Yasmeen cried because she could not breastfeed our daughter, Sina, on her first day in this world. Sina cried as well. As I was held captive with both of them in the hospital room, I had no idea what should be done. I called for the nurses’ help. A nurse came and offered to help Yasmeen breastfeed. It was in vain. The milk did not come, and the crying persisted. The nurse suggested using formula, made especially for new-borns. That made Yasmeen cry even more, feeling the failure.
In her first day as a mother, Yasmeen detected the essence of it: An everlasting feeling of guilt.
The nurse asked me to sign some legal and executive papers to confirm our consent to give formula to our hungry baby daughter. For the hospital to get involved in the bond between a mother and an infant, they need the mother’s informed consent or else this interference would be considered a crime. By all powers of biology and modern law, only the mother is responsible for feeding the infant.
A few days later, Yasmeen’s breasts supplied milk. Each time she breastfed the new-born, despite all the physical pain, her face lit up with a smile. She tried to explain how she felt, but words failed her. She spoke of energy, of something that runs through the inside of her, along with milk, to the inside of Sina. It is believed that this is the maternal bond.
We come into life incapable of consuming solid foods. We can only suck our mother’s milk. The first sign of a human infant’s growth is their ability to keep their heads upright, so that they can swallow. Only then some sustenance can be offered. The second sign of growth is weaning. When babies are not breastfed anymore, they shift from being infants to becoming toddlers.
The older we get, the more distant we are from her. We are weaned off the mother’s milk only to eat what her hands offer us. Our palate is shaped by our mother’s food, and we spend years believing that the best food is that cooked by mom.
Regardless of how bad a mother’s cooking might be, children do not realise it. On the contrary, they genuinely believe this is how normal, even excellent, food tastes!
This is known as Mother Culture. It extends not only to include the taste of the mother’s cooking, but also the customs of cuisine taught to us by our mothers. Some mothers raise their children with a must finish your plate rule; others are raised encouraged by mothers to leave a bite or two on their plate. In Egypt, this is known as “the Cat’s Share,”the idea being to help out cats and dogs that live off of garbage.
The mother instructs us as to what we should and should not eat. As such, ever since I was a little boy my mother declared all types of sausages (Egyptian-style street food sausages/ frankfurters/ hotdogs) FORBIDDEN at home. Throughout my childhood we were warned not to eat them outside behind her back.
We listened to Mother because she, definitely, knew our stomachs better than we did. Over time, we grew, left the house more often, we rebelled against Mother’s culture and we began to explore the world…and the hotdog.
I fell in love with all types and shapes of sausages at first bite, when I was nineteen. I went back to my mother asking her, ‘Why did you forbid us from eating hotdogs’? She answered that, as a kid, she stopped once in front of a shop that sells sausage sandwiches and, for some reason, the smell of sausages on the grill upset her so much that she passed out. Ever since that day, she’d hated sausages and everything related to them. So, the ban in this case was never for health reasons. It was merely our mother’s own palate.
Our bodies are a record book signed by time. On the surface it’s all flesh, blood and bones which are the result of what we eat. Our bodies, and what we eat, reflect all that shapes our identity.
We take control of our own selves and reshape our identity when we rebel against the cuisine of Mother Culture. I come from a world where pork is defiled, Haram. I had to travel at the age of twenty-three to know what pork tastes like. I loved the juicy taste of the pink meat. However, when I go back to Cairo, it’s hard for me to find restaurants or shops that serve pork. This made the joy of eating this pink flesh feel like forbidden fruit. I had to wait until I travelled to keep eating it in all its possibilities.
We rebel against Mother Culture.We drift away from Mom’s cuisine only to explore the facts of life.
Some cannot take the taste of truth. They refuse to eat food which they cannot recognise and hold onto the palate shaped by the mother’s cuisine. Others take in everything with mouths wide open, realising that Mom’s food is not necessarily the best there is. However, the taste of nostalgia in Mom’s cooking cannot be found any place else.
One’s palate is similar to one’s identity. It is not a frozen image, but one that changes as a result of what time does to our physical forms. Until the age of twenty-eight, I could not stand eating salad or fruit. I still have a memory of many full years having past in my life without me eating a piece of fruit. All of a sudden, with the age of thirty approaching, my palate changed as a result of my body’s needs and abilities having changed. Today, I seek out salads, in fact some of my meals are all salad and vegetables.
It had started as a call from a secret place in my body. Eating meats and carbohydrates gives me a heavy body and a lazy, slow capability of moving and thinking. After the age of thirty, health problems in my digestive system just blew up in my face.
I went to see a doctor, complaining from difficulty in urination and rectal pain. He asked me to sleep on the bed with my knees held tight against my chest, then he inserted two fingers into my rectum.
‘Anal fracture’, announced the doctor, as he was prescribing some analgesic ointment and telling me that the best remedy for me is to change my diet: Stay away from pastries, pizza, pasta… etc. and to eat more vegetables and fruits.
