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?
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.
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.
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?
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.
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:
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.
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?
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.
Ahmed Naji — winner of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award — remains on trial for his novel Using Life, for its alleged violation of “public morals.” The novel recently appeared in English, and Naji and translator Ben Koerber talk about the book, the legal case, and what Naji’s working on next:
Ben Koerber: To start off, could you give us a brief update on your case and the legal (and extralegal) sanctions against you and the novel?
Editor’s update: The North Cairo Appeals Court has ruled it has no jurisdiction over Naji’s case and has referred it to a criminal court. PEN America has called the situation “half free.“
Ahmed Naji: In the meantime, I remain banned from leaving the country. As for the novel, no ruling has been issued against it, but due to the increasing censorship of the book market in Egypt, we’re having difficulties publishing a new edition (in Arabic). The owners of some presses have refused to print it, since the National Security Investigations Service have obligated them to report any book before printing. At the same time, we’re worried about printing it outside Egypt, since this means it will have to pass through the office of censorship for artistic works at the Customs Administration. This office has banned several books from entering Egypt as of late.
BK: Some commentators have tried to link the case against you to the rise of fascism in Egypt, or to the police state. Yet it seems that Using Life — and indeed some of your other works — conceptualizes politics and repression in somewhat different terms. Do you agree? How might the novel itself be used to reflect on your case, or politics in Egypt more generally?
AN: I finished the novel’s first draft at the end of 2010 [i.e. before the Egyptian uprising of January-February 2011]. The novel itself does not specify its political context, but provides the general contours of two worlds. The first world is governed by a nameless general, while the second world – after the “Tsunami of the Desert” – is ruled by a conglomeration of multinational construction firms. At the time I was writing the novel, I had been preoccupied with the idea of the nation state – which began to take shape in the late nineteenth-century – and its potential demise. Politically, the novel is about this imminent moment of change.
Now, it seems this moment has come to pass. In the western world, for example, we see the rise of far-right movements, who view the nation state as a unified racial entity, and at the same time as a lucrative commercial enterprise that bestows its benefits on a racial elite. Perhaps Trump in America is the best embodiment of this state of affairs. We see it too in the Third World and the Arab countries, where a new generation of dictators present themselves as CEOs capable of making profits through brokering deals and selling their real estate assets.
In Egypt, 6th of October City hasn’t yet become the fantastical, futuristic city of the novel. But to the east of Cairo, the state is siphoning its entire economic resources into building what they’re calling the “New Administrative Capital.” It’s supposed to be a “city of the future” where the president and government will be relocated, far from the present Cairo. I don’t like the image of the writer as a predictor of events, but I can only be amazed that the end I wished for Cairo in the novel is presently taking place in reality. The plan announced by the government is to let the city choke and die while they flee along with their presidential palaces, administrative buildings, and security apparatuses to a new city that’s completely fortified.
BK: Who or what are the “Animals of Cairo”? Can we live with them? Can we live without them?
AN: They’re portraits of characters and personality types that grow and reproduce in Cairo. The reason they took this shape – Ayman’s drawings together with some abstract prose poems – is because I didn’t want to write about the city as it’s typically been portrayed in the Arabic realist novel, where you choose a well-defined geographic location – a working-class neighborhood, a residential building, a city street – and follow the fates of a group of characters and their class struggle. Instead, I wanted to write something more fantastical, based on the city’s most widespread characters.
BK: Bassam has a complicated relationship with “ass-kissing” (ta’ris) and “cocksuckery” (khawlana). I’m not sure the translation is able to communicate the cultural baggage of these terms. Could you explain?
AN: I really like Ben’s translation of both expressions, and I think the reader can grasp their cultural connotations from the context of the novel as well. I find the topic of “ass-kissing” in Arab culture really quite fascinating. In one sense, it’s a way of surviving and making do in a culture dominated by an ethos of control and subjugation, as is the case with Arab political culture. It’s a topic that’s garnered considerable attention in the Arabic novel, as for example in the works of Muhammad Mustagab, or with some of Naguib Mafhouz’s famous characters – Mahgoub Abd al-Dayim in Cairo 30, or Anis Effendi in Adrift on the Nile. There’s also, of course, the works of Albert Cossery.
BK: What role do the footnotes play in the novel?
AN: The novel is the art of polyphony, of voices in the plural. The footnotes were a way of experimenting with this idea. Sometimes they provide clarification or explanation of the main text, and sometime they conflict with it by raising doubt about its accuracy or presenting a different narrative of the same event.
BK: The novel is a very “open” text, with gestures toward reader participation at many levels. What did you hope to achieve with these gestures, and how have readers responded?
AN: I strive to let writing become an open dialogue. I like for the text to contain many spaces and secrets, so that the reader can fill in the gaps and become more immersed. The readers responded to this in different ways. The responses I always get for these types of experiments gives me a sense of personal fulfillment, as well as the opportunity to form new friendships. With Using Life, some readers colored in the novel’s illustrations, and others send me their ideas and images of other “animals of Cairo.”
The text’s openness to interpretation helps achieve another artistic goal that I strive for, which is that writing induce others to exercise doubt and ask questions about the work, its subject, and their own lives.
BK: Your thoughts on seeing the novel in English? What do you think American readers will make of it?
AN: I’m really excited about it. I remember, years ago, when my first novel [Rogers, 2007] was translated into Italian [Rogers, et la Via del Drago divorato dal Sol, 2009], and I expressed my concerns to the translator, Barbara Benini, that it wouldn’t find an audience in Italian culture. But I was surprised to find myself invited to Italy for the book tour, and to hear from Italian readers their reactions and the connections they made between the novel and their own personal experiences. I don’t know how it will be with American readers, but I’m eager to know how they respond.
BK: Can you share any details about your upcoming projects?
AN: Currently I’m trying to finish a nonfiction book on my trial and time in prison. Starting with my own experience, it looks at the broader issue of literary language vs. the language of the law, and asks why literature goes to the courtroom. I review various cases brought against literary works in Egypt and France, since that’s where the charge of “obscenity” or “offending public morals” has been brought against literature, beginning with Voltaire. I also look at the case brought against James Joyce’s Ulysses in New York, and the case against Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”.
After seeing a photo of him, Zadie Smith imagined Ahmed Naji as someone wild and antic. (“Rather handsome, slightly louche-looking, with a Burt Reynolds moustache, wearing a Nehru shirt in a dandyish print and the half smile of someone both amusing and easily amused” she observed in the New York Review of Books – without having met him.) Just a short extract of his prose allegedly gave one reader heart palpitations, and, for one judge, his language – “pussy, cock, licking, sucking”, according to court documents – was enough to justify a two-year jail sentence.
It’s hard to equate these intense, fleeting impressions with the quietly spoken man in front of me sipping green tea.
Naji is best known internationally for being imprisoned for the sexual content and drug references in his novel The Use of Life, in a society where these subjects remain largely taboo.
However, sitting in his apartment close to the Nile in central Cairo, Naji plays down the image he has acquired as a result of his plight, and the themes that got him into trouble.
A blend of existentialist literature, fantasy and social criticism, The Use of Life follows Bassam, a young man who lives in an alternate Cairo, which Naji imagines as a grubby metropolis that has risen from a series of natural disasters that levelled the city. Filled with irreverent references to masturbation, fetishes and pornography, the book is consistently transgressive. Bassam’s opinions and ideas are also knowingly progressive – having sex with an older woman, keeping transgender friends, indulging in drugs and drink.
“Sex and drugs play a very important part in Cairo,” says Naji – while stressing that they are not the main themes of his novel. As he sees it, The Use of Life is about “the history of the city and how it has been designed … and how people in this Kafkaesque maze are trying to find a small piece of joy”.
The 31-year-old author first ran into legal trouble in 2015, when a chapter of The Use of Life was published in the state-run literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. A male complainant, who said the passage came to his attention only when his wife ridiculed him for allowing such material into their house, alleged that reading Naji’s descriptions of sex and hashish-smoking gave him “heart palpitations, sickness and a drop in blood pressure”.
In January 2016, Naji was acquitted by an Egyptian court. But a month later, a higher court fined him £1,000 and sentenced him to two years in jail – the maximum sentence – for violating public morality, as enshrined in Egypt’s penal code. (The editor of Akhbar al-Adab was fined £430 for publishing the chapter.)
Naji’s lawyer, Mahmoud Othman, describes the chaotic legal process leading up to the sentencing as unprecedented.
“There was not enough discussion or attention paid to what we said in defence and the court refused to listen to a witness who is the head of Egypt’s general book institution,” he says. “They issued the verdict quickly, in less than an hour, without the announcement even being made in court – we found out the verdict from a security source.” Naji was the writer in Egypt to be jailed over a novel extract published in a newspaper.
Finally, after more than 300 days behind bars, Naji was released on appeal on 22 December. Now out, he is reluctant to say much about his time in jail, apart from revealing that it had affected his health and that one of his cellmates was the prominent revolutionary Alaa Abd El Fattah, with whom he discussed literature. “Jail is jail,” he says, quietly.
He does, however, take solace from being the latest in an international line of literary outlaws. “Joyce had something related to the same problem, because he’s using dirty words and it seems like it was a huge battle in the 1930s and 40s. And in the US, for example, when you read Kerouac and Ginsberg,” he says. “It’s about words that people are using in the street which suddenly have another meaning when people use them in literature. How can I know about all this and not use it in my writing?”
Naji is not the only Egyptian writer to go to jail, but he is the first to be imprisoned for reasons of morality. Others have been put behind bars for political or religious reasons, among them the novelist and short-story writer Sonallah Ibrahim, a member of the “60s generation” who was jailed between 1959 and 1964 during a crackdown on dissent by the nationalist president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
Naji seems unfazed by his new-found fame, but says he read an Arabic translation of Smith’s novel On Beauty in jail before he knew about her support for his release.
“It was a sign for me to believe in my literature more,” he says. “Before jail, I used to see myself mostly as a journalist and found it more difficult to be motivated. Now that is easier and has become a habit. I write fiction for two hours every day.”
This week, a leading Egyptian publisher took the risk of publishing a new collection of short stories by Naji. Mohamed Hashem, owner of Merit publishing house, is a patriarchal figure on Egypt’s literary scene and is no stranger to run-ins with the authorities.
He says that he decided to publish the stories because “I believe in the freedom of expression, freedom of thought and belief, as well as freedom of literary creativity. There shouldn’t be any kinds of restraints on the mind.”
“If you open [that] or other books from the Arabic-Islamic heritage, you will find an explicit language magnified by thousands of times more than in The Use of Life. And those authors were not called heathens or judged by anyone,” Hashem says.
Naji, meanwhile, reveals that while in jail he secretly started writing another novel, now about a quarter complete. He won’t divulge what it’s about, but another book that he read in jail, passed on to him by his friend Abd El Fattah, might give a clue. “I’ve just discovered an amazing writer,” he says. “China Miéville.”
He is due to appear in court again in April and is aware that he could go back to jail. If he is acquitted, he says, he plans to move to either Washington DC or Hong Kong at the end of the year.
After everything, Naji downplays suggestions that his sentencing was for political reasons. “I don’t think so. Of course, I heard some conspiracies and a lot of rumours but we didn’t have any evidence to support it,” he says. Some members of parliament even attended his trial and tried to change the law – frustratingly, it was unsuccessful (“The Egyptian political scene is complicated,” Naji says).
“I’m not a writer with a message,” he insists. “I’m more of a writer with questions. I’m not what they call in Egypt an enlightened writer or thinker.”
Author Tony White interviews Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji ahead of his hearing in Cairo today. published on 2 April 2017
On 21 February 2016, Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for ‘violating public modesty’, following the publication of an excerpt from his novel Using Life in Cairo’s weekly literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. On 22 December 2016, Egypt’s highest appeals court temporarily suspended Naji’s sentence, and he was released. A further hearing due to be held in Cairo today, 2 April 2017, will determine whether Naji will face another trial or be sent back to prison.
Author Tony White interviewed Ahmed Naji in March 2017. The following text is an edited transcript of that interview, adapted to be performed live at the English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2017. White asked Ahmed Naji about writing in prison, getting married, and what he will be doing in Cairo while he waits to hear the latest verdict.
If you wait a minute I’ll close the window. We have a high school for girls next door, and at this time of day they all come out of the school and they make so much noise. They fill the air with their noise and their talking. If I go on to my balcony to smoke or drink coffee, the classrooms are all opposite, and of course there is always a show! They are always waving and whistling, saying, ‘Hi! What is your name? Do you have wifi? Open the wifi to us! Give me your number!’
This is Yasmin’s place. I love this neighbourhood. It’s called Al Aguza. And I love it, first because the river is only two minutes away—the Nile—and I love to walk beside the river every day. And a funny thing is that five minutes from where we live is the house of Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. He used to live right here, and he also he used to have a tradition of walking, of getting out of his house and walking beside the Nile. Every day he would write for at least three hours, and then he would walk for an hour or two along the river. And now there is a huge statue of Mahfouz, walking, that the government made. It’s a miserable statue. Even he himself used to make negative comments about it!
Anyway, Al Aguza is something in between— Like, in the sixties and seventies it was the main hub of the artistic community, and theatre and cinema and so on. And now it’s become like a cool neighbourhood, but also a shabby neighbourhood.
So here we are. First I’d like to thank Cat [Lucas of English PEN] and Steven [the poet SJ Fowler] and everyone, for organising this event. I know that such an activity can feel disappointing, especially for the organisers. It is not an easy world that we live in, and these are not easy times, so you’re doing all this work and supporting writers, for the love of literature and writing, and freedom of expression, but sometimes this offer, this support, goes unheard. Or that may be how it seems. But actually it does reach the ears of those writers around the world who are facing a critical time, and even if this offer doesn’t affect their legal situation, it can have a huge effect on their mood.
I mean in my case for example, when I was in prison, when my family came to visit with messages like this from outside, and they told me well this person has written about you, or we have received a letter from that person, this news affects your mood very well. Because in prison you are not allowed to be in touch with anything, and sometimes you feel that you have been forgotten. So to receive the news that someone has remembered you, this helps very much. And then, after you get out, to find such love and solidarity? It really helps you to recover from the traumas that you have experienced.
When I was in jail, in my cell there were British prisoners, Americans, people from Latin America. And everybody envies the British prisoners because the British have a special magazine for British prisoners who are held in prisons outside of the UK. So this British guy, his embassy was visiting him every forty days, and bringing him a bunch of food, cornflakes, you know, sometimes old magazines and books. Usually they were strange books with titles like In Bed with the Duke, for example. But suddenly I found they had brought him one of China Miéville’s novels. This was a new writer to me, and I fell in love with him.
Before I went into prison my relationship towards writing literature was dependent upon my mood. I didn’t see myself as a full-time writer, I saw myself as a journalist. I only wrote literature when the desire to do so became irresistible, but in prison my relationship to literature changed.
It is interesting writing a novel in prison. For one thing, you are not allowed to write in prison, so I had to hide it, because if suddenly the guards entered the cell to do a check-up or whatever, and they found it, they could take it. And it was also strange because I was writing with pen and paper, and I hadn’t done that since I was about twelve years old! And of course in prison you don’t have an office or a table, you just have a mattress on the floor, so you are writing with your body, in a physical position that is very hard to keep up. It becomes very painful.
Since I got out and started to write the novel on the computer, I’m now facing some very interesting questions. The sentences are too short. They look good, but when I start rewriting on the computer suddenly these sentences expand. And I’m starting to ask myself, when I wrote it in prison did I make this sentence short because there was some literary motivation behind it, or was it just because of the pain in my body and my hand that I was writing sentences like that?
Before I went to prison most of my work was related to journalism, but since I got out of prison and because we are waiting for another decision from the court, the lawyer advised me to keep a low profile, because they are watching us. So I can’t write anything at the moment, because at first I thought that I was under their eyes, and this was a very weird feeling because suddenly you become the censorship in what you think. I mean I would start to write an article about something for example, and as I was writing it I would think what if the judge saw this article? Might it affect our appeal? And I would find that I couldn’t continue.
Yasmin and I wanted to get married in March. Actually, we had planned to get married in May or June, but we are waiting for this second decision in the court and we don’t know what will happen. Now for sudden family issues we have had to postpone the wedding date, but I hope we can make it by the end of April.We are afraid that if I have to go back to prison, that this time Yasmin would not be able to visit me, because according to the prison regulations only family and immediate relatives are allowed to visit. And even then, it’s all dependent upon each police officer’s mood.
When I was in prison before, in the first couple of months they allowed me to send and to receive letters, but after that I wasn’t allowed to write or to receive letters at all. I had to do this huge negotiation with the officer to just be able to send letters to Yasmin and to receive letters from her. So this was the only person that I could write to. Also they would read them and sometimes for example if Yasmin asked me about details in the case and I answered it, they would read it and say ‘No you are only allowed to write stuff about love, or something like that. You are not allowed to mention anything related to politics or to your legal case’. So the letters were censored and some letters they refused to send, the officer would read it and say, ‘No you are not allowed to write this’.
The court is downtown, like ten minutes from here by car, or half an hour’s walk, but we won’t be going to court. When I was sentenced before, I did have to be in the court. In the Egyptian court tradition you stay in the cage until the judge has given his orders to the police officer. The judge doesn’t have to declare his verdict to the court, so he listened to the prosecutors and to my lawyers then he left, and I had to wait in the cage with some police officers. Then another officer came and took me to another room, where I was told that I had been sentenced to 2 years. They immediately put me in a police car and moved me to the police station.
I don’t have much to say about it, really.
This time the judge hasn’t asked me to attend, because this is the highest court in the Egyptian justice system. Regular citizens are not even allowed to enter; only lawyers.
So we will be at home. And I think that I will start my day by making what we call the ‘championship breakfast’. This is omelette – a lot of omelette – with falafel, and fried potato, and spicy tomato, and some greens, and vegetables, and honey, and cheese.
After breakfast I think Yasmin and I will stay at home and wait to hear from the lawyers. I will be reading. Yesterday I bought a new book by China Miéville. I finished the first novel I’d read of his, the one that I started when I was in jail: Kraken. I finished that, and now I’m reading Iron Council. So I will be reading my new China Miéville novel, and waiting for the news.
My lawyers are optimistic. They say that the judge has let me out, so he’s probably not going to give me another sentence, or send me back to prison.
Well, they may be optimistic, but I’m not.
After my experience, I don’t have any optimism.
But then, also, the judge might not even give his verdict on the same day. It could be in two days’ time, or next week. But if he finds me guilty again, and he announces the verdict, then a police officer will be sent to catch me. Either that or you, yourself, have to go to the police station.
If it’s good news of course we are going to celebrate, but if it’s bad news we are also going to celebrate!
On Saturday 1 April 2017, UK-based writers gathered for the English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2017, to present new works in tribute to writers at risk around the world. Writers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists came together to continue English PEN’s relationship with innovative contemporary literature over an extraordinary day where each of the writers presented brand new poetry, text, reportage & performance in celebration of fellow writers around the world.