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.

‘Beige Writing…’ Ahmed Naji in Conversation

Published first time at: https://partisanhotel.co.uk/Ahmed-Naji

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Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and writer. His novel Using Life was published in Arabic in 2014 to widespread critical acclaim. Set in a hellish, fantastic version of Cairo, Using Life explores the city on the brink of destruction, while its young people move from party to party, having sex and taking drugs.

When the Egyptian weekly Akhbar al-Abad published a chapter of Using Life in 2014, Naji was charged with ‘indecency and disturbing public morals’ after the excerpt apparently caused a reader to have heart palpitations due to its explicit content. Naji was sentenced to two years in prison.

After his release from prison, Naji moved from Egypt to the US, where Sam Diamond talked to him about how he’s acclimatising to his new life, Saudi Arabia’s new city of the future, and what’s next for his writing.

I think it would be an understatement to say that the past few years have been very eventful for you. You wrote a novel, Using Life, were imprisoned for its content and then moved from Egypt to the US, where you and your wife have very recently had your first child. Could you give me a quick recap of these events from your own perspective?

Well, when I was writing the novel I didn’t ever expect to have this impact and to cause these problems. I always thought of myself as someone coming from outside mainstream culture, not the kind of writer who cared about fighting against political taboo or censorship. I just cared about the art of fiction. I was hoping to achieve something with novel, to write something that I’d enjoy writing and my friends would enjoy reading.

Suddenly, when the case happened, it was a huge shock. We didn’t expect it at all. When I was in prison I started to rethink my career as a journalist and a writer. Until then, I hadn’t thought of myself as a writer, I didn’t realise that I was totally loyal to writing and to the craft of fiction. But suddenly when I was in prison I thought: fuck it, I’m writing! I have to focus and take it seriously.

What happened had a huge impact on the the Arab cultural and literary scene, and it also had a huge impact on me. It changed my position on society and on Egyptian and Arabic culture entirely. Once when I was in the prison, one of the prison officers came to me and said: ‘Hey, Ahmed, do you have Samira’s number?’ [a character in Using Life]. I asked him what he was talking about and he told me he was joking, that he liked the novel. I froze, I didn’t understand his joke and I thanked him. After three months I saw him again. He said: ‘Wow, you’re still here!?’

I told him that it looked like I was going to stay there for longer. He said, ‘You know man, can you write in English?’ I told him that I couldn’t perfectly but that I could read and write simple things in English. He told me that when I got out I should stop writing in Arabic, that I should start writing English, because Arabic culture and civilisation is fucked up, people outside can’t understand what you’re writing, that I should stop writing in Arabic and start writing English. And this was advice from a prison guard!

This showed me that the situation in the Arabic region was getting worse and worse, particularly with regard to freedom of expression. When I got out I found that the situation had become even more difficult. It was impossible for me to work; I stayed in Egypt for a year and a half but I wasn’t able to write or publish, because most of the newspapers and websites I’d written for were closing and were under pressure from the government. So it looked like getting out of the country and establishing a new space was the only solution.

So are you planning to start writing in English?

My English isn’t yet good enough. And now I’m in the US, my wife has a job, I have a new daughter—who’s an American citizen. I got a scholarship at a university in Las Vegas so I’m moving to Nevada where I’ll stay for three years.

But I’m facing more complicated critical questions; I don’t like the position of writer-in-exile. I don’t want to end up as an Egyptian or Arab writer living in the States who ends up writing only about Arab and Egyptian politics, although this is part of my identity. So I’m just looking to learn more, to get to know more, to be a part of the new society that I’ve chosen, which is, for now, American society.

And this has its own complications: the American cultural scene and American society in general is so built around political identity. Even before doing anything you find yourself labelled. For me, for example, last month I was doing interviews with an American journalist and at one point in the interview he asked me a question which started: ‘As a brown writer…’ I was shocked! I asked him: what is a brown writer? So you start to discover that you have labels that you don’t understand. For me it was the first time I’d heard of this thing, The Brown Writer. And it took me a while to understand it. But of course I refused it, and I told him that I see myself as a beige writer, and we are beige people, and we have been discriminated against for years!

So, I’m looking forward to learning more about this society and culture and to find my own place in it. Am I going to write in English? Maybe. It’s a huge and hard journey to move from language to language, you have to build your own voice and I need more time and work to build my English. So for now I’m writing in Arabic and for now I’m depending on magnificent translators that I’ve worked with in the past, like Benjamin Koerber.