It was only then that I realised that a new phase of maturing and growing old has started, one where you choose your food not based on your Mother Culture, or your personal palate, but based on medical recommendations and the needs of your digestive system that is starting to go downhill.
I moved, a few months ago, to live in the States, carrying on a digestive system that cannot take in pink meat and other indulgences of American cuisine on a daily basis. Only a small amount of these are now allowed to me.
I feel guilty every time I cheat on my diet. I eat pizza, enjoying the taste, but simultaneously thinking of the pain I go through as I defecate. If, by any means, I managed to silence my conscience, the way food is shown and marketed here in America is basically designed to make you feel guilty.
When you go to any restaurant, whether fast food one or fine dining, you will find the name of the plate, a brief description of the ingredients, price and the number of calories. So, while you are choosing your food, you will not only be thinking of the aroma of the main dish, or the taste of the food, but rather about the number of calories entering your body and coming out of it. If the food was good and you could not resist eating more, you will keep eating as the calorie counter in your head keeps adding.
You finish your meal trying to get over your feeling of guilt and enjoy the warmth of a full stomach, only to find yourself surrounded by articles of nutritional education and posts of friends who promote different diets to target weight loss and health.
Food is now tasteless. It is more of a medicine that has to be taken to stay alive in a fatless, sugarless, flavourless, and odourless existence.
Two or three days a week, I let go my food cravings. I eat pastries, pizza and/or pasta. I enjoy marinating beef myself and eat it medium rare, delighting in the red colour of the meat. The sound of boiling oil frying potatoes and chicken breaded with flour and that secret recipe is music to my ears. For the rest of the week, I eat leaves and vegetables, just like rabbits. I watch my weight and examine my urine, trying to keep a minimum level of fitness and maintenance of my digestive system, not because I want to be slim or to live a long healthy life, but because I want to still be able to enjoy all types of delicious unhealthy food, forever.
One time as I was heading back to Sixth of October city, a prostitute showed up on the way dressed in the official uniform, a black cloak without a headscarf, and instead she had bangs and black hair falling over her shoulders. She was carrying a huge neon bag.
Just to be sure, I drove past her slowly and watched her in the mirror as she looked my way. I stopped and went back. I turned off the music and rolled down my window. With the innocence and politeness of a child, I said: “Are you going somewhere madam? Would you like a ride?”
She got in, she was heading to Neighborhood 12, which is far out of my way, it is where I lived for years during college. I felt a longing to visit the good old scenes of my youth. I asked her: “Where in neighborhood 12?” She responded while reaching for something in her bag: “by the green kiosk.”
My glance fell on her big breasts, showing through the cleavage. I redirected my eyes back on the road to avoid the sudden appearance of any speed bumps, either down there or up there. I felt something when the hoe pulled a knife on me and poked me in the stomach as she shouted: “Stop the car you son of a bitch!”
I looked at the knife, then to her and just like in the movies, I smiled, all confidence and kept on driving calmly: “What’s this for sugar?” and with her big knife she kept poking me in the waist, making her way through my thighs, stopping exactly between them, her sharp tip prodding my shrunken trembling dick.
She was sucking my dick when suddenly she stopped to ask if I had given grandmother her medicine. I looked at her then laying my head back, my waist forward, extending my dick into her mouth, I said: “Yeah, five drops in half a cup of water.” She smiled, sucking once again, then suddenly lifting her head up: “Shit! Five drops! I said three drops!”
She ran out, snatching the robe off the ground, I followed her, putting my boxers on. The granny went into a comma. I called the doctor, he said take her to the hospital immediately, giving me the hospital’s number. I called them and requested an ambulance, I lost my erection. I kept checking granny’s pulse, as it fades away. We ran around the small apartment, bumping into each other as we dressed.
She got in the ambulance with granny’s body, as I followed them in my car. I was preoccupied with the radiant lines of red that gleamed over the corpse of the white ambulance. When we got to the hospital, I went to the reception desk to deal with the papers. She stood next to me tying up her hair. Her tears dried. She got closer to me and whispered in my ear: “I’m still horny.” We did it in the hospital’s bathroom, as granny kept dying.
This conversation was first published: https://electricliterature.com/imprisoned-in-egypt-for-his-writing-ahmed-naji-is-finally-free/
No one foresaw that Ahmed Naji would be imprisoned for his novel. After all, no author had ever been subjected to arrest for morality reasons in modern Egypt, and as Naji himself says in this interview: “My writings are not political.”
The novel in question, Using Life (illustrated by Ayman Al Zorkany and translated from Arabic by Benjamin Koerber), reads like a colorful account of someone having a lovers’ spat with the city in which he’s lived all his life. That is to say, the book is full of intimate familiarity, occasional tender scorn, and a fervent curiosity toward city and man’s entwined fates that is also somehow coolly detached.
