About Alaa: Prison isolates and so does your silence

They woke us early that day. We could hear the sound of dogs barking and some other sounds that were more unusual. A prison guard was yelling, “Inspection! Inspection! Put on your uniforms and get ready.” Alaa [Abd El Fattah] and I got up and started our routine of hiding things. He was trying to hide the radio to stop it from being confiscated, even though he had already acquired permission to keep it. I was trying to hide the coffee pot. I was also trying to hide my journal among a bunch of envelopes and paper. The atmosphere in the prison ward was tense. No one was prepared, as we were given no prior warning.

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Generally, on inspection day, a prison services committee arrives, accompanied by hoards of Central Security Agency forces, policemen, dogs and metal detectors. The committee also visits the prison administration and checks the official paperwork. They inspect the wards and check for any violations of prison rules, and for the presence of prohibited items like glass containers, electronic devices, metal cutlery, mobile phones, pills or narcotics of any kind and any suspicious papers. During this particular inspection, they confiscated all the pots and pans we used for cooking and heating our food. They left just two pots and one metal frying pan for the 60 prisoners on our ward.

We put on our prison uniforms and lined up in the sun for around five hours — the amount of time it took them to go through the ward and scatter everything: clothes, food and trash, in heaps on the floor. After two hours of standing, they allowed us to lean against the wall. Then they called for Alaa, who had to go inside for about 20 minutes. He came back out again, laughing. When I asked him what it was about, he said they were going through every piece of paper in our cell. “But, what did they want to ask you?” I said. Alaa kept a small notebook with a photo of Lenin on the cover. In it, he would record figures concerning the economy published by Al-Ahram, like government debt and the state deficit, and other figures pertaining to the financial situation in the country. It was one of the exercises Alaa resorted to in order to try and stimulate his brain and to maintain a connection to the outside world. The task was to record the figures published by Al-Ahram and to track how they changed over time. Based on these official figures from state newspapers we were restricted to in prison, Alaa would come up with his own analyses of the economic crisis.

The figures in Alaa’s notebook unsettled the inspectors, who suspected them to be telephone numbers, or perhaps a code for communicating with the outside world. When they asked him about them, Alaa began to explain in detail the meaning of every figure, which left them paralyzed and unable to decide what to do. After all, these were numbers published in Al-Ahram, the newspaper they allow prisoners to receive and read. Eventually, the head of the inspection committee intervened and permitted Alaa to keep the notebook. They did confiscate the radio, however.

Forgetting what the world is like outside prison is a nightmare Alaa and I thought about a lot. As a computer programmer and technician, this was an even bigger nightmare for him. How would he cope with the technological developments taking place during his time in prison after he is released?

Would he be able to go back to work? The internet world changes in a matter of weeks, let alone a period of wasted years. We thought of that Iranian blogger who, upon his release from prison after five years, found blogging to be a thing of the past. Unable to find his place in the present, he waged an attack on social media, calling for a return to blogging.

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After each of his court sessions for “insulting the judiciary,” Alaa would come back with dozens of epic stories from Muslim Brotherhood leaders implicated in the same case as him: Tales of an imminent coup d’état, and the intervention of divine powers to rescue them. They were stories of desperation and defeat that also somehow refused to acknowledge a crushing new reality. I used to wait for him after each session to hear the latest tales. After we laughed a little, the silence would set in. We were afraid the same thing would happen to us one day. What did we really know about the world outside?

A verdict in the “insulting the judiciary” case is due in December, a sentence that could potentially double Alaa’s jail time and increase his isolation from the world. Tomorrow, a court will review Alaa’s appeal against his five-year sentence for breaking the protest law, of which he has already served three-and-a-half years behind bars.

It’s not true that prison doesn’t change one’s ideas. If you come out and that is the case, then you’ve lost your mind. We change both inside and outside prison. Mulling over old disputes and differences was our bread and butter. Reading was like a breath of fresh air. They understood this. In the words of one inspection officer who checked my list of requested books, “Here is your opium.”

Alaa is also waiting for a verdict in a lawsuit he filed against the prison administration to allow him to receive books. On the day of the inspection, we were preoccupied with finding new material to read. Sometimes I would suggest to Alaa that he should apply for a master’s degree to advance his professional experience. He used to say he’d consider it, as he didn’t want to give them something they could use against him. “What if I apply for a degree and they refuse to let me sit my exams or to have access to the necessary books?” he would wonder.

The list of those unjustly detained is getting longer by the day, and many prisoners are suffering from deteriorating health and lack of access to adequate medical attention. Some have been in prison for two years without even knowing what they’ve been accused of. As the list gets longer and longer, so our desperation grows, and we wonder: What is the point of writing? What do we gain by making demands? What’s the use of our hashtags? Do any of these efforts accomplish anything?

There is nothing more important than to think about them, to remember them. Prison isolates people from the world and the world from them. In Alaa’s case, the state is more eager to isolate the world from him than to isolate him and break him. This is why every act of remembering counts. Every tweet or re-tweet, even if you think it has no impact on the prisoner, I am telling you, is appreciated. When family members tell prisoners others are writing about them or talking about them, it lifts their spirits. They are remembered.

Because having your name mentioned outside the prison walls means you exist outside the walls, in the hearts and minds of those who love you or share your values.

And one day, upon their release, because most prisoners will one day be released, they will see the words of support that didn’t reach them in their cells, and it will help ease some of the anger and resentment over the time that was lost.

Remember Alaa. Remember all prisoners. If we can’t break their chains ourselves, do not let your silence isolate them. Do not give their jailers another victory by your forgetfulness.

Translated by Asmaa Naguib

From Cairene Alleyways to European Festivals: The Journey of Mahraganat

Though its birth does not precede five years, Mahraganat music has surged into a phenomenon, invading Egypt’s sonic atmosphere and beyond. This phenomenon has crossed borders and seas and made it into the European and international acoustic vernacular.

