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?
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.
In 1989, Egyptian billionaire businessman Nassef Sawiris walked in to a trade fair at the Marriott Hotel in Cairo. Various luxury goods were exhibited alongside high-end furniture and expensive antiques. An exhibition of works by important artists of the period occupied one corner. The portraitist and still-life painter Sabry Ragheb was the most prominent member of that group. The exhibition organizers, Shahira Idris and Ghada Shahbandar, were venturing their first steps into the world of collecting, buying, and selling art; Ragheb had loaned them one of his favorite paintings as a gesture of appreciation.
Sawiris fell in love with the work, a still-life of a red rose, and as with any love at first sight, the world was no longer the same. He asked to buy the painting. Shahbandar and Idris responded that the work was not for sale, but Sawiris insisted. At his urging, Shahabandar contacted Ragheb, who was angered by the request and refused. Still, Sawiris persisted. In response, the artist demanded a then unheard of sum for the work, equivalent to three times the standard market price: LE 10,000. Sawris’s response was quick and decisive: “Agreed.”
The sale set a new benchmark. According to Shahbandar, Ragheb’s painting represented the most expensive painting sold at the time by a contemporary Egyptian artist. In this period the market was in flux and prices, which previously had settled in the hundreds of Egyptian pounds, reached into the thousands. Urban sprawl led to the establishment of new satellite cities outside of Cairo. Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990 edged the last remnants of an ideal of Arab unity toward collapse. Maps were changing, and the Arab art market was taking its first shaky steps.
The world before 1989
In the 1950s and 1960s, the state nationalized artistic life in Egypt; the cultural administration was restructured and most significant artistic initiatives and cultural spaces operated under state supervision. In the 1980s, only a handful of private galleries were operating in Cairo. Prior to the sale of Ragheb’s work in 1989, says Shahbandar, the maximum amount paid for a painting was no more than LE 3000. According to her, the Safar Khan Gallery and Tareq al-Marsafi’s Arabesque Gallery represented the most prominent art spaces at the time. The audience for art was limited primarily to a short list of names of collectors who confined their purchases to the works of already prominent, well-established artists. Nevertheless, economic liberalization policies were already having an effect and art’s relationship to the market was beginning to change, witnessing a gradual increase in prices and the emergence of a broader public interest in the arts.
In this period, the state largely withdrew from the cultural sphere. In partnership with her friend Shahira Idris, Shahbandar invested her energies in interior design and dealing antiques and paintings. The two also began visiting art shows and meeting with artists. At the time, many contemporary artists in Cairo had work spaces in Wikalat al-Ghoury, a caravanserai constructed in the early 16th century, or in one of the several other historic buildings the state had restored and lent to artists as studios. Visiting such places helped Shahbandar develop a wide network with artists of all generations.
Despite its many flaws, the state system worked well in many ways, and was comprehensive, providing artists with an overarching framework of support. In addition to offering studio spaces, the state sponsored galleries and ran an acquisitions committee, as well as juries that awarded prizes to artists. In the 1980s, however, Egypt was transitioning to a free market system, efforts were made to “re-organize” the public sector, and state spending was cut from all sides. As international corporations entered the Egyptian market, private exhibitions were held at Cairo’s five-star hotels for the country’s new economic elite. It was at these shows that Shahbandar and Idris displayed works by contemporary artists for the first time. Their exhibitions attracted the attention of a segment of the public, and the two branched out, organizing shows lasting just over a week in private residences, often in the empty apartment of an acquaintance. Their clientele grew as a result, as did the circle of artists they worked with.
Shahbandar and Idris exhibited works by artists who had come to prominence after 1952 including Salah Taher, Hussein Bicar, Gazbia Sirry, Maurice Farid and Nagy Basilios, as well as younger artists active in the period, some of whom went on to pursue high profile careers such as Samir Fouad, while others, such as Huda Khaled and Fatima Rifaat, remained relatively obscure. Other artists, such as Hassan Soliman, refused to work with the duo because he objected to exhibiting in makeshift gallery spaces. He did, however, recommend artist-colleagues with whom he thought Shahbandar and Idris might be interested in collaborating.
Shahbandar was active in the art world from 1986 through the mid-1990s, making a name for herself as one of the scene’s most prominent figures. Nevertheless, the material returns were modest, and she was unable to lease a place permanently and transform it into a fully equipped gallery. She continued to work on her own and began receiving various requests for consultancy services. The influx of international corporations to Egypt introduced new work habits and marketing strategies. These companies recognized art’s ability to serve as a foil for the identity of the company or corporation and as a long-term investment. The international corporations that had recently begun operating in Egypt, approached Shahbandar for assistance in selecting art for their offices. She chose works and arranged them in the local headquarters of several large companies including those of American Express and Carpet City. On occasion, she was asked to work on a smaller scale: for example, acquiring paintings for the office of a company executive or installing works on a single floor.
In 1990, Stefania Angarano arrived on an exploratory visit to found Mashrabia Gallery in downtown Cairo. Previously, she had worked at a number of Italian galleries specializing in contemporary art. Angarano recalls how, when she arrived in Cairo, some galleries were displaying and selling paintings paired with couches and other pieces of furniture. Her primary aim in coming to Cairo was to establish a space that presented art as an integrated whole, rather than as an element of interior design chosen to match the drapes.
Art enters the free market
The factors contributing to the transformation of the art market in the late 1980s were not limited to the entrance of international corporations. In this period, the government expanded construction projects and support for the capital’s new satellite cities, resulting in significant growth in the real-estate market, especially to the west and east of Cairo, with the construction of 6th of October City and areas around Nasr City and the Fifth Settlement. Within the city’s existing bounds, villas were being torn down to make way for apartment buildings, while on the margins, opulent mansions sprang up. An economic elite that had emerged on the back of the open-market, or infitah, policies introduced by President Anwar Sadat in the 1970s took to buying art as a means of generating (and flaunting) class distinctions; hanging original paintings and works of art in the home became a marker of social exclusivity. This was a period of great extravagance.
