Yasmine Seale: After the Revolution

 Was published first in: https://harpers.org/archive/2018/01/after-the-revolution-2/

Iwas in a classroom in Turkey recently, explaining the word utopia. From u and topos: “no-place,” possibly a pun on eu-topos, “good place.” See also: dystopia. That, too, is a place that doesn’t exist, but—

“Oh,” someone interrupted, “it exists.”

My students were Syrian refugees, and they were taking no lessons on where the border lay between the real and the unthinkable. They knew that not all dystopias are fictional, that one person’s nightmare is another’s dark norm. For them, survivors of tyranny and war, it was no great leap to imagine a place in which, as the OED defines the word, “everything is unpleasant or bad.”

Dystopian literature has its representative figures and their defining specters—Orwell, rule by fear; Huxley, rule by consumerism—and their descendants have opened up the genre to a strangely thrilling variety of possible hells. Hell tends to be another word for “dehumanization,” and the key insight of this recent flowering is that there are as many ways to dehumanize as there are humans to write them. Whatever the threat in question—climate meltdown, runaway mutants, an all-knowing state—these works are usually understood as cautionary tales. The alternate worlds they present are supposed to shock us into repairing this one. Their implied tense is the future perfect: this is what will have happened, they warn, if we don’t pay attention. But they also serve as reminders that for many, the world is already a dystopia.

Three new novels from Egypt, where the revolutionary hope of 2011 has given way to a society in which things are, by many accounts, worse than ever, hold up a black mirror to the present. “The future is now. And it stinks, I tell you.” That’s Bassam Bahgat, the narrator of Ahmed Naji’s Using Life. He’s writing twenty years after the Catastrophe, a series of violent natural events that leave Cairo buried under a tsunami of sand and result in the building of New Cairo on its outskirts. (This is not very far from reality—sandstorms blow through Cairo every spring, and the government is planning a new capital in the desert; China has already pledged $35 billion.) Dystopia is often linked to natural disaster, but here the novelist’s device seems to function less as a warning than as a coping mechanism for somber times: if politics get you down, lie back and think of Armageddon. Nakba (“catastrophe”) and naksa (“setback”)—references to the Arab defeats of 1948 and 1967—are now only shorthand for the Storm. By commandeering the political obsessions of the old order, this brave new world seems to have done away with history itself.

Not that Bassam has much time for regret. He’s suspicious of nostalgia, which he sees as a form of amnesia:

For several years after the event, many made desperate attempts to save what they could. The Egyptian people were joined in the perpetuation of this farce by ­UNESCO and the people of the world. “Humanity faces a catastrophe.” “Our heritage is threatened with extinction.” To hell with all of it, really. As if Cairo’s very existence were not a disaster in and of itself. As if abandoning it to such a sorry state long before the naksa, and the devolution of its human residents into soulless beasts, were not the real tragedy.

Behind this snub, we are given to understand, lurks a complicated affection. Using Lifeis an old man’s letter to his youth, a bittersweet portrait of Cairo before it was destroyed. This turns out to be a report on what is for us the recent past, its details recalling the years around 2011. It was a time of house parties and arguments and hash, of stifling bus rides and talking until morning before melting into bed “like honey.” Bassam and his friends struggle to live and love in a city where a welter of slow-burning crises conspire to eat them alive. It’s not just the raw displays of state power; it’s also the smell of waste, the traffic, the harassment, the repression. Yet however much he insists that Cairo was a “miserable, hideous, filthy .?.?. overcrowded, impoverished, angry .?.?. shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city,” his memories cast it in a prelapsarian glow. There are moments of exquisite feeling—a lover’s “soft-spoken thighs,” Jimi Hendrix’s guitar shrieking “like a hen laying its first egg.” Bassam is both disenchanted (from reading Foucault he learned that “there was no longer any hope”) and full of passionate intensity, just like a young man, or rather like a young man pretending to be an old man remembering his youth. (Naji is just past thirty.)

Things start to veer off course, and the novel into outright fantasy, when Bassam falls in with the Society of Urbanists, a shadowy outfit with pharaonic ambitions in urban planning— like the Freemasons, if they’d stuck to masonry. Though global and tentacular, the group is centered in Cairo: its members might meet at the base of the pyramids, or naked in a Jacuzzi, or in a plane circling the city. Our desultory hero is recruited to make a film about them in the style of “documentary hyper­realism” (“What cocksucking Frenchman came up with such a lame idea?”), and slowly teases out their philosophy, which involves a lot of esoteric knowledge, fierce secrecy, and the eating of watery food. His recruiter, Ihab Hassan (a real-life theorist of postmodernism, one of the novel’s many in-jokes), lets him in on the secret. The society’s members keep an archive of the architectural truths they have discovered over the millennia, which are transmitted “like phantom genetic material” among them. Some of this data is published—James Joyce and the brothers Grimm, and almost every visionary you can think of, were Urbanists in disguise—and some is kept at the bottom of the sea. The society was responsible for the world’s first city, the Suez Canal, the catacombs of Paris, cheap postwar housing, and almost everything else. Its members, we are hardly surprised to discover, can be traced back to Adam.