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The View from my New home at Arlington- VA
Have you read W.G. Sebald?

The first Arabic translations of Sebald are coming out next year, so I’m waiting for it.

He lived in England and could write in English but consciously decided to write in German and to work with an English translator.

The history of literature is full of these stories. There is Milan Kundera, who moved from the Czech Republic to France and then began to write in French, also Nabokov with Russian and English. I don’t know if I’m going to take this path or not, but I’m open to all options and I’m focused on learning and understanding.

Using Life like a melancholic novel to me. There’s a lot of joy and hedonism there but there’s also an element of conspiracy and the characters losing control against their urban environment. Do you think it prefigured the revolution in some sense?

I finished the first draft of the novel several months before the revolution. I didn’t change it at all even after the revolution, because even after what happened during the revolution it looked to me after the first couple of months as if there wouldn’t be a huge change, because Egypt is a big country that’s connected with the world system, and Egypt was impacted more by regional powers and regional authorities who looked as if they would choose either the military or the Muslim Brotherhood. In the novel, and in my writing in general, I don’t care so much about political change but more about the effect of political change on the people and on the city. The main core of the novel was my city, Cairo. What I predicted in this novel was that Cairo doesn’t have a future. And this is what has happened: they’re building a new capital in the desert.

The government plan is to go to the desert and the build a new capital, Dubai-style, and to leave Cairo. The urban problem related to the city itself will not be changed by any revolution, because it’s so related to how the Egyptian state has been structured—it’s been constructed as a central state, and in a huge country with a population of more than a hundred million people, all connected to Cairo.

And this has made Cairo extremely crowded, extremely polluted. It’s now impossible to rescue, it’s a version of hell, which is how I presented it in Using Life.

As you say, Cairo has a central place in the novel. Do you think Cairo is unique in this way, and what’s your impression of the city now?

I don’t think the problem is unique to Cairo, it’s general to the idea of the modern city. Around the world we are seeing how the Dubai model is becoming the goal for the modern city.

If you look to China, for example, they have been building these huge, empty cities that are full of skyscrapers, tall buildings of glass and metal. Cities designed for companies, not people, where they pay low tax and get the freedom to shape urban space.

When I moved to the US I was originally in Arlington, Virginia. It was very interesting, because it’s a very open city with a lot of space, but they’ve also started to build these skyscrapers. It’s crazy, I can’t understand it: they have all this space, why not use it to build horizontally? But they choose to build in glass-and-metal. When they started doing this in Arlington all of these huge companies moved in, so the Nestlé headquarters are in Arlington, all of these international companies are moving there. Suddenly you walk through the city and you realise it hasn’t been developed to serve the people who live there but to facilitate these companies.

We are living in a world where the idea of developing the world is not linked to developing people. It’s not about improving education or healthcare. All politicians talk about is investment, development, bringing in companies and business, creating populations who only exist to serve these companies. This was part of the novel: it’s about people who are stuck between old cities and heritage and a modern idea of development.

If capital has claimed urban space, do you see art or literature as a way of taking something back or reclaiming space?

I don’t think art and literature can take anything back, but at least they might be able to create a space for people to rethink what’s happening, to discover what’s happening around them and to stay alert. For me, this is enough.

If people read my novel and were shocked at the language, experienced it as tough or rough, then maybe the second step is for them to ask themselves why I used that language: if you’re living in a city like Cairo, there’s no other language you can use to write about it. This should alert them that this language is part of the city, and that violence is being organised by the political Neoliberal agenda and so on…

I guess using rough language is the opposite of these smooth glass buildings and these clean streets that don’t have people on them.What are you working on now? What’s next for you?

I’ve finished the first draft of a new novel, which hopefully should appear next year. It started as a simple love story: a divorced woman trying to rebuild her life. This time the story doesn’t take place in Cairo, but she escapes Cairo and the revolution towards Sinai and towards the future, which is Mohammed bin Salman’s new kingdom, Neom. Do you know about Neom?

I’ve seen the website…

If you haven’t been following this, Neom is a new plan by Saudi Arabia to build a new city for robots and technology. So she escapes to Neom, so most of the novel happens in this imaginary future city, which doesn’t yet exist. This will be my second novel.

Also recently received a grant from The Arab Fund for Arts and Culture (AFAC) to work on a non-fiction book, which I’m calling Rotten Evidence. It’s about my time in prison and also covers the case, mostly related to diaries I wrote secretly while in prison.

