The PEN Ten Interview: Ahmed Naji on Language, Identity, and Writing in Exile

This interview was first published at: https://pen.org/ahmed-naji-pen-ten-interview/

Ahmed Naji

The PEN Ten is PEN America’s weekly interview series. This week Lily Philpott, Public Programs Manager at PEN America, speaks with Ahmed Naji, 2016 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award recipient and the author of three books: Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009), and The Use of Life (2014). Ahmed will join us for this year’s World Voices Festival at Cry, the Beloved Country on May 9. You can purchase tickets for the event here » 

1. What was the first book or piece of writing that had a profound impact on you?
One Thousand and One Nights. I read it for the first time when I was young. I was amazed by the endless stories, the magical sex, and the mysterious worlds. And above all, the idea that no one knows who the writer is. I still read it from time to time and collect different copies of it.

2. How does your writing navigate truth? How do you work across genres to navigate the relationship between truth and fiction?
I believe it’s a writer’s job to create the truth. In fiction, readers know it’s lies, but they think it is (if the writing is good) more accurate than what they read in newspapers.

I always keep a notebook beside my bed, where I write real dreams when I wake up. After a couple of days, I go back and read what I wrote, and sometimes I feel puzzled: “Did I have this dream? Did I see this person really in my dream?” But my dream journal will establish the truth; it’s here to tell me what I forget, what I dreamed of . . . to say to me the truth about the fiction of dreams.

We forget many details of our dreams, sometimes we forget our dreams totally. My ambition is that my writing will have the same impact as that “dream journal” has on me, to establish the truth, and to encourage the readers to doubt what been told as truth.


“I believe it’s a writer’s job to create the truth.”


3. What does your creative process look like? How do you maintain momentum and remain inspired?
The key, in my opinion, is to deal with writing as a way of living your life: It’s not a job or a mission to achieve something. If you dealt with it as a job, you will always look for reward or sometimes will be puzzled about the purpose of what you are doing.

I enjoy writing and reading, and I see it as a way of enjoying life, and through this joy, you will always find inspiration. I hear a lot about the writer’s block, but I never experienced it. My problem is that I have a lot of things in my mind and my notebook, but I can’t find the time to write them down.

Don’t wait for the great ideas, but keep writing and reading and it will come. You could write for 10 days a dull draft piece about the sea, but I am sure in the 11th day you will write the beautiful essay, and if not, write again in the 12th day.

4. What is one book or piece of writing by an Egyptian author you love that readers might not know about?
In poetry, I will suggest Iman Mersal.

In nonfiction: Haytham El-Wardany.

In fiction and novels: Nael Eltoukhy and Mohammed Rabie.

For all of them, most of their works have been translated into English.

5. Whose words do you turn to for inspiration?
Two poets: Georges Henein and Joyce Mansour

6. What is the last book you read? What are you reading next?
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, and on my list two other books to choose between: The Prisoner of Heaven by Carlos Ruiz Zafón or Philosophy for Militants by Alain Badiou.

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

7. What does it mean to you to be, temporarily at least, a writer in exile? Do you find that you are thinking and writing about Egypt in different ways?
The real dilemma is not how to write about Egypt, but it’s about the language. I look around myself here in America, and I see many writers from Egypt or other countries living in exile. I notice two tracks available for an exiled writer here:

1—To continue doing what you used to do. Living in Las Vegas but writing about Egypt in Arabic. Following what is happening in your old country but know nothing about your neighborhood. In the end, after a couple of years, you end up having no connection with where you are living or the country you came from. Because of time passing, you end up writing about a country that you used to know, a country that doesn’t exist anymore

2—Another track is to take off your clothes, your old identity. To leave your language and adopt a new language and a new identity. The trick is that America and American culture is built on identity. I notice writers who come here and give the American public and culture institutes what they want to hear.

I didn’t make it a year here, and some people will approach me as “a Muslim writer” or “Borwen writer,” and I don’t even understand what that means.

Anyway, for now at least, I am not sure where I am heading, but I am confident about the following:

A—I don’t want to be sad, or a prisoner of my own nostalgia. It’s an excellent opportunity to be here, and I am thirsty. I want to learn everything, and to rethink everything I used to believe in.

B—I wish to be part of the community that I am living in and to be able to give back.

C—It’s all connected darling, what happens here effects on what is going there. If Trump becomes a president for another four years, that means Sisi in Egypt will be president for another ten years, which mean NO Egypt for me for another ten years. So all battles are connected, and the show goes on.


“I want to learn everything, and to rethink everything I used to believe in.”


8. You’ve spoken about being under strict surveillance in Cairo after being released from prison. Do you think living under this daily surveillance will have a lasting effect on your writing?
Being out of Egypt doesn’t mean I am totally free. I still have family there. Also, the surveillance continues even if you left the country. Lately, the current Egyptian government is following the political opponents who are living abroad, and even writers. Alaa Al-Aswiny, the well-known Egyptian writer, has been sued by military prosecutors because of his last novel. Sometimes the embassies refuse to renew the dissident’s passports.

I believe censorship and surveillance are part of modern life, and part of the writer’s job is to deal with it sometimes by fighting, sometimes by coaxing. It’s not only about political issues, but social values are playing an important role, and fighting against it is harder than fighting against authoritarian authorities.

9. What advice do you have for young writers?
I don’t have anything to say for young writers. The opposite: I would like a bit of advice from them. My advice is for the old writers: Don’t get comfortable with what are you doing just because everyone around you is clapping for whatever you say. Don’t give your readers (or worse, your editor) what they are expecting; it’s refreshing to lose some readers from time to time.

10. Which writer, living or dead, would you most like to meet? What would you like to discuss?
Lately, I have been thinking about Salman Rushdie. If we once met and had the time, I would like to know how he did it and escaped from the battle that they tried to drag him into, and was able to re-shape and reform his identity and his writing style, and how he was able to escape from the frames that constricted him.

11. In an interview with Electric Literature, you said: “Leaving Egypt now allows me to finally breathe and think freely, to test out my ideas, and reexamine everything that’s happened.” How do you anticipate your work will change while you are living in America?
Writing is a way of understanding yourself, and also following your environment. I am open to everything, and I am sure that living in America will have an impact on my writing. Until now I only wrote a short text about my experience as a father in America after we got our baby.

Now we are in Las Vegas, a crazy city full of stories and inspiration. I am sure to be able to understand all of this, I have to write about it.

Another thing is the audience and the language. Before coming here when I was writing, I used to imagine my readers to be Egyptian or Arab. Arabic also was the language that I used. But since we arrived here, I started to think differently, and even sometimes, like answering your questions, I use English.

Conversation: The author of “Using Life” on the new beginnings in exile

This conversation was first published: https://electricliterature.com/imprisoned-in-egypt-for-his-writing-ahmed-naji-is-finally-free/

No one foresaw that Ahmed Naji would be imprisoned for his novel. After all, no author had ever been subjected to arrest for morality reasons in modern Egypt, and as Naji himself says in this interview: “My writings are not political.”

The novel in question, Using Life (illustrated by Ayman Al Zorkany and translated from Arabic by Benjamin Koerber), reads like a colorful account of someone having a lovers’ spat with the city in which he’s lived all his life. That is to say, the book is full of intimate familiarity, occasional tender scorn, and a fervent curiosity toward city and man’s entwined fates that is also somehow coolly detached.

Opening in near-future, post-apocalyptic Cairo, Using Life combines graphic novel elements and quirky characters to produce a portrait of a man making the best of life in a city on the verge of disaster. It is a rollicking read, at times zooming into dizzying detail (for example, a section illustrating Cairo’s various inhabitants), other times hurtling into madcap, breakneck action (secret societies! Ninja assassins!). Above all, the book is a bold depiction of a person pushing against the boundaries of their given life.

The novel passed the inspection of Egypt’s censorship board and was lauded by critics in Egypt and the wider Arab world. Then the unexpected began. In 2015, a private citizen lodged a complaint against Naji after an excerpt from Using Life was printed in Egyptian magazine Akhbar al-Adab. The private citizen, a lawyer, claimed that he suffered heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure after reading passages from the excerpt describing cunnilingus. State prosecutors then took these claims seriously, and as a result Naji was sentenced to jail on charges that he “violated public modesty”.

As mentioned, his ordeal is extraordinary, marking the first time in modern Egypt that a writer has been incarcerated for their fiction. Zadie Smith puts it this way: “Naji’s prose explicitly confronts what happens when one’s fundamentally unserious, oversexed youth dovetails with an authoritarian regime that is in the process of tearing itself apart.” While imprisoned, Naji was granted the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award, which was accepted on his behalf by his brother.

In 2016, Naji was released from jail but subjected to a travel ban. In May of this year the ban was finally lifted, and Naji was able to leave Egypt. I caught up with him and translator Benjamin Koerber over email shortly after Ahmed Naji’s arrival in America.

YZ Chin: Glad to hear about the travel ban being lifted! How does that change things for you as a writer, if it does change anything?

Ahmed Naji: I’ve finally been able to travel and leave Egypt. I’ve now moved to the United States, where my wife lives, after we’d spent a full year separated from each other by the ocean and passport inspection officers.

I spent the two years after my release from prison in Cairo, and they were some of the most difficult years for me as a writer. First of all, I was under strict surveillance, and I was not allowed to organize any events or cultural activities. We failed to get official approval for the book launch event for my short story collection, which was published after I got out of prison. Only the Goethe-Institut, which is connected to the German Embassy in Cairo, offered to host the event.

Following the advice of my lawyers, I decided to keep away from publishing until the case was over. For the first time in my life, I felt the real weight of censorship. Even worse, I didn’t know what the red lines were. One time, I published an article on the band Mashrou’ Leila. Lo and behold I get a call from a friend who’s close to the security services, chastising me for the article and telling me they considered it a provocation since Mashrou’ Leila supports the Arab queer community, and that this sort of behavior could negatively impact my case and travel ban. Leaving Egypt now allows me to finally breathe and think freely, to test out my ideas, and reexamine everything that’s happened. I’ll finally be able to enjoy the company of my wife and the friends I have here.

But it also raises complicated questions for me: Is this to be a temporary, or permanent, departure? Am I to become a writer in exile? What does exile mean, now? If I stay here for a longer period, what will I do? What will I write about? Will I keep writing for an Egyptian audience, while living in America? Or will I assimilate to the new society and culture, change to writing in English, find a new ethnic or religious identity to subscribe to, and thus turn into one of those writers that talks about “Islam”, “the oppression of women in the Orient”, “the Arabs”, “terrorism”, and other such topics that captivate American audiences? For now, I’m trying not to think about all that, but I know I’ll have to face those questions soon.

For the artist to protect himself from confrontation with the institutions of power and all their violence, he has the three options that James Joyce prescribed for the writer: “lying, exile, silence.”

YZC: I’m very happy to hear that you are reunited with your wife. Sounds like you’re understandably at a difficult crossroads writing-wise. I get the reluctance to become a mouthpiece that caters to American appetite or biases. Are you concerned America will change you or pressure you in ways beyond that pigeonholing?

AN: I’m always ready for change. So far, I’m optimistic and open-minded about this American journey. My first concern is to learn — to understand this country, to take it all in and figure out its rhythm — and through this I’m sure I’ll find the right place for me. I’m lucky because I have a large number of friends here who are writers or work in the cultural or political fields. They’re providing me with support, and the keys to understand the nature of the scene here.

YZC: Do you think there’s also a risk of being pigeonholed as “the writer who went to prison?” As opposed to, say, “the writer who writes about finding joy in a depressing city and the fearsomeness of killer ninjas.” What would you like to be known for as a writer?

AN: I hope to be known as the writer with a thousand faces. I’d be very receptive to any of these labels or classifications. The writer’s challenge, in my opinion, is his ability to open up to the world, to change, to embark on new adventures, and to create new works. The writer that went to prison, the writer who writes about a depressing city called Cairo, is the same writer that might tomorrow write about intrigue and power play in Washington, D.C. Or he might write about a girl’s education in America. Anything is possible. My appetite’s ready for all trials and experiences.

Two days ago, I was talking to Yasmine [Naji’s wife] about something, and said, “As exiles, we don’t have the luxury of holding on to a lot of memories.” The thought terrified her. It hadn’t really set in yet. “Oh my god, we really are exiles,” she said. I tried to lighten the both of us up by focusing on the few real benefits of exile, like the unbearable lightness of being, and the freedom to remake one’s self and one’s image. Exile provides the opportunity for a new beginning, and there’s nothing more thrilling for me than new beginnings.

Exile provides the opportunity for a new beginning, and there’s nothing more thrilling for me than new beginnings.

YZC: As a writer who grew up in an atmosphere of state censorship, I struggled for a long time with self-censorship. Have you had any previous run-ins with the Egyptian censorship board? How do you grapple with the possibility of censorship when you write?

AN: I think a big part of writing is struggling with, and figuring one’s way around, the many forms of censorship that exist. The political censorship exerted by the state is a concern of course, but I never confronted it before the trial. My writings are not political and I was not interested in clashing directly with the state; I hadn’t thought that sex worried them very much. The greater pressure, the form of censorship that I feel impacts the writer more, is the censorship of society and the family. This form of censorship burrows under your skin, without you ever feeling it. It sometimes becomes impossible to confront or to expose, like the censorship that imposes itself under the name of political correctness.

YZC: That rings true for me, the existence of censorship that never gets registered. So you’re saying there needs to be constant self-exploration to understand the pressures that are placed on us. In that case, I’m curious if you think it’s possible to deliberately cultivate our influences as a countermeasure, like garlic against vampires? If so, what is or would be your garlic?

AN: In such circumstances, the garlic can be prepared a number of different ways.

1 — Listening closely to one’s own personal desires and pleasures, however forbidden or prohibited they might be, however useless they might be to society or the “wheel of production”. No impulse should be suppressed, nor should you run after it like a teenager. You just need to listen to it, then take your time polishing it, until the desire turns into a will.

2 — Don’t put too much trust in psychology or self-help doctrines. Do you really think all these books, programs, and talk shows want you to succeed? Do you really think that the secret of happiness can be sold with a holiday discount? Believe me: except for your mother, no one’s really concerned about your happiness and self-interest.

3 — Whatever you do, don’t let them catch you. In Egypt we have a nice little proverb that says, “Fuck the government but don’t show them your dick”.

4 — Always practice in front of the mirror first. A few days ago in D.C., there was a small demonstration of Neo-Nazis and white people. It was really quite small. Facing them was a counter-demonstration of mostly African Americans and anti-Nazis, which was huge. The Nazis, surrounded by police, were waving flags; they were vastly outnumbered by the counter-demonstrators. In spite of this fact, they were marching with full faith in the protection offered by the police. Their demonstration ended before it began, and they quietly left amidst the shouts of the counter-demonstration. The question I kept asking myself was, “What were they [the Nazis] thinking? Did they consider what happened a victory for them?”

YZC: There’s an interesting passage in Using Life where the character Ihab thinks about art: ‘Might not the “truth” of art conflict with its duty? That is to say, the duty art has to be functional?’ It certainly seems that to censors and some readers, art has a duty to uphold morals. What are your thoughts on the duty of art?

AN: Morality is not constant, it’s constantly changing. Otherwise, we’d still have the morality of the nineteenth century that held African Americans in the cotton fields and women in the kitchen. Permanence and stability are illusions. The world and human consciousness are in permanent motion, and the writer is part of this motion. The power of art lies in its ability to strip off the moral veil that society’s institutions impose under the pretext of stability or observing morality. When that happens, art performs its role vis-à-vis the individual by upsetting the ideas and convictions that one has been raised with. Art also performs its role vis-à-vis society in helping to change the prevailing morality.

Of course change doesn’t happen easily. The art that performs these roles puts itself in open confrontation with the institutions of power and all their violence. For the artist to protect himself, he has the three options that James Joyce prescribed for the writer: “lying, exile, silence”.

The power of art lies in its ability to strip off the moral veil that society’s institutions impose under the pretext of stability or observing morality.

YZC: When I saw David Bowie listed in your novel’s Acknowledgements page, I immediately thought it was very apt because Using Life is such a rollicking and at times surreal read. Best Bowie song?

AN: [I’m Deranged]

YZC: Using Life flirts with fantasy and magical realism, and of course graphic novels. Do you see more possibilities and avenues for expression in blending genres? Will you continue working across genres?

AN: I hope so. One of the faces I’d like to be known by is that of fantasy writer. Comics for me are my eternal dream. I’m a big fan of comics. None of my current projects involve comics, but I have a file full of dozens of stories and ideas that are just waiting for the right artist to execute them. I have the ambition to write a massive graphic novel, which I hope to realize some day.

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