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

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

After seeing a photo of him, Zadie Smith imagined Ahmed Naji as someone wild and antic. (“Rather handsome, slightly louche-looking, with a Burt Reynolds moustache, wearing a Nehru shirt in a dandyish print and the half smile of someone both amusing and easily amused” she observed in the New York Review of Books – without having met him.) Just a short extract of his prose allegedly gave one reader heart palpitations, and, for one judge, his language – “pussy, cock, licking, sucking”, according to court documents – was enough to justify a two-year jail sentence.

It’s hard to equate these intense, fleeting impressions with the quietly spoken man in front of me sipping green tea.

Naji is best known internationally for being imprisoned for the sexual content and drug references in his novel The Use of Life, in a society where these subjects remain largely taboo.

However, sitting in his apartment close to the Nile in central Cairo, Naji plays down the image he has acquired as a result of his plight, and the themes that got him into trouble.

A blend of existentialist literature, fantasy and social criticism, The Use of Life follows Bassam, a young man who lives in an alternate Cairo, which Naji imagines as a grubby metropolis that has risen from a series of natural disasters that levelled the city. Filled with irreverent references to masturbation, fetishes and pornography, the book is consistently transgressive. Bassam’s opinions and ideas are also knowingly progressive – having sex with an older woman, keeping transgender friends, indulging in drugs and drink.

“Sex and drugs play a very important part in Cairo,” says Naji – while stressing that they are not the main themes of his novel. As he sees it, The Use of Life is about “the history of the city and how it has been designed … and how people in this Kafkaesque maze are trying to find a small piece of joy”.

The 31-year-old author first ran into legal trouble in 2015, when a chapter of The Use of Life was published in the state-run literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. A male complainant, who said the passage came to his attention only when his wife ridiculed him for allowing such material into their house, alleged that reading Naji’s descriptions of sex and hashish-smoking gave him “heart palpitations, sickness and a drop in blood pressure”.

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In January 2016, Naji was acquitted by an Egyptian court. But a month later, a higher court fined him £1,000 and sentenced him to two years in jail – the maximum sentence – for violating public morality, as enshrined in Egypt’s penal code. (The editor of Akhbar al-Adab was fined £430 for publishing the chapter.)

Naji’s lawyer, Mahmoud Othman, describes the chaotic legal process leading up to the sentencing as unprecedented.

“There was not enough discussion or attention paid to what we said in defence and the court refused to listen to a witness who is the head of Egypt’s general book institution,” he says. “They issued the verdict quickly, in less than an hour, without the announcement even being made in court – we found out the verdict from a security source.” Naji was the writer in Egypt to be jailed over a novel extract published in a newspaper.

Finally, after more than 300 days behind bars, Naji was released on appeal on 22 December. Now out, he is reluctant to say much about his time in jail, apart from revealing that it had affected his health and that one of his cellmates was the prominent revolutionary Alaa Abd El Fattah, with whom he discussed literature. “Jail is jail,” he says, quietly.

He does, however, take solace from being the latest in an international line of literary outlaws. “Joyce had something related to the same problem, because he’s using dirty words and it seems like it was a huge battle in the 1930s and 40s. And in the US, for example, when you read Kerouac and Ginsberg,” he says. “It’s about words that people are using in the street which suddenly have another meaning when people use them in literature. How can I know about all this and not use it in my writing?”

Naji is not the only Egyptian writer to go to jail, but he is the first to be imprisoned for reasons of morality. Others have been put behind bars for political or religious reasons, among them the novelist and short-story writer Sonallah Ibrahim, a member of the “60s generation” who was jailed between 1959 and 1964 during a crackdown on dissent by the nationalist president Gamal Abdel-Nasser.

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

Naji seems unfazed by his new-found fame, but says he read an Arabic translation of Smith’s novel On Beauty in jail before he knew about her support for his release.

“It was a sign for me to believe in my literature more,” he says. “Before jail, I used to see myself mostly as a journalist and found it more difficult to be motivated. Now that is easier and has become a habit. I write fiction for two hours every day.”

This week, a leading Egyptian publisher took the risk of publishing a new collection of short stories by Naji. Mohamed Hashem, owner of Merit publishing house, is a patriarchal figure on Egypt’s literary scene and is no stranger to run-ins with the authorities.

