeth Wellerhaus.
Ahmed Naji: I was in denial. Until I was in the police station I was in denial, and I thought this should be a mistake and something’s wrong. Because as I was telling you, this was the first time that happened in the history of Egypt. The reaction was so big. It was more than I expected, the reaction from writers and journalists in Egypt and the Arab world and even internationally. So I thought it’s a mistake and they are going to put me here for a couple of days and I would be out. But then they transferred me into the prison. Even for the first week in the prison, I always thought, this is a mistake. It is going to take a couple of weeks. After the first months, I started to feel like, well, it seems and this looks like it’s going to be much longer than I expected.
And day by day, you started to lose hope. To lose hope. The most painful thing in the prison is hope, actually. Hope is the most torturing tool that you have to deal with in the prison. You see, you woke up every day waiting for this message, waiting for the moment, for the second, the guard or the soldier will come and open your cell door, call your name, tell you, “Back up. You are out.” And you are in the prison, so you don’t know what is happening outside, but you have hope, and hope continues torturing you. You sit and wait for hope to deliver its promise. But it never happened.
At five in the prison, it’s the time when they would close the prison and now everyone goes to their cell, stays there, you can’t get out, nothing will happen, the day ends at five. So you keep waiting until it’s five o’clock p.m., and then you discover, yeah, it’s not today. So you fall down into like a black hole until the night. You try to read, you try to smoke as many cigarettes as you can until you fall into sleep. And when you go to sleep, you start to think about dreams. You wish to have as many dreams as you can while you sleep, because dreams are very important in general to any prisoners, and especially important to Egyptian prisoners.
You see, dreams is the only window and the gate a prisoner is having to look outside of his cell. It’s the only space where you will meet with your beloved one. And after time in the prison, you started to play this game with your subconscious. You started to believe that you could design your dreams. For example, I used to play a game that if I miss someone, if I miss my friends, my girlfriend, I will think on her in the morning, but before going to bed, I will not think on her. Of course, in my cell, there wasn’t drugs. But I was able to have like Benadryl, paracetamol drugs—basically it puts you sleep. So I will take two pills and it creates something like a void. You are not high, but you are in a sleepy mood. So you go into sleep fast, easy. And you had all this vivid, colorful dreams. And I would work hard to design this dream in the hope to see people that I miss and the places that I miss while I was in the prison.
Ten years after Egyptians rose up against long-ruling dictator Hosni Mubarak during the first hopeful weeks of the Arab Spring, we look at why it didn’t work out as the protesters might have hoped and ask if the energy of Egypt’s revolution is still alive anywhere. Andrew Mueller is joined by Nancy Okail, Ahmed Naji and Lyse Doucet.