The adolescents who, five years ago, huddled in the streets of Matariya and Salam City on Cairo’s margins, hoping for nothing more than the chance to perform at a wedding or two every week, now roam Europe, from festival to festival. There, they bring to the crowds that fervent rhythm that has brought this musical movement such a huge following in so little time.

In the Beginning There Was the DJ

At the turn of the millennium,  the DJ had begun to make an appearance at Egyptian weddings. DJs emerged as an affordable alternative to live musicians at weddings, and their rise in popularity coincided with the spread of computers in Egypt, and the attendant affinity that primarily young men developed towards this rising profession.

Amid the economic stranglehold that the cassette tape industry imposed on chaabi music at the time—dominated as it was by industry “heavyweights” such as Amro Diab and Mohamed Fouad—the rise of the DJ all but eliminated the genre that relied on weddings as its main source of livelihood. Yet, the spread of computers and various recording programs marked the genre’s salvation. As the twenty-first century kicked off, a new generation of chaabi singers emerged, such as Mahmoud El-Leithy and Mahmoud El-Hosseiny and others, who relied on their computers to record their material, to evade the costs of studio recordings. It was this generation that was the first to make use of electronic sound effects in their music.

And Then Came the Mobile Phone

After computers, there came the eruption of mobile phone use, and before 3G internet, mobile phone stores would sell monophonic tunes that were coded into the phones using the phone’s keypad.

Amr, a young man from Ain Shams, worked in one such store. One day, for the sake of experimentation, rather than code a hit track onto a phone, he decided to compose his own tune. As luck would have it, this tune became a famous ringtone in the neighborhood, and in time Amr was approached by a chaabi singer, asking for permission to use the tune for one of his songs.

Amr went on to develop his musical and technological skills, adopting the moniker Doctor Amr Ħaħa, the composer of “El-Shandarbolla,” one of the first tunes that could be characterized as a Mahraganat tune.

Like electronic music, Mahraganat music relies on a base loop, but unlike Western electronic music, the loop is usually an oriental beat. The loop is cut through with rap-like vocals, backed up by a mix of sound effects and loud noises.

Ħaħa would later go on to work with dozens of artists who would in turn become the ambassadors of the genre; Sadat, Alaa Fifty, Oka & Ortega, to name a few. He was also known to occasionally collaborate with Alexandrian Mahraganat musician Filo.

These musicians cut out the role of production companies, choosing instead to resort to more democratized technologies to record their music, and releasing their creations online for free, relying on their income from live performances at weddings to earn their keep. Others, however, were not satisfied to leave it at that.

Mahraganat Economics

Despite its immense popularity, Mahraganat music is still derided as lowbrow, and the state fails to recognize its performers, as the majority of them are not members of the various musical syndicates—a legal prerequisite for live performances in Egypt. These prevailing attitudes culminated in Mahraganat songs being banned on state television and other mainstream channels, while radio hosts make sure not to broadcast “that kind of thing.”

Yet, against this, Mahraganat music has expanded well beyond its economic and production circles, consolidated by the emergence of alternative production companies, such as 100Copies. The company began as a production studio for electronic and experimental music, and provided Mahraganat singers with a platform to record their music. On occasion, the studio would produce songs for these artists at a symbolic cost, in exchange for the rights to the songs, which were released for free on YouTube. 100Copies relied on a model wherein they would reap advertising profits from YouTube when these songs went viral or catapulted into popularity, in addition to selling the song electronically on other outlets.

Musical groups such as Oka & Ortega and El-Dakhlaweya focused their efforts on trying to go to the silver screen, and appearing in on-screen dramas, such as the popular show “Fifa Atata” starring Mohamed Saad, and the films of Mohamed El-Sobky and Mohamed Ramadan.

Yet, another camp chose to chart a different course; with the Arab Spring came an upsurge in attention from the media and the West towards the region and its cultural production, creating a pathway into European concerts and festivals. Among the most prominent musicians who tool this course was Islam Chipsy, who evolved his music to include additional visual aspects, ultimately becoming one of the most recognized faces of the genre abroad.

Mahraganat emerged during a boom in cultural production, in an atmosphere that was far more celebrating of diversity, providing young people with an outlet to express themselves amid revolutionary spirits and a proliferation of violence that has continued to this day. This was reflected in the lyrics of Mahraganat songs, which often avoid sentimentality, but rather express the difficulty of surviving in a treacherous environment, as related in 2015’s hit single, “Mafĩsh Săħib Beyetsăħib.”

As time goes by, more stringent measures are imposed to restrict the space for broadcasting Mahraganat, such as the granting power of arrest to the then-head of the Musical Syndicate, Hany Shaker. While the future remains uncertain, one thing that seems to be clear is the inverse proportionality between official tolerance towards Mahraganat and its popularity.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place: The Fate of Revolutionary Art in Egypt

In 2003, French philosopher Alain Badiou gave for the first time his lecture entitled “Fifteen Theories on Contemporary Art” at New York’s Drawing Center. In his lecture, Badiou explains the determining features of contemporary art, including a definition of what he calls “non-imperial art.” Badiou bases his definition on Antonio Negri’s theory of Empire as a modern, deterritorialized system that rules a global political economy—the concept of “Empire” represents control through a capitalist system and state-based legal authority. In art, as in politics, this imperial system has produced rules that now govern the world of art. These rules harness revolutionary endeavors, coopting it to become a part of the vast production mechanisms of artistic merchandise.

Three main strategies buttress this system of artwork production around the world. First is the prevalence of intellectual property rights worldwide, which restrict artists’ ability to create collaboratively. Second is a constant focus on the same artists and creative individuals. Last a particularly defined protocol for the evaluation and appreciation of artists. This protocol is based on the number of awards received, the size of an artist’s sales, or even the most “views” or “likes” in today’s world of online art and social networks.