He says that he decided to publish the stories because “I believe in the freedom of expression, freedom of thought and belief, as well as freedom of literary creativity. There shouldn’t be any kinds of restraints on the mind.”

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

“If you open [that] or other books from the Arabic-Islamic heritage, you will find an explicit language magnified by thousands of times more than in The Use of Life. And those authors were not called heathens or judged by anyone,” Hashem says.

Naji, meanwhile, reveals that while in jail he secretly started writing another novel, now about a quarter complete. He won’t divulge what it’s about, but another book that he read in jail, passed on to him by his friend Abd El Fattah, might give a clue. “I’ve just discovered an amazing writer,” he says. “China Miéville.”

He is due to appear in court again in April and is aware that he could go back to jail. If he is acquitted, he says, he plans to move to either Washington DC or Hong Kong at the end of the year.

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Sonaa Allah during the trail

After everything, Naji downplays suggestions that his sentencing was for political reasons. “I don’t think so. Of course, I heard some conspiracies and a lot of rumours but we didn’t have any evidence to support it,” he says. Some members of parliament even attended his trial and tried to change the law – frustratingly, it was unsuccessful (“The Egyptian political scene is complicated,” Naji says).

“I’m not a writer with a message,” he insists. “I’m more of a writer with questions. I’m not what they call in Egypt an enlightened writer or thinker.”

Richard Jacquemond: Ahmed Naji, the Use of Life and the zombies

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How do you feel when you learn that the author of the novel you’ve been reading and enjoying for the past few days has just been given a two-year prison sentence for violating public morality? One more on the list, you say. Tens of thousands of his fellow citizens rot in jail, where they are being abused in all sorts of ways, without any due process or a parody of it — some for wearing a T-shirt, others for demonstrating against the law that deprives them of their right to demonstrate, many more for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You’ve just spent the last two weeks grieving for Giulio Regeni, speculating with Italian, Egyptian and other colleagues and friends about the causes and consequences of his murder, reflecting on your own responsibility toward your students. You remember your colleague Atef Botros, one of the finest and bravest Egyptian scholars you met in the past few years, banned from his own country and sent back to Germany, the day before you landed yourself at Cairo Airport the last time. What to do? What can you do, back here in France, except vent your anger on Facebook and sign the usual petition?

But then you remember that you were reading Istikhdam al-Hayah (The Use of Life), not only for the fun of it, but because you’ve dedicated most of your professional life to the study and the translation of Egyptian literature and that gives you a special responsibility. You remember Pierre Rabhi’s hummingbird. Pierre Rabhi’s name may not be familiar to the Egyptian reader, but he is one of the most influential thinkers in the French environmentalist sphere. He goes around telling this Native American legend:

One day, there was a huge forest fire. All the animals were terrified, helplessly watching the disaster. All but one tiny hummingbird, which kept flying back and forth between the fire and a pond, each time throwing a few drops on the flames. An old armadillo, annoyed by this pathetic agitation, cried out: “Don’t be a fool! You won’t put out the fire with those tiny drops of water one after another! — I know, replied the hummingbird, but I’m doing my bit.”

Fortunately, lots of people around you are in motion and after a few hours you find yourself part of this chain of solidarity where you’ll be able to do your own bit in the best possible way. An old acquaintance contacts you. She works now for the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) and asks you if you’re willing to sign a statement prepared by the IFHR and translate the novel’s incriminated chapter to French. That’s the least you can do. You share the chapter with your colleague Frédéric Lagrange and get back to the novel.

Translating is as close as one can get to “close reading” and as such, it is possibly the surest quality test you can submit a text to. You can feel from the first sentences you translate that Ahmed Naji’s text passes the test. Here is everything you appreciate in a literary text: Straightforwardness, irony, and sincerity. And also — among other things — there is this love-hate relationship with Cairo that you seem to share with so many Egyptians of all ages. You are amused by his ability to call a spade a spade, and you admire this about him. Here is another proof of the modernity of Arabic fiction. For more than a century, generations of Arab writers have fought for their right to express themselves — the way they want, the way they are. You remember the epigraph to Tilka al-Ra’iha (1966), when Sonallah Ibrahim quoted James Joyce: “This country and this life produced me. I shall express myself as I am.” Naji is a worthy son of this history.

