We find ourselves in Cairo in a post-2016 world, when a bald American girl arrives in what she feels is her homeland and the origin of her roots. Reading between the lines, we gather that she’s left America, fleeing from a sadness that she does not disclose. We know, because Noor Naga tells us from the first chapters that the American girl keeps shaving her head, but what she does not tell us is the reason behind her decision to remain bald. We also know that she is the daughter of Egyptian immigrant parents, that she graduated from Columbia University in New York, and that her father is a practicing physician in a clinic in the heart of Manhattan. Shocked at her decision to visit Egypt, her mother nevertheless makes the necessary calls, after which the daughter arrives, stays in a luxurious apartment in one of Cairo’s most affluent neighborhoods, and obtains a tidy job as an English teacher for adults, at the British Council.
Noor Naga begins her novel If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English with the promise of intense drama. An escape story, a trip home, secrets to unravel, but what truly gets one involved in the reading is her immensely fluid prose, as each sentence forces one to stop long enough to savor it slowly — prose that is highly complex and supremely intelligent.
When I arrived at Ramses Station in Cairo, the air was people. Nowhere you looked wasn’t people. They clogged every street and then piled on top of each other in buildings twenty stories high. Many were not even Egyptian. You could turn into an alley and find fifty Sudanese men, bluer than black, with cheeks like shoulder blades and ankles like knives, or else women as tall as I am, women so pale you could see rivered blood at their wrists and neck. I heard twenty Arabics in my first week and wherever I went people asked me — sometimes in English because of the hair — Where you from?
Naga’s novel is divided into three main parts. In the first movement of the operetta, there are short pieces, each one limited to two pages in length. They all begin with “What if” and have a transcendent feel to them: “If you don’t have anything nice to say, should your mother be punished?” The narration alternates between two voices, the American girl and a boy from Shobrakheit, who appears as a partner in the novel. Naga describes his upbringing in a village on the margins of the Egyptian countryside, raised by a possessive grandmother who envelopes him in a private world, in which she feeds him with her hands. The two share a bed and bathe together. When his grandmother dies in 2011, he heads to Cairo with his camera, a gift from his grandmother, only to arrive in a city that is in the midst of a revolution. He soon finds himself part of a new group being shaped by the city’s tumultuous uprising, streets, city squares and gas bombs.
Enraptured by the new social order, he captures it all on his camera, and it’s not long before the TV stations and news agencies are racing to publish the photographs he takes from the heart of Tahrir, the Square, that document the clashes taking place. Two years later, the revolution is defeated, and the now world-class photographer from Shobrakheit loses his sense of purpose and questions the meaning of his existence, hanging up his camera and refusing to take any more photos that would document a “fake reality.” With dwindling resources, he moves into a hovel in one of Cairo’s boroughs. His subsequent addiction leads him on a path of self-destruction.
By this point, readers can easily predict how the rest of the story will unfold. The American girl will meet the boy from Shobrakheit, they’ll fall in love, until it all dramatically falls apart. It’s a tale that’s been repeated over and over again in fiction, particularly in the years following Egypt’s 2011 revolution. A popular tale because of its intimacy, especially for a reader like me who lived his life in downtown Cairo and witnessed the beginning and end of dozens of such similar stories. Moreover, for the past decade or so, this is a theme that has been recurrent in Egyptian literature written in Arabic. What Naga does however, is turn this straightforward, simplistic theme into horrific scenes and landscapes in which social class and political identity clash, culminating in a tragic crime.
The history of Egyptian literature, written in English, can be divided into two phases. The first is Egyptian writers born and raised in Egypt for whom English formed an essential part of their education due to their social class, such as Wajuih Ghali, Samia Serageldin, Ahdaf Soueif and others. A sense of alienation presents itself in various forms in the writings of that period, mainly a sense of not belonging within the class the writer occupies. The only exception, perhaps, is Wajuih Ghali, who rebelled against his own class, certainly in the novel Beer in the Snooker Club.
The second phase includes writing from the children of Egyptian immigrants, which began in the ‘70s and continues to this day. According to official Egyptian government figures, the number of Egyptians residing abroad is close to ten million. Estimates from the Egyptian embassy in the United States put the figure of those who live in the US at one million, though this is contradicted by the US Census Bureau, which estimates Egyptian emigrants at a quarter of a million. Regardless of these different figures, this nation of millions living in the diaspora has become part of the modern Egyptian identity, reshaping the meaning of Egypt, and presenting its image through its artistic and literary works, especially as many within this group possess material and scientific capabilities that allow them the power of autonomous representation, or as Naga asks in her novel, “If an Egyptian cannot speak English, who is telling his story?”
Noteworthy is the fact that Egyptians residing abroad who speak different languages — and like the protagonist of the novel study in prestigious universities — transfer, according to the Egyptian government’s latest figures, more than 30 billion dollars annually to the country, representing 8% of the government’s total budget. And so the question that one asks oneself here is if the American girl, with her English, is really able to tell the tale of the boy from Shobrakheit.
Language, English in this case, is an impediment that imposes a rift within the life of the American girl moving to Egypt, and those around her. Her poor command of Arabic exposes her and makes everyone ask her where she’s from. Add to that the writer’s decision not to name her protagonist, to refer to her only as the “American girl,” seems to enforce that idea, despite her Egyptian heritage and time spent in Egypt, language continues to be a barrier to communication, even after she falls in love with the boy from Shobrakheit and he moves in to live with her in her luxury apartment.
The boy from Shobrakheit, who was raised in the care of a smothering grandmother, sits next to the American girl while she eats and expects her, like his grandmother, to feed him. The American feminist soon finds herself in a relationship that has turned her into a dispossessed woman — one who goes to work in the morning, while her male partner sits at home waiting for her to come back to cook and clean, while he does nothing except watch videos on YouTube.
The American girl soon loses herself within a world dominated by Arabic and a system of social codes that she is unable to decipher or navigate. Subtly, changes within her behavior take shape in a before and after Egypt form. Prior to her arrival in Egypt, the American girl had been a political activist, who had once revolted against a man and led a whole subway car against him in New York when she witnessed him harassing a veiled woman. The scene had been filmed and even gone viral. However, in Egypt, we see her remain silent, when her friend, the owner of a famous restaurant, refuses to seat two veiled girls in his establishment, because their hijab would put off the “clean Egyptians,” the rich bourgeoisie, decked in Western brands.
In the second part of the novel as the two voices continue to alternate, Noor Naga introduces detailed footnotes that readers assume are likely guidelines for familiarizing the non-Egyptian reader with Egypt, such as its foods that include the different varieties of mangoes, as well as foul, our traditional dish made of fava beans. However, as an Egyptian, these footnotes left me ill at ease, as they appeared to contain errors and factual details that did not add up. I was particularly drawn to one referencing a Nubian writer by the name of Sayed Dhaif, whom I had never heard of and could not find in any of my searches. When I sent the author an enquiry, she admitted that she had, in fact, invented the character. He was not real and neither were a number of other “facts” in her footnotes.