At the same time, many works by leading artists of the early 20th century, which had previously remained out of sight, became available during this period, including sculptures by Mahmoud Moukhtar and paintings by Mahmoud Said: perhaps the most celebrated of the “pioneer-generation” artists credited with founding a modern Egyptian art movement. In an emerging market lacking sufficient legislation and institutional oversight, counterfeits proliferated. Soon, Shahbandar found that in addition to her role as art dealer she was also compelled to act as an investigator: examining the authenticity of each painting. She tells the story of one incident in which she was asked to appraise a painting by Hussein Bicar. When she brought the painting to the artist for verification, he smiled slowly and told her that it was a good painting, but it wasn’t his; someone had imitated his style.
Nude with the Golden Bracelets and The Reciter
This hothouse climate in the art market tended to foster the sale of certain kinds of works over others. The depiction of nudity represented one of the primary factors informing the kinds of works circulating in the market after 1989. Sultan al-Qassemi, chairman of Barjeel Securities and founder of the Barjeel Art Foundation, recalls that images of nude paintings by Mahmoud Said published in an auction house catalog of the period were censored. At the same time Karim Francis, director of the Karim Francis Gallery in downtown Cairo, defends this approach, which he frames as a response to laws in Arab countries regulating the display of nudity rather than any rules imposed by the auction houses themselves. Shahbandar, for her part, believes that the moral basis for an assessment of the value of a work of art or the tepid reception of paintings of nudes can be attributed to the predominance of specific social values.
In the early 1990s, Shahbandar exhibited a painting by Said, which was priced at less than LE 100,000. The Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris had turned down the work — titled Nude with Gold Bracelets(1946) — preferring, instead, she reports, to purchase and display Said’s The Reciter (date unconfirmed). Representatives of the Institut claimed that the painting of the pious reciter of the Quran was more representative of Egyptian art than a painting of a nude, dark-skinned woman. According to Shahbandar, “In the 1980s and at the beginning of the 1990s, a general social climate prevailed that rejected paintings of nudes. This was not just due to the spread of Islamism; it involved all sectors of society.” Sitting in her home, Shahbandar gestures toward a painting by Sabry Ragheb depicting a girl applying makeup in front of a mirror and wearing a short, black nightdress. The painting had been purchased by a woman from a middle class, Coptic family. A few days later, the client returned, asking to exchange the work because her daughter would not tolerate having a painting of a nude in the home. What Shahbandar describes as mutable social mores came to inform the practices of cultural institutions, such as the Institut du Monde Arabe, that played a prominent role on the international stage and sought to influence perceptions of Arab identity abroad. The same values came into play in even the most basic forms of social organization, such as the family. Shahbandar tells of how she would use her own exhibition space to display nude paintings by Georges Sabbagh from private family collections because the children of the owners refused to display the works and approached her for help in selling them.
Others, such as Mohamed Talaat, the director of Misr Gallery in Cairo’s upscale neighborhood of Zamalek, believe that those social values that discouraged the exhibition of nudity have since changed. In 2012, for example, Misr Gallery exhibited various works created by Nadine Hammam over the course of the period following the January 25 revolution of 2011. The exhibition, titled Tank Girl, was composed of acrylic paintings representing the eponymous female nude who confronts the viewer from atop a tank with her legs spread, transforming the barrel of the gun into a larger than life size phallus. An explanatory booklet accompanying the exhibition framed the work in the following terms:
Through her work, which she has titled Tank Girl, the artist sets out to reconfigure stereotypes and established beliefs. Simulating this reformulation a combination of power inversions, a woman controls one of the most vicious war machines, the tank, as a symbol suggesting ‘woman’s’ ability to impose her power and prevail in the battle to assert their existence.
The booklet closes with a paragraph that explains: “Through her treatment of these complex symbols, the artist hopes to locate a more active role for modern women in the political and social scene. Here, Tank Girl represents every Egyptian woman.” According to Talaat, those collectors with an interest in buying art today are attracted to the more contemporary works in various media and don’t have a problem works that contain nudity or even erotic content, such as works in the Eros collection byel-Dessouki Fahmi, a portion of which was also shown at Misr Gallery.
Until the mid-1990s, there were no clear laws on the art market for setting prices and confirming the authenticity of works of art. An ethical code existed, but no supervisory body. Artists set their prices and the galleries exhibited their works, earning a percentage on sale. Some of the artists active in the 1980s harbored misgivings about this system and asked galleries to purchase their works instead of handing them over directly for consignment. At the same time, artists were not immune to questionable behavior, and cutting out the middleman by selling work at a lower price than that advertised in the gallery constituted one of the worst possible violations of the ethical code yet, apart from the latter, Egypt has no laws in place regulating the art market.
The uptick in activity in the Egyptian art market stemmed from the drive among the new upper middle class to acquire artwork. Some of these individuals were encouraged to enter the market based on a business approach that relied on a logic of quick gains. Until the mid-1990s, most owners of private galleries in Egypt were women whose interest in art had prompted their entry into the field; the need to make a profit proved a secondary consideration. Sherwet Shafie represented another prominent art world figure. Shafie had opened the Safar Khan Gallery after leaving her position as a program presenter on Egyptian television in the 1960s. While Safar Khan Gallery still operates today, Shahbandar stopped working in the field in the mid-1990s due, she claims, to the type of clients who were beginning to take an interest in art. She recalls standing with the artist on the occasion of the opening of an exhibition she had organized, when they overheard a client saying she wanted to buy a painting because the colors matched her living room interior. The artist was insulted and pleaded with her not to sell the painting to that client. In 2005, Shahbandar would found Shayfeencom (We are watching you), a movement that aimed to uncover the corruption and electoral fraud of the Mubarak regime. She would later become one of the most prominent names in political activism, especially after the 2011 revolution.
Shahbandar withdrew from the field just as the new adventurers were entering. At the time, Karim Francis was embarking on a journey of self-discovery which took him from working in the import/export business to tourism, and, finally, to art. Francis devoted three years to reading about art and familiarizing himself with artists and various artistic practices before opening his own gallery. He held his first show in 1995 in an apartment he owns on Sherifein Street in downtown Cairo. The group exhibition, titled Identity, included works by artists such as Mohamed Abla, as well as literary works, displaying manuscripts belonging to the celebrated novelist Sonallah Ibrahim.