By the end of the chapter, and in the middle of the sex scene that supposedly upset the Akhbar al-Adab reader who raised all this hell, you stumble upon a verb you’ve never seen before in the thousands of pages of Arabic fiction you’ve read: “rahaztu-ha.” As usual in such cases, you first think it’s a typo, but it does not make sense. You go back to your Bible: the English version of Hans Wehr’s Arabic-German dictionary. The root is not mentioned. This gets interesting. A modern writer who uses a root too rare to be accepted by Hans Wehr must be well read in the Arabic turath — another point for Naji. You go to your online Lisan al-‘Arab through the Baheth Arabic search engine and you find it:

.الرهز: الحركة. وقد رهزها المباضع يهرزها رهزا ورهزانا فاهترزت: وهو تحركها جميعا عند الإبلاج من الرجل والمرأة

Wow! This is one of the things that made you fall in love with this language more than 30 years ago, and it still works.  You can still discover, in the course of a novel published a few months ago, a single, classical Arabic verb that conveys such a precise meaning that you cannot find its equivalent in French. And what meaning: “To move, shake a woman during sexual intercourse” — mind you, Lisan al-‘Arab is not gender sensitive.

You spend a good chunk of time pondering, while looking for a single French verb that would carry the same meaning, and of course anything you can find sounds terribly vulgar compared to this beautifully archaic Arabic verb, and nothing you find conveys its precise meaning. Did our upset reader grasp the actual meaning of rahaztu-ha before fainting? It does not matter. What matters is that there was a time when the poets, writers, theologians, and many more who wrote in Arabic could write such words. And when their colleagues, who compiled the dictionaries of “pure Arabic” (al-‘arabiyya al-fusha), did not blush when they inserted them into their lexicons with their masader (word roots), derivations and meanings. You also find the root n/i/k  (to copulate; fuck) in Lisan al-‘Arab, but you won’t find it in any modern Arabic monolingual dictionary.

This is one of the strangest, one of the most hidden effects of the Nahda (the Arab Renaissance). The intellectual Renaissance elite imported from Europe not only nationalism, the novel and plenty of other material and cultural artifacts, but they also imported Victorian values that were alien to Arab culture and strove to impose them on its societies, with the help, a few decades later, of the Wahhabi Islamic model propagated by the Saudi state.

Arab societies never ceased to cultivate all sorts of forms and places of resistance to this moral castration imposed by their elites, whether secular or religious. Maybe the deepest and the most longstanding effect of the 2011 revolutions lies in that they have shaken and cracked this paternalist, patriarchal and puritan mode of social domination. This is what most frightens the current powers that be and this is why their first enemy is not “terrorism,” whatever that means, but this rebellious youth that took to the streets in 2011, to whom Naji and his peers belong and give voice.

As it happens, I first became acquainted with Naji’s writing a few days before travelling to Cairo, last January, through a short text published in Génération Tahrir, a book he co-authored with Pauline Beugnies (photos) and Ammar Abo Bakr (drawings), published in Marseille (Le Bec en l’air). In this powerful text titled “Farewell to the youth” (Wada’an lil-shabab), Naji juxtaposes the youth against “the zombies.” Before the revolution, “the old zombies were all around the place. There was the zombie-general, the zombie-sheikh, the zombie-businessman, the zombie-ruling party, the zombie-opposition, the zombie-moderate Islam, the zombie-extremist Islam. The only choice the zombies leave the youth is to become a zombie and to abandon the idealism of dreams and ethics.” The youth revolted, but now, five years later, “the sheikhs, the zombies and the president have decided to deny the youth even virtual space. Internet is submitted to censorship and even a single tweet can send you to jail.“

I let him conclude: “The time has come to archive, to record, to collect. Then, let us bid farewell to the past and to youth. Let us bid farewell to the ghosts, let us search from inside a new revolution, a new path. The worst danger would be to give way to nostalgia, to stick to old principles and ideas, to imagine that there exists a golden age, a moment in the past that can be recovered. The worst of all dangers would be to sacralise an image. For all of these choices, even if they lead you to other forms of worship — that of the revolution, the martyrs, the superior values of ideology — may transform you into a zombie without you being aware of it.”

Editor’s note: The translations of excerpts from Ahmed Naji’s Istikhdam al-Hayah are the author’s own.