Opening in near-future, post-apocalyptic Cairo, Using Life combines graphic novel elements and quirky characters to produce a portrait of a man making the best of life in a city on the verge of disaster. It is a rollicking read, at times zooming into dizzying detail (for example, a section illustrating Cairo’s various inhabitants), other times hurtling into madcap, breakneck action (secret societies! Ninja assassins!). Above all, the book is a bold depiction of a person pushing against the boundaries of their given life.
The novel passed the inspection of Egypt’s censorship board and was lauded by critics in Egypt and the wider Arab world. Then the unexpected began. In 2015, a private citizen lodged a complaint against Naji after an excerpt from Using Life was printed in Egyptian magazine Akhbar al-Adab. The private citizen, a lawyer, claimed that he suffered heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure after reading passages from the excerpt describing cunnilingus. State prosecutors then took these claims seriously, and as a result Naji was sentenced to jail on charges that he “violated public modesty”.
As mentioned, his ordeal is extraordinary, marking the first time in modern Egypt that a writer has been incarcerated for their fiction. Zadie Smith puts it this way: “Naji’s prose explicitly confronts what happens when one’s fundamentally unserious, oversexed youth dovetails with an authoritarian regime that is in the process of tearing itself apart.” While imprisoned, Naji was granted the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award, which was accepted on his behalf by his brother.
In 2016, Naji was released from jail but subjected to a travel ban. In May of this year the ban was finally lifted, and Naji was able to leave Egypt. I caught up with him and translator Benjamin Koerber over email shortly after Ahmed Naji’s arrival in America.
YZ Chin: Glad to hear about the travel ban being lifted! How does that change things for you as a writer, if it does change anything?
Ahmed Naji: I’ve finally been able to travel and leave Egypt. I’ve now moved to the United States, where my wife lives, after we’d spent a full year separated from each other by the ocean and passport inspection officers.
I spent the two years after my release from prison in Cairo, and they were some of the most difficult years for me as a writer. First of all, I was under strict surveillance, and I was not allowed to organize any events or cultural activities. We failed to get official approval for the book launch event for my short story collection, which was published after I got out of prison. Only the Goethe-Institut, which is connected to the German Embassy in Cairo, offered to host the event.
Following the advice of my lawyers, I decided to keep away from publishing until the case was over. For the first time in my life, I felt the real weight of censorship. Even worse, I didn’t know what the red lines were. One time, I published an article on the band Mashrou’ Leila. Lo and behold I get a call from a friend who’s close to the security services, chastising me for the article and telling me they considered it a provocation since Mashrou’ Leila supports the Arab queer community, and that this sort of behavior could negatively impact my case and travel ban. Leaving Egypt now allows me to finally breathe and think freely, to test out my ideas, and reexamine everything that’s happened. I’ll finally be able to enjoy the company of my wife and the friends I have here.
But it also raises complicated questions for me: Is this to be a temporary, or permanent, departure? Am I to become a writer in exile? What does exile mean, now? If I stay here for a longer period, what will I do? What will I write about? Will I keep writing for an Egyptian audience, while living in America? Or will I assimilate to the new society and culture, change to writing in English, find a new ethnic or religious identity to subscribe to, and thus turn into one of those writers that talks about “Islam”, “the oppression of women in the Orient”, “the Arabs”, “terrorism”, and other such topics that captivate American audiences? For now, I’m trying not to think about all that, but I know I’ll have to face those questions soon.
For the artist to protect himself from confrontation with the institutions of power and all their violence, he has the three options that James Joyce prescribed for the writer: “lying, exile, silence.”
YZC: I’m very happy to hear that you are reunited with your wife. Sounds like you’re understandably at a difficult crossroads writing-wise. I get the reluctance to become a mouthpiece that caters to American appetite or biases. Are you concerned America will change you or pressure you in ways beyond that pigeonholing?
AN: I’m always ready for change. So far, I’m optimistic and open-minded about this American journey. My first concern is to learn — to understand this country, to take it all in and figure out its rhythm — and through this I’m sure I’ll find the right place for me. I’m lucky because I have a large number of friends here who are writers or work in the cultural or political fields. They’re providing me with support, and the keys to understand the nature of the scene here.
YZC: Do you think there’s also a risk of being pigeonholed as “the writer who went to prison?” As opposed to, say, “the writer who writes about finding joy in a depressing city and the fearsomeness of killer ninjas.” What would you like to be known for as a writer?
AN: I hope to be known as the writer with a thousand faces. I’d be very receptive to any of these labels or classifications. The writer’s challenge, in my opinion, is his ability to open up to the world, to change, to embark on new adventures, and to create new works. The writer that went to prison, the writer who writes about a depressing city called Cairo, is the same writer that might tomorrow write about intrigue and power play in Washington, D.C. Or he might write about a girl’s education in America. Anything is possible. My appetite’s ready for all trials and experiences.
Two days ago, I was talking to Yasmine [Naji’s wife] about something, and said, “As exiles, we don’t have the luxury of holding on to a lot of memories.” The thought terrified her. It hadn’t really set in yet. “Oh my god, we really are exiles,” she said. I tried to lighten the both of us up by focusing on the few real benefits of exile, like the unbearable lightness of being, and the freedom to remake one’s self and one’s image. Exile provides the opportunity for a new beginning, and there’s nothing more thrilling for me than new beginnings.