Sitting in his gallery, surrounded by sculptures by Sobhy Guirguis, Francis recalls his beginnings:
When I started working in the art world, most buyers were receptive to works by the older, well-established names. Quite simply, each buyer felt in touch with the artists of their generation. However, motivated by my own passion, I wanted to put new names and new ideas in art out there that had not yet been seen in the market. I held a series of group shows titled New Talents to introduce artists whose work was being shown for the first time, as well as to show artistic modes and experimentation that went beyond paintings hanging on a wall, including installation artworks and video art.
This spirit of innovation and embrace of the unfamiliar would come to define the direction of the art scene in the late-1990s and early 2000s. Francis, alongside other gallerists active in the period and espousing similar ambitions, helped provide a platform for the emergence of a number of artists who are often referred to collectively as “the 90s generation.”
The joy of the sale
In the 1990s, state financial policies continued to liberalize so as to integrate Egypt into the new world market, and Egypt signed many partnership agreements with the European Union. These agreements included articles explicitly referencing cultural cooperation; a number of foreign cultural institutions became active in Egypt. Initially, these institutions were viewed with a great deal of suspicion, and were boycotted by art critics: most prominently Osama Afifi, who understood the activities of foreign cultural and arts organizations to represent a form of interference with Egypt’s natural course and part of a larger plan to destabilize Egyptian national identity. From the Ford Foundation to the Townhouse gallery (to borrow Afifi’s examples), the arts organizations that played an important role in supporting contemporary artistic practices were subjected to attacks of treason and suspicion, to the extent that art critic Sobhi el-Sharoni described the role of these organizations as malicious in his book Encyclopedia of Egyptian Fine Arts in the Twentieth Century.
This model of arts organization does not rely on selling art but, rather, approaches art within a developmental framework, operating according to different economic rules. Despite various drawbacks, this approach proved to be an effective stimulus for contemporary art practices and provided young artists with the space to branch out and experiment with installation and video art. These media are difficult to sell, and works in this vein have not been well-received historically by government arts institutions; the 1990s generation of artists was marginalized and alienated from official institutions that continued to show and display art that was considered more representative of “Egyptian identity.”
In the midst of this struggle and the changes taking place in the art world, Karim Francis was attempting to create a third model, closer to that espoused by Stefania Angarano, the director of Mashrabia Gallery, who refused to work with artists teaching in arts academies or exhibit the paintings of deceased artists, preferring to focus instead on contemporary Egyptian art. Francis declined the opportunity to convert the gallery into an establishment that relied on outside funding and preferred to pursue his own path. He made this choice not because he believed that accepting funding would make him a “traitor,” as per the widespread accusations against institutions that relied on these sources, but for other reasons, which Francis enumerates as follows:
First, I’m not convinced by the idea of organizations that fund the arts. Personally, if I was given money, I wouldn’t work and struggle so hard to show and sell art. Also, the issue of “selling” in itself is the job of a gallery owner, not only for the sake of material gain but also because it lends the work an added sense of value. I feel a real joy when I sell a work of art. Second, the work model of funding organizations turns the artist and the gallery owner into employees who receive monthly funds. Selling art grants you a greater freedom. Third, working with these organizations is demanding, there is a lot of paperwork, routine procedures, and funding applications to fill out that contain questions that are, in my opinion, meaningless, yet you’re forced to answer them and say what the funders want to hear, or to clothe what you’re doing in their concepts and development terms. In a private gallery all you need is a license and commercial registration.
At the same time, Francis does accept funding from these organizations for the work of certain artists, especially for costly video art which cannot be sold afterwards.
The Karim Francis Gallery was one of the first places that opened its doors to the 1990s generation, many members of whom have now become internationally celebrated artists and whose works can sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds. Francis mentions that, in the 1990s, he showed a work of Ghada Amer priced at LE5,000, and no one was interested in buying it. Now the same work sells for US$165,000. He laughs, remembering the surprise on the faces of gallery visitors when they encountered works of installation art: “There were very few sales. So I thought, why don’t we open things up to new experiments and practices? The visitors did not understand what was going on and I was showing these experiments and works in an attempt to understand and absorb and to create a dialog around these new ideas.”
In this period, Karim Francis Gallery, Mashrabia Gallery and Townhouse played a vital role in posing alternatives and new paths for art practice. In 2000, the three locations collaborated to put on the Nitaq Festival; a second festival was held the following year and was designed to correspond with the launch of the Cairo Biennale. Negar Azimi (a former employee of the Townhouse) describes this event in an article as: “the most palpable sign that the Egyptian art scene as we knew it had been shaken up.” According to Azimi, the festival was significant for:
the view it provided as to the tendencies of a new generation of artists working within idioms that defied prevailing notions of contemporaneity. Engineered to start on the very day of the 2001 Cairo Biennale’s opening, the second Nitaq in particular served as an ‘off’ version in every sense of the term. While the Biennale was characterized by a reliance on tradition both in concept and curation, Nitaq would prove most unconventional, shaking up stagnant conceptions surrounding the use of space, medium and the potential for dematerialization of the art object. Like true post-modernists, the preferred avenue of expression for the artists at Nitaq was multi-media installation executed with conceptualist tendencies. A number of the Nitaq artists, Lara Baladi, Amina Mansour, Hassan Khan, Wael Shawky and Mona Marzouk among them, have since gone on to exhibit widely internationally.
The event would come to represent a landmark in the history of contemporary art in Egypt: signaling the entrance of a new coterie of artists and institutions, and, with them, new practices and understandings of art. At the same time, the market horizons for this work were expanding.
Auctioneers in the cities of the desert and bourgeois gold
In a recent interview, Sultan al-Qassemi noted the absence of a healthy demand for Egyptian art in the 1990s: “There was art, even in the 90s, but there wasn’t a market for art in Egypt, and there was a near total absence of Egyptian art outside of Egypt. Collectors of Egyptian art could be counted on one hand, most prominently Mohammed Said Al-Farsi, the mayor of Jeddah, and the emir of Qatar, Hassan bin Mohamed Al Thani.” Nevertheless, with the beginning of a new century, cities in the Gulf were rapidly acquiring international status, and the skyscrapers rising in Doha competed with those of Dubai. The entrance of auction houses at this particular moment would have a significant effect on the market for works from Egypt and the region.