The design of modern Cairo, according to this pseudo-history, was the result of a power struggle between the Urbanists and a coterie of European architects, which the Urbanists lost. Now, under the leadership of a ruthless, nationless mind reader called Paprika, they want redress. (Softcore descriptions of every female character’s figure are gratuitous—“her breasts pressed against her T-shirt like a pair of lemons”—and in Paprika’s case somewhat undermine her mystique as an evil shape-shifting sprite.) Their mission is the eradication of pain through architecture. Their powers are limitless, their logic neatly hubristic: to end suffering, many must die. After the disaster, they embark on a project of radical social engineering whose ripples extend well beyond Cairo:

The whole world was now more or less the same: no room for rebellion, no space for screaming. The forests had been masterfully redesigned, and temperatures kept carefully under control. . . . Peacocks were placed under strict surveillance, as the number of endangered species increased with every passing hour.

Once the utopians have had their way with it, the unruly city comes to seem a paradise lost. Ostensibly a document of frustration with the old world, the novel is also an attempt to imagine how much more miserable things could be. Yes, it seems to say, this life is unlivable, but how would we feel if we lost it all?

As though in response to this question, soon after an excerpt from the book was published in an Egyptian magazine in 2014, a surreal chain of events landed Naji in jail for “violating public morality.” It’s hard not to read Benjamin Koer­ber’s rollicking translation in light of Naji’s legal ordeal, which began after a “concerned citizen” complained to the public prosecutor that a scene involving cunnilingus had caused him heart palpitations and psychological harm. As Koerber explains in his introduction, Naji’s case marks the first time in modern Egypt that an author has been imprisoned for a work of fiction. One of the ironies of the case is that the offending chapter was also the novel’s happiest, one in which simple pleasures—morning sex, a walk in the sun—become scraps of joy snatched from the jaws of the city. Another is that Naji, who has written critically and explicitly about the current regime in his journalism, should have been undone by a work that announces itself so clearly as fiction; the prosecutor took the chapter to be a confession of its author’s indecent behavior. Naji was acquitted last year; his case is pending retrial, but a bootleg copy of his novel circulates online. The book is an experiment, wild and weird, full of non sequiturs and oddball imagery. (The text is interspersed with surreal comics by Ayman Al Zorkany.) Perhaps it is subversive precisely for its love of whimsy; in a culture beset with political gloom, it agitates for the freedom to be unserious.

If Naji’s dystopia has the low-stakes lightness of a dream, Mohammad Rabie’s Otared is an unadulterated nightmare. The novel begins with a cannibal crime scene of rare ghoulishness and gets steadily grimmer. Our guide to this underworld is Ahmed Otared, good cop turned partisan. It’s 2025, and East Cairo has been occupied for two years by the armies of the Knights of Malta, land pirates with no territory of their own who speak “Arabic like Tunisians, and En­glish in many different dialects.” The invasion was as swift and total as it was unopposed; only a lionhearted few still hold out. The bourgeois island of Zamalek has become the eye of the resistance. From the top of a tower in its midst, Otared, a matchless sniper, looks out over the divided city (the West remains free) and trains his scope on the enemy, cold-blooded behind his mask. “I was an ancient Egyptian god with a borrowed face, whose true features no man could ever know. . . . A Greek god, full of contempt for the world that he’d created.”

Whatever one thinks of the legitimacy of armed struggle, it does not take long for the resistance to overstep even the widest definition of guerrilla warfare and devolve into outright slaughter. What is remarkable about this shift is how slow we are to notice it. Otared is a companionable narrator, and at first we cannot see the murderer for the fancy prose style; one of the novel’s most chilling moves is the ennoblement of evil through formal beauty. Served by Robin Moger’s exceptionally fine translation, its mazelike structure and sensitive flashes of description are a lesson in the seductions of art. (Here is our terminator describing a line of blood: “It reminded me of an ostrich’s tail feather, a column of water rising from a fountain, the glowing tracks of fireworks launched across the sky.”) At regular intervals Otared takes stock of those he has killed, and these lists grow longer every time, a paratactic mess of names and bodies. Yet the slowly gathering rhythm has the effect of an ostinato, a musical pattern repeated and amplified. Violence is so carefully and insistently woven into the pattern of the novel that it cannot be senseless; something else, we come to suspect, must be at work.

And so it is. One of the longer roll calls of the dead provides a hint that Otared’s killing spree might not be quite what it seems:

And I killed a southerner called Gowhar, dressed in a broad-sleeved robe. I shot him in the neck with a single bullet, and he took to his heels, bleeding, and I let him go because I knew he’d die in a few minutes and that nobody would be able to help him.?.?.?. And I looked for Samira al-Dahshuri. She’d be walking beneath the overpass, I knew, and I swept the area through my scope, and when I saw her I fired without hesitation into her liver. It had been cirrhotic for years, and maybe she felt the bullet ripping through it and killing her. Maybe that is why she hunched over and peered at the spot as she died.
What kind of a sniper is this, and why is he blessed with a total, transcendent awareness of his victims’ lives? Why, at the moment of their death, does he describe them with something close to love?