Exile provides the opportunity for a new beginning, and there’s nothing more thrilling for me than new beginnings.
YZC: As a writer who grew up in an atmosphere of state censorship, I struggled for a long time with self-censorship. Have you had any previous run-ins with the Egyptian censorship board? How do you grapple with the possibility of censorship when you write?
AN: I think a big part of writing is struggling with, and figuring one’s way around, the many forms of censorship that exist. The political censorship exerted by the state is a concern of course, but I never confronted it before the trial. My writings are not political and I was not interested in clashing directly with the state; I hadn’t thought that sex worried them very much. The greater pressure, the form of censorship that I feel impacts the writer more, is the censorship of society and the family. This form of censorship burrows under your skin, without you ever feeling it. It sometimes becomes impossible to confront or to expose, like the censorship that imposes itself under the name of political correctness.
YZC: That rings true for me, the existence of censorship that never gets registered. So you’re saying there needs to be constant self-exploration to understand the pressures that are placed on us. In that case, I’m curious if you think it’s possible to deliberately cultivate our influences as a countermeasure, like garlic against vampires? If so, what is or would be your garlic?
AN: In such circumstances, the garlic can be prepared a number of different ways.
1 — Listening closely to one’s own personal desires and pleasures, however forbidden or prohibited they might be, however useless they might be to society or the “wheel of production”. No impulse should be suppressed, nor should you run after it like a teenager. You just need to listen to it, then take your time polishing it, until the desire turns into a will.
2 — Don’t put too much trust in psychology or self-help doctrines. Do you really think all these books, programs, and talk shows want you to succeed? Do you really think that the secret of happiness can be sold with a holiday discount? Believe me: except for your mother, no one’s really concerned about your happiness and self-interest.
3 — Whatever you do, don’t let them catch you. In Egypt we have a nice little proverb that says, “Fuck the government but don’t show them your dick”.
4 — Always practice in front of the mirror first. A few days ago in D.C., there was a small demonstration of Neo-Nazis and white people. It was really quite small. Facing them was a counter-demonstration of mostly African Americans and anti-Nazis, which was huge. The Nazis, surrounded by police, were waving flags; they were vastly outnumbered by the counter-demonstrators. In spite of this fact, they were marching with full faith in the protection offered by the police. Their demonstration ended before it began, and they quietly left amidst the shouts of the counter-demonstration. The question I kept asking myself was, “What were they [the Nazis] thinking? Did they consider what happened a victory for them?”
YZC: There’s an interesting passage in Using Life where the character Ihab thinks about art: ‘Might not the “truth” of art conflict with its duty? That is to say, the duty art has to be functional?’ It certainly seems that to censors and some readers, art has a duty to uphold morals. What are your thoughts on the duty of art?
AN: Morality is not constant, it’s constantly changing. Otherwise, we’d still have the morality of the nineteenth century that held African Americans in the cotton fields and women in the kitchen. Permanence and stability are illusions. The world and human consciousness are in permanent motion, and the writer is part of this motion. The power of art lies in its ability to strip off the moral veil that society’s institutions impose under the pretext of stability or observing morality. When that happens, art performs its role vis-à-vis the individual by upsetting the ideas and convictions that one has been raised with. Art also performs its role vis-à-vis society in helping to change the prevailing morality.
Of course change doesn’t happen easily. The art that performs these roles puts itself in open confrontation with the institutions of power and all their violence. For the artist to protect himself, he has the three options that James Joyce prescribed for the writer: “lying, exile, silence”.
The power of art lies in its ability to strip off the moral veil that society’s institutions impose under the pretext of stability or observing morality.
YZC: When I saw David Bowie listed in your novel’s Acknowledgements page, I immediately thought it was very apt because Using Life is such a rollicking and at times surreal read. Best Bowie song?
AN: [I’m Deranged]
YZC: Using Life flirts with fantasy and magical realism, and of course graphic novels. Do you see more possibilities and avenues for expression in blending genres? Will you continue working across genres?
AN: I hope so. One of the faces I’d like to be known by is that of fantasy writer. Comics for me are my eternal dream. I’m a big fan of comics. None of my current projects involve comics, but I have a file full of dozens of stories and ideas that are just waiting for the right artist to execute them. I have the ambition to write a massive graphic novel, which I hope to realize some day.
This article was published first at: https://thenewinquiry.com/using-life-instructions-for-play/
Today marks a “Day of Blogging” for Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who is serving two years in prison: guilty of having written the playful, language-rich, genre-crossing novel Using Life, he will be given the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, today, in absentia, in New York City. When Naji was charged with “violating public morals” for an excerpt of his novel published in a journal, he initially won his case, but lost an appeal and has been in jail since February 20.
Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi seems to see playfulness as a growing challenge. Three years for a cartoon portraying the president in Mickey Mouse ears, the Fan al-Midan (Art is a Public Square) festival has been effectively shut down, the cartoonist Islam Gawish was jailed in February, and just last week, prosecutors extended the detention of the “Street Children” comedy troupe.
The criminal excerpt can be read online in English translation by Ben Koerber.
Below, Ben Koerber reflects on the play in using life.
…The mother that reads a story to her child: this is resistance. Building a small house: this is resistance. Singing at night is resistance. Having sex is resistance. Resistance is not just bearing arms; it is also the ability to adhere to the virtue of play, and to pursue–promiscuously, and with an eye to passion and pleasure–methods for using life…
I recall Bisu saying something to this effect some ten years ago.
July, 2006: Lebanon had been invaded again by the Israeli army after clashes with militants from Hizballah. A debate was raging in the Egyptian blogosphere on strategies for solidarity with the ordinary Lebanese citizens caught in the crossfire. “Resistance” was the rarefied term that Hizballah used to refer to the bullets and rockets it fired randomly southward. Bisu, blogging from somewhere in or around Cairo, had a different understanding of the word.
Like most people, I knew Bisu before I knew Ahmed Naje. The former was for a time the trickster-protagonist of the blog “Wassa’ Khayalak” (“Widen your Imagination”), and was known for his devastating parodies of state-sponsored intellectuals, producers and consumers of kitsch, religious hypocrites, as well as other bloggers who took themselves too seriously. (The name “Bisu” is explained as a pseudo-diminutive form of Iblis or “Satan”; before knowing any better, I sometimes imagined him as sprightly little smug-faced sanfur – Arabic for “smurf” and an occasional topic of Bisu’s posts). That was all back during the heady days of what Ahmed Naje, in his history of the Egyptian blogosphere, refers to as the “Diluvian Age”: a period of glorious cyber cacophony that lasted, roughly speaking, from the suppression of anti-Mubarak protests in 2005 to the draining of writers away from blogs to Facebook and Twitter a few years later. Sometime in late 2009, Bisu transformed, or molted, or something, into someone called “Ahmed Naje,” which also happened to be the name of a journalist, editor, and novelist in real life. There was no great “coming out” ritual here, only a courteous nod of admission to what many readers had already begun to suspect.
Fortunately, little else changed, and the blog stayed true to its slogan, “Live like you’re playing.” Bisu’s ludic imperative about the virtues of play were with me when I began to translate Ahmed Naje and Ayman Zorkany’s novel, Using Life, in late 2015. Something I had read in graduate school by Roland Barthes about interpretation as “play” seemed to recommend itself in my efforts at self-justification, but I was happy that Bisu’s sporadic use of the term was possessed of a more immediate vitality, and beckoned with the warmer and more inviting ontology of the nonce-concept. Barring some orange-haired apocalypse in November, my translation of Using Life is on schedule to be released by the University of Texas Press early next year. But though it may serve as the original work’s primary representative in the English-speaking world, I would urge we consider it as just one “play” on the book written by Ahmed Naje and illustrated by Ayman Zorkany.
The English-language play on Using Life has been preceded by many others, in different idioms and media.
There are Ayman Zorkany’s illustrations, which both complement and “translate” the text written by Ahmed Naje. Some of these may also be viewed on the Arabic book’s Facebook page.
As a book, Using Life follows a number of recent experiments in graphic fiction in Egypt and the wider Arab World, such as Metro (El-Shafee, 2008; trans. Rossetti, 2012) and The Apartment in Bab el-Louk (Maher, Ganzeer, and Nady, 2014); as a literary-graphic hybrid, it resembles most closely Hilal Chouman’s Limbo Beirut (beautifully translated by Anna Ziajka Stanton; available from the University of Texas Press in August).
Looking further back in the Arabic tradition, one may contemplate the uncanny resemblances between Zorkany’s illustrations and the monstrous hybrids of Zakaria al-Qazwini’s 13th-century Wonders of Creation manuscripts.
Curiously, while moral panics surrounding comics in the United States have historically targeted the genre for their graphic content, the illustrations in Using Life have not featured prominently in the recent legal controversy; perhaps this is because Zorkany’s images, while seemingly grotesque, are only so to eyes not accustomed to the realities of urban decay in contemporary Cairo.
There is also “The Last Dance of the Blue Anus-Fly,” a film by Ayman Zorkany. Based on an illustrated section of Using Life, the animated film was recently screened at the Institut Français d’Egypte and other venues.
There is Using Life merchandise. The book’s publication in Egypt coincided with an exhibit held at the Medrar artists’ collective in downtown Cairo (Nov. 24 – Dec. 1, 2014), which featured Zorkany’s drawings in a variety of printed formats, including T-shirts, hoodies, pins, coasters, and coffee mugs. These items were available for sale until recently at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, which has been subject to raids, closures, and partial demolitions by various state agencies.