Francis relates that at the start of the new millennium, he began to receive invitations and friendly advice to go to Dubai, where the art market was already strong and expanding as a result of the rapid growth of the real estate market. After ten years of involvement in the art world, he had made a name for himself both locally and internationally. During this period, Francis met a European interior designer working in Dubai and she began working with him in selecting art for her projects. In 2005, he was visited by members of a delegation from Christie’s auction house who sought to familiarize themselves with Egyptian and Arab art and art markets. Francis accompanied them to a number of studios, including those of the prominent artists Adel el-Siwi, Mohamed Abla, and Adam Henein. The auctioneers were undertaking their first exploratory visits of the Arab art market by visiting a number of Arab cities in preparation for the inauguration of branches in Dubai and the wider Gulf region.
In a 2012 study of the Middle Eastern art market, The Rise of the Middle Eastern Art Market Since 2006, author Taymour Grahne quotes Philipp Hoffmann, executive director of the Fine Art Fund Group, as setting the total value of the Middle Eastern art market at US$10 billion; this value was expected to triple in coming years. By the end of 2005, Christie’s had opened its first branch in the Middle East. Sotheby’s and Bonhams followed suite. The establishment of these auction houses had a transformative effect on the status of Arab art. Qassemi describes some of these changes:
These houses employed art scholars and experts to study and appraise Egyptian art and did reports to verify the proposed numbers. Sometimes, we’d hear about works selling for outrageous amounts but we had no way to verify these numbers; the houses worked to verify them. The auction houses reduced the number of fakes threatening the Arab art market, due to the passing off and sale of art forgeries without verifying their authenticity or history. The houses produced authenticated catalogs of Egyptian artists. There is a catalogue raisonné documenting all of the works of Mahmoud Said, Ramses Younan, and other greats, which became essential references for their work.”
When I asked Syrian artist Youssef Abdelke recently why people in Dubai, the Gulf and Cairo buy art at these prices, he replied, “everything the bourgeoisie touches turns to gold” — attributing the statement to Karl Marx. If auction houses aim primarily to generate more and more “gold,” a law governing the art market must first be established for pricing works of art. In a market where opinions and critical judgments are up for debate, the auction is one of the few institutions that leaves the task of determining the price of a work of art to the free market. On this basis, the work of a particular artist is assigned a monetary value that becomes, as Mohamed Talaat says, a reference point for future sales.
At the same time, Talaat explains that the art market and its main site of exchange in the Gulf-based auction houses possess blind spots which leave them open to manipulation. He tells of how some galleries might offer the works of young artists they represent to auction houses, only to turn around and purchase the same works for a high price at auction through an agent. As a result, the value of an artist’s work increases and art collectors are encouraged to seek them out. After prices have multiplied, the gallery re-exhibits and resells the artist’s work. However, Qassemi takes a different view regarding the manipulation of auction bidding to increase the price of an artist’s work: “This might have occurred at the beginning, but now it would be difficult for such a thing to happen because the market is very narrow, and if a gallery did such a thing it would be discovered immediately, because the market is small and we all know what’s out there.”
While warning against the misuse of the auction system, Talaat also complains of national biases perpetuated by gallerists in the region, claiming:
Iranian businessmen and millionaires mostly reside in Dubai, therefore, they buy works by Iranian artists, who have come to represent a large portion of the art market shared by Arab art. And the Iranians aren’t satisfied with just acquiring art; they also support projects promoting Iranian art in Dubai and the Arab countries. Galleries in Syria and Lebanon also have a clear bias against Egyptian art, to the degree that the director of a Syrian gallery announced a while ago in an interview that the only artists on the market are Syrian artists. On the other hand, there are galleries in Egypt that do not coordinate with each other at all.
Francis holds a different opinion, stating that he has held shows for Egyptian artists in Lebanon and Syria. He adds, “galleries might collaborate on a given project, but we can’t work together or coordinate with each other because, frankly, we’re competitors in the same market.” Whether at the auction house or in the gallery, the value assigned to works of art is often determined by a system that rewards the self-interest of those with a profit to make from the sale of work.
Ultimately, the market is supported by art collectors who invest heavily in particular names, acquiring the works of these artists with the goal of building savings and investing in property, as a painting that is worth “ten” today might reach a hundred in a few years. Such individuals seek to protect the market and enforce the rules governing it, so as to guard the value of their investments. The collapse of the market or any fundamental change in the laws of appraisal and pricing that regulating it, translates into a loss in the assets of art collectors and a collapse of their investments.
Modern art in the museum
Outside interest in acquiring modern Egyptian art originated in the 1960s, as students from Gulf states moved to Egypt to pursue advanced education or for various other reasons, and were exposed to the works of modern and contemporary artists. As Qassemi recounts, there were four major art collectors in the Arab Gulf as early as the 1980s. The most significant of these belonged to Mohammed Said al-Farsi, the mayor of Jeddah, and owner of the largest collection of works by modern Egyptian artists. The private art collection of Qatar’s Sheikh Hassan Al Thani would serve as the seed of Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. Currently, he claims, the Museum of Egyptian Modern Art still possesses the largest collection of modern and contemporary art in the region comprised of some 12,000 pieces. At the same time, the museum operates within an extremely limited annual budget of LE 2 million. While the National Public Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Algiers (MAMA) stands in second place with a collection of some 8,000 works, Doha’s Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art is quickly closing in from behind.
Talaat graduated from Cairo’s College of Fine Arts in 1999. In addition to his work as an artist, he took an interest in organizing exhibitions. In 2005, he was appointed director of the Arts Palace at the Cairo Opera House, where he worked with the artist Mohsen Shaalan who was serving at the time as the head of the Fine Arts Sector in the Ministry of Culture. Talaat relates that in the period in which he served as director of the Arts Palace there was something of a boom in the art market in that a new breed of collector interested in young artists appeared on the scene and new Arab markets opened up, while state institutions continued to lag behind.
The state’s newfound interest in these artists stemmed, in part, from the esteem their works enjoyed abroad, and was fueled by an attempt to recover its original position of influence in the arts sphere. Galleries such as the Townhouse served as international authorities on contemporary Egyptian art and were called upon regularly to nominate artists to participate in initiatives outside of Egypt: a role historically monopolized by the Ministry of Culture. However, despite breakthroughs and attempts at change initiated by Shaalan, the Fine Arts Sector’s performance in this regard was limited by its restricted budget, and continued to weaken after 2010, Talaat claims. Eventually, Talaat grew discouraged with the rejection of many of his project proposals. His experience in the state arts’ administration qualified him to pursue work as an art consultant: developing collections for a number of real estate and tourism companies. He also launched plans to open his own space.