And so it is that the author sets up several traps in the novel for the reader who looks upon literature as an accurate representation of its subject. She ingenuously casts these traps to mimic the American girl’s interpretation regarding the realities of life around her in Egypt, in which she fails to distinguish between the facts and lies that the boy from Shobrakheit makes up. The ensuing confusion and the difficulty of differentiating between the multiple narratives around what is real and what isn’t reaches its climax when it comes to the details of the pair’s relationship. The scene that the boy from Shobrakheit paints is one of unbridled love, while the American girl portrays one of violence.
Trapped within a relationship in which she is unable to distinguish between love and abuse, things escalate slowly until at one point, the boy from Shobrakheit hurls a coffee table at her, inflicting severe wounds and bruises. It is only when the boy from Shobrakheit finally disappears that she is able to return to the remnants of her former life. She ends up meeting an American man living in Cairo, and further entanglements ensue when the boy from Shobrakheit dies, a mystery readers will have to work out for themselves.
Naga plays around with light and shadows, and like a magician manipulates the reality we see in front of us, making us doubt the veracity of whatever her narrators tell us right up to the moment when all is revealed in the last chapter.
Throughout the novel, Noor Naga toys, like a magician, with light and shadow, obscuring certain details while revealing others, casting doubt on everything, right up to the final chapter in which readers encounter the American girl, back in America, discussing, with colleagues in a creative writing class, the final chapter of her novel.It’s a final chapter that readers of this novel aren’t privy to but rather garner its content from the commentary of the American girl’s classmates as they share their critical take on it. The American narrator’s colleagues discuss her novel filtered through the lens of a contemporary American values system as one colleague objects to her empathy with the boy from Shobrakheit, arguing that her writing serves to perpetuate sympathy for the oppressor, and legitimizes violence against women.
Another reader asks the writer for more details related to Egypt, mining her for exciting features that play to an imagined sensibility of a distant place. All the while, the American girl is silent, happy to merely take in the comments, as if the author, having explained her two protagonists in previous chapters, surprises English readers with a mirror that reflects their own questions. In the end, it is one colleague only who focuses his comments on the technical components of the novel and advises her to delete the last chapter, which is exactly what she does. Hence, its unavailability within this novel despite everyone talking about it in this novel’s final chapter.
If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English is a novel much like Egyptian mangoes, whose taste lingers on the tongue long after the last bite.
This is Thresholds, a series of conversations with writers about experiences that completely turned them upside down, disoriented them in their lives, changed them, and changed how and why they wanted to write. Hosted by Jordan Kisner, author of the new essay collection, Thin Places, and brought to you by Lit Hub Radio.
In this episode, Jordan talks to Ahmed Naji, author of Using Life, about how the experience of imprisonment and then living in exile, particularly exile in America, changed his feelings about writing and about his own identity.
From the interview:
Ahmed Naji:Being an exiled writer is not as it used to be. During, for example, Nabokov’s time or other Russian writers who will flee out of the Soviet Union and come here to United States, and some of them, like Nabokov or Kundera in France, they will choose to leave their language and to adopt a new language and writing it. They will choose to burn the ships and to forget about the past. But now, in our lifetime, it’s not like that. You are not an exile, because you are still able to know what is happening in your motherland through the internet and the source of news. The world’s become so connected. Everything affects everything.
Ahmed Naji is a writer, journalist, art critic, and criminal. He is the author of Rogers (2007), Using Life (2014), and And Tigers to My Room (2020). He has won several prizes including a Dubai Press Club Award, a PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, and an Open Eye Award. He is currently a City of Asylum Fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute. ahmednaji.net.
On July 25, 2019, ARC in collaboration with apexart hosted Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who was the 2016 winner of the PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Award, for a lecture entitled “Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison.” Naji was formerly sentenced to two years in prison when a literary magazine published a chapter of his novel. Naji discussed the growth and trajectory of his career as a novelist, what life was like in an Egyptian prison, the power of literature, his new project, and more. He is now a Shearing/City of Asylum Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute.
When I first saw this picture, it was in 1995. I was sitting with my grandfather and we were watching the news and TV. And when this picture appeared he felt annoyed and sad. I was very young at that age and I asked him, “What’s going on,” and, “What is this story?” And he said it like, “Some kids tried to kill this guy.” And I asked him, “Why did they try to kill him?” And he said, “Because he writes.” At that age I was ten years old. I was reading mainly comics or books for kids and teenagers. And of course while reading I started to imitate what I was reading–I started writing. So suddenly my grandfather was telling me that someone tried to kill this guy cause he was writing. It stayed in back in my mind.
And I continue writing but I know writing is dangerous. So it goes on, I published my first novel in 2007, called Rogers, and then after a while I publish my second novel Using Life. When I published the novel I knew it was dangerous in Egypt and the Arab world. I knew also what is a red line. From an early age I knew that there are [three main] red lines that as a writer you cannot cross. The first red line is the religious mythology. You can’t come close to the Islamic mythology. [The second red line] the national identity imagination. You could talk about politics but you can’t talk about the imagination and the mythologies that created the national identity. The third red line is sex. When you are talking about sex there is a set of words assigned for you.
But I was seeing myself as birthing another Egyptian writer generation who are trying to use different language. So [my new novel] was published in 2014 and after it was published, I was in the south of Sinai on the beach and suddenly I received a phone call from my editor-in-chief (I used to work as a journalist back in Mansoura). He called and he said, “We just received an announcement from a prosecutor and they are summoning you to come do an investigation.” So we discovered what happened: a chapter of the novel had been published in the newspaper and a guy read the chapter and he went to the police station and said, “I read this chapter and it hurt my feelings. It affected my blood pressure and made me faint and it made me throw up.”
So the case was basically this: the prosecutor was saying, “This is pornography.” And we could say, “No, this is not pornography, this is literature.” We thought the worst scenario was they will fine us or something like that. But it ended up the court sentenced me to for two years. I was sent to Tora prison.
Because there is nothing to do inside this prison everyone is reading. Even people who never opened a book before, they start to read inside the prison because it’s the only way to make the time pass. And the collection of books they have in the prison is very interesting, because of course they have a big amount of religious books, but [surprisingly] there was a large amount of books that were banned outside the prison.
But when I was searching inside the prison I found this amazing novel … That Smell. So this novel was published by Sonallah Ibrahim. When he tried to publish it in 1969 … it was banned because of the sex. So I was shocked. It was impossible to find this edition back outside of the prison but suddenly I found it inside the prison library.
It’s interesting to see that people in prison after reading will start to write. Because usually prisoners feel, I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s kind of sorrow and pain, and they use writing to document this pain. For example, when I entered the prison I found this guy who’s always writing. He had been in prison for five or six years and he had, like, several notebooks. I called him the Marcel Proust of the prison. He said, “I’m wiring my diaries because I don’t want to forget the pain and the suffering that I [felt] here.” And he showed it to me and basically what he’s writing is, “Today is Sunday. I woke up at 10. I walk toward the bathroom. I eat two eggs.” So at the end when Marcel Proust was released from prison, on his way out the guard searched the bags and found the diaries and he read them and they had details about the prison and he said, “I can’t allow you to go out with this because it has details about the prison. So I’m not gonna sign your release paper until you burn it.” So this alerted me because back then I started to write in the notebooks that he allowed me. So in my notebooks I tried to not write any details about the prison. But I wanted to document my days, to not forget the days. So I used it to write my dreams.
Dreams are very important to the prisoner because dreams are the only window you have with the outside world. So you go to sleep and each time you go to sleep you hope you see your friends or family or the places that you are missing. Sometimes after a while you will start to play with your dreams. You will think all day of someone or something so when I go to sleep maybe it will visit me in dreams.
Dreams also bring a big role into most of Muslim and Arabic prisoners because in Islam and, I believe, in Christanity, we had this story about Yusef-Joseph the Prophet. So in the story of Yusef, he was sent to the Egyptian prison and he stayed in the Egyptian prison for seven years. So Yusef is in the prison and he was in his cell with two other prisoners. The prisoners have a dream and they told him a dream. After they had the dream he started to predict what was going to happen to them. He told one of them, “Well, your dream means you are going to get out of the prison and you will become a very important guy and you will become close to the king. And when this happens please don’t forget me and tell the king about me.” And the story goes on when the king had a dream, he was puzzled by this dream and so he told his adviser and suddenly his adviser remembered Yusef, so they summon him and he comes and he told the king what his dream was about: “In seven years you will not have food or the water will be low in the Nile.”
So as a Muslim prisoner, even as a Christian or Arabic prisoner, one of the hopes you have to get out of the prison is dreams. So I started to offer a prediction, and explain for others. People would wake up in the morning and come and tell me their dreams. Everyone in the prison started to trust me. So I became a holy figure within the prison.
Until I was in prison, I wasn’t looking at myself as a writer. I used to look at myself as a journalist, as a filmmaker. I was writing but I didn’t see myself as a writer, it wasn’t the main purpose of my life–until a small accident happened in the prison. So we had this guy and we are going to name him Mr. X. He was terrible and awful guy. So one day I woke up to go to the bathroom and I found Mr. X crying, crying like a baby. So I was worried, I went to him and asked him, “What happened? Are you OK? Something with the case?” He said, “No, no, everything’s fine. I was just reading this novel. I left it on my bed because even when I look at the cover, I start to cry again.” Suddenly I started to say, “What is the hidden power behind the literature and behind the writing that could reach and affect a guy like this?”
[My next book is called] Rotten Evidence. It’s about reading and writing in an Egyptian prison. I got out of the prison in December 2016. I married my wife Yasmine and she got a scholarship in Syracuse, New York. The plan was to join her after that and then I tried to leave the country and I wasn’t allowed to leave the country. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country as a free man. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country for a year and a half. And this year and a half was harder than being in prison.
So it took me a year and a half [but] finally I was able to get a short window for one week, so I was able to join my wife and we moved to DC. Then with help from PEN America and many music friends from this sphere in the state I was able to get [a] fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV in Vegas.
Edited for brevity and clarity by Olivia Salama, September 2019.
One time as I was heading back to Sixth of October city, a prostitute showed up on the way dressed in the official uniform, a black cloak without a headscarf, and instead she had bangs and black hair falling over her shoulders. She was carrying a huge neon bag.
Just to be sure, I drove past her slowly and watched her in the mirror as she looked my way. I stopped and went back. I turned off the music and rolled down my window. With the innocence and politeness of a child, I said: “Are you going somewhere madam? Would you like a ride?”
She got in, she was heading to Neighborhood 12, which is far out of my way, it is where I lived for years during college. I felt a longing to visit the good old scenes of my youth. I asked her: “Where in neighborhood 12?” She responded while reaching for something in her bag: “by the green kiosk.”
My glance fell on her big breasts, showing through the cleavage. I redirected my eyes back on the road to avoid the sudden appearance of any speed bumps, either down there or up there. I felt something when the hoe pulled a knife on me and poked me in the stomach as she shouted: “Stop the car you son of a bitch!”
I looked at the knife, then to her and just like in the movies, I smiled, all confidence and kept on driving calmly: “What’s this for sugar?” and with her big knife she kept poking me in the waist, making her way through my thighs, stopping exactly between them, her sharp tip prodding my shrunken trembling dick.
Today marks a “Day of Blogging” for Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who is serving two years in prison: guilty of having written the playful, language-rich, genre-crossing novel Using Life, he will be given the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, today, in absentia, in New York City. When Naji was charged with “violating public morals” for an excerpt of his novel published in a journal, he initially won his case, but lost an appeal and has been in jail since February 20.
Below, Ben Koerber reflects on the play in using life.
…The mother that reads a story to her child: this is resistance. Building a small house: this is resistance. Singing at night is resistance. Having sex is resistance. Resistance is not just bearing arms; it is also the ability to adhere to the virtue of play, and to pursue–promiscuously, and with an eye to passion and pleasure–methods for using life…
I recall Bisu saying something to this effect some ten years ago.
July, 2006: Lebanon had been invaded again by the Israeli army after clashes with militants from Hizballah. A debate was raging in the Egyptian blogosphere on strategies for solidarity with the ordinary Lebanese citizens caught in the crossfire. “Resistance” was the rarefied term that Hizballah used to refer to the bullets and rockets it fired randomly southward. Bisu, blogging from somewhere in or around Cairo, had a different understanding of the word.
Like most people, I knew Bisu before I knew Ahmed Naje. The former was for a time the trickster-protagonist of the blog “Wassa’ Khayalak” (“Widen your Imagination”), and was known for his devastating parodies of state-sponsored intellectuals, producers and consumers of kitsch, religious hypocrites, as well as other bloggers who took themselves too seriously. (The name “Bisu” is explained as a pseudo-diminutive form of Iblis or “Satan”; before knowing any better, I sometimes imagined him as sprightly little smug-faced sanfur – Arabic for “smurf” and an occasional topic of Bisu’s posts). That was all back during the heady days of what Ahmed Naje, in his history of the Egyptian blogosphere, refers to as the “Diluvian Age”: a period of glorious cyber cacophony that lasted, roughly speaking, from the suppression of anti-Mubarak protests in 2005 to the draining of writers away from blogs to Facebook and Twitter a few years later. Sometime in late 2009, Bisu transformed, or molted, or something, into someone called “Ahmed Naje,” which also happened to be the name of a journalist, editor, and novelist in real life. There was no great “coming out” ritual here, only a courteous nod of admission to what many readers had already begun to suspect.
Fortunately, little else changed, and the blog stayed true to its slogan, “Live like you’re playing.” Bisu’s ludic imperative about the virtues of play were with me when I began to translate Ahmed Naje and Ayman Zorkany’s novel, Using Life, in late 2015. Something I had read in graduate school by Roland Barthes about interpretation as “play” seemed to recommend itself in my efforts at self-justification, but I was happy that Bisu’s sporadic use of the term was possessed of a more immediate vitality, and beckoned with the warmer and more inviting ontology of the nonce-concept. Barring some orange-haired apocalypse in November, my translation of Using Life is on schedule to be released by the University of Texas Press early next year. But though it may serve as the original work’s primary representative in the English-speaking world, I would urge we consider it as just one “play” on the book written by Ahmed Naje and illustrated by Ayman Zorkany.
The English-language play on Using Life has been preceded by many others, in different idioms and media.
There are Ayman Zorkany’s illustrations, which both complement and “translate” the text written by Ahmed Naje. Some of these may also be viewed on the Arabic book’s Facebook page.
Looking further back in the Arabic tradition, one may contemplate the uncanny resemblances between Zorkany’s illustrations and the monstrous hybrids of Zakaria al-Qazwini’s 13th-century Wonders of Creation manuscripts.
Curiously, while moral panics surrounding comics in the United States have historically targeted the genre for their graphic content, the illustrations in Using Life have not featured prominently in the recent legal controversy; perhaps this is because Zorkany’s images, while seemingly grotesque, are only so to eyes not accustomed to the realities of urban decay in contemporary Cairo.
There is Using Life merchandise. The book’s publication in Egypt coincided with an exhibit held at the Medrar artists’ collective in downtown Cairo (Nov. 24 – Dec. 1, 2014), which featured Zorkany’s drawings in a variety of printed formats, including T-shirts, hoodies, pins, coasters, and coffee mugs. These items were available for sale until recently at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, which has been subject to raids, closures, and partial demolitions by various state agencies.
There are interpretive dance performances. The cultural center Darb 1718, in Cairo, hosted one in late 2015, which, though I attended, cannot now find a trace of on the interwebs.
There are critical reviews. An important context for playing with Using Life and understanding the surrounding controversy are several not-yet-translated articles by Egyptian artists and academics. Some appeared in a recent issue of the Cairo-based literary review ‘Alam al-Kitab (“Book World,” no. 94/95, Nov.-Dec. 2015); for example, the intriguing essay by poet Ahmed Nada compares the trial of Using Life with that of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a poem which has been translated into Arabic by Yusuf Rakha (in his recent novel, The Crocodiles, itself translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger), and before him by the inimitable Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus.
Lastly, or rather primarily, Using Life (Istikhdam al-Haya in Arabic) is itself a translation, in textual medium, of the aesthetic and architectural work that has conspired to design contemporary Cairo.
One of the great ironies of Naje’s imprisonment is that such direct and draconian displays of state power are largely peripheral to the critical concerns expressed in his novel. Instead, Using Life directs the reader’s gaze at the more subtle mechanisms of repression and constraint at work in contemporary Egypt: the perfidy of friends and lovers, the “kitschification” of culture, and, most importantly, conspiracies wrought in the realm of architecture and urban planning. The book is a play, in the first place, on the utterly unlivable state of today’s Cairo – “a miserable, hideous, filthy, rotten, dark, oppressive, besieged, lifeless, enervating, polluted, overcrowded, impoverished, angry, smoke-filled, simmering, humid, trashy, shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city,” according to the protagonist, Bassam Bahgat.
Let the reader be aware that among the city’s current residents, Bassam’s feeling is far from unusual. Cairo’s decades-old crises in housing, electricity, waste management, and traffic (to name a few) have left the city both physically and psychologically scarred, and have remained unresolved amidst the waves of revolution and counterrevolution unleashed since January 25, 2011. The intervention of the security services into urban planning has disfigured the city even further: un-breachable metal sidewalk fences, forcibly depopulated public spaces, and huge, concrete block walls constructed in the middle of major streets are now familiar sights around the capital.
Yet as parts of Cairo have shut down, new aesthetic practices have emerged over the last decade to open new spaces for expression, as well as to re-purpose old ones. Graffiti artists have laid claim to the city’s walls and barriers. Comedians and cartoonists have attracted cult followings through YouTube, and bloggers have emerged from the obscurity of their bedrooms to pioneer new literary genres. In fashion, advertising, and graphic design, independent artists have made spectacular interventions in fields traditionally dominated by foreign brands.
In Using Life, Zorkany and Naje have managed to synthesize many elements of this resurgent urban culture into something that, together with its “translations,” may serve as a guide-book of sorts for playing Cairo. All of these “plays” of/on Using Life – which, incidentally, were all performed or published before Ahmed Naje was sentenced to two years in prison – not only constitute forms of translation more inventive than the linguistic plays of professional interpreters, but that they also offer models for those contemplating solidarity in a manner suggested by the playful work itself.
Using Life is a novel of Cairo, and of a younger generation of Egyptians struggling in a culture and society that is both extremely deeply-rooted (in history, tradition, etc.) and unmoored. The first chapter is nothing short of apocalyptic in its vision, first burying Cairo under a mountain of sand, then destroying half the city in an earthquake — in which the Great Pyramid itself: “was reduced o a pile of rubble”, and:
All that was left of our great heritage — our civilization, our architecture, our poetry and prose — would soon meet a fate even worse than that of the pyramids. Everything collapsed into the earth or was buried under oceans of sand.
The novel proper then is a look back to before the collapse, beginning with more or less present-day Cairo — the city and society already breaking down, yet still stumbling on, for now, in its familiar raucous, chaotic state. The narrator, Bassam Bahgat, describes his roaring twenties, when, after a stint working for a human rights organization, he got a job as a documentary filmmaker. Eventually he’s hired to make a series of films, basically on Cairo. He becomes involved with a ‘Society of Urbanists’, dedicated to a sort of very ambitious urban renewal, with a focus on architecture and city planning; eventually the Society reinvents itself as a global alliance of corporations — dozens, eventually — controlling sixty per cent of the world’s agriculture and a major player in all sorts of industries. There’s a look at the development of the old city — planned, but escaping those plans:
No city was meant to be like this. Cairo was supposed to be more intelligently designed, more precise, more efficient. […] What we need is a revolution.
The city dominates the book, defining for the characters — both as they are simply trying to get by, as well as working to upset various aspects of the contemporary order:
There’s nothing more difficult than making decisions in Cairo, since it’s Cairo that usually makes decisions for you.
Bassam crisscrosses both the familiar Cairo and a more fantastical, imagined one; whether led down its familiar streets or given a glimpse of more sensational recesses the city, and its experience, remain fundamental:
Cairo. The heat. The scowls, the sliminess, the sweat. The pain. The scream muffled inside. The streets that don’t let you laugh or smile, or even cry or shout out in pain.
Bassam — a young man: “worried about turning twenty-five without having a good story to tell” — describes his casual relationships and the lives and ambitions of those he interacts with, from the small-scale to the globally ambitious. Women figure in prominent and often powerful roles, in a novel that plays in many ways at subversiveness. Subversiveness extends to form as well, as the narrative is not limited to writing, either: a few sections are presented in cartoon-panel form, while a section on ‘The Animal of Cairo’ pairs illustration with brief description. (The artwork is by Ayman Al Zorkany.) Using Life crams many stories into the larger and dominant Society of Urbanists-conspiracy-tale, but it’s a jittery narrative, hopping all around like its protagonist who often feels he is without control. There are raw scenes here, too — including quite a bit of casual and incidental sex — presenting a welcome broader picture of Egyptian life and society, and the struggles of a younger generation in the contemporary world — convincingly twisted by Naji into his panoramic tale, but more impressive piece by separate piece than in the stuttering whole.
A translation that feels somewhat stilted amplifies what surely is already in the original an aggressive prose challenging traditional narrative norms (especially of what (especially ‘Western’) readers seem to expect from Arabic fiction); Using Life is obviously not meant to be a smooth read — but winds up being a somewhat frustrating one in English.
Multimodality is not new to Egyptian culture whose ancient sign system was the hieroglyph (Lambeens & Pint 240); correspondingly, ancient Egyptian two dimensional mural art was at times sequential, illustrated by hieroglyphic inscriptions. Moreover, a bas-relief dating to the Old Kingdom circa 2,000 BCE at Cairo Museum may be considered as the earliest pictorial cartoon, according to Afaf L. Margot. It bears political insinuations by depicting a conflicting relationship between the keeper and the sacred baboons in his charge (Margot 3). Later, Coptic and medieval Arabic manuscripts combined text and image (Coptic Museum). In modern times, Egyptian cartoons evolved in the second half of the nineteenth century with the founding of newspapers in 1870. Their political humor was strongly connected to the growing antagonism against rulers (Margot 2).
2Children’s comics in Arabic flourished in Egypt as early as 1923 with Al-Awlad (Children), an eight–pages–long black and white newspaper, to be followed by Katkot (Chick) with serialized comic strips that have developed, ever since (Nadim Damluji 2016). The emergence of the first graphic novel by Magdy El Shafee met great obstacles for being considered by the authorities as “infringing upon public decency.” It was banned under article 178 of the Egyptian penal code criminalizing such publications. Author and publisher were put to trial and had to pay a EGP 5000 fine. It was translated into English by Chris Rossetti (2012), and later reappeared in new Arabic editions. Censorship was growing apace during the Mubarak era, and graphic novels employed text and image to flout conventions by exposing the authorities despite the censored environment.
3Graphic novels have gained popularity with the 2011 uprising in Egypt. More graphic novels have appeared since, such as Ahmad Nādī, Ganzeer, and Donia Maher’s The Apartment at Bab El Louk (2014), winner of a Mahmoud Kahil Award. Bab El Louk is a Cairo district close to Tahrir Square where the Egyptian uprising took place. During the uprising, Tahrir Square turned into a “carnivalesque” performance stage intermediating aural, verbal, visual, and digital, blending media and performance, most of which had political insinuations. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms this would be considered as “carnival” upturning social hierarchies. Tahrir Square became more of a mūlid (folk fair) location, where performances became similar to the Bakhtinian marketplace, combining “loud cursing” and “organized show… imbued with the same atmosphere of freedom, frankness, and familiarity” (Bakhtin 1984a 154), thus balancing social differences.
4The carnivalesque blending of media and performance, the pairing of (temporal) language and (spatial) image brings us back to Bakhtin’s theory which examines the utterance within the genre; this has been related by some critics to the combination of media. Gunther Kress has argued for a semiotic dimension of genre systems as combining varied activities within a medium. He starts off by proposing language as a multimodal medium (Kress 185), and all texts as multimodal (Kress 187). This multimodal approach to all texts or forms of communication shows that different modes have various potentials and limitations, and are articulated in specific ways in different cultures.
5In a similar argument, Lars Ellestrom propounds that all “‘texts’ and ‘systems’ overlap,” being parts of material, sensorial, spatiotemporal and semiotic aspects,” which he calls “the four ‘modalities’ of media.” Subsequently, “all forms of art, media, languages, communication and messages have some characteristics in common,” allowing them to merge without dissolving (Ellestrom 10). Mark Evan Nelson and Glynda Hull have noted that Bakhtin’s theory on the multimodal “chronotopes,” the time-space conjunctions (Bakhtin 1981), may be considered as precursors to the interpretation of multimodality merging multifarious potentials in media. They have concluded that synthesizing several theories in a study within this scope enables a better understanding of a multimodal novel ( Nelson and Hull 416-417). Multimodality has challenged the borders separating media and has opened new forms of cultural practices and analysis that cross borders. It has promoted new strategies for collective engagement in a mediated world, creating a space for cosmopolitan repercussions.
6Departing from traditional trends, experimental fiction proliferates in a cultural context where several forms of sign systems and media overlap. The carnivalesque environment referred to earlier that evolved with the Egyptian uprising has brought together creators from different social and cultural communities. Ahmed Naji’s (1985) and Ayman Al Zorkany’s (later Zorkany, 1982) Istikhdāmal-Hayãt (2014, Using Life) is a multimodal novel challenging borderlines dividing classical and contemporary verbal narratives, comic strips, popular music, and film-making. It moves freely between the classical and the popular, as well as between world and local cultures (later referred to as UL). The popular has acquired global dimensions with the spread of information technologies, science fiction, and cyberpunk sub-genres, even among subcultural groups living at the margins. Verbal and visual overlap, enticing the reader to meander visual, verbal and musical rapport, communicating thematic connections on multiple levels simultaneously. Indeed, as Ellstrom argues, “intermediality is a precondition for all mediality” (Ellestrom 4).
7By transgressing boundaries, verbal narrative and visual text contest plot-line consistency, as well as sequential chronology in graphics, which problematizes a critical reading of the novel within a single theoretical methodology. Any critical approach has to be shaped with relevance to the experimental nature of the creative work within its cultural context. Subsequently, I will draw from several critics that range, among others, from Mikhail Bakhtin, to Thierry Groensteen, Gunther Kress and Pascal Lefévere.
8Naji writes and Zorkany draws. Both are experimenting with mainstream novels and comics conventions, subverting the role of the Western superhero as well as the popular Egyptian arch-villain to articulate a futuristically fantasized estranged world. The objective of this paper is to explore strategies of engagement in UsingLife, a multimodal narrative, combining fiction, non-fiction, graphics and lyrics. It will trace modes of going beyond standardized formal conventions, breaking away with habitual reading protocols of classical Arabic and mainstream Egyptian fiction to create a culture of dissent. Besides the informal practice in the verbal text, of blurring boundaries among various language registers in Egyptian everyday spoken language, it merges professional and amateur writing. Correspondingly, Zorkany’s comic strips break with the artistic hierarchy set by the College of Fine Arts since its establishment in Cairo in 1908. Unlike the aestheticism of Fine Arts, comic strips hold an oppositional potential interrogating habitual modes of viewing. Furthermore, Zorkany drifted away from the drawing styles commonly used in Egyptian comic artists. His comics have a wider range of drawing/shading style, and panel composition.
9Naji and Zorkany have closely collaborated to synthesize verbal and visual; they have welcomed readers’ critical interaction, as acknowledged at the end of their book. In fact, the visual and verbal narrative strategies used, subvert the expectations of readers habituated to mainstream fiction, and graphic novels pandering to traditional tastes. They had to face the challenge of appealing to a wider and more varied audience, a multiplicity of cultural sources, and a wider range of artistic styles, ranging from cartoons, illustrations, and graffiti to commercial ads. The far reaching economic and social changes in Egypt as a consequence of globalization policies have formed a pluricultural society. This has unsettled mainstream culture and valued principles of all cultural groups. Verbal language has been affected mostly, and the visual took precedence with the spread of communication technologies. Subsequently, this has introduced new potentials for engagement with the world.