There are interpretive dance performances. The cultural center Darb 1718, in Cairo, hosted one in late 2015, which, though I attended, cannot now find a trace of on the interwebs.
There are critical reviews. An important context for playing with Using Life and understanding the surrounding controversy are several not-yet-translated articles by Egyptian artists and academics. Some appeared in a recent issue of the Cairo-based literary review ‘Alam al-Kitab (“Book World,” no. 94/95, Nov.-Dec. 2015); for example, the intriguing essay by poet Ahmed Nada compares the trial of Using Life with that of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a poem which has been translated into Arabic by Yusuf Rakha (in his recent novel, The Crocodiles, itself translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger), and before him by the inimitable Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus.
Lastly, or rather primarily, Using Life (Istikhdam al-Haya in Arabic) is itself a translation, in textual medium, of the aesthetic and architectural work that has conspired to design contemporary Cairo.
One of the great ironies of Naje’s imprisonment is that such direct and draconian displays of state power are largely peripheral to the critical concerns expressed in his novel. Instead, Using Life directs the reader’s gaze at the more subtle mechanisms of repression and constraint at work in contemporary Egypt: the perfidy of friends and lovers, the “kitschification” of culture, and, most importantly, conspiracies wrought in the realm of architecture and urban planning. The book is a play, in the first place, on the utterly unlivable state of today’s Cairo – “a miserable, hideous, filthy, rotten, dark, oppressive, besieged, lifeless, enervating, polluted, overcrowded, impoverished, angry, smoke-filled, simmering, humid, trashy, shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city,” according to the protagonist, Bassam Bahgat.
Let the reader be aware that among the city’s current residents, Bassam’s feeling is far from unusual. Cairo’s decades-old crises in housing, electricity, waste management, and traffic (to name a few) have left the city both physically and psychologically scarred, and have remained unresolved amidst the waves of revolution and counterrevolution unleashed since January 25, 2011. The intervention of the security services into urban planning has disfigured the city even further: un-breachable metal sidewalk fences, forcibly depopulated public spaces, and huge, concrete block walls constructed in the middle of major streets are now familiar sights around the capital.
Yet as parts of Cairo have shut down, new aesthetic practices have emerged over the last decade to open new spaces for expression, as well as to re-purpose old ones. Graffiti artists have laid claim to the city’s walls and barriers. Comedians and cartoonists have attracted cult followings through YouTube, and bloggers have emerged from the obscurity of their bedrooms to pioneer new literary genres. In fashion, advertising, and graphic design, independent artists have made spectacular interventions in fields traditionally dominated by foreign brands.
In Using Life, Zorkany and Naje have managed to synthesize many elements of this resurgent urban culture into something that, together with its “translations,” may serve as a guide-book of sorts for playing Cairo. All of these “plays” of/on Using Life – which, incidentally, were all performed or published before Ahmed Naje was sentenced to two years in prison – not only constitute forms of translation more inventive than the linguistic plays of professional interpreters, but that they also offer models for those contemplating solidarity in a manner suggested by the playful work itself.
I will not come through the door or the window,
but as a plant you cannot notice with your naked eye.
I will grow day after day, to the sound of your singing and the rhythm of your breath at night. A small plant you will not notice at first, growing beneath your bed.
From door to bed, to bathroom to closet, standing or sitting against the mirror. Through all these acts, and to the sound of your humming, I will grow. A small green plant. With grand slim leaves sneaking out from beneath your bed.
I once read about plants that survive on light and prey on other creatures. With their glowing green leaves, they surround them and lure them in with a pleasing, lustful smell, then devour them. For hours and days and years, sucking on them. Sucking your toes one by one, making my way up.
What should I do with the bee? What should I tell the flower?
You become one with the flower. You grow up. You become a tree. While I remain a plant, in need of your humming, awaiting a song. A part of me is falling every morning, and I cannot catch it. A part of me flies off every time I lie in bed. But when I wake up I cannot remember what.
Sometimes I am reminded to look under the bed. But I don’t find the green plant. Nor do I find you.
Our family has a long history of disposing of books in various ways.
As a boy in Egypt, I remember the regular routine when, every so often, my father would open the cupboards and drawers and arrange his books, magazines, and notebooks. Most dear to him were the notebooks which contained his commentary and notes on dozens of books, most of them concerning Sufism, Islamic exigency, and political Islam, in addition to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna, and various other Islamist leaders.
He arranged the books into bundles and then distributed them in various secret hiding places. Some were concealed in boxes on the roof next to the chicken coop. Others were left in the care of close relatives who did not take part in any political activities. Other books, the presence of which he believed jeopardized his and his family’s security, were burned. Assured he could attain other copies, these books would be thoroughly burned and their ashes discretely disposed of.
As a boy I did not take notice of this practice nor did I understand it, yet the ritual of collecting books and papers and setting them ablaze on the roof was seared into my memory forever. When I would ask my mother about it, she would fumble for the right words to explain to her child the politics at play, saying: “These books contain verses from the Qur’an and passages of our Lord and cannot be dumped in the waste, so it is best they are burned.”