According to Badiou, however, art can be “real and non-imperialist,” functioning outside the logic of Empire. It can even challenge this logic of rule and undo its grip. In one of the theories introduced in his lecture, Badiou explains: “Non-imperial art must be as rigorous as a mathematical demonstration, as surprising as an ambush in the night, and as elevated as a star.”

In 2011, the Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum (ACAF) translated Badiou’s lecture into Arabic and published it in Egypt. ACAF is one of the most active centers of arts and culture in the country and one that has played a vital role in creating an environment suitable for knowledge, learning, and discussion amongst the country’s artists. ACAF provides an oasis in a desert environment; arts education in Egypt is stifled by strict censures and terribly outdated syllabi.

In 2012, ACAF organized a three-day conference entitled: “Art and Change,” which featured a talk by Italian philosopher Franco “Bifo” Berardi. The conference provided a rare opportunity for Egyptian artists to discuss the political and social scene in the country, as well as try to understand the place that the arts and artists would take in the aftermath of the January 25 revolution.

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The year after January 25, 2011 witnessed an exponential growth in public arts. Suddenly, public art was present on most streets; public squares and parks were filled with free concerts. The monthly AlFan Midan (Art is a Square) festival, a music festival in Abdin Square in Cairo and a number of other squares in cities around Egypt, was established. The festival quickly became a place for a number of artists and musicians to sing freely, with no censorship whatsoever. Graffiti also took off in Egypt at that time, fostered by galleries and arts organizations.

Egypt’s artists were the happiest they had been in a while. They were calling for fewer restrictions on the Ministry of Culture and presenting plans that would enable everyone to use the Ministry’s facilities, not just state-approved artists. At that time, dreams of freeing arts and culture in Egypt of all censorship and cultivating creative and artistic freedom across the board were beginning to take flight.

These days ended with the Muslim Brotherhood’s ascent to power. Shortly before former President Muhammad Morsi took office, ACAF shut down its headquarters and stopped all its activities—to this day, Baroni refuses to comment or explain the reasons behind that. After the Muslim Brotherhood’s rise, the arts and culture scene soon came under their attempts to grasp full control, with the appointment of a minister who most artists and cultural figures agreed was bent on stifling the arts scene in Egypt even more.

The “revolutionary art” of Egypt that emerged in the wake of the revolution appeared as an artistic expression carrying a clear and direct political message. It had, however one flaw. The subject of this form of art in Egypt shifted many times, from mocking Mubarak and his regime, to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, and finally to the Muslim Brotherhood and Morsi. A lot of what was known as revolutionary art was therefore reactive art, and not a “rigorous mathematical demonstration.” Its expression was in reaction to political events, and was thus changing as these events changed. Where revolutionary art is meant to affect the media, it was instead guided by it. With the changing events, the art changed in response and its message was rendered an article of the past. Art became a piece of history rather than true, forward-facing, revolutionary art. If the revolutionary art of the time, be it songs or drawings or other works of art, mocked and criticized Mubarak, how does this art remain revolutionary after Mubarak is gone and a new, seemingly more violent, phase has started?

A year after the Muslim Brotherhood was removed from power, all these various reactionary songs, paintings, and artistic expressions that presented themselves as revolutionary pieces of art have disappeared. They have become part of the past, with their value stemming solely from their connection to the past. All of this begs the question: Was this truly revolutionary art or simply another form of consumerist artwork?

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The year the Muslim Brotherhood spent in power was difficult for anyone working in the fields of art or culture; the political struggle with the Brotherhood forced everyone to become involved. Some artists saw their independence of all political struggles as paramount, while others saw that true revolution meant not only criticizing the Brotherhood but being able to criticize the army as well. This latter opinion was vastly unpopular in the political calculations of that time, with civilian groups believing they needed the army to help remove the Muslim Brotherhood from power.

That year also witnessed strong alliances being made between what is known as revolutionary art and big Egyptian corporations. What started off as revolutionary art suddenly became mainstream, with large bottled soda companies and other monopolies in the Egyptian market using bands from “Al Midan” (Tahrir Square) to play in their advertisements. We are now at a point where revolutionary art is turning into commercial art. Even more so, the commercial values about smiling, happiness, and other human development values have started to creep into artistic expression, leading to horribly shallow works of art.

Meanwhile, some artists decided to go deeper underground, as far away from the noise as possible, making do with small marginal venues to present their art. One example is Aly Talibab, who patiently continued his own projects away from revolutionary rhetoric or direct political phrases. Rather, he steered that rhetoric from the collective cacophony of the art scene to his own individual voice. Instead of using his art as a revolutionary megaphone, Talibab’s work instead expresses the confusion and fear of the country’s current reality. Another example is rapper MC Amin, who presented a number of direct political songs, collaborating with Egypt’s “mahrajanat” artists to present what has become known as “rapgagiya,” a fusion of the Egyptian folk art of “mahrajanat” and rap.

Day after day, things seem to be drifting to their pre-January 25 status quo, with some even believing that they are becoming worse. Right now, we see the reactionary revolutionary art of the past few years exiting the advertising and commercial market it had succumbed to after its start as revolutionary art. This revolutionary-turned-commercial art is even being thrown out by the advertising companies that have milked it dry. These new forms of art are being pushed back into the small space that they were able to grab or create after January 25.

Most recently, the Ministry of Interior has canceled the AlFan Midan festival, and repeated the cancellation even after Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour tried to intervene on behalf of the festival. The Ministry of Interior is also on the hunt for graffiti artists, and many have been arrested and handed long prison sentences for painting anti-regime phrases on walls.