While the Egyptian government sector was scaling down its involvement in the arts, Gulf-state governments, and, in particular, Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Qatar, were becoming increasingly active players in the field and initiating construction on various museum projects. Yet, in doing so, they have pursued distinct aims and cultivated varying approaches. Thus, each state in the region pursues a different policy in acquiring art. According to Qassemi:
In the UAE, the government purchases and acquires works of art through a museums authority, which has a board of specialists who study paintings and determine what to purchase. There are regulations governing acquisitions, and certain museums don’t buy art from auction houses. In Qatar, the decision to purchase a work is instantaneous and is made quickly depending upon the market and what is on offer. Qatar also buys from auction houses. The most significant purchase it made at an auction was the painting Les Chadoufs by Mahmoudd Said, which sold for more than US$2.4 million.
Likewise, in a study titled Re-Inventing the Museum in Abu Dhabi and Qatar?, Laura Damême explains how these particular governments have used museums to achieve various objectives. In both Abu Dhabi and Qatar, the number of foreign workers and residents in 2010-2011 stood at over 80 percent of the total population. In Abu Dhabi, Damême claims, the government uses museums to present itself as a global capital offering international-brand museums such as the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi and Louvre Abu Dhabi. Meanwhile, in choosing to build the Museum of Islamic Art and Mathaf, Qatar approaches museums as a means of asserting the cultural specificity and Muslim-Arab identity of its citizens, which account for no more than 15 percent of the total population.
Qassemi adds another possible explanation for the considerable investments made by Gulf countries in the art market: Building museums carries a clear political message. The erection of important new centers of cultural and artistic preservation and display projects an image of these governments as capable of meeting the needs of their citizens, in addition to bolstering the terms of national and cultural identity.
The art market in the Arab world: At the intersection of real estate and oil money
Wealth in the Middle East is concentrated primarily within two markets: real estate and oil. Those familiar with the contemporary history of the arts and the art market in the region can see clearly how the money pouring in from these sources has played a key role in shaping and altering the market. The relationship of art to real estate originated in an understanding of art as an element of interior design. The separation of art from interior design required gallery owners to take significant risks on less conventional works of art. Art’s autonomy from the realm of décor also relied on the subsequent development of a greater appreciation amongst many buyers for the immaterial, as well as the material value of art. With the expansion of the real estate market and urban sprawl in the satellite cities popping up outside of Cairo, the interest of the Egyptian economic elite in acquiring works of art steadily increased. Art, and the acquisition of art, became important markers of social status amongst the upper and upper middle classes.
The relationship of art to real estate became salient again when art was taken up as a vehicle for re-branding the city of Dubai. In the past decade, art has played a central role in the formulation of the image of Gulf countries, which compete to acquire art collections in a race to establish museums that reflect a progressive image of these states, while also converting art into material assets, or a form of investment and savings.
However, despite the surge occasioned by this outside interest in the Egyptian art market, exhibition halls in Cairo have tended to privilege modern art over work by contemporary artists. Moreover, local cultural and social mores inform the processes of selling and appraising art. Works with sexual, religious or politically sensitive content are particularly likely to be excluded from the market. Nevertheless, the market’s relative upswing is related to the appearance of young art collectors who no longer possess the same inhibitions as their predecessors and who are more receptive to purchasing contemporary works of art that reflect some of the spirit of the present moment.
overwhelming sense of excitement and familiarity arises the moment the viewer’s
eye falls on Viktor Dyndo’s work. Familiarity is caused by the flag-burning
image, which has become a political fetish crowding the Internet and
the other hand, excitement is associated with the intense appearance of symbols
in an extraordinary atmosphere. However, Dyndo’s flag-burning image, which frequents
television coverage of mass demonstrations, does not propagandise a message.
The exception is, nonetheless, his
lampoons of ‘the liar Internet’ in several paintings. Perhaps, Dyndo’s paintings
on display in this exhibition carry eluding messages; the artist has probably
shifted this task to the viewer.
the viewer has the impression that there is a kind of communication between
him/her and the paintings. Although contemporary art has become more
complicated, nebulous and intriguing, Dyndo’s introduced stereotyped images and
symbols, such as the national flags, politicians popular on television, and controversial
images recurring in the media.
familiarity and excitement quickly subside, creating a perplexing atmosphere.
The viewer feels that the ground is moving as s/he searches the painting for a
Dyndo’s symbols and images are not extraordinary, they do not display signs,
which could draw our attention to the artist’s political leanings. He must be
inviting the viewer to examine his technique and colour so closely and
attentively that s/he could come across the artist’s eluding message therein.
must be aware that visitors, while touring his exhibition, would not stop
browsing through their mobile phones. He has concerns that the visitors would do
likewise by mistaking his paintings for being downloads. Therefore, the artist
seeks a technique of intrigue, which could appeal to the visual language of the
contemporary Internet captives. He cleverly treated his images to produce new values, which could
persuade the viewers to associate them with images recurring day and night,
such as the images downloaded on the Internet’s, news highlights on television,
[YouTube] uncut videos, images associated with political propaganda or the
visual icons of nationalist regimes.
the vogue for the conceptual art, Dyndo keenly sought a conventional medium—the
canvas—to express his ideas. He deliberately sought oil colours—not acrylic—to create
a sense of a halo around the image.
named his oeuvre in this exhibition “The Internet Telling Lies”. His oil
paintings are horizontal; their dimensions are equal to the laptop’s or the
dimensions of the book cover. As a result, the viewers find these paintings
familiar, reminding them of the contemporary man’s first sources of images.