So I’m writing this book about my experiences, but it’s also connected to another project: I’m planning to start a website, in Arabic but also maybe in English, to collect, document and publish other Egyptian and Arabic prisoners’ writing. I want to use this to raise awareness of their situation.

The decision to publish in both Arabic and English is of course to make it more accessible, but also because most of the prisons have actually been built and supported by European and American money. The Egyptian government doesn’t have enough money to build prisons itself, so they’ve brought in European and American companies and funding. So for example if you enter police station in Egypt, any detention room, the air conditioning is provided by the European Union; when I was in prison, the air conditioning ducts were always emblazoned with the European Union logo. So you can see how globalisation touches on everything, even in prison.

But of course my main project for the moment is being a father.

How do you approach writing non-fiction as opposed to writing fiction?

Well, I worked as a journalist, that was my main source of income for years. For me, I think more about the audience and readers when I’m writing non-fiction. I focus on writing in a simple, easy way that catches the reader’s attention. I see myself as a servant of the reader.

Maybe it’s because of my journalism background, but when I’m writing fiction I don’t really care that much about the reader.

I have a reader in mind, but it’s usually a couple of close friends I grew up with. I don’t care about being clear or informative, I feel more free to play with language, to demolish structure and then rebuild it. Maybe that’s the reason that I received all these messages from readers telling me that they used to read my articles and my journalism, ‘We loved it, but we didn’t like your novel, it didn’t make sense.’ They want the simple story. So when I’m writing fiction I want to stay away from that. I want to create something more complicated, something that challenges the craft of literature. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

If I’m writing non-fiction I want to write something that people can read on the beach or on the toilet. If I was on the beach and I found someone reading my novel I would be offended.

I read your novel on the beach…

Ha! Well I hope it worked for you.

Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and journalist born in Mansoura in 1985. He is the author of three books, Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009) and The Use of Life (2014), as well as numerous blogs and other articles. He was also a journalist for Akhbar al-Adab, a state-funded literary magazine, and frequently contributed to other newspapers and websites including Al-Modon and Al-Masry Al-Youm. He is currently based in Washington DC. Visit his website at https://ahmednaji.net/.

Sam Diamond is a writer, researcher and musician originally from London and now based in Berlin. He is currently finishing a PhD project on the conceptual history of authenticity in 20th Century American fiction and journalism at Queen Mary University of London. He works in technology. You can follow him on Twitter @samueldiamond.

Interview with Ben & arablit: ‘I Wanted to Write Something More Fantastical’

Ahmed Naji — winner of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award — remains on trial for his novel Using Life, for its alleged violation of “public morals.” The novel recently appeared in English, and Naji and translator Ben Koerber talk about the book, the legal case, and what Naji’s working on next:

Ben Koerber: To start off, could you give us a brief update on your case and the legal (and extralegal) sanctions against you and the novel?

Editor’s update: The North Cairo Appeals Court has ruled it has no jurisdiction over Naji’s case and has referred it to a criminal court. PEN America has called the situation “half free.

Ahmed Naji: In the meantime, I remain banned from leaving the country.  As for the novel, no ruling has been issued against it, but due to the increasing censorship of the book market in Egypt, we’re having difficulties publishing a new edition (in Arabic).  The owners of some presses have refused to print it, since the National Security Investigations Service have obligated them to report any book before printing.  At the same time, we’re worried about printing it outside Egypt, since this means it will have to pass through the office of censorship for artistic works at the Customs Administration.  This office has banned several books from entering Egypt as of late.

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Pages from using life in exhibition for Aymen

BK: Some commentators have tried to link the case against you to the rise of fascism in Egypt, or to the police state.  Yet it seems that Using Life — and indeed some of your other works — conceptualizes politics and repression in somewhat different terms.  Do you agree?  How might the novel itself be used to reflect on your case, or politics in Egypt more generally?

AN: I finished the novel’s first draft at the end of 2010 [i.e. before the Egyptian uprising of January-February 2011].  The novel itself does not specify its political context, but provides the general contours of two worlds.  The first world is governed by a nameless general, while the second world – after the “Tsunami of the Desert” – is ruled by a conglomeration of multinational construction firms.  At the time I was writing the novel, I had been preoccupied with the idea of the nation state – which began to take shape in the late nineteenth-century – and its potential demise.  Politically, the novel is about this imminent moment of change.

