Using Life is a novel of Cairo, and of a younger generation of Egyptians struggling in a culture and society that is both extremely deeply-rooted (in history, tradition, etc.) and unmoored. The first chapter is nothing short of apocalyptic in its vision, first burying Cairo under a mountain of sand, then destroying half the city in an earthquake — in which the Great Pyramid itself: “was reduced o a pile of rubble”, and:
All that was left of our great heritage — our civilization, our architecture, our poetry and prose — would soon meet a fate even worse than that of the pyramids. Everything collapsed into the earth or was buried under oceans of sand.
The novel proper then is a look back to before the collapse, beginning with more or less present-day Cairo — the city and society already breaking down, yet still stumbling on, for now, in its familiar raucous, chaotic state. The narrator, Bassam Bahgat, describes his roaring twenties, when, after a stint working for a human rights organization, he got a job as a documentary filmmaker. Eventually he’s hired to make a series of films, basically on Cairo. He becomes involved with a ‘Society of Urbanists’, dedicated to a sort of very ambitious urban renewal, with a focus on architecture and city planning; eventually the Society reinvents itself as a global alliance of corporations — dozens, eventually — controlling sixty per cent of the world’s agriculture and a major player in all sorts of industries. There’s a look at the development of the old city — planned, but escaping those plans:
No city was meant to be like this. Cairo was supposed to be more intelligently designed, more precise, more efficient. […] What we need is a revolution.
The city dominates the book, defining for the characters — both as they are simply trying to get by, as well as working to upset various aspects of the contemporary order:
There’s nothing more difficult than making decisions in Cairo, since it’s Cairo that usually makes decisions for you.
Bassam crisscrosses both the familiar Cairo and a more fantastical, imagined one; whether led down its familiar streets or given a glimpse of more sensational recesses the city, and its experience, remain fundamental:
Cairo. The heat. The scowls, the sliminess, the sweat. The pain. The scream muffled inside. The streets that don’t let you laugh or smile, or even cry or shout out in pain.
Bassam — a young man: “worried about turning twenty-five without having a good story to tell” — describes his casual relationships and the lives and ambitions of those he interacts with, from the small-scale to the globally ambitious. Women figure in prominent and often powerful roles, in a novel that plays in many ways at subversiveness. Subversiveness extends to form as well, as the narrative is not limited to writing, either: a few sections are presented in cartoon-panel form, while a section on ‘The Animal of Cairo’ pairs illustration with brief description. (The artwork is by Ayman Al Zorkany.) Using Life crams many stories into the larger and dominant Society of Urbanists-conspiracy-tale, but it’s a jittery narrative, hopping all around like its protagonist who often feels he is without control. There are raw scenes here, too — including quite a bit of casual and incidental sex — presenting a welcome broader picture of Egyptian life and society, and the struggles of a younger generation in the contemporary world — convincingly twisted by Naji into his panoramic tale, but more impressive piece by separate piece than in the stuttering whole.
A translation that feels somewhat stilted amplifies what surely is already in the original an aggressive prose challenging traditional narrative norms (especially of what (especially ‘Western’) readers seem to expect from Arabic fiction); Using Life is obviously not meant to be a smooth read — but winds up being a somewhat frustrating one in English.
I first heard the name Ahmed Naji at a PEN dinner last spring. I looked up from my dessert to a large projection of a young Egyptian man, 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. I learned that he was just thirty and had written a novel called Using Life for which he is currently serving a two-year prison sentence. I thought: good title. A facile thought to have at such a moment but it’s what came to mind. I liked the echo of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual—the coolness of that—and thought I recognized, in Naji’s author photo, something antic and wild, not unlike what you see when you look at pictures of Perec. You could call it judging a book by its cover: I’d rather think of it as the readerly premonition that this book might please me. If he had written a book called Peacocks in Moonlight and posed for one of these author portraits where the writer’s head is resting on his own closed fist, I would have been equally shocked and saddened to hear he was in prison, but perhaps not as keen to read it.