My grandfather, who had been a security guard at a local factory, also had a huge library to his name. My father told me that there had been a time when my grandfather could not afford to buy a bed, so he piled together astronomy textbooks and poems of Ahmed Shawki—which he had memorized by heart—and made beds of them for his children sleep to on. However in the beginning of the 1980s, he slipped into a depression and gave away most of the contents of his library. Thereafter he contented himself with reading newspapers, poems of Al-Maʿarri, and books on astronomy. The latter of these was his greatest passion, and was what prompted him to name his eldest son Galileo. Yet after some convincing and admonishing based on the pretense that this was an un-Islamic name, he settled for Nagy, contenting himself by writing “Nagy Galileo” in huge letters on the wall of the house.
Unlike his own father, my father did not dispose of his books because of a sudden depression or deterioration in his capacity to read. Rather he did this so because these books could be used as evidence against him in the event he was arrested, and the house was raided. Directives to dispose of these books came down from senior Brotherhood leaders to protect its members. The letters of al-Banna or of Al-Manhaj Al-Haraki Lissira Al-Nabawiya could have been used as irrefutable evidence that my father was a member of a ‘banned organization.’
Thus during slow summer nights in Mansoura, back from our stays in Kuwait, there was nothing to do but read the books of Anis Mansour and Khalid Muhammad Khalid and the plays of Tawfiq al-Hakim. If ever state security forces were to have raided our home and found these books, they would in no way incriminate my father, and thus they were spared from being used as kindling in his ritual campfires. I personally had no need for al-Banna’s writings in order to understand the world of the Muslim Brotherhood, for I lived and breathed it every day of my life.
In Kuwait, just as in Egypt and more than a hundred other countries, the Muslim Brotherhood runs a social welfare network which not only provides for individuals, but entire families. I would attend weekly sessions with other boys who themselves were also from Egyptian families with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood residing in Kuwait.
At that time, the usual program for children my age, aside from reading the Qur’an and becoming acquainted with the Prophetic biography, consisted of regular recreational activities organized over weekends. As a boy suddenly transported from a village on the outskirts of Mansoura to a new environment such as Kuwait, these outings with the Brotherhood youth (or ‘cubs’ as they are known) were filled with adventure and new experiences that helped allay any feelings of homesickness.
Life in Egypt moved to a slightly different rhythm. In our village I was regarded as somewhat special because of my father’s prominent position as a doctor in the Brotherhood. He was a role model for many of the other ‘cubs’, something of which I had not been aware.
Reserved and taciturn by nature, my father spoke little of his past and never spoke at all about anything regarding the Muslim Brotherhood.
He recently told me of his colleagues’ surprise at the hospital, at which he has worked for the past eight years, when they learned only a few months ago that he is a Brother. They only became aware of this after he began attending union conferences held by the Brotherhood Doctors.
My mother was never comfortable with the “Sisters” and felt no urge to take part in Brotherhood activities. Before the revolution, some members of the Brotherhood leadership would coincidentally appear on the news, and she would utter a brief comment, such as, “He was a good friend of your father. They would come to visit and have dinner at your grandmother’s.”
The first thing Brothers in Mansoura and in our village would say upon meeting me was always, “So you are the son of Dr. Nagy Hegazy. You must be proud, God is good!”
Both in Kuwait and Egypt, I always attended private schools, the names of which always included the all-important words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Languages .’
The Guidance and Light School, in which I spent my third year of preparatory school after our return from Kuwait, was a Brotherhood school which my father helped establish. Since the 1980s, schooling and educational services had become a key aspect of Brotherhood activities and a means of proselytizing. We followed the same curriculum as the public schools, except that we took two additional courses twice per week; one was entitled ‘The Holy Quran’ and the other was a mixture of Islamic stories and proverbs. The only other change was that Music class was replaced with another class titled ‘Hymns.’
Except for drums and tambourines, musical instruments were banned and discouraged. Flyers and posters hung on the school’s walls warning about the dangers of listening to stringed instruments. The hymns which we were forced to memorize consisted of the most widely known nationalist melodies and songs except any mentions of ‘Egypt’ were replaced with ‘Islam.’ The school was of course populated with the children of local Muslim Brotherhood leaders in addition to other Muslim students of diverse backgrounds.
Only now do I realize that until the age of fourteen, I had never once met a Christian. I was in an exclusive world with its own moral values, worldviews, and perspectives on what it meant to be a good person.
Transitioning from the sheltered Brotherhood schools to the Taha Hussein Public High School was tantamount to setting foot on another planet. For the first time there were Christians in school, and the library contained books other than the standard morning and evening Islamic prayers.
The utopia free of insults and cursing in which Brothers moved about nibbling on siwak and smiling warmly seemed far away. With the second intifada I became more active, and despite the fact that I was still in high school, I would attend meetings with the Brothers at university. I crafted the chants which were shouted in unison during the demonstrations following the killing of Muhammad al-Durrah. I had become an integral member of the Brotherhood group at al-Azhar University. Then Haidar Haidar happened.