Now, it seems this moment has come to pass.  In the western world, for example, we see the rise of far-right movements, who view the nation state as a unified racial entity, and at the same time as a lucrative commercial enterprise that bestows its benefits on a racial elite.  Perhaps Trump in America is the best embodiment of this state of affairs. We see it too in the Third World and the Arab countries, where a new generation of dictators present themselves as CEOs capable of making profits through brokering deals and selling their real estate assets.

In Egypt, 6th of October City hasn’t yet become the fantastical, futuristic city of the novel.  But to the east of Cairo, the state is siphoning its entire economic resources into building what they’re calling the “New Administrative Capital.”  It’s supposed to be a “city of the future” where the president and government will be relocated, far from the present Cairo.  I don’t like the image of the writer as a predictor of events, but I can only be amazed that the end I wished for Cairo in the novel is presently taking place in reality.  The plan announced by the government is to let the city choke and die while they flee along with their presidential palaces, administrative buildings, and security apparatuses to a new city that’s completely fortified.

BK: Who or what are the “Animals of Cairo”? Can we live with them?  Can we live without them?

AN: They’re portraits of characters and personality types that grow and reproduce in Cairo.  The reason they took this shape – Ayman’s drawings together with some abstract prose poems – is because I didn’t want to write about the city as it’s typically been portrayed in the Arabic realist novel, where you choose a well-defined geographic location – a working-class neighborhood, a residential building, a city street – and follow the fates of a group of characters and their class struggle.  Instead, I wanted to write something more fantastical, based on the city’s most widespread characters.

BK: Bassam has a complicated relationship with “ass-kissing” (ta’ris) and “cocksuckery” (khawlana).  I’m not sure the translation is able to communicate the cultural baggage of these terms.  Could you explain?

AN: I really like Ben’s translation of both expressions, and I think the reader can grasp their cultural connotations from the context of the novel as well.  I find the topic of “ass-kissing” in Arab culture really quite fascinating.  In one sense, it’s a way of surviving and making do in a culture dominated by an ethos of control and subjugation, as is the case with Arab political culture.  It’s a topic that’s garnered considerable attention in the Arabic novel, as for example in the works of Muhammad Mustagab, or with some of Naguib Mafhouz’s famous characters – Mahgoub Abd al-Dayim in Cairo 30, or Anis Effendi in Adrift on the Nile.  There’s also, of course, the works of Albert Cossery.

BK: What role do the footnotes play in the novel?

AN: The novel is the art of polyphony, of voices in the plural.  The footnotes were a way of experimenting with this idea.  Sometimes they provide clarification or explanation of the main text, and sometime they conflict with it by raising doubt about its accuracy or presenting a different narrative of the same event.

BK: The novel is a very “open” text, with gestures toward reader participation at many levels.   What did you hope to achieve with these gestures, and how have readers responded?

AN: I strive to let writing become an open dialogue.  I like for the text to contain many spaces and secrets, so that the reader can fill in the gaps and become more immersed.  The readers responded to this in different ways.  The responses I always get for these types of experiments gives me a sense of personal fulfillment, as well as the opportunity to form new friendships.  With Using Life, some readers colored in the novel’s illustrations, and others send me their ideas and images of other “animals of Cairo.”

The text’s openness to interpretation helps achieve another artistic goal that I strive for, which is that writing induce others to exercise doubt and ask questions about the work, its subject, and their own lives.

BK: Your thoughts on seeing the novel in English?  What do you think American readers will make of it?

AN: I’m really excited about it.  I remember, years ago, when my first novel [Rogers, 2007] was translated into Italian [Rogers, et la Via del Drago divorato dal Sol, 2009], and I expressed my concerns to the translator, Barbara Benini, that it wouldn’t find an audience in Italian culture.  But I was surprised to find myself invited to Italy for the book tour, and to hear from Italian readers their reactions and the connections they made between the novel and their own personal experiences.  I don’t know how it will be with American readers, but I’m eager to know how they respond.

BK:  Can you share any details about your upcoming projects?

AN: Currently I’m trying to finish a nonfiction book on my trial and time in prison.  Starting with my own experience, it looks at the broader issue of literary language vs. the language of the law, and asks why literature goes to the courtroom.  I review various cases brought against literary works in Egypt and France, since that’s where the charge of “obscenity” or “offending public morals” has been brought against literature, beginning with Voltaire.  I also look at the case brought against James Joyce’s Ulysses in New York, and the case against Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”.

Inside the Strange Saga of a Cairo Novelist Imprisoned for Obscenity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahmed Naje, Imprisoned Egyptian Author
photo: David Degner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo: David Degner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Konga reading the novel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.”

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