Dyndo’s oil paintings and his isolated symbols reveal the vast distance between
the work and the political meaning the symbol could bear. The artist is fully
aware that symbols bear different meanings in different environments. For
example, Eastern and Western cultures would appreciate the same symbol
artistic experiment is the product of two different cultures. The artist
(b.1983) studied art in Poland and Egypt. He also exhibited his impressions in
several Arab and Western countries. An
image of intersected Polish and Saudi flags gives an impression in Poland different
from that, which an Arab culture would stir up. The portrait of the Pope of the Vatican
surmounting the statement “The Internet Telling Lies” must be stirring up a
multitude of interesting interpretations.
art provokes suspicions. Open-minded visitors should not close their eyes. They
should pay close attention to the whirlwind of images and paintings. That Dyndo
is maintaining that the Internet is telling lies should draw our attention to
the fact that reality is not a mansion built in the middle of a garden;
perhaps, reality is concealed under a brushstroke in the surface of the canvas.
I was a young lad watching TV with my grandfather, who appeared full of sorrow when he followed a news segment that showed a frail, old man lying in a hospital bed with tubes attached to his body. My grandfather quipped that the old man was a good man and did nothing but write, not understanding why they had tried to kill him.
I found out from my grandfather that he was named Naguib Mahfouz. A few years later I would find out that the brief clips I saw were of Naguib Mahfouz becoming conscious after he survived an assassination attempt in 1994. It was a young man who hadn’t read any of Mahfouz’s works who stabbed him in the neck repeatedly, based on a fatwa where a few sheikhs deemed him an apostate because his novel spread blasphemous ideas.
I saw Naguib Mahfouz’s novels for the first time in my high school library, years later. I would escape from over-packed classes, the putrid stench enveloping the schoolyard, and would go the library replete with different kinds of books.
I grabbed a Naguib Mahfouz novel and went to the library manager to take it out. She sighed heavily, started to bismalah (invoking God’s name), and chased the devil away, then she said she wouldn’t let me borrow this novel or any other Naguib Mahfouz novel.
The teacher, doubling as the library director, explained to me that some ‘less than moral’ scenes in Naguib Mafhouz’s novels were not suitable for a teenager like me and that the novels also contained atheistic and blasphemous ideas. To settle it, she pointed to a shelf of Shakespeare’s plays translated into Arabic and she said you can take any book by him because he’s entertaining.
But I didn’t want entertainment, I wanted ‘fun’ instead. I hid a copy of Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs under my shirt and walked out of the library, without her suspecting. I devoured it in one night and returned it the next day without her noticing. From this moment on, I realised the governing rules of literature in the country that I was living in. You needn’t be a dictator or a dissident politician to be assassinated. You can be a peaceable person with fifty novels under your belt, win a Nobel Prize for Literature, be ninety years old preparing for a serene retirement and still face an assassination attempt for a novel you wrote forty years earlier.
Even if you were a writer who does not oppose the government, like Naguib Mahfouz, and even if those in power celebrated your stellar achievements by putting your books in school libraries, that doesn’t make you immune from having a teacher prevent students from reading your writing. In her eyes, you are spreading kufr (blasphemy) and Shakespeare’s books are piously dripping with Islam.
Literature, then, is a secret activity. It must be practised away from prying eyes and with extreme caution.
Fear is a constant companion of the Arab writer. Fear is a compendium of varying degrees, one on top of the other. If you look closely to the writer or the book, there is fear of political authorities. Then there’s fear of religious authorities. And the most troubling of all, fear of the reader’s reaction, if they didn’t grasp what you’ve written or feel that you’ve unsettled national, religious, social or any other mores.
Therefore, early on, when I started writing, I decided to befriend this fear. For I would lose a war with it.
I am, ultimately, a son of this time and place and what happened in the past inevitably affects the present.
During the 60s, all forms of cultural media and production in Egypt were under the purview and control of the state, similar to other countries that followed the Soviet model of cultural management. In this period, the state enforced a set of literary rules and criteria that, if you wanted to bypass, meant not getting your work published.
Sonallah’s novel was never fully published in its entirety until years later in Egypt.
However, Egypt was able to escape the Soviet shroud early on, specifically in the late 70s. The state’s grip loosened over cultural and artistic productions and censorship was limited. It still remained, though, in the hands of large, state-affiliated publishing houses and book distributors. This made private publishing unfairly doomed from the start.
Instead of state censorship, this was outsourced to religious institutions: Which were at once competitors and conspirators in the battle for political power from the 70s until Sisi’s ascent to the presidency.
This claustrophobic climate shaped the identity of contemporary Egyptian literature. We evil writers learnt to maintain the secrecy of our craft. We lived in secret societies on the margins of official public culture. Since the 70s, the best works were published at the expense of the author and the state curbed its public distribution until the book market opened up at the turn of the noughties.
The Internet appeared and suddenly publishing became easier and writers were able to write using pseudonyms. Gulf states pumped thousands of dollars into the book and publishing industry. More bookshops popped up, as well as publishing houses. Stylistically, new genres of writing blossomed – crime, horror and others that were stellar in their commercial success, but duly short-lived.
A florid style of writing took over the literary sphere, while the writers themselves were marching towards a stark reality. They were writing novels tracking class and social changes and, when the winds of the Arab Spring hit in early 2011, some writers who topped ‘best-seller’ lists became opinion-makers. For a moment, I felt that the spectre of fear had lifted its shadow from Arab literature. New identities were formed and with it a new vernacular sprang up that people used on the internet. Then suddenly everyone asked, where’s the revolutionary literature?
And before any revolutionary literature could rear its head, the revolution was crushed, as with all other revolutions, and the breathing space for Egyptian and Arab literature dwindled.
The authorities regained their control of the arms of artistic and cultural productions and currently the state holds 90% of all television channels, newspapers, magazines and news sites. The remaining sites are mostly blocked.
The novel’s events take, as their starting point, the 1979 Kaaba (Grand Mosque) siege in Mecca, when a group of extremists surrounded the holy site. The siege ended in a series of mysterious, unruly bloody events that saw guns and tanks blot the holiest site for Muslims.
It’s only natural that Raja, a daughter of Mecca, writes about this incident that undoubtedly shaped her childhood. But this historical incident has become shrouded in mystery in the Kingdom. A red line encircling it, where no one discusses or even comes near it. This has forced Raja to delay publishing her novel in Arabic.
The latest victim of the games of censorship and stifling dissent is Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, the successful author whose novels have been turned into dramas on Egyptian television, including Abou Amro El Masry, which is on TV screens now. His name was taken off the credits and events were changed, in order to appease the political vision of the current regime.