Another clue lies in the novel’s cyclical structure: some sections pan back to 2011, and at its midpoint is a single, very brief chapter set in the year of the Hegira 455, or ad 1077. It is a testament to Moger’s flair for the varieties of En­glish—and how they might map onto the many registers of Arabic—that within a few lines it is beautifully, mysteriously apparent that we have been transported a thousand years back in time. Here, a man attends a burial and comes to a violent understanding (“Hope shall be set in your hearts, and hope there is none, and hope is your torment”), which foreshadows the novel’s final revelation. It is not spoiling things too much to say that this key, when it comes, both clarifies the novel’s cruelty and upends it, turning its sadists into angels of mercy. A dystopia can also be a world turned on its head.

Yet the realization that Otared’s savagery is only a negative image of the truth does not redeem it entirely. Having sat through the horror show—public suicide and stoning, a miscarried fetus on a plate, homeless girls raped by a homeless man—one could be forgiven for not standing to applaud its basic conceptual trick. One part of the nightmare, however, contains the seed of something brighter. The chapters set in 2011 revolve around a man, Insal, who adopts a little girl after her parents disappear. The girl, Zahra, develops a strange ailment that causes her eyes, ears, and mouth to seal themselves shut until she is nothing but a smooth lump of flesh that has to be fed through a tube, cut off from the world of the senses. Eventually she is reunited with an aunt who suffers from the same affliction. That Zahra’s character should be one of the few not only to survive the novel but to experience a moment of connection comes as a poignant relief.

Zahra kept running her hand over her aunt’s cheek. Slow, even passes, testing out her favored sense: touch. At the nasal openings, she stopped, lifted her head, and stuck the tips of her first and middle fingers into the holes. There was a momentary lull, then the aunt released a sudden blast from her nose and Zahra snatched her hand away in feigned alarm. The aunt rocked her head back, as did the girl, then the two foreheads met once more. They were laughing.

The drama of dystopia is that it rarely succeeds completely; these novels draw much of their power from the resilience of the human. In other words, embedded in dystopia is the possibility of miniature utopias, clearings of solidarity or autonomous thought. Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue may be named after a hallmark of authoritarian states (it shares its title with Vladimir Sorokin’s 1983 Soviet saga), but its real subject is the queuers and their stubborn fellow feeling. We are in a parallel world of Brechtian simplicity, where the highway is marked Public Road, scripture is the Greater Book, and the only newspaper is the Truth. The Gate is both a place—a door set in an octagonal fortress—and the source of all authority; it came to power after a popular uprising was crushed many years before. (The phrase “winds of change,” often heard in 2011, marks out the revolt as a reference to that one.) No aspect of life falls outside its jurisdiction: the Gate announces the arrival of winter and decides who is entitled to phone lines. Even window-shopping is taxed. When a group rises up against the reigning injustice, this, too, is brutally put down. As punishment for these Disgraceful Events, the Gate closes, and outside forms an ever-lengthening queue, which threatens to replace society itself:

So many shopkeepers spent so long in the queue that they couldn’t buy or sell anything or supervise their employees, and so they decided to get rid of their merchandise.?.?.?. No one knew when rush hour was anymore; there were no set working hours, no schedules or routines. Students left school at all sorts of times, daily rumors determined when employees headed home, and many people had chosen to abandon their work completely and camp out at the Gate, hoping they might be able to take care of their paperwork that had been delayed there.

The novel is organized around a single medical file, that of Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed, a man in his late thirties with a bullet lodged in his body. This he acquired during the Events, but when he is taken to the government-run hospital and sees people around him dying of bullet wounds, he realizes that a gaslighting operation is under way:

The doctor asserted that the high mortality rate was due to the fact that these rioters were simply too sensitive. Upon hearing one another’s harsh words, they’d succumbed automatically, their hearts having stopped before the ambulances even arrived. Others had stumbled upon the grisly scene and were so traumatized by it that they froze, and then they collapsed, too, falling one after another like dominoes.

Another doctor is willing to help, but nothing, not even surgery, can be done without permission from the Gate. So Yehya joins the queue and its economy of frail hope. It is a microcosm of Egyptian life: it ought to be a utopia, or at least a great leveling.

Thrown into cohabitation, people pray together, work, sleep, roast sweet potatoes, propose marriage. A conservative preacher is forced to reckon with the opinionated young woman standing next to him. But as the queue grows, inertia creeps over the crowd. Though they stand together, day after day, fear keeps them suspicious and strips them slowly “of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.”

Another obstacle to Yehya’s operation is that his bullet does not officially exist. It cannot be mentioned, let alone removed, being evidence of the state-led crackdown on the Events. (Here too reality is catching up: the 2011 revolt has been expunged from the history curriculum in Egyptian schools.) Radiology wards are shut down, their equipment confiscated; X-rays circulate like samizdat. As the hospital becomes a battleground in the war on truth, conversations in the queue are mysteriously reflected in people’s medical files, which seem to be updated in real time. It turns out that nothing of the queuers’ lives escapes the Gate, not even the hour of their death.