This tightening of the arts scene continues with the recent law issued by President Abdel-Fattah El Sisi that increased penalties for anyone receiving foreign funding that may be suspected as detrimental to national security. This law, even if not used directly to prohibit artists, will inevitably lead to the limiting of dozens of arts and culture centers, as organizations close due to lack of funding or fear of retribution. This will affect the work of places like the ACAF, which are now under threat of arbitrary closure or even imprisonment.

As for Egypt’s artists, a number of them have left the country, especially those that were labeled as “revolutionary” artists. Most prominent among these are graffiti artist Ganzeer, who is currently in Brooklyn, New York, and singer Rami Essam, whose songs became famous in the very first days of the January 25 revolution, and who recently relocated to Sweden.

Four years after January 25, revolutionary art is now one of two things. For some, it has become an endeavor undertaken in foreign lands. For others, it has become a watered-down, almost meaningless and valueless form after its exploitation by the very corporations that represent the regime that was the target of the art in the first place. While ACAF director Bassan Baroni tried to create a space that would allow artists to gain knowledge and perhaps someday create art as “rigorous as a mathematical demonstration,” Egypt’s streets and screens are now filled with dozens of artists from all walks who prefer to blend into the moment, turning the artists into an echo chamber for the voice of the masses.

Only a miniscule number of attempts remain, trying to continue under Egypt’s ever-increasing scrutiny and censorship.

A Sad Melody at the End of the Road

Published for the first time on the old blog at Aug. 2013

The time for retreat is past and all the chances to avoid this path have been burned up. The incendiary speeches are escalating from every side and are morphing from incitement to war speeches. The television stations put up the slogan “Egypt is fighting terrorism” written in English and no one tells us who and what terrorism we are fighting? Are they Al-Qaeda? Ansar al-Sharia? The Al-Nusra Front? The Brotherhood? A little of this and a little of that?

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Military Supporters

We don’t know, and the soldier who is only twenty-one years old doesn’t know, but he obeys the orders of the gunman who directs him to get out of the bus so that he can be executed from behind. Likewise, someone else is led to the hearse, better known as the police truck, to die of asphyxiation.

No one stops to ask questions or demand accountability. War has its rules, but civil war falls outside the rules and the ethics of opposing armies.  Civil war has its own clear goals, and they are usually ethnic cleansing and the siege of one faction or group. This always fails. For proof you can look around yourself or in history books, or look at the performance of the Egyptian military state since July 23, 1952 to confirm for yourself that prison and prohibition have never been useful in eliminating the Brotherhood or other supporters of religious despotism.

Why, then, do we repeat the same mistakes that were made thirty years ago when Islamist groups were first released from Pandora’s box in the seventies?

The same old story that happened in the seventies is being played out right now. The military power in the seventies used the Islamist groups to get rid of the remains of Nasserism and the revolutionary left and, once it had accomplished that, the Islamist groups became a danger to this military power and it decided to take them on by force. Throughout the eighties and the nineties we saw how the state fought with unparalleled failure. The same story is being repeated by the military council and the security apparatus who refuse to try any other approach, and if anyone opposes their approach, the result is accusations of treason.

The state did not adopt any program against the ideology of religious despotism. Instead, it exploited this ideology, working to stay one step ahead of the Islamists. The most obvious evidence of this is the second article of the constitution, which Sadat put into place as part of this exploitation. In the same way, the civil state constitution will be written, under the presidency of Adly Mansour, with its sectarian articles and their comprehensive sources.

At the same time, the state left room for a faction of the Islamists to participate in the political process, run in elections, and share in power. In the eighties, this faction was the Brotherhood and now it appears that it’s the Salafi’s turn. It’s obvious that Dr. Yasser Al-Burhami is sitting back confidently waiting to gather the spoils.

In the eighties a large group of intellectuals, writers, and artists joined the state’s battle. At that time, the slogan was enlightenment fighting the forces of darkness. This proposed option of enlightenment was nothing more than a group of theses on renewing the religious discourse and leaving everything to a deeply corrupt regime without a position or a message. Now, some people are using slogans about fighting religious fascism or accepting the authority’s oppression and violence because it is the only way to stop religious violence.  But in the morgue, clothes are removed from the bodies and it becomes difficult to tell the soldiers from those who are called “terrorists” or from people who were just passing by at the time of the clashes. Even more importantly, the path that the current authorities are on has no indication of leading us over this ocean of blood to a civil state in which citizenship and equality are achieved. The committee that is working on amending the constitution decided to keep the sectarian articles that restrict citizens’ freedom of belief. Not only that, but the committee added, on the suggestions of some, an article to protect the office of the president of Egypt from protests, as though an article in the constitution could protect the president or any authority from the public’s anger.

Fighting terrorism or groups devoted to religious despotism is not a battle that we can win by liberating a piece of land or killing and arresting the largest possible number of people. It is, fundamentally, a battle of ideas and of a way of life that the Egyptian middle class chose to defend on July 30. Accepting the authority’s violence and illegal violations, and the nonsense that is taking place right now vis-à-vis the constitution means complete defeat in the battle against “terrorism” even if the Brotherhood’s Supreme Guide and the entire Guidance Office is arrested.