There are new forms of censorship and narrowing of the public space daily. Censorship has become a looming spectre. Red lines dissolve and no one knows what is allowed or what is forbidden anymore.
The writer moves on the swing of fear, sometimes forcing him to hide what he thinks or alluding to it discreetly, instead of discussing it valiantly and truthfully. And sometimes fear drives him to the white noise of the internet and social media, turning him into a political megaphone critiquing and denouncing. And in the middle, artistic questions disappear. Talking points turn towards literature itself and its utilitarian aesthetics.
There is a mighty dark ghost, a spectre, haunting this country, and I am looking for a way to hide from its panoptic vision or running away from its grip.
When thrown into prison, you realize that the hustle and bustle, the friends, all the pomp and fanfare, everything that has ever surrounded you all disappear into thin air. Nothing remains. The beloveds, the mothers, and the wives are the only ones who continue to linger, persistent. Diligently visiting, preparing food, bringing clothes and socks, and snatching a quick hug at the end of every visit as they bid you farewell.
In 2016, I was sentenced to a two year prison sentence because I simply wrote a novel. A civilian had filed the case against me, and the prosecutor had gladly found me guilty of “violating public morals”, an affront to Egyptian families’ sense of propriety, dangerously poisoning children’s minds. The court concurred, found me guilty and sentenced me to two years in prison, locking me up, ridding society of my imminent corrupting influence. I was reeling from a deep shock. It had never for a moment crossed my mind that I could be imprisoned for writing a novel. It was a precedent in the whole history of the Egyptian legal system. And here I am, trapped in the dark heart of the system.
In the prison visiting areas, I have witnessed the strongest and most ferocious of men break down in front of their mothers and wives. Luckily, our visiting area was a little more humane in comparison to other prisons, as there was no wall separating the prisoners from the visitors. We would all sit in one room on marble benches protruding from the walls, harboring scurrying ants and cockroaches, their thirst quenched by the prisoners’ and families’ tears.
When I was first sent to prison, I wasn’t allowed any visitors for thirty days. As the first visit edged closer, one of my more seasoned cellmates explained to me the necessity of shaving my beard and properly combing my hair. One of the inmates lent me some hair cream to give my hair a less unkempt appearance, while another allowed me a few sprays from cologne that he kept in a plastic bottle. When your loved ones see you, you have to look shipshape, in tip-top condition according to most of the other prisoners. You don’t want to give your family reason to be alarmed, to increase their misery or anxiety, especially since in coming all the way out there to visit you, they too have endured hardship and have been waiting since the crack of dawn for hours at the gates in the scorching sun until they are allowed to enter.
With the nearing approach of every visit, rituals had been established: the “ironing” of my navy prisoner’s uniform by placing it under the mattress, getting my hair cut by the prisoner’s barber in return for a pack of cigarettes, waking up early to shave my beard and take a shower: the preparations for a romantic date. These were the only moments of love available to us. Through perseverance and a focused attention on all the preparations leading up to the visit, you guard that love, water it and nourish it.
After the second visit, the investigations officer called me into his office. He told me that my fiancée had asked about the procedures and paperwork required to marry an inmate on prison grounds. With a smirk on his face, he said he wanted to make sure that I approved and wanted to marry her, and that he wasn’t putting the squeeze on me.
This particular officer, along with a bunch of others, seemed to admire my love for Yasmine, so they temporarily looked the other way regarding the rules that state only first-degree relatives are allowed visiting rights. Although no official legal status bound us, they let her see me, pretending she was my relative.
Yasmine and I weren’t even engaged back then. We had met a few months earlier in the desert of south Sinai, close to the area where the children of Israel had wandered for forty years. Until then our budding relationship had witnessed no disagreements or tribulations; we would look at each other, incredulous, astounded by how all this time had passed with no problems or misunderstandings to speak of. When the time came to go to court, Yasmine accompanied me to the hearing as a concerned human rights lawyer, and because never, in our wildest dreams, had we anticipated all that was about to happen, she had hurriedly left me to attend to another case, while I awaited my sentence. When my mother came to visit me at the police station prior to my transfer to prison, Yasmine was there as “just a concerned lawyer”. By the first visit a month later, my mother began to suspect that Yasmine was not just my lawyer. Egyptian laws do not acknowledge any kind of relationship or social commitment between a man and a woman save marriage; it’s rarer still for society to accept non-marital romantic commitments. Strangely enough, however, the police officer accepted Yasmine’s prison visits and our claims that we were engaged, though we were not even wearing engagement rings.
Our misgivings remained, however, and continued to worry us. What if a sudden change in the Basha’s or Bashas’ mood led them to call off Yasmine’s visits? It was then that Yasmine thought of marriage, since it would allow her the official legal rights to visit me. But we were apprehensive. We knew that my time in prison, however long that would last, was a temporary situation and we didn’t want our wedding day memories to be saddled with the prison guards’ loathsome grins, be weighed down by metal handcuffs and blue prison uniforms with crawling cockroaches.
After the 2016 April Tiran and Sanafir islandprotests, a fair number of youth and political detainees were arrested and sent to the prison where I was, which led to a visible increase of the patrols and security level. With the increase of inmates, officers, plain-clothes detectives and police guards all became more edgy and short-tempered. It was during that period, that I went down to the visiting area during a scheduled visit and was terrified when I saw that my mother was there alone, without my brother or Yasmine. A thousand and one thoughts raced through my mind. What could have possibly happened? A few minutes later, my brother came from the chief of the prison investigation’s office. My brother told me, “They aren’t going to allow Yasmine to see you.” The detainees’ families had been waiting at the prison gate, and the prison’s administration had arbitrarily decided not to acknowledge the validity of the visiting permits they carried. Being a lawyer, Yasmine had intervened to help the families and put pressure on the prison administration to allow them to see their loved ones inside. The prison’s administration was angry and, to spite her, predictably decided to enforce the visiting regulations so that she couldn’t visit me.