Elisabeth Jaquette’s limpid translation achieves the spare, sterilized quality that medical prose and the communiqués of overbearing states have in common. This economy of style is integral to a world in which human interactions have been painfully circumscribed and stripped of trust; bleakness is related to bleach. This is a study of totalitarian logic with the plainness of a Kafka parable—and, unlike Naji’s and Rabie’s novels, it pulls off its unnerving effect without resorting to the degradation of women’s bodies. (A scene of harassment on the metro ends with the offender being beaten with a handbag and decamping in fright.) Nothing human is alien to it; see how compassion has sharpened, not softened, the prose:

With practiced care, Yehya slowly bent his right knee, leaned his torso to the right, too, and then lowered one side of his skinny bottom onto the edge of the wooden chair. He let the pain swell to its full magnitude for a moment, until he knew he could bear it without groaning or crying out, and then slid his whole rear end onto the rough-edged wooden seat, stretching his left leg out a bit.

A healthy man might take three words to sit down; a man in pain takes seventy-seven. Abdel Aziz, a psychiatrist who treats torture victims in Cairo, knows how wounded bodies move.

Dystopia is the putrefaction of utopia; it is the promise of perfection turned sour. After the uprising that is now a distant memory, “the Gate and its guardians had prevailed, and they emerged stronger than before.” The Queue was written before the military coup that put Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in power, but it has proved prophetic. Since 2013, cases of death by torture have soared, and tens of thousands have been imprisoned without charge. Many have disappeared. The crackdown on noncompliance has led to a war on writers; Egypt is now the third-largest jailer of journalists on earth. Last June, a few months after his release from prison, Ahmed Naji wrote in a blog post about the fate of revolutionary art:

Day after day, things seem to be drifting to their pre–January 25 status quo, with some even believing that they are becoming worse. . . . Only a minuscule number of attempts remain, trying to continue under Egypt’s ever-increasing scrutiny and censorship.

These novels are among them, and they are reasons for hope.

Inside the Strange Saga of a Cairo Novelist Imprisoned for Obscenity

written by  and published in RS : http://www.rollingstone.com/culture/features/cairo-novelist-imprisoned-for-obscenity-in-egypt-tells-story-w468084

On a scorching Saturday morning in July, Ahmed Naji stood in the crowded cage of a Cairo courtroom. The 31-year-old author had been convicted six months earlier of “violating public morality” for publishing a piece of literature. In his novel, Using Life, an irreverent portrayal of youth culture on the cusp of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the protagonist performs cunnilingus, rolls hash joints and gulps from bottles of vodka. Censors had approved the book, which is also sometimes translated as The Use of Life, but when an excerpt appeared in Cairo’s premier literary review, Akhbar Al-Adab, an absurd series of events eventually led Naji to prison. Though he was released in December thanks to a high-powered team of Egyptian lawyers and campaigns from international arts communities, he lives in fear that anything he says or writes could land him back in Egypt’s most notorious prison. He described to Rolling Stone how self-censorship has entered into his considerations at the keyboard. “When you are writing, you are thinking… someone will read something or this could affect the case and so on,” says Naji. “It’s hard to move on and write.”

Torn from the pages of Kafka, Naji’s case sheds light on the risks of free speech in an authoritarian state. In Egypt, if a citizen experiences personal injury from an offensive piece of writing or television program, he or she can bring a case forward to the public prosecutor claiming the violation of public morals, a vague clause enshrined in the constitution and taken from the French legal system. There have only been few instances of such cases moving forward, but public prosecutors do often relish in the opportunity to serve as the moral police. “The accused disseminated written materials that exude sexual lust and fleeting pleasures, lending out his pen and his mind to violate the sanctity of public morals and good character,” the prosecutor told a local news outlet last year. Naji’s story shows literature’s ambiguous power to agitate and the state of arts and letters in a country that experienced a widespread uprising just six years ago.

As the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East in January 2011, the revolution in Egypt toppled a longtime despot, President Hosni Mubarak. “At the time of Mubarak, it was a calm, silent swamp,” says Naji of political stagnation prior to 2011. “After the revolution, there is more a sense of resistance – resistance from both sides, from the youth’s side and from the older people and the regime and system’s side. The conflict is too hot.” Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik Mohammed Morsi rose to the presidency in the country’s first democratic election, held in June 2012. A year into Morsi’s ham-fisted tenure, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi staged a military overthrow. As the junta consolidated power, authorities pursued a bloody crackdown against the Brotherhood and, ultimately, against activists of all stripes. Today, public protests are illegal, many opposition groups (whether secular or Islamist) have been outlawed and room for free expression has shrunken considerably. Young people who participated in the 2011 revolution and even the 2013 ouster of Morsi are absent from politics or government. But the creative dissent that ballooned amid the revolt in Tahrir Square, from street art to politically inflected verse, led to experimentation in other realms – especially literature.