As I was having these unserious thoughts the contents of the novel were being roughly outlined for us all from the stage. It sounded intriguing: a kind of hybrid, with certain chapters illustrated as in a graphic novel, and with a comic plot concerning a dystopian Cairo, although it was in fact the novel’s sexual content that had landed its author in jail. Though the novel had been approved by the Egyptian censorship board, a sixty-five-year-old “concerned citizen,” upon reading an excerpt in the literary weekly Akhbar al-Adab, had felt so offended by it that he made a complaint to the local judiciary, who then charged Naji and the editor of the weekly with the crime of “infringing public decency.” (The editor is not serving a jail sentence but had to pay a fine.) There was, to me, something monstrous but also darkly comic about this vision of a reader who could not only dislike your prose but imprison you for it, although of course at the dinner the emphasis was necessarily on the monstrous rather then the ludicrous. But when I got home that night I found an online interview with Naji in which the absurdity of his situation was not at all lost on him:
I really enjoyed the dramatic statement of that plaintiff reader. He told the prosecution that he buys the journal regularly for his daughters, but that one time, his wife walked into the room showing him my published chapter and ridiculing him for bringing such writing into their home. He said his “heartbeat fluctuated and blood pressure dropped” while reading the chapter.
Naji seemed bleakly amused, too, by the months of semantic debate that had led to his prosecution, in which the judges sophistically tried to separate fiction from a non-fiction “essay,” determining finally that this extract was in fact the latter, and so subject to prosecution as a kind of personal revelation:
According to their investigations and official documents, my fiction registers as a confession to having had sex with Mrs. Milaqa (one of the characters in my novel), from kissing her knees all the way to taking off the condom. They also object to my use of words such as “pussy, cock, licking, sucking” and the scenes of hashish smoking. Ironically, this chapter speaks of the happy days of Cairo, as opposed to the days of loss and siege dominant in the remaining chapters. This specific chapter is an attempt to describe what a happy day would look like for a young man in Cairo, but perhaps a happy life feels too provoking for the public prosecutor!
Which sounded even more intriguing. A few days later I’d managed to contact Naji’s friend and sometime translator Mona Kareem, who sent me a PDF of Using Life (itself translated by Ben Koerber) to read on my Kindle. It opened with a beautiful line of Lucretius, and I felt immediately justified in my superficial sense of kinship: “Forever is one thing born from another; life is given to none to own, but to all to use.” And as I read on, the novel’s title took on a different resonance again, for here was a writer not content to use only one or two elements of life, no, here was a guy who wanted to use all of it:
In September, as the city’s residents were just beginning to recover from the most traumatic summer of their lives, there came a series of tremors and earthquakes that would be known as “The Great Quake.” It resulted in the destruction of nearly half the city. The there was an eruption of sinkholes that swallowed entire streets, and distorted the flow of the Nile…The sinkholes did not spare even the pyramids, and nothing could be done for the Great Pyramid itself, which was reduced to a simple pile of rubble. All that was left of our great heritage—our civilization, our architecture, our poetry and prose—would soon meet a fate even worse than that of the pyramids. Everything collapsed into the earth or was buried under oceans of sand.
So here was the epic mode—the fantastical analogy for a present political misery—but right up next to it, unexpectedly, was the intimate, the bathetic, the comic:
[She] went back to rolling the joint, twisting one end into a little hat. She took out her lighter and set the little hat on fire. Watching the slow, dark burn gave me a tingle on my cock, which I put out with a scratch.
The girl in question is Mona May and she’s impossible. The narrator is a young man in a failing state but he is also just a kid in love with a (slightly older) woman who happens to drive him up the wall: “I looked at my face in the mirror, and asked myself a serious question: what am I doing here? If I could put up with her arrogance, her stupidity, her hallucinations, her mid-life crisis…what should I expect in return? At the very least, if I loved her, was still obsessed with her, then there was no reason for me to be here, since my presence clearly causes some kind of disturbance in her world.” Angst! Romance! Sex! Dicks! And illustrations, though these I could not see in the PDF, and had to content myself instead with the tantalizing captions. (“The leftover particles of shit that stuck to our bodies resulted in certain deformities. Marital relations suffered, and many died.”) Using Life is a riotous novel about a failing state, a corrupt city, a hypocritical authority, but it is also about tequila shots and getting laid and smoking weed with your infuriating girlfriend and debating whether rock music died in the Seventies and if Quentin Tarantino is a genius or a fraud. It’s a young man’s book. A young man whose youth is colliding with a dark moment in history.
In an attempt to draw more attention to Naji’s cause, Mona recently translated three very short, flash-fiction type stories for PEN’s website. They published one, “The Plant,” which begins like this:
I will not come through the door or the window,
but as a plant you cannot notice with your naked eye.