After my brother had talked to me, the officer called me in to see him. A long lecture ensued about how he had broken the rules and allowed Yasmine to visit me, due to his magnanimity, forbearance, and out of regard for our love for one another. However, he continued, Yasmine’s causing a commotion and raising a ruckus, and interfering in matters that are none of her business will force him to deal with her according to the rules. I stood there silently. It was a silly exercise and display of power; a game that the authority had played with thousands of Egyptians and political activists. He very well knew that if he talked to Yasmine directly, she would hold fast to the law, to her role as a lawyer and to the families’ right to visit their detained sons and daughters. However, he also knew that if used his authority as a jailor to address me as a prisoner, I would in turn ultimately end up using his language, logic and words when addressing Yasmine because I wanted to continue to see her during visits. I would emotionally pressure here into compromising and doing what he wanted. I felt totally powerless and helpless. The quiet futility of it all slowly swept over me. Holding my head up high for the first time when addressing him I said “do whatever you want in the future, but I do want to see Yasmine today.” He allowed Yasmine to see me for a few minutes at the end of the visit.
In the coming weeks, the chief of investigations and I reached an unspoken agreement. He had come to understand that three things were important to me: books, Yasmine’s visits and the letters that we sent each other. Everyone in the prison’s administration took pleasure in reading those letters, which reached me days later, after they had been examined and shown to the different security apparatuses. In turn, he took care that these three things remained so that he could use them to make me comply to what he wanted, either by allowing or by denying them. Every time he allowed me one of the books that were sent to me, he always used the telling phrase, “here’s your opium.”
In the visiting room, feelings, tears, laughs and the tension that underlies the feelings that haven’t yet been fully formed are given free rein and released. All this takes place right under the noses of the jailors, and the prisoners that watch one another. When the women visiting their husbands are Niqabis, things become increasingly complicated. One inmate confessed in a moment of weakness how during the past eighteen months, he never got to see his wife’s face once. The visits became an extension of his imprisonment rather than a relief from it. During the visit, just like in his cell, he recreates from memory his wife’s face with all its details.
Another colleague circumvented the visiting room’s regulations by having his sister hold up a little prayer rug, creating a barrier between him and his wife and the rest of the visiting area so that his wife could remove her face veil. In the beginning, the guards overlooked this, but with the passing of time one of them would loudly clear his throat and say “that is forbidden.” The sister would then bring down the prayer rug and the wife would cover her face once more, and that momentary feeling of privacy that they had tried to recreate would evaporate.
Prison laws state that visiting time is one whole hour. Yet, it was rare that we would actually get an hour. Depending on the officer’s mood, the visit’s duration would fluctuate and whenever the bell rang, it was time for goodbyes and hugs. Some prisoners were lucky. Those were the ones who had succeeded in establishing mutually beneficial relations with the prison administration. Those benefits could be based either on the prisoner’s connections or because they spied on their inmates telling the officers what they heard or saw, and in return they would get extra time during visits or according to one investigative officer they would get an “extra dose of emotional opium.”
During December of 2016, as a result of her work as a lawyer and a human rights activist, Yasmine was subjected to a fierce smear campaign carried out by pro-state propagandist media and security apparatuses. I never realized how vicious and defamatory the campaign was until my mother’s and brother’s visit. Yasmine was not with them. Mohamed, my brother succinctly explained just how ferocious the campaign was and that a number of lawsuits had been filed against her, accusing her of cooperating with terrorists because one of her 2014 clients had been accused of the 2016 St.Peter and St.Paul church bombing. Some of Yasmine’s friends who were lawyers too, had advised her to stop visiting me in prison because the authorities might arrest or harass her if she did.
That day, at the end of the visit, the officer asked me, “So where is your fiancée?” I tersely responded, “ She is a little tired.” He smiled and nodded. I realized by his look that he had received new directives about Yasmine and me. I was no longer allowed either to receive or send letters to her. I feared for Yasmine. I sent her a message through Alaa Abd El Fattah who had a visit due a few days after mine. I told him to get word to her through his family that she mustn’t come visit me.
That night I slept feeling that I was falling from one prison into another, far darker and gloomier. I had been in prison for a year now. With Yasmine no longer able to visit me, I felt that everything that had preceded this was just a precursory phase to the real prison and its darkness; one without Yasmine and where constant worry and fear for your loved ones outside of prison sinks its claws into your heart. For the first time, my faith and trust in my ability to get through this ordeal had been shaken, for without Yasmine why even resist? I slept in the prison’s darkness, isolated without an opiate capable of relieving the pain.
I kept counting the days, marking them in the small notebook I had managed to smuggle into prison. After 303 days, I was finally released and the rest of my two-year prison sentence was suspended. My case is still pending in the courts, however. Yasmine and I married and temporarily enjoyed our hard-earned happiness. But we knew it would be impossible to continue this way, seeing how things stood. My writing was implicitly banned, and the high appeal court was still looking into my case to determine if I should be cleared. We planned to leave Egypt in search for new opportunities, to expand our horizons, acquire new skills and knowledge. Soon after, Yasmine received a scholarship to study law in the states and moved there in June 2017 to pursue her studies. The plan was that I would soon join her. Upon arriving at the airport to catch my flight, I discovered I had been banned from traveling and was placed in custody yet again, but this time for a couple of hours.
Nearly a year and half after having been released from prison on December 20th, 2016, my case is still pending and my travel ban remains. Every time I tweet or publish an article harboring the slightest critique of the current regime in Egypt, I receive a menacing phone call. I live in a state of fear to which I have grown accustomed; I have convinced myself that for now fear is good…it makes you cautious, a helpful survival mechanism. More painful than fear is having to wait yet again. The seemingly endless waiting for Godot. A couple of weeks ago we joyfully learned that Yasmine is pregnant, yet I am more frustrated than ever that I’m not allowed to be with her during this time, yearning to be together even more. Every week, I make the journey to court asking if they have set a date for my trial. The answer is always the same: “Check in with us next week”. So I keep counting the days, nourishing the hope, nurturing the love.
Translated by: Radwa El Barouni
 In Egypt, convicted criminals wear blue prison uniforms, while those in remand wear white prison uniforms. Those on death row wear red uniforms.
 Basha comes from the Ottoman title Pasha and is used in Egypt to refer to police officers. It has come to evoke the police’s arrogance, sense of entitlement and superiority, and mistreatment of people. Naji is using it both ironically and non-ironically here.
 Mukhbir: a plain-clothes detective that is a feature of Egyptian public space as well as within institutions.
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”.
published first at : https://arablit.org/2018/01/16/ahmed-naji-i-wanted-to-write-something-more-fantastical/