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Beyond his fiction, Naji is known for writing serious criticism about trends in popular culture, first on his blog in the mid-2000s and later in newspaper columns. “Naji – in his character, in his tone of writing, in the topics that he deals with – is very iconoclastic. He is deeply subversive,” says Khaled Fahmy, a visiting professor of modern Middle East history at Harvard University. “And this is something that the state readily understands as literally an existential threat. [His writing] is deeply political precisely because it doesn’t talk about politics.” Fahmy recalls an article in which Naji profiled rappers and producers who created a dirty, anti-establishment brand of hip-hop known as mahraganat, which grew in impoverished neighborhoods of Cairo and became the soundtrack of protest. As the first writer to explore the underground genre that has since become a sensation in Egypt and Europe, Naji told the story with sensitivity and grit, spending hours in crude basement studios. “Of course, he will hate me when he hears this,” says Fahmy. “Really, Naji is the voice of the revolution.”

When Naji entered the courthouse on the morning of July 16th, it was the first time that any friends had seen him since he had been incarcerated six months before; only immediate relatives are permitted to visit inmates of Tora Prison, a maximum-security hell. About 40 friends, colleagues and journalists showed up on the 100-degree morning to attend. Inside the hearing room, scores of detainees’ families crammed onto stiff wooden pews. A tea salesman wove through the crowd, carrying a tray of soda cans, white plastic cups and a thermos of hot water.

A white-uniformed officer led Naji to the defendants’ cage, an enclosure with bars and a crosshatched fence so narrow that not even a finger could poke through. On the entrance of the hearing room hung signs that said No Smoking and No Cellphones, but the room was dank with smoke, and phones were out everywhere. In his prison blues, Naji looked fit and in good spirits. He smiled broadly at his friends and lit a cigarette.

After more than an hour in the cage, Naji was called away from the hearing room to the judge’s quarters, where the defense team requested a suspension of the sentence. Article 178 of the penal code, on which Naji was convicted, criminalizes “harm to public morality.” In the context of creative production, Article 178 contradicts articles of the 2014 constitution, which guarantee free expression for artists and entertainers. “Every police officer I spoke to had never heard of anyone being jailed by this law,” says Ramy Yaacoub, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and a friend of Naji’s who coordinated advocacy for his release. “[But] we do not have definitive evidence as to the political motives of the case.” (A spokesman for the Office of the Public Prosecutor directed me to a Judges Club spokesman who did not reply to a request for comment.)

Ahmed Naje, Imprisoned Egyptian Author
photo: David Degner

The same judge who delivered Naji the maximum sentence in February 2016 was also assigned to hear the request for suspending the sentence. “The choice of words is so bad that it could only appear in a society without morals,” wrote the judge in the February ruling, going on to assert writers’ duty to support public morality. It was no surprise that, on that July day, he sent Naji back to prison.

In Arabic, adab can be defined either as literature or as morality, and the judge had put his energy into making sure that the former reflected the latter. In this paternalistic perspective, literature ought to be morally upright. Throughout Naji’s career, however, he has made fun of the very notion of service to the state or literature serving some higher good. “His heroes are not national heroes,” says Fahmy of Naji’s characters. “His heroes are also not bandits and criminals. His heroes are people who score petty victories in petty moments in life.”

Naji doesn’t remember when he started writing, but it was long before he could grow the Frank Zappa mustache that has become perhaps his most recognizable feature. Born in a Nile Delta town of Mansoura, he hails from a family of doctors, his father a pediatrician. Growing up between Egypt, Kuwait and Libya, Naji rebelled by devoting his energy to reading comics and novels, rather than studying chemistry and biology. He moved to Cairo at 16 to attend journalism school, and went on to serve as a staff writer of Cairo’s prestige magazine for arts and culture journalism and criticism, Akhbar Al-Adab. It is the closest the city has to a Cairo Review of Books – the weekly might have critiques of new books by Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith and a translation of Hemingway as well as new Arabic poetry and short stories.

He fell into writing his first novel Rogers by accident: he had published the chapters piecemeal on his blog, each one shaped around a song from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The posts pushed “the limits of the novel genre, he says, with dreams and fantasies mixing with realities,so he was surprised when a publisher approached him in 2007. By age 22, he was a published author. If Pink Floyd was an inspiration for his first book, then David Bowie deserves credit for Naji’s 2014 novel Using Life, which even mentions the glam-rocker in the acknowledgements alongside friends and collaborators. “In many songs he has this lovely sense of dystopia,” he says. The novel also captures Cairo’s “total corruption,” something he has come to know intimately over the past two years.

“It’s the kind of case that gives [the prosecution] the opportunity to appear in the image of the public moral guards,” Naji told me over dinner in December 2015, back when a conviction seemed improbable. We sat in a smoky downtown Cairo tavern that had made an appearance in his novel. Over steak and beer, Naji related how the entire legal debacle started.

