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

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

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

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

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

—Summer Thomad

I. IBLIS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahmed Naji on Nights in Prison: ‘You Started to Believe That You Could Design Your Dreams’

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.

Interview with monocle radio: Tahrir Square, 10 years on

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.

Listen to it here: https://monocle.com/radio/shows/the-foreign-desk/370/

With Le Monde

Thanks, Le Monde, for giving me the chance to have this conversation with Elias Khory. I enjoyed disagree with him, and your questions pushed me to rethink many other things.I hope such work will encourage other French media outlets to hear and give space for other young Arabs who are not Sisi fans and not interested in the Arab nationalism discourse.The world is changing; climate changes, Pendimac, immigrants’ rights, the wealth gap… all these center issues are the most important to our future, and we can’t solve it be continue being imprisoned in the identity politics

Ps: I don’t know who chooses this photo, but I am hotter than I appear in it

Interview with The Rumpus :The Fine Line Between Nihilism and Hope

By Madelyn Reese

December 28th, 2020

Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian journalist, writer, and criminal. At least that’s what the Egyptian government thinks of him. Naji didn’t think of himself as a “Writer” with the capital “W” until 2016, when he was sentenced to two years in prison for obscenity and disturbing public morality after excerpts of his novel, Using Life, were published in an Egyptian literary magazine.

Fast-forward to today, and Naji has recently published a memoir of his time in prison: Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison. While already published in Arabic, English readers will have to wait a bit longer for the full translation. In the interim, several chapters from Rotten Evidence were recently translated to English and published in Michigan Quarterly Review. He’s currently a fellow with the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he lives with his family.

I met with Naji near his home in downtown Las Vegas. We discussed his time in prison, the similarities between the United States and Egypt (particularly within the countries’ respective police forces), and the value of reading no matter where you are.

***

The Rumpus: It’s 2020, and this year has been a rollercoaster. What is the value of reading and writing in today’s age?

Read the Whole interview here: https://therumpus.net/2020/12/the-rumpus-interview-with-ahmed-naji/?fbclid=IwAR3Wm9aIpyR3vTAeQoSWFXJX4qBMr8F7y4wBt43HSIwuUxBB9qPYYG5XqYU

The PEN Ten Interview: Ahmed Naji on Language, Identity, and Writing in Exile

This interview was first published at: https://pen.org/ahmed-naji-pen-ten-interview/

Ahmed Naji

The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week Lily Philpott, Public Programs Manager at PEN America, speaks with Ahmed Naji, 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award recipient and the author of three books: Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009), and The Use of Life (2014). Ahmed will join us for this year’s World Voices Festival at Cry, the Beloved Country on May 9. You can purchase tickets for the event here » 

1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
One Thousand and One Nights. I read it for the first time when I was young. I was amazed by the endless stories, the magical sex, and the mysterious worlds. And above all, the idea that no one knows who the writer is. I still read it from time to time and collect different copies of it.

2. How does your writing navigate truth? How do you work across genres to navigate the relationship between truth and fiction?
I believe it’s a writer’s job to create the truth. In fiction, readers know it’s lies, but they think it is (if the writing is good) more accurate than what they read in newspapers.

I always keep a notebook beside my bed, where I write real dreams when I wake up. After a couple of days, I go back and read what I wrote, and sometimes I feel puzzled: “Did I have this dream? Did I see this person really in my dream?” But my dream journal will establish the truth; it’s here to tell me what I forget, what I dreamed of . . . to say to me the truth about the fiction of dreams.

We forget many details of our dreams, sometimes we forget our dreams totally. My ambition is that my writing will have the same impact as that “dream journal” has on me, to establish the truth, and to encourage the readers to doubt what been told as truth.


“I believe it’s a writer’s job to create the truth.”


3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
The key, in my opinion, is to deal with writing as a way of living your life: It’s not a job or a mission to achieve something. If you dealt with it as a job, you will always look for reward or sometimes will be puzzled about the purpose of what you are doing.

I enjoy writing and reading, and I see it as a way of enjoying life, and through this joy, you will always find inspiration. I hear a lot about the writer’s block, but I never experienced it. My problem is that I have a lot of things in my mind and my notebook, but I can’t find the time to write them down.

Don’t wait for the great ideas, but keep writing and reading and it will come. You could write for 10 days a dull draft piece about the sea, but I am sure in the 11th day you will write the beautiful essay, and if not, write again in the 12th day.

4. What is one book or piece of writing by an Egyptian author you love that readers might not know about?
In poetry, I will suggest Iman Mersal.

In nonfiction: Haytham El-Wardany.

In fiction and novels: Nael Eltoukhy and Mohammed Rabie.

For all of them, most of their works have been translated into English.

5. Whose words do you turn to for inspiration?
Two poets: Georges Henein and Joyce Mansour

6. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and on my list two other books to choose between: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón or Philosophy for Militants by Alain Badiou.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

7. What does it mean to you to be, temporarily at least, a writer in exile? Do you find that you are thinking and writing about Egypt in different ways?
The real dilemma is not how to write about Egypt, but it’s about the language. I look around myself here in America, and I see many writers from Egypt or other countries living in exile. I notice two tracks available for an exiled writer here:

1—To continue doing what you used to do. Living in Las Vegas but writing about Egypt in Arabic. Following what is happening in your old country but know nothing about your neighborhood. In the end, after a couple of years, you end up having no connection with where you are living or the country you came from. Because of time passing, you end up writing about a country that you used to know, a country that doesn’t exist anymore

2—Another track is to take off your clothes, your old identity. To leave your language and adopt a new language and a new identity. The trick is that America and American culture is built on identity. I notice writers who come here and give the American public and culture institutes what they want to hear.

I didn’t make it a year here, and some people will approach me as “a Muslim writer” or “Borwen writer,” and I don’t even understand what that means.

Anyway, for now at least, I am not sure where I am heading, but I am confident about the following:

A—I don’t want to be sad, or a prisoner of my own nostalgia. It’s an excellent opportunity to be here, and I am thirsty. I want to learn everything, and to rethink everything I used to believe in.

B—I wish to be part of the community that I am living in and to be able to give back.

C—It’s all connected darling, what happens here effects on what is going there. If Trump becomes a president for another four years, that means Sisi in Egypt will be president for another ten years, which mean NO Egypt for me for another ten years. So all battles are connected, and the show goes on.


“I want to learn everything, and to rethink everything I used to believe in.”


8. You’ve spoken about being under strict surveillance in Cairo after being released from prison. Do you think living under this daily surveillance will have a lasting effect on your writing?
Being out of Egypt doesn’t mean I am totally free. I still have family there. Also, the surveillance continues even if you left the country. Lately, the current Egyptian government is following the political opponents who are living abroad, and even writers. Alaa Al-Aswiny, the well-known Egyptian writer, has been sued by military prosecutors because of his last novel. Sometimes the embassies refuse to renew the dissident’s passports.

I believe censorship and surveillance are part of modern life, and part of the writer’s job is to deal with it sometimes by fighting, sometimes by coaxing. It’s not only about political issues, but social values are playing an important role, and fighting against it is harder than fighting against authoritarian authorities.

9. What advice do you have for young writers?
I don’t have anything to say for young writers. The opposite: I would like a bit of advice from them. My advice is for the old writers: Don’t get comfortable with what are you doing just because everyone around you is clapping for whatever you say. Don’t give your readers (or worse, your editor) what they are expecting; it’s refreshing to lose some readers from time to time.

10. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
Lately, I have been thinking about Salman Rushdie. If we once met and had the time, I would like to know how he did it and escaped from the battle that they tried to drag him into, and was able to re-shape and reform his identity and his writing style, and how he was able to escape from the frames that constricted him.

11. In an interview with Electric Literature, you said: “Leaving Egypt now allows me to finally breathe and think freely, to test out my ideas, and reexamine everything that’s happened.” How do you anticipate your work will change while you are living in America?
Writing is a way of understanding yourself, and also following your environment. I am open to everything, and I am sure that living in America will have an impact on my writing. Until now I only wrote a short text about my experience as a father in America after we got our baby.

Now we are in Las Vegas, a crazy city full of stories and inspiration. I am sure to be able to understand all of this, I have to write about it.

Another thing is the audience and the language. Before coming here when I was writing, I used to imagine my readers to be Egyptian or Arab. Arabic also was the language that I used. But since we arrived here, I started to think differently, and even sometimes, like answering your questions, I use English.

Conversation: The author of “Using Life” on the new beginnings in exile

This conversation was first published: https://electricliterature.com/imprisoned-in-egypt-for-his-writing-ahmed-naji-is-finally-free/

No one foresaw that Ahmed Naji would be imprisoned for his novel. After all, no author had ever been subjected to arrest for morality reasons in modern Egypt, and as Naji himself says in this interview: “My writings are not political.”

The novel in question, Using Life (illustrated by Ayman Al Zorkany and translated from Arabic by Benjamin Koerber), reads like a colorful account of someone having a lovers’ spat with the city in which he’s lived all his life. That is to say, the book is full of intimate familiarity, occasional tender scorn, and a fervent curiosity toward city and man’s entwined fates that is also somehow coolly detached.

Opening in near-future, post-apocalyptic Cairo, Using Life combines graphic novel elements and quirky characters to produce a portrait of a man making the best of life in a city on the verge of disaster. It is a rollicking read, at times zooming into dizzying detail (for example, a section illustrating Cairo’s various inhabitants), other times hurtling into madcap, breakneck action (secret societies! Ninja assassins!). Above all, the book is a bold depiction of a person pushing against the boundaries of their given life.

The novel passed the inspection of Egypt’s censorship board and was lauded by critics in Egypt and the wider Arab world. Then the unexpected began. In 2015, a private citizen lodged a complaint against Naji after an excerpt from Using Life was printed in Egyptian magazine Akhbar al-Adab. The private citizen, a lawyer, claimed that he suffered heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure after reading passages from the excerpt describing cunnilingus. State prosecutors then took these claims seriously, and as a result Naji was sentenced to jail on charges that he “violated public modesty”.

As mentioned, his ordeal is extraordinary, marking the first time in modern Egypt that a writer has been incarcerated for their fiction. Zadie Smith puts it this way: “Naji’s prose explicitly confronts what happens when one’s fundamentally unserious, oversexed youth dovetails with an authoritarian regime that is in the process of tearing itself apart.” While imprisoned, Naji was granted the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award, which was accepted on his behalf by his brother.

In 2016, Naji was released from jail but subjected to a travel ban. In May of this year the ban was finally lifted, and Naji was able to leave Egypt. I caught up with him and translator Benjamin Koerber over email shortly after Ahmed Naji’s arrival in America.

YZ Chin: Glad to hear about the travel ban being lifted! How does that change things for you as a writer, if it does change anything?

Ahmed Naji: I’ve finally been able to travel and leave Egypt. I’ve now moved to the United States, where my wife lives, after we’d spent a full year separated from each other by the ocean and passport inspection officers.

I spent the two years after my release from prison in Cairo, and they were some of the most difficult years for me as a writer. First of all, I was under strict surveillance, and I was not allowed to organize any events or cultural activities. We failed to get official approval for the book launch event for my short story collection, which was published after I got out of prison. Only the Goethe-Institut, which is connected to the German Embassy in Cairo, offered to host the event.

Following the advice of my lawyers, I decided to keep away from publishing until the case was over. For the first time in my life, I felt the real weight of censorship. Even worse, I didn’t know what the red lines were. One time, I published an article on the band Mashrou’ Leila. Lo and behold I get a call from a friend who’s close to the security services, chastising me for the article and telling me they considered it a provocation since Mashrou’ Leila supports the Arab queer community, and that this sort of behavior could negatively impact my case and travel ban. Leaving Egypt now allows me to finally breathe and think freely, to test out my ideas, and reexamine everything that’s happened. I’ll finally be able to enjoy the company of my wife and the friends I have here.

But it also raises complicated questions for me: Is this to be a temporary, or permanent, departure? Am I to become a writer in exile? What does exile mean, now? If I stay here for a longer period, what will I do? What will I write about? Will I keep writing for an Egyptian audience, while living in America? Or will I assimilate to the new society and culture, change to writing in English, find a new ethnic or religious identity to subscribe to, and thus turn into one of those writers that talks about “Islam”, “the oppression of women in the Orient”, “the Arabs”, “terrorism”, and other such topics that captivate American audiences? For now, I’m trying not to think about all that, but I know I’ll have to face those questions soon.

For the artist to protect himself from confrontation with the institutions of power and all their violence, he has the three options that James Joyce prescribed for the writer: “lying, exile, silence.”

YZC: I’m very happy to hear that you are reunited with your wife. Sounds like you’re understandably at a difficult crossroads writing-wise. I get the reluctance to become a mouthpiece that caters to American appetite or biases. Are you concerned America will change you or pressure you in ways beyond that pigeonholing?

AN: I’m always ready for change. So far, I’m optimistic and open-minded about this American journey. My first concern is to learn — to understand this country, to take it all in and figure out its rhythm — and through this I’m sure I’ll find the right place for me. I’m lucky because I have a large number of friends here who are writers or work in the cultural or political fields. They’re providing me with support, and the keys to understand the nature of the scene here.

YZC: Do you think there’s also a risk of being pigeonholed as “the writer who went to prison?” As opposed to, say, “the writer who writes about finding joy in a depressing city and the fearsomeness of killer ninjas.” What would you like to be known for as a writer?

AN: I hope to be known as the writer with a thousand faces. I’d be very receptive to any of these labels or classifications. The writer’s challenge, in my opinion, is his ability to open up to the world, to change, to embark on new adventures, and to create new works. The writer that went to prison, the writer who writes about a depressing city called Cairo, is the same writer that might tomorrow write about intrigue and power play in Washington, D.C. Or he might write about a girl’s education in America. Anything is possible. My appetite’s ready for all trials and experiences.

Two days ago, I was talking to Yasmine [Naji’s wife] about something, and said, “As exiles, we don’t have the luxury of holding on to a lot of memories.” The thought terrified her. It hadn’t really set in yet. “Oh my god, we really are exiles,” she said. I tried to lighten the both of us up by focusing on the few real benefits of exile, like the unbearable lightness of being, and the freedom to remake one’s self and one’s image. Exile provides the opportunity for a new beginning, and there’s nothing more thrilling for me than new beginnings.

Exile provides the opportunity for a new beginning, and there’s nothing more thrilling for me than new beginnings.

YZC: As a writer who grew up in an atmosphere of state censorship, I struggled for a long time with self-censorship. Have you had any previous run-ins with the Egyptian censorship board? How do you grapple with the possibility of censorship when you write?

AN: I think a big part of writing is struggling with, and figuring one’s way around, the many forms of censorship that exist. The political censorship exerted by the state is a concern of course, but I never confronted it before the trial. My writings are not political and I was not interested in clashing directly with the state; I hadn’t thought that sex worried them very much. The greater pressure, the form of censorship that I feel impacts the writer more, is the censorship of society and the family. This form of censorship burrows under your skin, without you ever feeling it. It sometimes becomes impossible to confront or to expose, like the censorship that imposes itself under the name of political correctness.

YZC: That rings true for me, the existence of censorship that never gets registered. So you’re saying there needs to be constant self-exploration to understand the pressures that are placed on us. In that case, I’m curious if you think it’s possible to deliberately cultivate our influences as a countermeasure, like garlic against vampires? If so, what is or would be your garlic?

AN: In such circumstances, the garlic can be prepared a number of different ways.

1 — Listening closely to one’s own personal desires and pleasures, however forbidden or prohibited they might be, however useless they might be to society or the “wheel of production”. No impulse should be suppressed, nor should you run after it like a teenager. You just need to listen to it, then take your time polishing it, until the desire turns into a will.

2 — Don’t put too much trust in psychology or self-help doctrines. Do you really think all these books, programs, and talk shows want you to succeed? Do you really think that the secret of happiness can be sold with a holiday discount? Believe me: except for your mother, no one’s really concerned about your happiness and self-interest.

3 — Whatever you do, don’t let them catch you. In Egypt we have a nice little proverb that says, “Fuck the government but don’t show them your dick”.

4 — Always practice in front of the mirror first. A few days ago in D.C., there was a small demonstration of Neo-Nazis and white people. It was really quite small. Facing them was a counter-demonstration of mostly African Americans and anti-Nazis, which was huge. The Nazis, surrounded by police, were waving flags; they were vastly outnumbered by the counter-demonstrators. In spite of this fact, they were marching with full faith in the protection offered by the police. Their demonstration ended before it began, and they quietly left amidst the shouts of the counter-demonstration. The question I kept asking myself was, “What were they [the Nazis] thinking? Did they consider what happened a victory for them?”

YZC: There’s an interesting passage in Using Life where the character Ihab thinks about art: ‘Might not the “truth” of art conflict with its duty? That is to say, the duty art has to be functional?’ It certainly seems that to censors and some readers, art has a duty to uphold morals. What are your thoughts on the duty of art?

AN: Morality is not constant, it’s constantly changing. Otherwise, we’d still have the morality of the nineteenth century that held African Americans in the cotton fields and women in the kitchen. Permanence and stability are illusions. The world and human consciousness are in permanent motion, and the writer is part of this motion. The power of art lies in its ability to strip off the moral veil that society’s institutions impose under the pretext of stability or observing morality. When that happens, art performs its role vis-à-vis the individual by upsetting the ideas and convictions that one has been raised with. Art also performs its role vis-à-vis society in helping to change the prevailing morality.

Of course change doesn’t happen easily. The art that performs these roles puts itself in open confrontation with the institutions of power and all their violence. For the artist to protect himself, he has the three options that James Joyce prescribed for the writer: “lying, exile, silence”.

The power of art lies in its ability to strip off the moral veil that society’s institutions impose under the pretext of stability or observing morality.

YZC: When I saw David Bowie listed in your novel’s Acknowledgements page, I immediately thought it was very apt because Using Life is such a rollicking and at times surreal read. Best Bowie song?

AN: [I’m Deranged]

YZC: Using Life flirts with fantasy and magical realism, and of course graphic novels. Do you see more possibilities and avenues for expression in blending genres? Will you continue working across genres?

AN: I hope so. One of the faces I’d like to be known by is that of fantasy writer. Comics for me are my eternal dream. I’m a big fan of comics. None of my current projects involve comics, but I have a file full of dozens of stories and ideas that are just waiting for the right artist to execute them. I have the ambition to write a massive graphic novel, which I hope to realize some day.

VCLA’s Author Series at Handley Library, Vol. 3: Ahmed Naji

I was honored to be a guest speaker at VCLA. I had the pleasure of meeting Winchester, VA. Here are some videos and photos from the event…

VCLA’s stated mission is at once focused yet broad: we intend to open a world-class residency that welcomes writers (of all disciplines and genres) year-round, featuring workshops, seminars, and residencies, allowing authors time and space to work. But VCLA will be –and already is– bigger…and better. We envision the bricks and mortar (in historic Winchester, VA) as an eventual and inevitable destination for this programming, but also a satellite (physical, virtual) for creativity and community. Check out our 2019 events calendar, very much a work-in-progress, but one that is rapidly expanding, to get a sense of what we’re doing, what we’re delivering, and who we are hoping to attract (hint: everyone, especially you).

That said, the only criterion for participating in VCLA’s programs is an opened and curious mind. Whenever possible, my goal is to present fresh and under-represented voices, which involves avoiding cliché and predictability. Our ongoing Author Series at Handley Library will continue to feature writers from myriad fields, and has thus far included non-fiction and political biography. For our first foray into the world of fiction, the key word is world. As in global; not local, not American. This weekend it was our considerable honor to invite Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji to discuss his novel Using Life.

Matt Davis reads a translated section from Using Life:

‘Beige Writing…’ Ahmed Naji in Conversation

Published first time at: https://partisanhotel.co.uk/Ahmed-Naji

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Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and writer. His novel Using Life was published in Arabic in 2014 to widespread critical acclaim. Set in a hellish, fantastic version of Cairo, Using Life explores the city on the brink of destruction, while its young people move from party to party, having sex and taking drugs.

When the Egyptian weekly Akhbar al-Abad published a chapter of Using Life in 2014, Naji was charged with ‘indecency and disturbing public morals’ after the excerpt apparently caused a reader to have heart palpitations due to its explicit content. Naji was sentenced to two years in prison.

After his release from prison, Naji moved from Egypt to the US, where Sam Diamond talked to him about how he’s acclimatising to his new life, Saudi Arabia’s new city of the future, and what’s next for his writing.

I think it would be an understatement to say that the past few years have been very eventful for you. You wrote a novel, Using Life, were imprisoned for its content and then moved from Egypt to the US, where you and your wife have very recently had your first child. Could you give me a quick recap of these events from your own perspective?

Well, when I was writing the novel I didn’t ever expect to have this impact and to cause these problems. I always thought of myself as someone coming from outside mainstream culture, not the kind of writer who cared about fighting against political taboo or censorship. I just cared about the art of fiction. I was hoping to achieve something with novel, to write something that I’d enjoy writing and my friends would enjoy reading.

Suddenly, when the case happened, it was a huge shock. We didn’t expect it at all. When I was in prison I started to rethink my career as a journalist and a writer. Until then, I hadn’t thought of myself as a writer, I didn’t realise that I was totally loyal to writing and to the craft of fiction. But suddenly when I was in prison I thought: fuck it, I’m writing! I have to focus and take it seriously.

What happened had a huge impact on the the Arab cultural and literary scene, and it also had a huge impact on me. It changed my position on society and on Egyptian and Arabic culture entirely. Once when I was in the prison, one of the prison officers came to me and said: ‘Hey, Ahmed, do you have Samira’s number?’ [a character in Using Life]. I asked him what he was talking about and he told me he was joking, that he liked the novel. I froze, I didn’t understand his joke and I thanked him. After three months I saw him again. He said: ‘Wow, you’re still here!?’

I told him that it looked like I was going to stay there for longer. He said, ‘You know man, can you write in English?’ I told him that I couldn’t perfectly but that I could read and write simple things in English. He told me that when I got out I should stop writing in Arabic, that I should start writing English, because Arabic culture and civilisation is fucked up, people outside can’t understand what you’re writing, that I should stop writing in Arabic and start writing English. And this was advice from a prison guard!

This showed me that the situation in the Arabic region was getting worse and worse, particularly with regard to freedom of expression. When I got out I found that the situation had become even more difficult. It was impossible for me to work; I stayed in Egypt for a year and a half but I wasn’t able to write or publish, because most of the newspapers and websites I’d written for were closing and were under pressure from the government. So it looked like getting out of the country and establishing a new space was the only solution.

So are you planning to start writing in English?

My English isn’t yet good enough. And now I’m in the US, my wife has a job, I have a new daughter—who’s an American citizen. I got a scholarship at a university in Las Vegas so I’m moving to Nevada where I’ll stay for three years.

But I’m facing more complicated critical questions; I don’t like the position of writer-in-exile. I don’t want to end up as an Egyptian or Arab writer living in the States who ends up writing only about Arab and Egyptian politics, although this is part of my identity. So I’m just looking to learn more, to get to know more, to be a part of the new society that I’ve chosen, which is, for now, American society.

And this has its own complications: the American cultural scene and American society in general is so built around political identity. Even before doing anything you find yourself labelled. For me, for example, last month I was doing interviews with an American journalist and at one point in the interview he asked me a question which started: ‘As a brown writer…’ I was shocked! I asked him: what is a brown writer? So you start to discover that you have labels that you don’t understand. For me it was the first time I’d heard of this thing, The Brown Writer. And it took me a while to understand it. But of course I refused it, and I told him that I see myself as a beige writer, and we are beige people, and we have been discriminated against for years!

So, I’m looking forward to learning more about this society and culture and to find my own place in it. Am I going to write in English? Maybe. It’s a huge and hard journey to move from language to language, you have to build your own voice and I need more time and work to build my English. So for now I’m writing in Arabic and for now I’m depending on magnificent translators that I’ve worked with in the past, like Benjamin Koerber.

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The View from my New home at Arlington- VA
Have you read W.G. Sebald?

The first Arabic translations of Sebald are coming out next year, so I’m waiting for it.

He lived in England and could write in English but consciously decided to write in German and to work with an English translator.

The history of literature is full of these stories. There is Milan Kundera, who moved from the Czech Republic to France and then began to write in French, also Nabokov with Russian and English. I don’t know if I’m going to take this path or not, but I’m open to all options and I’m focused on learning and understanding.

Using Life like a melancholic novel to me. There’s a lot of joy and hedonism there but there’s also an element of conspiracy and the characters losing control against their urban environment. Do you think it prefigured the revolution in some sense?

I finished the first draft of the novel several months before the revolution. I didn’t change it at all even after the revolution, because even after what happened during the revolution it looked to me after the first couple of months as if there wouldn’t be a huge change, because Egypt is a big country that’s connected with the world system, and Egypt was impacted more by regional powers and regional authorities who looked as if they would choose either the military or the Muslim Brotherhood. In the novel, and in my writing in general, I don’t care so much about political change but more about the effect of political change on the people and on the city. The main core of the novel was my city, Cairo. What I predicted in this novel was that Cairo doesn’t have a future. And this is what has happened: they’re building a new capital in the desert.

The government plan is to go to the desert and the build a new capital, Dubai-style, and to leave Cairo. The urban problem related to the city itself will not be changed by any revolution, because it’s so related to how the Egyptian state has been structured—it’s been constructed as a central state, and in a huge country with a population of more than a hundred million people, all connected to Cairo.

And this has made Cairo extremely crowded, extremely polluted. It’s now impossible to rescue, it’s a version of hell, which is how I presented it in Using Life.

As you say, Cairo has a central place in the novel. Do you think Cairo is unique in this way, and what’s your impression of the city now?

I don’t think the problem is unique to Cairo, it’s general to the idea of the modern city. Around the world we are seeing how the Dubai model is becoming the goal for the modern city.

If you look to China, for example, they have been building these huge, empty cities that are full of skyscrapers, tall buildings of glass and metal. Cities designed for companies, not people, where they pay low tax and get the freedom to shape urban space.

When I moved to the US I was originally in Arlington, Virginia. It was very interesting, because it’s a very open city with a lot of space, but they’ve also started to build these skyscrapers. It’s crazy, I can’t understand it: they have all this space, why not use it to build horizontally? But they choose to build in glass-and-metal. When they started doing this in Arlington all of these huge companies moved in, so the Nestlé headquarters are in Arlington, all of these international companies are moving there. Suddenly you walk through the city and you realise it hasn’t been developed to serve the people who live there but to facilitate these companies.

We are living in a world where the idea of developing the world is not linked to developing people. It’s not about improving education or healthcare. All politicians talk about is investment, development, bringing in companies and business, creating populations who only exist to serve these companies. This was part of the novel: it’s about people who are stuck between old cities and heritage and a modern idea of development.