I will grow day after day, to the sound of your singing and the rhythm of your breath at night. A small plant you will not notice at first, growing beneath your bed.
From door to bed, to bathroom to closet, standing or sitting against the mirror. Through all these acts, and to the sound of your humming, I will grow. A small green plant. With grand slim leaves sneaking out from beneath your bed.
I read this voice first as the spirit of underground resistance, then as the essence of pervasive dictatorship, and then back to resistance once more. The second story, unpublished, was called “Ambulance” and began like so: “She was sucking my dick when suddenly she stopped to ask if I had given grandmother her medicine.” The last, also unpublished, was called “Normal,” and it opened this way: “One time as I was heading back to Sixth of October city, a prostitute showed up on the way dressed in the official uniform, a black cloak without a headscarf, and instead she had bangs and black hair falling over her shoulders. She was carrying a huge neon bag.”
Mona seemed a little perplexed that PEN had chosen only one of these shorts, but I could understand it. An imprisoned writer is a very serious thing indeed and should not be treated lightly, so it puts an activist in a certain sort of bind when the writer in question turns out to be lightness itself. Naji’s prose explicitly confronts what happens when one’s fundamentally unserious, oversexed youth dovetails with an authoritarian, utterly self-serious regime that is in the process of tearing itself apart. It’s very bad historical luck—of the kind I’ve never suffered. It’s monstrous. It’s ludicrous.
But the fact that the punishment does not fit the crime—that prison is, at this moment in Cairo, the absurd response to the word “pussy”—is exactly what shouldn’t be elided. In another historical moment, or so it occurs to me, young Ahmed would be at that PEN dinner, sitting right next to me, having come over from Cairo for a quick jaunt to see writer friends in Bed-Stuy, and he’d be a bit bored by the solemn speeches, sneaking out the back of the museum to smoke a joint perhaps, and then returning to his seat in high humor just in time to watch a literary giant whom he didn’t really respect come up to the stage to receive an award. That, anyway, is the spirit I detect in his novel: perverse and brilliant, full of youth, energy, light! Some writers, in the face of state oppression, will write like Solzhenitsyn. Others, like Naji, find their kindred spirits in the likes of Nabokov and Milan Kundera, writers who maintained their instinct for unbearable lightness and pleasure, for sex and romance, for perversity and delight, in the face of so much po-faced violent philistinism.
“I think I understand now,” writes Naji, in Using Life, “that the bullshit inside of us is nothing but a reflection of the bullshit outside. Or maybe it’s the other way round. In either case, the outside bullshit eventually seeps inside, and settles into the depths of our souls.” But on the evidence of his own writing the bullshit has not yet settled in Naji, not even in his jail cell. He is part of a great creative renaissance in Cairo, of young novelists and poets, graphic novelists, and—perhaps most visibly—graffiti artists, who have turned the city’s ever increasing walls into a staging site for political protest and artistic expression. Since 2014, President Sisi has cracked down on this community, with new restrictions on the press and multiplying arrests of artists and writers, and yet the Egyptian constitution guarantees both artistic freedom and freedom of expression. Naji has been prosecuted instead on Article 178 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes “content that violates public morals.”
An attempt to appeal was rejected in February. Naji’s last appeal is on December 4. If you read this and feel so moved, tweet #FreeNaji and any other social media action that occurs to you. Hundreds of Egyptian artists and intellectuals have signed a petition in support of Naji but there are also loud voices who feel that his example should not be used in a “freedom of literature” argument because they see his writing as not really literature, as fundamentally unserious. Using Life is certainly comic, sexual, wild—the work of an outrageous young man. We should defend his freedom to be so. “Falling in love in Cairo,” I learn, from his novel, “You have to prepare for the worst. You just can’t walk over to her and say, ‘Mona May, I’ve got the jones for you.’ Words like these could get a man hurt.” Over here, in New York, words won’t get you into too much trouble—not yet, anyway. What would we dare to write if they did?
Editor’s note: Ahmed Naji was released from prison on December 22, after Egypt’s highest appeals court temporarily suspended his sentence; a hearing will be held on January 1 to determine whether he will face another trial or be sent back to prison.
Ahmed Naji’s novel Using Life, in an English translation by Ben Koerber, will be published by The Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at The University of Texas at Austin next year.
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 readingIstikhdam 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.