This panel of leading regional and diaspora authors will discuss the inspiration for their most recent novels and the social, cultural and political context informing their work. The panel will also explore the challenges that Arab writers in the region and its diaspora face as they reflect on societies dealing with globalization, trauma, gender, sexuality and identity.
Ahmed Naji is trying to understand the zeitgeist. In the 36 years of his life he has witnessed dictatorship, revolution, counter-revolution, military coup, jail and exile.
Ahmed Naji’s story is unique. He is the first author jailed for a work of literary fiction in Egypt’s modern history. What is more, he was not jailed for the political views one might glean from Using Life, but for “obscene” and “immoral” language, as well as depictions of drugs and sex.
Read journalist Edgar Mannheimer’s exclusive interview with Ahmed Naji in this week’s ” Writers in Exile”.
Read the whole interview here: https://penopp.org/articles/not-my-egypt
Listen to whole interview here : https://www.sowt.com/en/podcast/bulaq-bwlaq/reading-and-writing-behind-bars
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan talks to Ahmed Naji, author of Using Life, about how the experience of imprisonment and then living in exile, particularly exile in America, changed his feelings about writing and about his own identity.
From the interview:
Ahmed Naji:Being an exiled writer is not as it used to be. During, for example, Nabokov’s time or other Russian writers who will flee out of the Soviet Union and come here to United States, and some of them, like Nabokov or Kundera in France, they will choose to leave their language and to adopt a new language and writing it. They will choose to burn the ships and to forget about the past. But now, in our lifetime, it’s not like that. You are not an exile, because you are still able to know what is happening in your motherland through the internet and the source of news. The world’s become so connected. Everything affects everything.
Ahmed Naji is a writer, journalist, art critic, and criminal. He is the author of Rogers (2007), Using Life (2014), and And Tigers to My Room (2020). He has won several prizes including a Dubai Press Club Award, a PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, and an Open Eye Award. He is currently a City of Asylum Fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute. ahmednaji.net.
Ahmed Naji is a collector of occupational labels—occasional journalist, blogger, intellectual masturbator, documentary filmmaker, agent for belly dancers—accepting any label, and prescribing to none. The one that feels most true is simply “writer.” For Naji, to be a writer is not an identity in itself, but an avenue for discovery: “Writing itself is a way to doubt and question,” he says in Rotten Evidence, his expansive, intimate account of his time in prison, which was excerpted in The Believer this past February.
Naji, 34, did not consider himself a writer until he went to prison for writing. In 2016, a private Egyptian citizen claimed that he suffered “heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure” after reading a passage from Naji’s novel, Using Life, which included descriptions of sex and drug use. Naji was arrested on charges of “violating public modesty”—it was the first time an author had been subjected to imprisonment for morality concerns in modern Egypt. As a result, Naji served ten months in Tora Prison.
In 2019, Naji moved to Las Vegas with his wife and infant daughter and began his term as the City of Asylum fellow for the Black Mountain Institute. Since then, Naji has published two books in Arabic: And Tigers to My Room, a love-story turned Middle Eastern sci-fi dystopian novel, and Rotten Evidence, a memoir about reading and writing in prison. Naji’s fiction has a subversive, experimental quality that hearkens back to his early days in the blogosphere—it blurs genre lines, mixing artistic mediums like music and graphic illustration with the written word. His prose is prophetic, yet unserious; it offers observations that are at once familiar, and singular in voice and perspective. When reading the excerpt of Rotten Evidence, I was struck by a sentence that dripped with typically Najian flair: “I’d known the power of the police, which was like the power of street dogs: they made a terrifying noise, but if you could keep your nerve, they’d get out of your way.” Naji’s work often offers these bits of irreverent wisdom; he has a unique ability to wax poetic and speak on universal truths in the same breath–it’s a tightrope that not many writers can balance with such sharp precision.
Naji and I first spoke back in 2019, a few months after he arrived in Las Vegas. We continued our conversation more than a year later, in a drastically different world. I met him for tea in Downtown Las Vegas, not far from where he lives with his wife, lawyer Yasmin Hosam El Din, and their young daughter, Sina. We talked about the trials of aging, the most full-proof method for distracting a detention officer, and reading and writing as strategies for survival.
THE BELIEVER: How did you first find your way to writing?
AHMED NAJI: I started writing poetry when I was in high school. I even won several competitions and prizes in high school, and then at college and university. I saw myself as a poet, and would even introduce myself as one. But then a very weird accident happened. Back then, I used to write my poetry on paper. It was in lovely, well-done handwriting, like calligraphy. And I had all my poems in one big folder. When I was in university in Cairo, every week or two, I would travel to see my family in Mansoura. And one day, I forgot the whole folder on the bus. Of course I went back asking about it, and I didn’t find it. I went to the guys at the bus station and asked for the folder, and they were like, “Are they government documents or important papers like contracts?” And I was like, “No, just poems.” and they were like, “Pssshhh.” So I lost them, and it was frustrating and very sad. After that, I tried to write some poems from memory, but then I thought, What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Maybe it’s a sign. And since then, my career as a poet was killed. I still write poems from time to time, but only for myself. I don’t publish or share them.
BLVR: Growing up, was there anything you were restricted from, or that you weren’t allowed to read?