The plant (short story) translated by: Mona Karem

Hannah Weaver who has done some illustrations inspired by Mona’s translation of your story ‘The Plant’
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will not come through the door or the window,but as a plant you cannot notice with your naked eye.
I will grow day after day, to the sound of your singing and the rhythm of your breath at night. A small plant you will not notice at first, growing beneath your bed.
From door to bed, to bathroom to closet, standing or sitting against the mirror. Through all these acts, and to the sound of your humming, I will grow. A small green plant. With grand slim leaves sneaking out from beneath your bed.
I once read about plants that survive on light and prey on other creatures. With their glowing green leaves, they surround them and lure them in with a pleasing, lustful smell, then devour them. For hours and days and years, sucking on them. Sucking your toes one by one, making my way up.
What should I do with the bee? What should I tell the flower?
You become one with the flower. You grow up. You become a tree. While I remain a plant, in need of your humming, awaiting a song. A part of me is falling every morning, and I cannot catch it. A part of me flies off every time I lie in bed. But when I wake up I cannot remember what.
Sometimes I am reminded to look under the bed. But I don’t find the green plant. Nor do I find you.
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Inside the Strange Saga of a Cairo Novelist Imprisoned for Obscenity

written by  and published in RS : http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/cairo-novelist-imprisoned-for-obscenity-in-egypt-tells-story-w468084

On a scorching Saturday morning in July, Ahmed Naji stood in the crowded cage of a Cairo courtroom. The 31-year-old author had been convicted six months earlier of “violating public morality” for publishing a piece of literature. In his novel, Using Life, an irreverent portrayal of youth culture on the cusp of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the protagonist performs cunnilingus, rolls hash joints and gulps from bottles of vodka. Censors had approved the book, which is also sometimes translated as The Use of Life, but when an excerpt appeared in Cairo’s premier literary review, Akhbar Al-Adab, an absurd series of events eventually led Naji to prison. Though he was released in December thanks to a high-powered team of Egyptian lawyers and campaigns from international arts communities, he lives in fear that anything he says or writes could land him back in Egypt’s most notorious prison. He described to Rolling Stone how self-censorship has entered into his considerations at the keyboard. “When you are writing, you are thinking… someone will read something or this could affect the case and so on,” says Naji. “It’s hard to move on and write.”

Torn from the pages of Kafka, Naji’s case sheds light on the risks of free speech in an authoritarian state. In Egypt, if a citizen experiences personal injury from an offensive piece of writing or television program, he or she can bring a case forward to the public prosecutor claiming the violation of public morals, a vague clause enshrined in the constitution and taken from the French legal system. There have only been few instances of such cases moving forward, but public prosecutors do often relish in the opportunity to serve as the moral police. “The accused disseminated written materials that exude sexual lust and fleeting pleasures, lending out his pen and his mind to violate the sanctity of public morals and good character,” the prosecutor told a local news outlet last year. Naji’s story shows literature’s ambiguous power to agitate and the state of arts and letters in a country that experienced a widespread uprising just six years ago.

As the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East in January 2011, the revolution in Egypt toppled a longtime despot, President Hosni Mubarak. “At the time of Mubarak, it was a calm, silent swamp,” says Naji of political stagnation prior to 2011. “After the revolution, there is more a sense of resistance – resistance from both sides, from the youth’s side and from the older people and the regime and system’s side. The conflict is too hot.” Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik Mohammed Morsi rose to the presidency in the country’s first democratic election, held in June 2012. A year into Morsi’s ham-fisted tenure, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi staged a military overthrow. As the junta consolidated power, authorities pursued a bloody crackdown against the Brotherhood and, ultimately, against activists of all stripes. Today, public protests are illegal, many opposition groups (whether secular or Islamist) have been outlawed and room for free expression has shrunken considerably. Young people who participated in the 2011 revolution and even the 2013 ouster of Morsi are absent from politics or government. But the creative dissent that ballooned amid the revolt in Tahrir Square, from street art to politically inflected verse, led to experimentation in other realms – especially literature.

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Beyond his fiction, Naji is known for writing serious criticism about trends in popular culture, first on his blog in the mid-2000s and later in newspaper columns. “Naji – in his character, in his tone of writing, in the topics that he deals with – is very iconoclastic. He is deeply subversive,” says Khaled Fahmy, a visiting professor of modern Middle East history at Harvard University. “And this is something that the state readily understands as literally an existential threat. [His writing] is deeply political precisely because it doesn’t talk about politics.” Fahmy recalls an article in which Naji profiled rappers and producers who created a dirty, anti-establishment brand of hip-hop known as mahraganat, which grew in impoverished neighborhoods of Cairo and became the soundtrack of protest. As the first writer to explore the underground genre that has since become a sensation in Egypt and Europe, Naji told the story with sensitivity and grit, spending hours in crude basement studios. “Of course, he will hate me when he hears this,” says Fahmy. “Really, Naji is the voice of the revolution.”

When Naji entered the courthouse on the morning of July 16th, it was the first time that any friends had seen him since he had been incarcerated six months before; only immediate relatives are permitted to visit inmates of Tora Prison, a maximum-security hell. About 40 friends, colleagues and journalists showed up on the 100-degree morning to attend. Inside the hearing room, scores of detainees’ families crammed onto stiff wooden pews. A tea salesman wove through the crowd, carrying a tray of soda cans, white plastic cups and a thermos of hot water.

A white-uniformed officer led Naji to the defendants’ cage, an enclosure with bars and a crosshatched fence so narrow that not even a finger could poke through. On the entrance of the hearing room hung signs that said No Smoking and No Cellphones, but the room was dank with smoke, and phones were out everywhere. In his prison blues, Naji looked fit and in good spirits. He smiled broadly at his friends and lit a cigarette.

After more than an hour in the cage, Naji was called away from the hearing room to the judge’s quarters, where the defense team requested a suspension of the sentence. Article 178 of the penal code, on which Naji was convicted, criminalizes “harm to public morality.” In the context of creative production, Article 178 contradicts articles of the 2014 constitution, which guarantee free expression for artists and entertainers. “Every police officer I spoke to had never heard of anyone being jailed by this law,” says Ramy Yaacoub, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and a friend of Naji’s who coordinated advocacy for his release. “[But] we do not have definitive evidence as to the political motives of the case.” (A spokesman for the Office of the Public Prosecutor directed me to a Judges Club spokesman who did not reply to a request for comment.)

Ahmed Naje, Imprisoned Egyptian Author
photo: David Degner

The same judge who delivered Naji the maximum sentence in February 2016 was also assigned to hear the request for suspending the sentence. “The choice of words is so bad that it could only appear in a society without morals,” wrote the judge in the February ruling, going on to assert writers’ duty to support public morality. It was no surprise that, on that July day, he sent Naji back to prison.