A Brother brought several copies of the newspaper Elshaab and placed them beside him. Like any other meeting, that day’s session began with one Brother reciting from the Holy Quran, followed by a second interpreting a hadith, and a third explaining an aspect of Islamic jurisprudence. Then the Brother opened the newspaper and read it aloud to the group.
He read that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture had published a novel by the Syrian writer Haidar Haidar. Aside from sexual references, the novel contained heretical insults directed at God and the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). In response, preparations for public rallies were made which would protest the publication of the novel and demand it be burned!
Word for word, this is what the Brother demanded, and I instantly objected. At that time I was the group’s writer, and I refused to write any chants which called for the burning of this book or any other book for that matter.
To this day, I do not know what compelled me to take this firm stance.
I showed one of them some excerpts from Haidar Haidar’s novel which were published in Elshaab. From what I read, I found his writings ridiculous, but I insisted that this in no way justified it being burned. I entered into a long discussion with the Brothers which developed into shouting. The argument between me and the group’s leader grew increasingly sharp, and in an angry outburst he forbade me from taking such a stance. The argument grew even more hostile, and he told me, “Either give up these books you read and your stance on them, or do not meet with us!”
I left the room, and never went back.
 A small twig (the tip of which is softened by chewing) from the Salvadora persica tree used for cleaning teeth. It is widely held that the Prophet Mohammed recommended its use.
“The craziest and most inventive dystopian routine fails to tilt Using Life toward fantasy. Naji’s skill is making such madness read like journalism”
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Puplished fist at The complete review: http://www.complete-review.com/reviews/egypt/najia.htm
Using Life is a novel of Cairo, and of a younger generation of Egyptians struggling in a culture and society that is both extremely deeply-rooted (in history, tradition, etc.) and unmoored. The first chapter is nothing short of apocalyptic in its vision, first burying Cairo under a mountain of sand, then destroying half the city in an earthquake — in which the Great Pyramid itself: “was reduced o a pile of rubble”, and:
All that was left of our great heritage — our civilization, our architecture, our poetry and prose — would soon meet a fate even worse than that of the pyramids. Everything collapsed into the earth or was buried under oceans of sand.
The novel proper then is a look back to before the collapse, beginning with more or less present-day Cairo — the city and society already breaking down, yet still stumbling on, for now, in its familiar raucous, chaotic state. The narrator, Bassam Bahgat, describes his roaring twenties, when, after a stint working for a human rights organization, he got a job as a documentary filmmaker. Eventually he’s hired to make a series of films, basically on Cairo. He becomes involved with a ‘Society of Urbanists’, dedicated to a sort of very ambitious urban renewal, with a focus on architecture and city planning; eventually the Society reinvents itself as a global alliance of corporations — dozens, eventually — controlling sixty per cent of the world’s agriculture and a major player in all sorts of industries.
There’s a look at the development of the old city — planned, but escaping those plans:
No city was meant to be like this. Cairo was supposed to be more intelligently designed, more precise, more efficient. […] What we need is a revolution.
The city dominates the book, defining for the characters — both as they are simply trying to get by, as well as working to upset various aspects of the contemporary order:
There’s nothing more difficult than making decisions in Cairo, since it’s Cairo that usually makes decisions for you.
Bassam crisscrosses both the familiar Cairo and a more fantastical, imagined one; whether led down its familiar streets or given a glimpse of more sensational recesses the city, and its experience, remain fundamental:
Cairo. The heat. The scowls, the sliminess, the sweat. The pain. The scream muffled inside. The streets that don’t let you laugh or smile, or even cry or shout out in pain.
Bassam — a young man: “worried about turning twenty-five without having a good story to tell” — describes his casual relationships and the lives and ambitions of those he interacts with, from the small-scale to the globally ambitious. Women figure in prominent and often powerful roles, in a novel that plays in many ways at subversiveness.
Subversiveness extends to form as well, as the narrative is not limited to writing, either: a few sections are presented in cartoon-panel form, while a section on ‘The Animal of Cairo’ pairs illustration with brief description. (The artwork is by Ayman Al Zorkany.)
Using Life crams many stories into the larger and dominant Society of Urbanists-conspiracy-tale, but it’s a jittery narrative, hopping all around like its protagonist who often feels he is without control. There are raw scenes here, too — including quite a bit of casual and incidental sex — presenting a welcome broader picture of Egyptian life and society, and the struggles of a younger generation in the contemporary world — convincingly twisted by Naji into his panoramic tale, but more impressive piece by separate piece than in the stuttering whole.
A translation that feels somewhat stilted amplifies what surely is already in the original an aggressive prose challenging traditional narrative norms (especially of what (especially ‘Western’) readers seem to expect from Arabic fiction); Using Life is obviously not meant to be a smooth read — but winds up being a somewhat frustrating one in English.
– M.A.Orthofer, 13 January 2018