AN: I wasn’t allowed to read anything. I was only allowed to study and study and study. My father is a doctor, so the plan was to be raised and trained as a doctor, and I was only allowed to read textbooks. But every year or so, I would be moving to a new school, and it was a lot of effort to get to know people and find friends, so I dove into books and comics and stories. When I was in high school, I would have my school book open and inside it, there would be a novel. And usually when my mom discovered that, [my parents] would take the novel and hide it. Or sometimes my mother would get angry and throw it out the window. They would blame every single thing on the books that I was reading. Like, “You don’t get high scores in school because you’re wasting your time with novels.”
BLVR: What role did religion play in your life, growing up in a majority Muslim country?
AN: My family is practicing and they are a little bit conservative. I grew up going to the masjid and the mosque for all five prayers, and going to a bunch of religious, social, and political activities. So I was surrounded by this atmosphere. But then once I started reading intensely in high school, that made me have doubts about everything. When I was like fourteen or sixteen years old, I discovered Nietzsche and other writers, like Naguib Mahfouz—all of this pushed me towards this different way of thinking. By the age of sixteen, I was against religion, and I could say I was agnostic. Especially when you’re a teenager, you have this power like you’re inside of Zeus. You revolt to the extreme.
That’s when I began writing and publishing. I started writing a blog in 2003 and started using the nickname “Iblis,” which means evil or devil. It was a nickname that was given to me by some of my friends, and there are still a lot of people in Egypt who know me as Iblis on the internet. This character that I created for the blogosphere was the first thing that got me a little bit famous in some circles. After three or four years I started to meet with other bloggers. Remember this was in 2005 and 2006, so everything was about blogging, and it was a huge, important movement in Egypt and in the Arab world that has had an impact politically, socially, and culturally. I met with other bloggers and they started to get to know my real name. I wrote my first novel, Rogers, when I was twenty-one years old, but I thought it was so chaotic and complicated that no one was going to be interested in it. I decided to publish it for free on my blog, but after the first month, I got offers from three different publishing houses who were interested in publishing it as a novel. So I signed this deal and it was published, and then it was translated into Italian and got a lot of attention and so on. But again, all of this happened because I started writing under this nickname Iblis as a blogger. And of course back then, part of writing under a nickname was because a lot of writing was critical of Islamic mythology and it had a lot of sarcasm. Religion was an interesting topic for sarcasm and cynicism and jokes. But it’s dangerous to do this with your name in Egypt.
BLVR: You’ve mentioned that you never considered yourself a writer until you went to prison, and that only then did you decide to take writing as a profession seriously. I’m curious if that’s connected to having written under a pseudonym for a lot of the early years of your career. Why did you not feel like a writer back then?
-Read the whole interview here: https://believermag.com/logger/an-interview-with-ahmed-naji/
Ahmed Naji: I was in denial. Until I was in the police station I was in denial, and I thought this should be a mistake and something’s wrong. Because as I was telling you, this was the first time that happened in the history of Egypt. The reaction was so big. It was more than I expected, the reaction from writers and journalists in Egypt and the Arab world and even internationally. So I thought it’s a mistake and they are going to put me here for a couple of days and I would be out. But then they transferred me into the prison. Even for the first week in the prison, I always thought, this is a mistake. It is going to take a couple of weeks. After the first months, I started to feel like, well, it seems and this looks like it’s going to be much longer than I expected.
And day by day, you started to lose hope. To lose hope. The most painful thing in the prison is hope, actually. Hope is the most torturing tool that you have to deal with in the prison. You see, you woke up every day waiting for this message, waiting for the moment, for the second, the guard or the soldier will come and open your cell door, call your name, tell you, “Back up. You are out.” And you are in the prison, so you don’t know what is happening outside, but you have hope, and hope continues torturing you. You sit and wait for hope to deliver its promise. But it never happened.
At five in the prison, it’s the time when they would close the prison and now everyone goes to their cell, stays there, you can’t get out, nothing will happen, the day ends at five. So you keep waiting until it’s five o’clock p.m., and then you discover, yeah, it’s not today. So you fall down into like a black hole until the night. You try to read, you try to smoke as many cigarettes as you can until you fall into sleep. And when you go to sleep, you start to think about dreams. You wish to have as many dreams as you can while you sleep, because dreams are very important in general to any prisoners, and especially important to Egyptian prisoners.
You see, dreams is the only window and the gate a prisoner is having to look outside of his cell. It’s the only space where you will meet with your beloved one. And after time in the prison, you started to play this game with your subconscious. You started to believe that you could design your dreams. For example, I used to play a game that if I miss someone, if I miss my friends, my girlfriend, I will think on her in the morning, but before going to bed, I will not think on her. Of course, in my cell, there wasn’t drugs. But I was able to have like Benadryl, paracetamol drugs—basically it puts you sleep. So I will take two pills and it creates something like a void. You are not high, but you are in a sleepy mood. So you go into sleep fast, easy. And you had all this vivid, colorful dreams. And I would work hard to design this dream in the hope to see people that I miss and the places that I miss while I was in the prison.
Ten years after Egyptians rose up against long-ruling dictator Hosni Mubarak during the first hopeful weeks of the Arab Spring, we look at why it didn’t work out as the protesters might have hoped and ask if the energy of Egypt’s revolution is still alive anywhere. Andrew Mueller is joined by Nancy Okail, Ahmed Naji and Lyse Doucet.
Listen to it here: https://monocle.com/radio/shows/the-foreign-desk/370/
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
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?