In Arabic, adab can be defined either as literature or as morality, and the judge had put his energy into making sure that the former reflected the latter. In this paternalistic perspective, literature ought to be morally upright. Throughout Naji’s career, however, he has made fun of the very notion of service to the state or literature serving some higher good. “His heroes are not national heroes,” says Fahmy of Naji’s characters. “His heroes are also not bandits and criminals. His heroes are people who score petty victories in petty moments in life.”

Naji doesn’t remember when he started writing, but it was long before he could grow the Frank Zappa mustache that has become perhaps his most recognizable feature. Born in a Nile Delta town of Mansoura, he hails from a family of doctors, his father a pediatrician. Growing up between Egypt, Kuwait and Libya, Naji rebelled by devoting his energy to reading comics and novels, rather than studying chemistry and biology. He moved to Cairo at 16 to attend journalism school, and went on to serve as a staff writer of Cairo’s prestige magazine for arts and culture journalism and criticism, Akhbar Al-Adab. It is the closest the city has to a Cairo Review of Books – the weekly might have critiques of new books by Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith and a translation of Hemingway as well as new Arabic poetry and short stories.

He fell into writing his first novel Rogers by accident: he had published the chapters piecemeal on his blog, each one shaped around a song from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The posts pushed “the limits of the novel genre, he says, with dreams and fantasies mixing with realities,so he was surprised when a publisher approached him in 2007. By age 22, he was a published author. If Pink Floyd was an inspiration for his first book, then David Bowie deserves credit for Naji’s 2014 novel Using Life, which even mentions the glam-rocker in the acknowledgements alongside friends and collaborators. “In many songs he has this lovely sense of dystopia,” he says. The novel also captures Cairo’s “total corruption,” something he has come to know intimately over the past two years.

“It’s the kind of case that gives [the prosecution] the opportunity to appear in the image of the public moral guards,” Naji told me over dinner in December 2015, back when a conviction seemed improbable. We sat in a smoky downtown Cairo tavern that had made an appearance in his novel. Over steak and beer, Naji related how the entire legal debacle started.

The novel had initially been published in early 2014, by a joint Lebanese-Egyptian-Tunisian publishing house called Tanweer. The August 3 issue of the journal Akhbar Al-Adab published a chapter from the book. The problems for Naji came when one reader claimed that he keeled over from reading it, as reported to the police on August 13th. “[His] heartbeat fluctuated,” read the local police blotter. “His blood pressure dropped and he became severely ill.” Hani Salah Tawfik, a 65-year-old lawyer whose heart had survived decades of dictatorship, was undone by salaciousness. “Because it contains sentences and expressions that are sexually explicit, it caused me psychological harm,” Tawfik stated, according to the hand-written police report.

It didn’t matter that government censors had already approved Naji’s novel. Historically in Egypt, private citizens have themselves served as censors, something silently (or gleefully) cheered on by the authorities; the targets have been controversial personalities, from heterodox scholars to the superstar comedian Bassem Youssef. It is up to the public prosecutor to take up such cases, which they often do to bolster their reputation. “It’s a question of one prosecutor who wants to show off,” says Amr Shalakany, director of the Law and Society Research Unit at the American University in Cairo. “It’s completely performative.”

After Tawfik complained, the public prosecutor decided to investigate the case, combing through Naji’s blog and interviewing staff from Akhbar Al-Adab. In November 2015, a criminal court held its first hearing about the novel’s pornographic nature. In further hearings, eminent Egyptian authors testified on Naji’s behalf. The next month, Naji awaited a ruling, set for the first week of January 2016.

As he cut into his steak, Naji told me that, if anything, he had expected to get in trouble for his journalism, but never for his fiction. ” I wrote many articles against Sisi, against Morsi,” he said, speaking of the current president and his ousted predecessor. “Sometimes I get some threats… This is normal, and I am used to it.”

He happened to know two journalists sitting at the table beside us. We chattered with them, and one joked that he’d visit the author in prison. We all chuckled.

“Welcome to the hell that is Cairo, where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere,” writes Naji in Using Life. The novel begins in the not-too-distant future, when violent sandstorms and earthquakes eviscerate much of the Egyptian capital; even the Pyramids of Giza are subsumed by sinkholes. The protagonist Bassem, 46, writes up his memories of two decades prior in a report itself titled Using Life. (He survived Armageddon simply because he lived deep in the suburbs.) In the post-apocalyptic city, he is melancholic and recollects his days of parties and hanging out. Using Life also melds the graphic and written: Short sci-fi comics by the artist Ayman Zorkany are peppered among chapters, like an illustration of grotesque spacemen-cum-mummies attacking Bassem and his cohorts. “It’s a story about the miserable Cairo and a couple of guys trying to find joy in this life, trying to create meaning in the city,” says Naji.

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Photo: David Degner

“Welcome to the hell that is Cairo, where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere,” writes Naji in Using Life. The novel begins in the not-too-distant future, when violent sandstorms and earthquakes eviscerate much of the Egyptian capital; even the Pyramids of Giza are subsumed by sinkholes. The protagonist Bassem, 46, writes up his memories of two decades prior in a report itself titled Using Life. (He survived Armageddon simply because he lived deep in the suburbs.) In the post-apocalyptic city, he is melancholic and recollects his days of parties and hanging out. Using Life also melds the graphic and written: Short sci-fi comics by the artist Ayman Zorkany are peppered among chapters, like an illustration of grotesque spacemen-cum-mummies attacking Bassem and his cohorts. “It’s a story about the miserable Cairo and a couple of guys trying to find joy in this life, trying to create meaning in the city,” says Naji.

Though the novel has sold out in the Middle East, the book’s offending excerpt had been republished online, and more than two million readers have viewed Naji’s prose. That’s more than any book has ever sold in Egypt. (American readers will have a chance to read it this autumn when University of Texas Press publishes scholar Ben Koerber’s graceful translation.)

Cairo has long been the literary engine of the Middle East, home to novelists, playwrights, and poets who have revolutionized the Arabic language. Naji is one voice among a new generation of writers playing with form, genre and politics. “He always tries a [new] idea and then very quickly turns it on its head,” the novelist Nael El Toukhy, who worked with Naji at Akhbar Al-Adab, told me. “He is a trendsetter.”

Though Using Life rarely discusses politics directly and it was first drafted prior to the revolt, it represents a harsh critique of the political and social inertia of post-2011 Egypt, where the revolution failed to provide meaningful change. “Give yourself a break,” Bassem says in the book. “You’re nothing but a cocksucker among cocksuckers. Quit the drama, little one, and enough blaming yourself. In the end, it’s not so bad to be a cocksucker in Cairo. Just relax and take it all in.”

Three years since its publication, many of the narrator’s observations – about blogging, the peculiar dwellers of downtown Cairo, or why McDonald’s in Egypt tastes better than its American counterpart – remain apt. The novel is packed with a steady stream of vulgarity you might hear muttered at a street café, but seldom read on a typeset Arabic page. Perhaps because the novel discusses sex and drugs so nonchalantly, the narrator inadvertently anticipates its censorship. “A coalition of social, political, and religious taboos conspires to keep everything that ferments in the city’s underbelly from rising to the surface,” he writes. For anyone who has spent time in a polluted megalopolis that rarely gives back, Naji’s prose is a jolt of reality: “Let Cairo go fuck herself, morning afternoon and evening, today and tomorrow and forever.”

On January 2nd, 2016, the judge acquitted Ahmed Naji for the charge of disturbing public morality. The author grinned as his lawyer clenched a cigar between his lips. Naji’s Facebook wall quickly filled with scores of messages. “Congrats on your innocence,” one friend posted.

A couple of weeks later, in preparation for the fifth anniversary of the uprising, Egyptian authorities raided several downtown arts spaces and dozens of popular cafes. The regime wanted to restrain any attempt at political organizing or demonstrations. “You have people getting arrested everyday,” says Naji. “Everyday. Maybe your friends [sitting] in a cafe will get arrested.” Such crackdowns have become routine fare here. In a column for the widely circulated newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, Naji drew attention to the shuttering of one independent art gallery to illustrate the “siege of Egyptian cultural institutions.” He blamed authorities for leading the country down the road “increasingly toward darkness,” through its stifling of expression. Soon after, Naji received an alarming update. The prosecutor would retry his case in a higher court.

On February 20th, 2016, an appeals court sentenced Naji to the maximum sentence: two years. It was first time that a writer had landed in prison for fiction – not activism or reportage, but fiction – in recent memory, perhaps since the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who oversaw a populist junta from 1956 to 1970, according to one of Naji’s lawyers, Mahmoud Othman of the Association for Free Thought and Expression. Also named in the case was Akhbar Al-Adab‘s chief editor Tarek El-Taher, who was fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds (at the time, about $1,275) for printing the offending excerpt. “Self-censorship has increased since Naji’s conviction,” says Othman, describing the chilling effect on other artists and media personalities whom he represents. Poet Fatma Naoot, for instance, was convicted last year of religious contempt for a Facebook post, and sentenced to three years (which she eluded by fleeing abroad; a court suspended the sentence in November). But Naji’s obscenity charge was surprising given that Fifty Shades of Gray is on sale at many Cairo booksellers.

Prominent intellectuals and publishers held public forums to draft a strategy; more than 500 Egyptian artists signed a public statement against his imprisonment. Even the government functionaries tasked with policing culture joined in protest – the culture minister publicly stated he believed the penal code article on which Naji had been convicted should be overturned. In May 2016, Naji’s younger brother, Mohamed, flew to New York to accept the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on Ahmed’s behalf, at a black-tie gala with an illustrious guest list. Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, among scores of other celebrity authors, wrote notes of solidarity. On the back page of one Egyptian newspaper, Naji’s face appeared next to Woody Allen’s, who, along with hundreds of writers, had signed PEN’s petition to modify Article 178 of the penal code so that Egyptian prosecutors could no longer bring criminal charges against writer for “violating public morals.”

Hani Saleh Tawfik, the lawyer who began Naji’s imbroglio, claimed to have experienced a fluttering heart and lowered blood pressure after reading Naji’s fiction, which, according to the police report, included “pussy licking, dick sucking, and other such words that should not be written in a newspaper like Akhbar Al-Adab.”

“The Egyptian journalists were not able to reach me,” says Tawfik, a pudgy man, with a thick, messy grey goatee. After weeks of searching, when I finally track him down at his small windowless office in Cairo, he is wearing an orange plaid button-down, and on his desk are stacks of files that reached his shoulders. Two female attorneys join us.

“If you come into my house, you need to have good morals when you are entering,” he says in Arabic, referring to Naji’s text, or perhaps my uninvited presence in his legal office. “I don’t care if others would buy or approve of it, but if you come into my house you can’t say such vulgar things. You can write anything, and I have the right to reject it or accept it. But this kind of official newspaper enters my house under the banner of adab.” Here, Tawfik uses the dual meaning, as both literature and morality. “I am refusing what is written. I’m not against Ahmed Naji personally. I’m against him entering my house with such words.”

Tawfik stands up from his desk and begins rifling through one of the high piles on his desk. He pulls out a translucent, rose-colored folder. Tawfik opens the file and takes out a blogger’s open letter to Tawfik. One sentence in particular drove him crazy: “Everything was normal; you just don’t know how to read.”

He pulls out a special edition of Akhbar Al-Adab from February 2016, published the week of Naji’s conviction. There’s a spray-painted portrait of Naji on the cover, and every article inside is dedicated to him. “He is on every page,” Tawfik says, pointing at Naji’s photo in the corner of each sheet. “The journal is publishing Ahmed Naji and talking about his values and cursing me – because I said no.” Tawfik switches to English to yell: “Do not enter my house!”

“This is not a sexy magazine or something like that,” he says. “I don’t want it to get into my house through an official newspaper. I am angry now.” His fuzziness about how he got his hands on the niche literary magazine with a small circulation and his impetus for bringing the suit leaves many questions unanswered. He continues to raise his voice as I ask him about his motive for bringing the case, whether it had anything to do with Naji’s political writings or other factors. He refuses to answer.

“All freedom has limits,” he says. “Its limits are not harming someone else.” And yet, as we talked late into the night, Naji sat in prison, himself harmed.

Naji’s conviction was only superficially connected to the broader clampdown on dissent and free expression. “It’s not that [President] Sisi called up this prosecutor,” says El Toukhy, the novelist, referring to the Egyptian strongman who took power in July 2013, “but the climate of Sisi as the top authority… they are inspired by him.” The atmosphere of state censorship and self-censorship, arbitrary detentions of political prisoners and journalists, encourages citizen informants and police dragnets to take petty complaints forward, and then one ambitious prosecutor can make a name for himself by prosecuting a well-known writer.

The author’s lawyers would not speculate as to why a suit was brought forward targeting Naji. “If it’s not orchestrated, he’s very fucking unlucky,” says Yaacoub, the policy analyst, noting the bizarre circumstances that led to the conviction.

Tawfik himself provided little clarity about the case; he is but a node in a long history of censorship in the country. “History is full of people who went to prison or were burned at the stake for proclaiming their ideas,” the Nobel-Prize winning Egyptian author Naguib Mafouz, told the Paris Review in 1992. “Society has always defended itself. Nowadays it does so with its police and its courts. I defend both the freedom of expression and society’s right to counter it. I must pay the price for differing.” Naji has paid the price.

So, too, did Mahfouz. In the late 1980s, the extremist Muslim leader Omar Abdel-Rahman, better known as the Blind Sheikh, had issued a fatwa against Mahfouz for his supposed depiction of God in the 1959 novel Children of Gebelawi. (Abdel-Rahman died this month while serving a life sentence in the United States for a conspiracy charge related to the 1993 World Trade Center attack). Rather than pursue legal action, though, in 1994, a rogue Islamist stabbed the Mahfouz, Egypt’s literary giant, in the neck. He survived the attack.

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Konga reading the novel

By last late summer, a half year since his conviction, Naji had fallen out of the spotlight. “In Egypt, there is always something new,” Naji’s brother Mohamed told me in August, eating pizza across from Tahrir Square. Ahmed Naji was among dozens of others behind bars for simply doing their jobs: in 2016, 25 journalists were in prison for charges like disseminating fake news or membership to an illegal group; the singing troupe called the Street Children, who were incarcerated for “attempting to overthrow the regime,” in their sardonic viral videos, and innumerable others. “With time, people have lost their enthusiasm about the case,” Mohamed, a cardiovascular doctor, told me. He was losing hope. At an appeal hearing in late November, sitting among scores of supporters and friends, Mohamed seemed resigned to the fact that his brother would serve out the remainder of the two-year sentence.

In early December of 2016, the country’s top appellate court was due to rule on Naji’s appeal, his chance to get out after he had already served ten months – but the prosecutors failed to submit their memo and case files, so the ruling was postponed. In response to the prosecution’s tardiness, the appeals judge suspended Naji’s sentence and issued an injunction for his release. “That was a miracle,” says Yasmin Hosam El Din, Naji’s fiancée and an attorney who serves on his defense team. “He would never get released if the prosecution was working normally.” The court would continue to investigate the legality of the February 2016 verdict – which could result in him serving the rest of term in prison – but for now, at least, Naji would be free.

As he stepped onto Cairo’s pavement, Naji did not want to be photographed or interviewed for the local press. But he hadn’t lost his sense of humor. On Facebook, he posted a video of Elvis Presley singing “Jailhouse Rock.”

“The reason why I have not given up on the revolution is precisely because of Naji,” says Khaled Fahmy. “Revolutions are not won overnight or by a deathblow or a knockout blow. They are won bit by bit, stage by stage, day after day, and one struggle after another. And his is a very significant struggle, and the jury’s still out.”

At the end of December, after 300 days offline, the prolific writer posted a long message of warmth and gratitude on his public Facebook page where he used to blog. “I would never have been able to endure the cockroaches, sweats, freezing cold and various humiliations of prison life without the companionship of my fellow prisoners,” Naji wrote. To his friends he offered a small promise: “Our nights are coming, with exuberant embraces and long nights of talk on the horizon.”

With the case still in play, he is unable to leave the country to visit his ailing father in Kuwait, who he hasn’t seen in over a year. “I’m not nervous, I’m bored,” says Naji of waiting for the next appeals court session, which will be in April. “I want all of this file to be closed, however it will be closed.” Still in pajamas and drinking an espresso, he hands me a copy of The Mystery of the Split Festival, a collection of a dozen short stories he wrote in the decade before his incarceration, which was just published in Arabic. He wanted it out before 2016’s end as a way of documenting his twenties and signaling that he will move on to new approaches in his writing.

While in prison, he wrote a quarter of a novel, literally putting pen to paper, something he hadn’t done since childhood. Writing was a way to break up the seemingly endless days. He concealed the drafts during the warden’s regular check ups for fear that the chapters would be confiscated. He snuck them out and has since typed them up. “Now my plan is to give more time to literature.” Despite everything that’s happened to Naji, the next book is his priority. To write fiction in Egypt today is to resist.

Jonathan Guyer is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs and contributing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs