Interview with Ben & arablit: ‘I Wanted to Write Something More Fantastical’

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.

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Pages from using life in exhibition for Aymen

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”.

Ahmed Naji: ‘Prison made me believe in literature more’

An interview with Walt Curnow, published in The Gurdian : https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/feb/16/ahmed-naji-prison-made-me-believe-in-literature-more

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”.

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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.

Ibrahim was one of Naji’s most vocal domestic supporters, even appearing in court for his defence. He was one of more than 600 Egyptian and Arab writers, artists and authors to sign a statement calling for his release. As Naji’s case gained attention, his defenders were backed by international cultural figures including Woody Allen and Patti Smith as well as authors Dave Eggers, Philip Roth and Zadie Smith.

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.”

He points out that though Naji’s language might seem bold, it is no more transgressive than that of One Thousand and One Nights.

“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.

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Sonaa Allah during the trail

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.”

Ahmed Naji’s Championship Breakfast

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!’

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Some of solidarity letters that I received through PEN. Thank you for all that love. photos by Ahmed  

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!

[NOTES/LINKS]

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.

Ahmed Naji’s novel Using Life translated by Benjamin Koerber will be published later this year by the University of Texas Press.

Tony White is the author of novels including Foxy-T (Faber and Faber). His latest novel The Fountain in the Forest will be published by Faber in 2018.