If capital has claimed urban space, do you see art or literature as a way of taking something back or reclaiming space?

I don’t think art and literature can take anything back, but at least they might be able to create a space for people to rethink what’s happening, to discover what’s happening around them and to stay alert. For me, this is enough.

If people read my novel and were shocked at the language, experienced it as tough or rough, then maybe the second step is for them to ask themselves why I used that language: if you’re living in a city like Cairo, there’s no other language you can use to write about it. This should alert them that this language is part of the city, and that violence is being organised by the political Neoliberal agenda and so on…

I guess using rough language is the opposite of these smooth glass buildings and these clean streets that don’t have people on them.What are you working on now? What’s next for you?

I’ve finished the first draft of a new novel, which hopefully should appear next year. It started as a simple love story: a divorced woman trying to rebuild her life. This time the story doesn’t take place in Cairo, but she escapes Cairo and the revolution towards Sinai and towards the future, which is Mohammed bin Salman’s new kingdom, Neom. Do you know about Neom?

I’ve seen the website…

If you haven’t been following this, Neom is a new plan by Saudi Arabia to build a new city for robots and technology. So she escapes to Neom, so most of the novel happens in this imaginary future city, which doesn’t yet exist. This will be my second novel.

Also recently received a grant from The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) to work on a non-fiction book, which I’m calling Rotten Evidence. It’s about my time in prison and also covers the case, mostly related to diaries I wrote secretly while in prison.

So I’m writing this book about my experiences, but it’s also connected to another project: I’m planning to start a website, in Arabic but also maybe in English, to collect, document and publish other Egyptian and Arabic prisoners’ writing. I want to use this to raise awareness of their situation.

The decision to publish in both Arabic and English is of course to make it more accessible, but also because most of the prisons have actually been built and supported by European and American money. The Egyptian government doesn’t have enough money to build prisons itself, so they’ve brought in European and American companies and funding. So for example if you enter police station in Egypt, any detention room, the air conditioning is provided by the European Union; when I was in prison, the air conditioning ducts were always emblazoned with the European Union logo. So you can see how globalisation touches on everything, even in prison.

But of course my main project for the moment is being a father.

How do you approach writing non-fiction as opposed to writing fiction?

Well, I worked as a journalist, that was my main source of income for years. For me, I think more about the audience and readers when I’m writing non-fiction. I focus on writing in a simple, easy way that catches the reader’s attention. I see myself as a servant of the reader.

Maybe it’s because of my journalism background, but when I’m writing fiction I don’t really care that much about the reader.

I have a reader in mind, but it’s usually a couple of close friends I grew up with. I don’t care about being clear or informative, I feel more free to play with language, to demolish structure and then rebuild it. Maybe that’s the reason that I received all these messages from readers telling me that they used to read my articles and my journalism, ‘We loved it, but we didn’t like your novel, it didn’t make sense.’ They want the simple story. So when I’m writing fiction I want to stay away from that. I want to create something more complicated, something that challenges the craft of literature. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

If I’m writing non-fiction I want to write something that people can read on the beach or on the toilet. If I was on the beach and I found someone reading my novel I would be offended.

I read your novel on the beach…

Ha! Well I hope it worked for you.

Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and journalist born in Mansoura in 1985. He is the author of three books, Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009) and The Use of Life (2014), as well as numerous blogs and other articles. He was also a journalist for Akhbar al-Adab, a state-funded literary magazine, and frequently contributed to other newspapers and websites including Al-Modon and Al-Masry Al-Youm. He is currently based in Washington DC. Visit his website at https://ahmednaji.net/.

Sam Diamond is a writer, researcher and musician originally from London and now based in Berlin. He is currently finishing a PhD project on the conceptual history of authenticity in 20th Century American fiction and journalism at Queen Mary University of London. He works in technology. You can follow him on Twitter @samueldiamond.

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