The novel had initially been published in early 2014, by a joint Lebanese-Egyptian-Tunisian publishing house called Tanweer. The August 3 issue of the journal Akhbar Al-Adab published a chapter from the book. The problems for Naji came when one reader claimed that he keeled over from reading it, as reported to the police on August 13th. “[His] heartbeat fluctuated,” read the local police blotter. “His blood pressure dropped and he became severely ill.” Hani Salah Tawfik, a 65-year-old lawyer whose heart had survived decades of dictatorship, was undone by salaciousness. “Because it contains sentences and expressions that are sexually explicit, it caused me psychological harm,” Tawfik stated, according to the hand-written police report.

It didn’t matter that government censors had already approved Naji’s novel. Historically in Egypt, private citizens have themselves served as censors, something silently (or gleefully) cheered on by the authorities; the targets have been controversial personalities, from heterodox scholars to the superstar comedian Bassem Youssef. It is up to the public prosecutor to take up such cases, which they often do to bolster their reputation. “It’s a question of one prosecutor who wants to show off,” says Amr Shalakany, director of the Law and Society Research Unit at the American University in Cairo. “It’s completely performative.”

After Tawfik complained, the public prosecutor decided to investigate the case, combing through Naji’s blog and interviewing staff from Akhbar Al-Adab. In November 2015, a criminal court held its first hearing about the novel’s pornographic nature. In further hearings, eminent Egyptian authors testified on Naji’s behalf. The next month, Naji awaited a ruling, set for the first week of January 2016.

As he cut into his steak, Naji told me that, if anything, he had expected to get in trouble for his journalism, but never for his fiction. ” I wrote many articles against Sisi, against Morsi,” he said, speaking of the current president and his ousted predecessor. “Sometimes I get some threats… This is normal, and I am used to it.”

He happened to know two journalists sitting at the table beside us. We chattered with them, and one joked that he’d visit the author in prison. We all chuckled.

“Welcome to the hell that is Cairo, where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere,” writes Naji in Using Life. The novel begins in the not-too-distant future, when violent sandstorms and earthquakes eviscerate much of the Egyptian capital; even the Pyramids of Giza are subsumed by sinkholes. The protagonist Bassem, 46, writes up his memories of two decades prior in a report itself titled Using Life. (He survived Armageddon simply because he lived deep in the suburbs.) In the post-apocalyptic city, he is melancholic and recollects his days of parties and hanging out. Using Life also melds the graphic and written: Short sci-fi comics by the artist Ayman Zorkany are peppered among chapters, like an illustration of grotesque spacemen-cum-mummies attacking Bassem and his cohorts. “It’s a story about the miserable Cairo and a couple of guys trying to find joy in this life, trying to create meaning in the city,” says Naji.

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Photo: David Degner

“Welcome to the hell that is Cairo, where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere,” writes Naji in Using Life. The novel begins in the not-too-distant future, when violent sandstorms and earthquakes eviscerate much of the Egyptian capital; even the Pyramids of Giza are subsumed by sinkholes. The protagonist Bassem, 46, writes up his memories of two decades prior in a report itself titled Using Life. (He survived Armageddon simply because he lived deep in the suburbs.) In the post-apocalyptic city, he is melancholic and recollects his days of parties and hanging out. Using Life also melds the graphic and written: Short sci-fi comics by the artist Ayman Zorkany are peppered among chapters, like an illustration of grotesque spacemen-cum-mummies attacking Bassem and his cohorts. “It’s a story about the miserable Cairo and a couple of guys trying to find joy in this life, trying to create meaning in the city,” says Naji.

Though the novel has sold out in the Middle East, the book’s offending excerpt had been republished online, and more than two million readers have viewed Naji’s prose. That’s more than any book has ever sold in Egypt. (American readers will have a chance to read it this autumn when University of Texas Press publishes scholar Ben Koerber’s graceful translation.)

Cairo has long been the literary engine of the Middle East, home to novelists, playwrights, and poets who have revolutionized the Arabic language. Naji is one voice among a new generation of writers playing with form, genre and politics. “He always tries a [new] idea and then very quickly turns it on its head,” the novelist Nael El Toukhy, who worked with Naji at Akhbar Al-Adab, told me. “He is a trendsetter.”

Though Using Life rarely discusses politics directly and it was first drafted prior to the revolt, it represents a harsh critique of the political and social inertia of post-2011 Egypt, where the revolution failed to provide meaningful change. “Give yourself a break,” Bassem says in the book. “You’re nothing but a cocksucker among cocksuckers. Quit the drama, little one, and enough blaming yourself. In the end, it’s not so bad to be a cocksucker in Cairo. Just relax and take it all in.”

Three years since its publication, many of the narrator’s observations – about blogging, the peculiar dwellers of downtown Cairo, or why McDonald’s in Egypt tastes better than its American counterpart – remain apt. The novel is packed with a steady stream of vulgarity you might hear muttered at a street café, but seldom read on a typeset Arabic page. Perhaps because the novel discusses sex and drugs so nonchalantly, the narrator inadvertently anticipates its censorship. “A coalition of social, political, and religious taboos conspires to keep everything that ferments in the city’s underbelly from rising to the surface,” he writes. For anyone who has spent time in a polluted megalopolis that rarely gives back, Naji’s prose is a jolt of reality: “Let Cairo go fuck herself, morning afternoon and evening, today and tomorrow and forever.”

On January 2nd, 2016, the judge acquitted Ahmed Naji for the charge of disturbing public morality. The author grinned as his lawyer clenched a cigar between his lips. Naji’s Facebook wall quickly filled with scores of messages. “Congrats on your innocence,” one friend posted.

A couple of weeks later, in preparation for the fifth anniversary of the uprising, Egyptian authorities raided several downtown arts spaces and dozens of popular cafes. The regime wanted to restrain any attempt at political organizing or demonstrations. “You have people getting arrested everyday,” says Naji. “Everyday. Maybe your friends [sitting] in a cafe will get arrested.” Such crackdowns have become routine fare here. In a column for the widely circulated newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, Naji drew attention to the shuttering of one independent art gallery to illustrate the “siege of Egyptian cultural institutions.” He blamed authorities for leading the country down the road “increasingly toward darkness,” through its stifling of expression. Soon after, Naji received an alarming update. The prosecutor would retry his case in a higher court.

On February 20th, 2016, an appeals court sentenced Naji to the maximum sentence: two years. It was first time that a writer had landed in prison for fiction – not activism or reportage, but fiction – in recent memory, perhaps since the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who oversaw a populist junta from 1956 to 1970, according to one of Naji’s lawyers, Mahmoud Othman of the Association for Free Thought and Expression. Also named in the case was Akhbar Al-Adab‘s chief editor Tarek El-Taher, who was fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds (at the time, about $1,275) for printing the offending excerpt. “Self-censorship has increased since Naji’s conviction,” says Othman, describing the chilling effect on other artists and media personalities whom he represents. Poet Fatma Naoot, for instance, was convicted last year of religious contempt for a Facebook post, and sentenced to three years (which she eluded by fleeing abroad; a court suspended the sentence in November). But Naji’s obscenity charge was surprising given that Fifty Shades of Gray is on sale at many Cairo booksellers.

Prominent intellectuals and publishers held public forums to draft a strategy; more than 500 Egyptian artists signed a public statement against his imprisonment. Even the government functionaries tasked with policing culture joined in protest – the culture minister publicly stated he believed the penal code article on which Naji had been convicted should be overturned. In May 2016, Naji’s younger brother, Mohamed, flew to New York to accept the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on Ahmed’s behalf, at a black-tie gala with an illustrious guest list. Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, among scores of other celebrity authors, wrote notes of solidarity. On the back page of one Egyptian newspaper, Naji’s face appeared next to Woody Allen’s, who, along with hundreds of writers, had signed PEN’s petition to modify Article 178 of the penal code so that Egyptian prosecutors could no longer bring criminal charges against writer for “violating public morals.”

Hani Saleh Tawfik, the lawyer who began Naji’s imbroglio, claimed to have experienced a fluttering heart and lowered blood pressure after reading Naji’s fiction, which, according to the police report, included “pussy licking, dick sucking, and other such words that should not be written in a newspaper like Akhbar Al-Adab.”

“The Egyptian journalists were not able to reach me,” says Tawfik, a pudgy man, with a thick, messy grey goatee. After weeks of searching, when I finally track him down at his small windowless office in Cairo, he is wearing an orange plaid button-down, and on his desk are stacks of files that reached his shoulders. Two female attorneys join us.

“If you come into my house, you need to have good morals when you are entering,” he says in Arabic, referring to Naji’s text, or perhaps my uninvited presence in his legal office. “I don’t care if others would buy or approve of it, but if you come into my house you can’t say such vulgar things. You can write anything, and I have the right to reject it or accept it. But this kind of official newspaper enters my house under the banner of adab.” Here, Tawfik uses the dual meaning, as both literature and morality. “I am refusing what is written. I’m not against Ahmed Naji personally. I’m against him entering my house with such words.”

Tawfik stands up from his desk and begins rifling through one of the high piles on his desk. He pulls out a translucent, rose-colored folder. Tawfik opens the file and takes out a blogger’s open letter to Tawfik. One sentence in particular drove him crazy: “Everything was normal; you just don’t know how to read.”

He pulls out a special edition of Akhbar Al-Adab from February 2016, published the week of Naji’s conviction. There’s a spray-painted portrait of Naji on the cover, and every article inside is dedicated to him. “He is on every page,” Tawfik says, pointing at Naji’s photo in the corner of each sheet. “The journal is publishing Ahmed Naji and talking about his values and cursing me – because I said no.” Tawfik switches to English to yell: “Do not enter my house!”

“This is not a sexy magazine or something like that,” he says. “I don’t want it to get into my house through an official newspaper. I am angry now.” His fuzziness about how he got his hands on the niche literary magazine with a small circulation and his impetus for bringing the suit leaves many questions unanswered. He continues to raise his voice as I ask him about his motive for bringing the case, whether it had anything to do with Naji’s political writings or other factors. He refuses to answer.

“All freedom has limits,” he says. “Its limits are not harming someone else.” And yet, as we talked late into the night, Naji sat in prison, himself harmed.

Naji’s conviction was only superficially connected to the broader clampdown on dissent and free expression. “It’s not that [President] Sisi called up this prosecutor,” says El Toukhy, the novelist, referring to the Egyptian strongman who took power in July 2013, “but the climate of Sisi as the top authority… they are inspired by him.” The atmosphere of state censorship and self-censorship, arbitrary detentions of political prisoners and journalists, encourages citizen informants and police dragnets to take petty complaints forward, and then one ambitious prosecutor can make a name for himself by prosecuting a well-known writer.

The author’s lawyers would not speculate as to why a suit was brought forward targeting Naji. “If it’s not orchestrated, he’s very fucking unlucky,” says Yaacoub, the policy analyst, noting the bizarre circumstances that led to the conviction.

Tawfik himself provided little clarity about the case; he is but a node in a long history of censorship in the country. “History is full of people who went to prison or were burned at the stake for proclaiming their ideas,” the Nobel-Prize winning Egyptian author Naguib Mafouz, told the Paris Review in 1992. “Society has always defended itself. Nowadays it does so with its police and its courts. I defend both the freedom of expression and society’s right to counter it. I must pay the price for differing.” Naji has paid the price.

So, too, did Mahfouz. In the late 1980s, the extremist Muslim leader Omar Abdel-Rahman, better known as the Blind Sheikh, had issued a fatwa against Mahfouz for his supposed depiction of God in the 1959 novel Children of Gebelawi. (Abdel-Rahman died this month while serving a life sentence in the United States for a conspiracy charge related to the 1993 World Trade Center attack). Rather than pursue legal action, though, in 1994, a rogue Islamist stabbed the Mahfouz, Egypt’s literary giant, in the neck. He survived the attack.

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Konga reading the novel

By last late summer, a half year since his conviction, Naji had fallen out of the spotlight. “In Egypt, there is always something new,” Naji’s brother Mohamed told me in August, eating pizza across from Tahrir Square. Ahmed Naji was among dozens of others behind bars for simply doing their jobs: in 2016, 25 journalists were in prison for charges like disseminating fake news or membership to an illegal group; the singing troupe called the Street Children, who were incarcerated for “attempting to overthrow the regime,” in their sardonic viral videos, and innumerable others. “With time, people have lost their enthusiasm about the case,” Mohamed, a cardiovascular doctor, told me. He was losing hope. At an appeal hearing in late November, sitting among scores of supporters and friends, Mohamed seemed resigned to the fact that his brother would serve out the remainder of the two-year sentence.

In early December of 2016, the country’s top appellate court was due to rule on Naji’s appeal, his chance to get out after he had already served ten months – but the prosecutors failed to submit their memo and case files, so the ruling was postponed. In response to the prosecution’s tardiness, the appeals judge suspended Naji’s sentence and issued an injunction for his release. “That was a miracle,” says Yasmin Hosam El Din, Naji’s fiancée and an attorney who serves on his defense team. “He would never get released if the prosecution was working normally.” The court would continue to investigate the legality of the February 2016 verdict – which could result in him serving the rest of term in prison – but for now, at least, Naji would be free.

As he stepped onto Cairo’s pavement, Naji did not want to be photographed or interviewed for the local press. But he hadn’t lost his sense of humor. On Facebook, he posted a video of Elvis Presley singing “Jailhouse Rock.”

“The reason why I have not given up on the revolution is precisely because of Naji,” says Khaled Fahmy. “Revolutions are not won overnight or by a deathblow or a knockout blow. They are won bit by bit, stage by stage, day after day, and one struggle after another. And his is a very significant struggle, and the jury’s still out.”

At the end of December, after 300 days offline, the prolific writer posted a long message of warmth and gratitude on his public Facebook page where he used to blog. “I would never have been able to endure the cockroaches, sweats, freezing cold and various humiliations of prison life without the companionship of my fellow prisoners,” Naji wrote. To his friends he offered a small promise: “Our nights are coming, with exuberant embraces and long nights of talk on the horizon.”

With the case still in play, he is unable to leave the country to visit his ailing father in Kuwait, who he hasn’t seen in over a year. “I’m not nervous, I’m bored,” says Naji of waiting for the next appeals court session, which will be in April. “I want all of this file to be closed, however it will be closed.” Still in pajamas and drinking an espresso, he hands me a copy of The Mystery of the Split Festival, a collection of a dozen short stories he wrote in the decade before his incarceration, which was just published in Arabic. He wanted it out before 2016’s end as a way of documenting his twenties and signaling that he will move on to new approaches in his writing.

While in prison, he wrote a quarter of a novel, literally putting pen to paper, something he hadn’t done since childhood. Writing was a way to break up the seemingly endless days. He concealed the drafts during the warden’s regular check ups for fear that the chapters would be confiscated. He snuck them out and has since typed them up. “Now my plan is to give more time to literature.” Despite everything that’s happened to Naji, the next book is his priority. To write fiction in Egypt today is to resist.

Jonathan Guyer is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs and contributing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs