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.

A Writer on the Swing of Fear

I was a young lad watching TV with my grandfather, who appeared full of sorrow when he followed a news segment that showed a frail, old man lying in a hospital bed with tubes attached to his body. My grandfather quipped that the old man was a good man and did nothing but write, not understanding why they had tried to kill him.

I found out from my grandfather that he was named Naguib Mahfouz. A few years later I would find out that the brief clips I saw were of Naguib Mahfouz becoming conscious after he survived an assassination attempt in 1994. It was a young man who hadn’t read any of Mahfouz’s works who stabbed him in the neck repeatedly, based on a fatwa where a few sheikhs deemed him an apostate because his novel spread blasphemous ideas.

I saw Naguib Mahfouz’s novels for the first time in my high school library, years later. I would escape from over-packed classes, the putrid stench enveloping the schoolyard, and would go the library replete with different kinds of books.

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I grabbed a Naguib Mahfouz novel and went to the library manager to take it out. She sighed heavily, started to bismalah (invoking God’s name), and chased the devil away, then she said she wouldn’t let me borrow this novel or any other Naguib Mahfouz novel.

The teacher, doubling as the library director, explained to me that some ‘less than moral’ scenes in Naguib Mafhouz’s novels were not suitable for a teenager like me and that the novels also contained atheistic and blasphemous ideas. To settle it, she pointed to a shelf of Shakespeare’s plays translated into Arabic and she said you can take any book by him because he’s entertaining.

But I didn’t want entertainment, I wanted ‘fun’ instead. I hid a copy of Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs under my shirt and walked out of the library, without her suspecting. I devoured it in one night and returned it the next day without her noticing. From this moment on, I realised the governing rules of literature in the country that I was living in. You needn’t be a dictator or a dissident politician to be assassinated. You can be a peaceable person with fifty novels under your belt, win a Nobel Prize for Literature, be ninety years old preparing for a serene retirement and still face an assassination attempt for a novel you wrote forty years earlier.

Even if you were a writer who does not oppose the government, like Naguib Mahfouz, and even if those in power celebrated your stellar achievements by putting your books in school libraries, that doesn’t make you immune from having a teacher prevent students from reading your writing. In her eyes, you are spreading kufr (blasphemy) and Shakespeare’s books are piously dripping with Islam.

Literature, then, is a secret activity. It must be practised away from prying eyes and with extreme caution.

Fear is a constant companion of the Arab writer. Fear is a compendium of varying degrees, one on top of the other. If you look closely to the writer or the book, there is fear of political authorities. Then there’s fear of religious authorities. And the most troubling of all, fear of the reader’s reaction, if they didn’t grasp what you’ve written or feel that you’ve unsettled national, religious, social or any other mores.

Therefore, early on, when I started writing, I decided to befriend this fear. For I would lose a war with it.

I am, ultimately, a son of this time and place and what happened in the past inevitably affects the present.

During the 60s, all forms of cultural media and production in Egypt were under the purview and control of the state, similar to other countries that followed the Soviet model of cultural management. In this period, the state enforced a set of literary rules and criteria that, if you wanted to bypass, meant not getting your work published.

The Ministry of Culture refused to publish a young Sonallah HYPERLINK “https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/sonallah-ibrahim-egypts-oracular-novelist” Ibrahim’s seminal That Smell and Notes from Prison. Sonallah recounts that the culture minister asked to see him for a sit-down. In a long interrogation about one of the scenes, where the recently-released hero has sex with a prostitute and is unable to sustain an erection, the minister mockingly turns to Sonallah and asks him, ‘so are you like your hero, you can’t get it up’?

Sonallah’s novel was never fully published in its entirety until years later in Egypt.

However, Egypt was able to escape the Soviet shroud early on, specifically in the late 70s. The state’s grip loosened over cultural and artistic productions and censorship was limited. It still remained, though, in the hands of large, state-affiliated publishing houses and book distributors. This made private publishing unfairly doomed from the start.

Instead of state censorship, this was outsourced to religious institutions: Which were at once competitors and conspirators in the battle for political power from the 70s until Sisi’s ascent to the presidency.

This claustrophobic climate shaped the identity of contemporary Egyptian literature. We evil writers learnt to maintain the secrecy of our craft. We lived in secret societies on the margins of official public culture. Since the 70s, the best works were published at the expense of the author and the state curbed its public distribution until the book market opened up at the turn of the noughties.

The Internet appeared and suddenly publishing became easier and writers were able to write using pseudonyms. Gulf states pumped thousands of dollars into the book and publishing industry. More bookshops popped up, as well as publishing houses. Stylistically, new genres of writing blossomed – crime, horror and others that were stellar in their commercial success, but duly short-lived.

A florid style of writing took over the literary sphere, while the writers themselves were marching towards a stark reality. They were writing novels tracking class and social changes and, when the winds of the Arab Spring hit in early 2011, some writers who topped ‘best-seller’ lists became opinion-makers. For a moment, I felt that the spectre of fear had lifted its shadow from Arab literature. New identities were formed and with it a new vernacular sprang up that people used on the internet. Then suddenly everyone asked, where’s the revolutionary literature?

And before any revolutionary literature could rear its head, the revolution was crushed, as with all other revolutions, and the breathing space for Egyptian and Arab literature dwindled.

The authorities regained their control of the arms of artistic and cultural productions and currently the state holds 90% of all television channels, newspapers, magazines and news sites. The remaining sites are mostly blocked.

Currently, Egyptian and Arab writers are either imprisoned, exiled or prevented from writing and publishing their works. Saudi author and Arab Booker Prize winner Raja HYPERLINK “https://arablit.org/2018/04/25/why-raja-alem-is-publishing-sarab-in-translation-before-she-publishes-in-arabic/”Alem HYPERLINK “https://arablit.org/2018/04/25/why-raja-alem-is-publishing-sarab-in-translation-before-she-publishes-in-arabic/” announced recently that a translation of her novel, Sarab, would be published in German and English before the Arabic version. There is not even a date of when her novel in the original Arabic is set to be published.

The novel’s events take, as their starting point, the 1979 Kaaba (Grand Mosque) siege in Mecca, when a group of extremists surrounded the holy site. The siege ended in a series of mysterious, unruly bloody events that saw guns and tanks blot the holiest site for Muslims.

It’s only natural that Raja, a daughter of Mecca, writes about this incident that undoubtedly shaped her childhood. But this historical incident has become shrouded in mystery in the Kingdom. A red line encircling it, where no one discusses or even comes near it. This has forced Raja to delay publishing her novel in Arabic.

Egyptian author Alaa HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaa_Al_Aswany” Al HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaa_Al_Aswany”Aswany, who publishing houses were always racing to print, has also been unable to publish his latest work, The As If Republic. The reason is that the novel examines the January 25 revolution through a series of characters, including a military general. Egyptian publishers were scared to catch the ire of the authorities. His novel has been published in Beirut. Even though it is Egyptian through and through, the novel is banned in Egypt.

The latest victim of the games of censorship and stifling dissent is Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, the successful author whose novels have been turned into dramas on Egyptian television, including Abou Amro El Masry, which is on TV screens now. His name was taken off the credits and events were changed, in order to appease the political vision of the current regime.

There are new forms of censorship and narrowing of the public space daily. Censorship has become a looming spectre. Red lines dissolve and no one knows what is allowed or what is forbidden anymore.

The writer moves on the swing of fear, sometimes forcing him to hide what he thinks or alluding to it discreetly, instead of discussing it valiantly and truthfully. And sometimes fear drives him to the white noise of the internet and social media, turning him into a political megaphone critiquing and denouncing. And in the middle, artistic questions disappear. Talking points turn towards literature itself and its utilitarian aesthetics.

There is a mighty dark ghost, a spectre, haunting this country, and I am looking for a way to hide from its panoptic vision or running away from its grip.

Translated by Farid Farid

 

Nurturing Love in Prison ‎

When thrown into prison, you realize that the hustle and bustle, the friends, all the pomp and fanfare, everything that has ever surrounded you all disappear into thin air. Nothing remains. The beloveds, the mothers, and the wives are the only ones who continue to linger, persistent. Diligently visiting, preparing food, bringing clothes and socks, and snatching a quick hug at the end of every visit as they bid you farewell.

In 2016, I was sentenced to a two year prison sentence because I simply wrote a novel. A civilian had filed the case against me, and the prosecutor had gladly found me guilty of “violating public morals”, an affront to Egyptian families’ sense of propriety, dangerously poisoning children’s minds. The court concurred, found me guilty and sentenced me to two years in prison, locking me up, ridding society of my imminent corrupting influence. I was reeling from a deep shock. It had never for a moment crossed my mind that I could be imprisoned for writing a novel. It was a precedent in the whole history of the Egyptian legal system. And here I am, trapped in the dark heart of the system.

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In the prison visiting areas, I have witnessed the strongest and most ferocious of men break down in front of their mothers and wives. Luckily, our visiting area was a little more humane in comparison to other prisons, as there was no wall separating the prisoners from the visitors. We would all sit in one room on marble benches protruding from the walls, harboring scurrying ants and cockroaches, their thirst quenched by the prisoners’ and families’ tears.

When I was first sent to prison, I wasn’t allowed any visitors for thirty days. As the first visit edged closer, one of my more seasoned cellmates explained to me the necessity of shaving my beard and properly combing my hair. One of the inmates lent me some hair cream to give my hair a less unkempt appearance, while another allowed me a few sprays from cologne that he kept in a plastic bottle. When your loved ones see you, you have to look shipshape, in tip-top condition according to most of the other prisoners. You don’t want to give your family reason to be alarmed, to increase their misery or anxiety, especially since in coming all the way out there to visit you, they too have endured hardship and have been waiting since the crack of dawn for hours at the gates in the scorching sun until they are allowed to enter.

With the nearing approach of every visit, rituals had been established: the “ironing” of my navy[1] prisoner’s uniform by placing it under the mattress, getting my hair cut by the prisoner’s barber in return for a pack of cigarettes, waking up early to shave my beard and take a shower: the preparations for a romantic date. These were the only moments of love available to us. Through perseverance and a focused attention on all the preparations leading up to the visit, you guard that love, water it and nourish it.

After the second visit, the investigations officer called me into his office. He told me that my fiancée had asked about the procedures and paperwork required to marry an inmate on prison grounds. With a smirk on his face, he said he wanted to make sure that I approved and wanted to marry her, and that he wasn’t putting the squeeze on me.

This particular officer, along with a bunch of others, seemed to admire my love for Yasmine, so they temporarily looked the other way regarding the rules that state only first-degree relatives are allowed visiting rights. Although no official legal status bound us, they let her see me, pretending she was my relative.

Yasmine and I weren’t even engaged back then. We had met a few months earlier in the desert of south Sinai, close to the area where the children of Israel had wandered for forty years. Until then our budding relationship had witnessed no disagreements or tribulations; we would look at each other, incredulous, astounded by how all this time had passed with no problems or misunderstandings to speak of. When the time came to go to court, Yasmine accompanied me to the hearing as a concerned human rights lawyer, and because never, in our wildest dreams, had we anticipated all that was about to happen, she had hurriedly left me to attend to another case, while I awaited my sentence. When my mother came to visit me at  the police station prior to my transfer to prison, Yasmine was there as “just a concerned lawyer”. By the first visit a month later, my mother began to suspect that Yasmine was not just my lawyer. Egyptian laws do not acknowledge any kind of relationship or social commitment between a man and a woman save marriage; it’s rarer still for society to accept non-marital romantic commitments. Strangely enough, however, the police officer accepted Yasmine’s prison visits and our claims that we were engaged, though we were not even wearing engagement rings.

Our misgivings remained, however, and continued to worry us. What if a sudden change in the Basha’s[2] or Bashas’ mood led them to call off Yasmine’s visits? It was then that Yasmine thought of marriage, since it would allow her the official legal rights to visit me. But we were apprehensive.  We knew that my time in prison, however long that would last, was a temporary situation and we didn’t want our wedding day memories to be saddled with the prison guards’ loathsome grins, be weighed down by metal handcuffs and blue prison uniforms with crawling cockroaches.

After the 2016 April Tiran and Sanafir island protests, a fair number of youth and political detainees were arrested and sent to the prison where I was, which led to a visible increase of the patrols and security level. With the increase of inmates, officers, plain-clothes detectives[3] and police guards all became more edgy and short-tempered. It was during that period, that I went down to the visiting area during a scheduled visit and was terrified when I saw that my mother was there alone, without my brother or Yasmine. A thousand and one thoughts raced through my mind. What could have possibly happened? A few minutes later, my brother came from the chief of the prison investigation’s office. My brother told me, “They aren’t going to allow Yasmine to see you.” The detainees’ families had been waiting at the prison gate, and the prison’s administration had arbitrarily decided not to acknowledge the validity of the visiting permits they carried. Being a lawyer, Yasmine had intervened to help the families and put pressure on the prison administration to allow them to see their loved ones inside. The prison’s administration was angry and, to spite her, predictably decided to enforce the visiting regulations so that she couldn’t visit me.

After my brother had talked to me, the officer called me in to see him. A long lecture ensued about how he had broken the rules and allowed Yasmine to visit me, due to his magnanimity, forbearance, and out of regard for our love for one another. However, he continued, Yasmine’s causing a commotion and raising a ruckus, and interfering in matters that are none of her business will force him to deal with her according to the rules. I stood there silently. It was a silly exercise and display of power; a game that the authority had played with thousands of Egyptians and political activists. He very well knew that if he talked to Yasmine directly, she would hold fast to the law, to her role as a lawyer and to the families’ right to visit their detained sons and daughters. However, he also knew that if used his authority as a jailor to address me as a prisoner, I would in turn ultimately end up using his language, logic and words when addressing Yasmine because I wanted to continue to see her during visits. I would emotionally pressure here into compromising and doing what he wanted. I felt totally powerless and helpless. The quiet futility of it all slowly swept over me. Holding my head up high for the first time when addressing him I said “do whatever you want in the future, but I do want to see Yasmine today.” He allowed Yasmine to see me for a few minutes at the end of the visit.

In the coming weeks, the chief of investigations and I reached an unspoken agreement. He had come to understand that three things were important to me: books, Yasmine’s visits and the letters that we sent each other. Everyone in the prison’s administration took pleasure in reading those letters, which reached me days later, after they had been examined and shown to the different security apparatuses. In turn, he took care that these three things remained so that he could use them to make me comply to what he wanted, either by allowing or by denying them. Every time he allowed me one of the books that were sent to me, he always used the telling phrase, “here’s your opium.”

In the visiting room, feelings, tears, laughs and the tension that underlies the feelings that haven’t yet been fully formed are given free rein and released. All this takes place right under the noses of the jailors, and the prisoners that watch one another. When the women visiting their husbands are Niqabis[4], things become increasingly complicated. One inmate confessed in a moment of weakness how during the past eighteen months, he never got to see his wife’s face once. The visits became an extension of his imprisonment rather than a relief from it. During the visit, just like in his cell, he recreates from memory his wife’s face with all its details.

Another colleague circumvented the visiting room’s regulations by having his sister hold up a little prayer rug, creating a barrier between him and his wife and the rest of the visiting area so that his wife could remove her face veil. In the beginning, the guards overlooked this, but with the passing of time one of them would loudly clear his throat and say “that is forbidden.” The sister would then bring down the prayer rug and the wife would cover her face once more, and that momentary feeling of privacy that they had tried to recreate would evaporate.

Prison laws state that visiting time is one whole hour. Yet, it was rare that we would actually get an hour. Depending on the officer’s mood, the visit’s duration would fluctuate and whenever the bell rang, it was time for goodbyes and hugs. Some prisoners were lucky. Those were the ones who had succeeded in establishing mutually beneficial relations with the prison administration. Those benefits could be based either on the prisoner’s connections or because they spied on their inmates telling the officers what they heard or saw, and in return they would get extra time during visits or according to one investigative officer they would get an “extra dose of emotional opium.”

During December of 2016, as a result of her work as a lawyer and a human rights activist, Yasmine was subjected to a fierce smear campaign carried out by pro-state propagandist media and security apparatuses. I never realized how vicious and defamatory the campaign was until my mother’s and brother’s visit. Yasmine was not with them. Mohamed, my brother succinctly explained just how ferocious the campaign was and that a number of lawsuits had been filed against her, accusing her of cooperating with terrorists because one of her 2014 clients had been accused of the 2016 St.Peter and St.Paul church bombing.  Some of Yasmine’s friends who were lawyers too, had advised her to stop visiting me in prison because the authorities might arrest or harass her if she did.

That day, at the end of the visit, the officer asked me, “So where is your fiancée?” I tersely responded, “ She is a little tired.” He smiled and nodded. I realized by his look that he had received new directives about Yasmine and me. I was no longer allowed either to receive or send letters to her. I feared for Yasmine. I sent her a message through Alaa Abd El Fattah who had a visit due a few days after mine. I told him to get word to her through his family that she mustn’t come visit me.

That night I slept feeling that I was falling from one prison into another, far darker and gloomier. I had been in prison for a year now. With Yasmine no longer able to visit me, I felt that everything that had preceded this was just a precursory phase to the real prison and its darkness; one without Yasmine and where constant worry and fear for your loved ones outside of prison sinks its claws into your heart. For the first time, my faith and trust in my ability to get through this ordeal had been shaken, for without Yasmine why even resist? I slept  in the prison’s darkness, isolated without an opiate capable of relieving the pain.

I kept counting the days, marking them in the small notebook I had managed to smuggle into prison. After 303 days, I was finally released and the rest of my two-year prison sentence was suspended. My case is still pending in the courts, however. Yasmine and I married and temporarily enjoyed our hard-earned happiness. But we knew it would be impossible to continue this way, seeing how things stood. My writing was implicitly banned, and the high appeal court was still looking into my case to determine if I should be cleared. We planned to leave Egypt in search for new opportunities, to expand our horizons, acquire new skills and knowledge. Soon after, Yasmine received a scholarship to study law in the states and moved there in June 2017 to pursue her studies. The plan was that I would soon join her. Upon arriving at the airport to catch my flight, I discovered I had been banned from traveling and was placed in custody yet again, but this time for a couple of hours.

Nearly a year and half after having been released from prison on December 20th, 2016, my case is still pending and my travel ban remains. Every time I tweet or publish an article harboring the slightest critique of the current regime in Egypt, I receive a menacing phone call. I live in a state of fear to which I have grown accustomed; I have convinced myself that for now fear is good…it makes you cautious, a helpful survival mechanism. More painful than fear is having to wait yet again. The seemingly endless waiting for Godot. A couple of weeks ago we joyfully learned that Yasmine is pregnant, yet I am more frustrated than ever that I’m not allowed to be with her during this time, yearning to be together even more. Every week, I make the journey to court asking if they have set a date for my trial. The answer is always the same: “Check in with us next week”. So I keep counting the days, nourishing the hope, nurturing the love.

Ahmed Naji

Translated by: Radwa El Barouni

[1] In Egypt, convicted criminals wear blue prison uniforms, while those in remand wear white prison uniforms. Those on death row wear red uniforms.

[2] Basha comes from the Ottoman title Pasha and is used in Egypt to refer to police officers. It has come to evoke the police’s arrogance, sense of entitlement and superiority, and mistreatment of people. Naji is using it both ironically and non-ironically here.

[3] Mukhbir:  a plain-clothes detective that is a feature of Egyptian public space as well as within institutions.

A Lesson in the Dangers of Book Burning

Our family has a long history of disposing of books in various ways. As a boy in Egypt, I remember the regular routine when, every so often, my father would open the cupboards and drawers and arrange his books, magazines, and notebooks. Most dear to him were the notebooks which contained his commentary and notes on dozens of books, most of them concerning Sufism, Islamic exigency, and political Islam, in addition to the writings of Sayyid Qutb, Hassan al-Banna, and various other Islamist leaders.

He arranged the books into bundles and then distributed them in various secret hiding places. Some were concealed in boxes on the roof next to the chicken coop. Others were left in the care of close relatives who did not take part in any political activities. Other books, the presence of which he believed jeopardized his and his family’s security, were burned. Assured he could attain other copies, these books would be thoroughly burned and their ashes discretely disposed of.

As a boy I did not take notice of this practice nor did I understand it, yet the ritual of collecting books and papers and setting them ablaze on the roof was seared into my memory forever. When I would ask my mother about it, she would fumble for the right words to explain to her child the politics at play, saying: “These books contain verses from the Qur’an and passages of our Lord and cannot be dumped in the waste, so it is best they are burned.”

2012-10-14 15.58.39
جرافيى لكيزر 2013 تصوير: أحمد

My grandfather, who had been a security guard at a local factory, also had a huge library to his name. My father told me that there had been a time when my grandfather could not afford to buy a bed, so he piled together astronomy textbooks and poems of Ahmed Shawki—which he had memorized by heart—and made beds of them for his children sleep to on. However in the beginning of the 1980s, he slipped into a depression and gave away most of the contents of his library. Thereafter he contented himself with reading newspapers, poems of Al-Maʿarri, and books on astronomy. The latter of these was his greatest passion, and was what prompted him to name his eldest son Galileo. Yet after some convincing and admonishing based on the pretense that this was an un-Islamic name, he settled for Nagy, contenting himself by writing “Nagy Galileo” in huge letters on the wall of the house.

Unlike his own father, my father did not dispose of his books because of a sudden depression or deterioration in his capacity to read. Rather he did this so because these books could be used as evidence against him in the event he was arrested, and the house was raided. Directives to dispose of these books came down from senior Brotherhood leaders to protect its members. The letters of al-Banna or of Al-Manhaj Al-Haraki Lissira Al-Nabawiya could have been used as irrefutable evidence that my father was a member of a ‘banned organization.’

Thus during slow summer nights in Mansoura, back from our stays in Kuwait, there was nothing to do but read the books of Anis Mansour and Khalid Muhammad Khalid and the plays of Tawfiq al-Hakim. If ever state security forces were to have raided our home and found these books, they would in no way incriminate my father, and thus they were spared from being used as kindling in his ritual campfires. I personally had no need for al-Banna’s writings in order to understand the world of the Muslim Brotherhood, for I lived and breathed it every day of my life.

In Kuwait, just as in Egypt and more than a hundred other countries, the Muslim Brotherhood runs a social welfare network which not only provides for individuals, but entire families. I would attend weekly sessions with other boys who themselves were also from Egyptian families with ties to the Muslim Brotherhood residing in Kuwait.

At that time, the usual program for children my age, aside from reading the Qur’an and becoming acquainted with the Prophetic biography, consisted of regular recreational activities organized over weekends. As a boy suddenly transported from a village on the outskirts of Mansoura to a new environment such as Kuwait, these outings with the Brotherhood youth (or ‘cubs’ as they are known) were filled with adventure and new experiences that helped allay any feelings of homesickness.

Life in Egypt moved to a slightly different rhythm. In our village I was regarded as somewhat special because of my father’s prominent position as a doctor in the Brotherhood. He was a role model for many of the other ‘cubs’, something of which I had not been aware.

Reserved and taciturn by nature, my father spoke little of his past and never spoke at all about anything regarding the Muslim Brotherhood.

He recently told me of his colleagues’ surprise at the hospital, at which he has worked for the past eight years, when they learned only a few months ago that he is a Brother. They only became aware of this after he began attending Doctors Syndicate meetings as one of the Brotherhood’s representative.

My mother was never comfortable with the “Sisters” and felt no urge to take part in Brotherhood activities. Before the revolution, some members of the Brotherhood leadership would coincidentally appear on the news, and she would utter a brief comment, such as, “He was a good friend of your father. They would come to visit and have dinner at your grandmother’s.”

The first thing Brothers in Mansoura and in our village would say upon meeting me was always, “So you are the son of Dr. Nagy Hegazy. You must be proud, God is good!”

Both in Kuwait and Egypt, I always attended private schools, the names of which always included the all-important words ‘Islamic’ and ‘Languages.’

The Guidance and Light School, in which I spent my third year of preparatory school after our return from Kuwait, was a Brotherhood school which my father helped establish. Since the 1980s, schooling and educational services had become a key aspect of Brotherhood activities and a means of proselytizing. We followed the same curriculum as the public schools, except that we took two additional courses twice per week; one was entitled ‘The Holy Quran’ and the other was a mixture of Islamic stories and proverbs. The only other change was that Music class was replaced with another class titled ‘Hymns.’

Except for drums and tambourines, musical instruments were banned and discouraged. Flyers and posters hung on the school’s walls warning about the dangers of listening to stringed instruments. The hymns which we were forced to memorize consisted of the most widely known nationalist melodies and songs except any mentions of ‘Egypt’ were replaced with ‘Islam.’ The school was of course populated with the children of local Muslim Brotherhood leaders in addition to other Muslim students of diverse backgrounds.

Only now do I realize that until the age of fourteen, I had never once met a Christian. I was in an exclusive world with its own moral values, worldviews, and perspectives on what it meant to be a good person.

Transitioning from the sheltered Brotherhood schools to the Taha Hussein Public High School was tantamount to setting foot on another planet. For the first time there were Christians in school, and the library contained books other than the standard morning and evening Islamic prayers.

The utopia free of insults and cursing in which Brothers moved about nibbling on siwak1 and smiling warmly seemed far away. With the second intifada I became more active, and despite the fact that I was still in high school, I would attend meetings with the Brothers at university. I crafted the chants which were shouted in unison during the demonstrations following the killing of Muhammad al-Durrah. I had become an integral member of the Brotherhood group at al-Azhar University. Then Haidar Haidar happened.

A Brother brought several copies of the newspaper Elshaab and placed them beside him. Like any other meeting, that day’s session began with one Brother reciting from the Holy Quran, followed by a second interpreting a hadith, and a third explaining an aspect of Islamic jurisprudence. Then the Brother opened the newspaper and read it aloud to the group.

He read that the Egyptian Ministry of Culture had published a novel by the Syrian writer Haidar Haidar. Aside from sexual references, the novel contained heretical insults directed at God and the Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him). In response, preparations for public rallies were made which would protest the publication of the novel and demand it be burned.

Word for word, this is what the Brother demanded, and I instantly objected. At that time I was the group’s writer, and I refused to write any chants which called for the burning of this book or any other book for that matter.

To this day, I do not know what compelled me to take this firm stance.

I showed one of them some excerpts from Haidar Haidar’s novel which were published in Elsh aab. From what I read, I found his writings ridiculous, but I insisted that this in no way justified it being burned. I entered into a long discussion with the Brothers which developed into shouting. The argument between me and the group’s leader grew increasingly sharp, and in an angry outburst he forbade me from taking such a stance. The argument grew even more hostile, and he told me, “Either give up these books you read and your stance on them, or do not meet with us!”

I left the room, and never went back.

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1 A small twig (the tip of which is softened by chewing) from the Salvadora persica tree used for cleaning teeth. It is widely held that the Prophet Mohammed recommended its use.

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