10A society that is constantly disoriented as a result of rapid changes effected by unknown sources is in constant need to relate. Moreover, the proliferation of the graphic novel as a multimodal form came in response to an urge to engage with the world through an immersive form. According to Kress, multimodality brings to our notice that perception is the result of the human body’s engagement with the world through the senses. The fact that the senses coordinate together “guarantees the multimodality of our semiotic world” (Kress 184). For Pascal Lefévre, the sensual is experienced through form: “The first and foremost dynamic process of form is engaging the feelings of the reader” (Lefévre 5). The fact that the body provides the means of engagement with the material world, would relate multimodality to “the issue of subjectivity” (Kress 187), and ways of its engagement with the world. Multimodality may be thought of as an epistemological tool invoking the reader’s interaction in order to rethink complex local global relations ensuing from the clash between global technological politics and parochialism in an uneven world. Today’s reader is a global and local citizen located at the crossroads of cultural encounters, and contemporary writers worldwide have become aware of limitations inflicted by traditional artistic forms, as well as the difficulty in relating to a single national culture. Subsequently, multimodal creative works worldwide are hardly confined to one literary or artistic tradition. Such is the case with Using Life (2014; later UL), the work under study.
11The novel’s title, Using Life is an appropriation from the Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus’s (c.99 CE-c.55 CE) poem, The Nature of Things: De Rerum Natura, which is based on Epicurean philosophy. An epigraph appropriated from Lucretius is quoted in the book’s front-matter pages. The epigraph quoted in Arabic translates as follows: “Birth-giving reccurs on and on; life is not given for possession but for use” (UL 5). Naji’s appropriation of an ancient western classic, his merging of the local with the global, his mix of establishment with popular cultural products, and placing events in a contemporary setting endow the novel with a cosmopolitan context. The narrative events take place in cosmopolitan Cairo, configured as an unreal/real City that may represent the monetizing hurly-burly of any metropolitan city. However, the narrative subverts the call for “using life,” advocated by the book’s title and the Lucretian epigraph by failing to affirm them. Unlike Lucretius’s poem resplendent with natural imagery and sensuality promoting intellectual pleasure, the preponderant imagery in the novel is that of a yellowish desert, sometimes orange at its best, and that of a ravaged Cairo razed to the ground.
12As opposed to Lucretius’s birth-giving nature, the events in the novel are stirred into action by a geographical catastrophe—a devastating desert tsunami inundating Cairo under a sand avalanche, along with a deadly massive earthquake causing streets and bridges to break down, land and ground to fall down and eventually, the collapse of the pyramids; Cairo is immersed in an overwhelming agony, a bewildering pathos. The language used to describe the tsunami appropriates that of the sacred texts, with phrases like “the wrath of god” and “Heavenly damnation,” relating the overwhelming situation. Again, as in The Nature of Things, the element of chance—not divine intervention—is persistent, however, paradoxically, disabling the natural use of life.
1 * Editor’s note: the graphic’s allusion seems to be to David’s “The Death of Marat.” A reference to (…)
13The presence of death in life initiated in the verbal narrative, is visually configured by a graphic design in a two-page spread with a caption appropriated from the Natasha Atlas’s lyric: “You’re looking for paradise, while it surrounds you” (UL 12-13). Instead of an enchanting landscape illustrating the lyric’s words, the graphic drawing is of a devastated bathroom. The drawing is in shades of grey and a predominantly obscure background. Streaks of light emanating from an unknown source make visible a toilet, a tub overflowing with a bloody liquid, sharp-cutting metal tools, and female underwear negligently thrown.1 The prevalence of decay is heightened by the use of stark chiaroscuro. The contrast of light and deep shades adds a claustrophobic noir atmosphere. The image may be viewed from another perspective as, to use Thierry Groensteen’s terms, a “tabular surface,” for spatial relationships, (Groensteen 13). The contrast between the white typography placed at the top of the drawing and the black background heightens the contradictory relationship between the meaning of the lyric and the visual affect. The sharp contrasts in shades, along with the deformed non-representational objects, function as tools to immerse the viewer in apprehensive emotions (Fig. 1).
14Subsequently, the graphic spread cannot be viewed as a comic strip; the textual code emerging from the obscure space is deliberately disrupted by the gloomy environment evoked by the grey shades and sharp contrasts. The visual function of the typography becomes more active than the textual code in the lyric. The graphic drawing plays a double function: its placement at the beginning of the novel anticipates traumatic forthcoming events. However, once retrieved by memory along the flow of events, it impacts retrospectively, especially towards the end. The opening graphic spread disrupts the code transmitted by Natasha Atlas’s lyric, subverting the embedded meaning. The comic strips that follow are not set in consecutive order to create an alternative narrative; nor are they used as illustrations to the verbal texts. Conversely, they are as disconnected as the narrative text, at times supplementing the inarticulate in verbal language. The sparing snatches of dialogue in the subsequent strips are by an anonymous narrator, who even disappears from several sequences. Unlike classical comics that impose verbal on visual, the panels are generally self-sufficient, following what Groensteen propounds as a “poetics of reticence, ambiguity, and indeterminacy” (Groensteen 30).
The third verbal text following the graphic spread is an entry on Ibn ‘Arūs, a medieval Upper Egyptian folk singer who turned from his life as a bandit to become a popular lyricist upon being jilted at the age of sixty by the young girl he loved. Ibn ‘Arūs’s lyrics are sung to this day at local fairs, or festive occasions in Upper Egyptian villages, by Shawqī Qenawī, a contemporary popular ballad singer, also mentioned in the entry on Ibn ‘Arūs. The dates and national origins of Ibn ‘Arūs are not definitive, as the narrator claims that information descending from ancestors and exchanged among contemporaries is liable to constant modification along the ages. The insertion of this entry pseudo-documenting the lives of both popular singers ji lted by their lover[s] function as commentary on the previous episode recounting Bassam Bahgat’s—the protagonist narrator—disappointment as a result of his partner’s betrayal; parallel situations in the novel intensify elements of indeterminacy and chance. The multimodal use of text, graphic design and popular music to map related private agonies among members of different social communities, enhances the sensation of “tsunami” morbidity on the local horizon. The second chapter extends this morbidity to the international horizon with texts and graphics critical of private and public Western modes of living. Enhancing sensations by the use of three modalities of media–verbal, visual and aural–simultaneously immerses the reader-viewer in the narrative experience.
16Instead of a chronological plot-line, a series of episodes are spread along ten chapters, alternating verbal narrative, graphics or comic strips, as well as popular musical extracts. As verbal narrative visual comics and musical excerpts do not proceed in sequential order, they are mutually interruptive. Shifting visual, verbal and musical effects requires a pause, which disrupts narrative time and space. The verbal and visual are not attributed meaning in isolation, but relative to their occurrence in the text, and depend on the connections made in the process of reading. Multimodality or the use of multifarious media as referred earlier, coincides with the time-space “chronotopes,” hence merging different historical temporalities and diverse locations.
17The novel evolves through multiple temporality, and plurality of cultural narratives. Narratives from Cairo’s past and present are related, to provide a background for ongoing events in the protagonists’ private lives. In one of his interviews, Naji rightly opines that, “Cairo is a museum holding a plethora of historical buildings” (Ali 2014). Cairo residents daily commute along different phases of history marked by distinct architectural constructions and monuments, at times merging with shanty towns and popular districts. Past and present are active in the everyday life of ordinary Cairo inhabitants. Along with the presence of the historical past, the present has provided technological devices introducing parallel realities. Subsequently, events in the novel alternate inadvertently along the protagonists’ private lived time and simulated reality. Correspondingly, Cairo’s surviving monumental architectural constructions provide a cultural context of lived pasts, surrounding commuters, along with mediated pasts diffused through the media. Within the private domain, there are lived, recounted, dreamed and simulated times. By the same paradigm, Cairo is being lived as embodied space, and as virtual space. Inadvertent shifts in experiencing material and virtual realities in private and collective memory are one of the strategies used to destabilize progressivist ideologies. The shifts are prompted by environmental degeneration, social instability, abjection, and failed projects. Contingent cultural transformations make it difficult to mobilize a narrative of private or collective history on a single axis, which explains the plurality of cultural narratives on Cairo and of its inhabitants. These narratives are inserted in the action as comments on ongoing situations linking Cairo’s past history to present actualities, in the same way protagonists reflect on their past lives in present sociopolitical situations.
18Cairo has taken on several faces; the cityscape has undergone several changes under successive rulers. This is also configured in the changing roles of Egyptian women acting as traditional veiled women (Fig. 2) or unveiled modernized funky women (Fig. 3). These seeming binaries come along a series of graphic drawings. In a chapter titled, “The Animals of Cairo,” a variety of male and female figures are featured combining grotesque human and animal features; they are named: “the Scoundrel,” “Stray Dogs,” “Dervishes,” “cockroaches,” among others. Verbal and visual text subverts these stereotypes by revealing their complexity, making it difficult to stigmatize them under one appellation. They configure an identity crisis incapable of coping with new demands from the altered social and economic changes. Both veiled (UL 90) and unveiled women (UL 92) fail to find a balance between developing their distinctiveness while still fitting in. Unlike former graphics combining visual and verbal in one panel, in this series, the verbal and visual are split into different panels to be read and viewed separately.
19Identity in crisis is a consequence of the persistent tradition/modernity conflict predominating the history of Cairo’s architecture, cultural heritage, as well as social relations, and has been configured in different strips. This conflict has never been resolved either in Cairo’s urban planning, or in the lives of its residents. The tradition/modernity conflict is further developed towards the end of the novel; a sequential panel features a televised story of a worker at a printing press, who abandons his wife after becoming emotionally attached to the printing machine he works on, and fantasizes about having a sexual relationship with it (UL 156-161). It is a humorous strip with multiple cultural specific connotations. Most of the panels are in a grotesque style, merging reality with fantasy; they convey a visual metaphor, alluding to inability in managing technological advancement to meet habitual living, or difficulties in reconciling rationality and affect. It may read as a tragicomic sequence, which adds to the ambiguity of the situation instead of clarifying it.
20The disconnected segments configure a lurking catastrophe which the reader/viewer apprehends as early as the opening chapters, especially that the opening episodes, graphics and musical extracts manifest the end of Cairo, the sad finale, before starting the narrative leading to this end. The reader is gradually led to sense a double risk lurking in the urban, ecological and sociopolitical environments. While the sociopolitical and environmental conditions of Cairo predict an inevitable disaster, later configured as a sand tsunami, its geopolitics is being manipulated by an economic strategy planned by the International Architects Association. This multinational Association is planning to sweep off Cairo City to have it replaced by a New Cairo. Cairo has always been designed by successive rulers to become the center of power. Moving the center of power from historic Cairo to a “New Cairo” by an international association of architects is of significance. The Association is a “global player,” an “outsider” economic and a political actor and not the choice of local inhabitants. Its political activity beyond governmental control has increased the vulnerability of the system, which brings about Cairo’s devastated condition. The latest previewed transformation by the Architectural Association claiming to have worked with reference to stored archived material lacks solid credentials, and their work turns out to be drawing a virtual map of New Cairo, a map that, “precedes the territory–precession of simulacra–that engenders the territory […]” (Baudrillard, from “The Precession of Simulacra,” 1981). Environmental degeneration and globalizing capitalism work concurrently. Towards the closure, global capitalism overlaps with crime increasing the threat, which is marked by a series of mishaps. Inadvertent events occur, such as the mysterious disappearance of Maud, one of the protagonists, the discovery of traces of a crime in the Association underground offices, and the frozen human flesh discovered by Bassam in Moonie Moon’s refrigerator. The horrendous verbal images recuperate the prelude graphic spread featuring a tub floating with a bloody liquid in an abandoned bathroom. On one level, the closing events relate to the queries raised by the opening spread; on another level they raise additional questions as to the identity of the assassins and their intentions; together these reiterate the limitations of verbal and visual language to be fully articulate. The ambiguity of both verbal and visual languages, their inability to articulate a consistent plot-line configures Cairo’s devastated condition as well as the chaotic condition of its inhabitants.
21The speculative architectural project of New Cairo undertaken by the International Architects Association, created in response to a capitalist transnational scheme, intertwines with the fictional narrative (Plesch 145) recounting the interment of Cairo as a consequence of a devastating sand tsunami. The environmental disorder configures degenerating social relations, chaotic governmental policies and lack of governance. The verbal and architectural narratives critique centralized planning, cultural globalization, digitalization and monetization. This is rendered in the third sequential panel (Chapter 3), featuring Bahgat’s first encounter with two members of the International Architects Association, who commission him to make a film on Cairo’s architecture (UL 37-41). The different postures of standing outsider and seated insider, commissioner and commissioned, self-assuredness and incertitude are rendered by focusing on posture and facial expressions. While Bassam’s posture conveys helplessness, his eyes reveal anxiety and negative affect (Fig. 4). Conversely, the Association members’ blank eyes shaped in straight, circular and interwoven lines convey a tunnel vision (Fig. 5). This blank look creates a gap revealing the complexity of the relationship, whereby one party’s inner emotions remains ambiguous; in that sense the images become performative as they immerse readers in the action.
22The presence of Ihab Hassan (1925-2015), the U.S.-American-Egyptian postmodernist critic, as a member of the International Architects Association is an implicit subversion of the postmodernism Hassan advocates. The construction of a New Cairo according to a simulated map designed by an international association, is totally divorced from Cairo’s cultural history, and marks the failure of a postmodernist approach claiming its inclusiveness of cultural difference. Conversely, Bassam Bahgat, protagonist-narrator and his friends, contest the Association’s rationalized globalizing scheme by leading the life of the flaneur. This mode of living also challenges the popular—turned—elitist postmodernist approach which had initially subverted rationalized modernization, but has later turned into theorization. The turn from live experience in an old Cairo throbbing with life, to the theorization and simulation of a “New Cairo” that replaces the old impedes the natural process of living. Subsequently, this explains Cairo’s eventual devastation by an unprecedented sand tsunami.
23However, the life of the flaneur does not promote the natural process of living either. Frustration with the flaneur’s mode of living is rendered in the fourth comic strip (UL 71-78), configuring the impact of hasheesh on Bassam, the protagonist-narrator in the spatial graphic mode. Bassam is rendered in a condition of temporary amnesia that dissociates him from material reality, carries him afloat a paper boat sailing on a sea of dreams. The journey proceeds along downfalls and lifts, sinking in the sea, and flying in an air balloon, until he finally lands on a desolate location. The strip is made of a series of single images most of which are without captions, or with onomatopoeic sounds like the “crack” of the collapsing paper boat (Fig. 6). One does not view the panels in terms of before and after; the reader draws the meaning by reconstructing a simultaneous relationship connecting different images. Bassam’s distraught condition materializes with the sudden appearance of an unknown person giving him back his lost purse. Instead of thanking him, Bassam resents the stranger’s help, and responds with abusive language. Bassam subverts the superhero image; his life as flaneur indulges him in half- accomplished pleasures. However, his indulgences cannot be classified as negative affect, as they are among the few choices offered in a censored environment.
24The Bassam Bahgat-Ihab Hassan dis/alliance renders the paradoxical relationship dis/ connecting dissenting intellectuals from the masses. Hassan’s presence is reminiscent of similar politico-cultural circumstances that have, with variation, previously taken place in Cairo’s history. Ihab Hassan emigrated to the United States in 1946, when Cairo was metamorphosed by Khedive Ismail to become “part of Europe,” engendering a cosmopolitan cultural environment. These were times when Egyptian Surrealists were at the peak of their performance; while closely connected to the International Surrealist movement, Egyptian Surrealists failed to achieve some of their aspirations in a cultural climate torn between modernists and conservatives (Kane 10-12). Similarly, Hassan, the postmodernist critic, while fully integrated into the American culture was totally divorced from the local culture to which he was related by birth. Most contemporary subversive youth movements as of the 1970s have appropriated the Egyptian Surrealists’ modes of contesting the establishment. However, Naji and Zorkany push “degenerate” or “decadent” art a bit further. Naji’s use of explicit language that almost verges on porno, his challenging description of sexual and gender relationships contest the growing social bigotry. Consequently, he has been unjustly persecuted and had to spend two years in jail in retribution (Koerber 2016). Ironically, this has increased the sales of the novel to over two million copies, a sign of wide reception, and the success of his strategy to debunk political repression and social inhibitions. The political establishment’s unequal war against Naji’s “decadent” fiction has contributed to the revival of political awareness, and augmented public resentment. Jacques Rancière defines “policing” not as “disciplining” of bodies” rather as a rule governing their appearing.” Conversely, Rancière argues that, “politics […] is antagonistic to policing.” “Politics runs up against the police everywhere” (Rancière 29, 30).
25The subversion of formal genre conventions of the realistic novel, such as the absence of chronological temporality, of superheroes, of a conclusive message, as well as the lack of explicit language frustrates the habitual expectations of mainstream Arabic novel readers. In the same vein, Zorkany’s subversion of formal comics conventions–the want of interpretive aids, the grotesque morbidity of his hybrid figures, unidentified mysterious location, heightened mood of existential estrangement in the fictional narrative–dramatically diverges his work from the commercial comics tradition. Furthermore, instead if using one style throughout, Zorkany experiments with a wide range of graphic styles. His comics production combines sequences of abstract drawings, as in the “You are looking for paradise,” panel and drawings with figurative elements, which do not form a coherent narrative. Thierry Groensteen calls this graphic mode: “infranarrative comics” (Groensteen 10). In addition to the absence of a sequence linking the panels, occasionally, the panels and plot-line are not logically related. These visual strategies disorient the reader and make it difficult to infer a single interpretation, opening multiple semiotic possibilities.
26Although the final strip (Chapter 9) is sequential, it requires decoding the various layers of signification. It is a parody of horror comics, critical of Western assumed power based on technological advancement; simultaneously, the panels ironically convey the vulnerability of folk heroism. The strip configures an invasion by monstrous figures spurred on by Paprika and Madame Dawlat, both Architects Association members, along with the escape of the perpetrators who may belong to the Architects Association members. The monstrous unidentified figures in the strip are drawn in a “rhizomatic style” in contrast to Paprika (Fig. 7). Paprika is drawn in a dynamic line whereas the hooded figures appear as a sprouting rhizome. Bassam and Hassan are identified in the panels in the act of invoking forces of resistance; in a diagonal layout, Hassan uses a spray can to fend off the monster’s assault, and is seen in the act of escaping with a bag. Conversely, Bassam is the only one to stand his stead, while he scares the assaulters by the use of explicit language–Hassan arms himself with technology, while Bassam relies on his innate forces (Fig. 9). The friction between two styles of drawing gives it a vital agility (UL 215-224).
27The protagonists’ figures are not represented in the same way all through; although they are recognizable they remain unrealistic. Drawings figuring Ihab Hassan have undergone an erasure (Fig. 8); Zorkany has previously caricatured “Ihab Hassan,” the postmodernist icon, as an aristocratic snob (UL 116). In the final strip (UL 222), Hassan appears holding a spray can–lower left panel–to scare off the monstrous figures. The image comes with a caption that translates into English as, “God has deemed this to be fair” ( Fig. 10). The word “fair” in Arabic translates as “hassan,” the surname of the American critic, posturing as one of the protagonists in the novel. This caption, which is appropriated from a sacred text, may serve as a commentary on the whole situation, expressing satisfaction with the break in the Association’s bond, and considering it as a blessed supernatural intervention.
The final comics strip disrupts the reader’s expectations of knowing the victor in the fantastic/real battle featured, and the strip sequence ends with no resolution. An unidentified monstrous figure sits blowing arrows; his crane reveals a conspiratorial scheme aiming at the destruction of Cairo’s architectural constructions (Fig. 9). The sequence configures the verbal narrative line that has assumedly occurred before the events of the novel begins. It also relates to an earlier entry about Hanafī Ahmed Hassan, another well-known singer of popular lyrics. His most reputed ballad is ShafīqaandMetwalī an old popular ballad about the shame killing of Shafīqa, upon the denouncement of her secret love bond with Metwalī. This entry preludes the series of killings taking place among the Association’s members towards the close of the novel. It enhances the element of betrayal, denouncement, and distress. Distress is sensed on the local and international levels.
29The prelude included the morbid graphic spread, ironically captioned “You’re looking for paradise while it surrounds you”; a chapter titled “Music’s Cemetery,” recounting betrayals and disappointments; the finale’s prelude–an episode also titled, “Music’s Cemetery,” alluding to the decline of harmonious living. In the finale is the announced death of music acts as a commentary on Paprika’s schemes, a leading member of the Architects Association, who along with her accomplices are proceeding with their atrocious plan–the mutilation of Cairo’s architectural and cultural history. The chapter evokes a dolorous tempo of a musical piece, and sounds the dissonance of the chaotic events. This noise, the concoction of a medley of fraudulent plans and horrendous events is allied to the constant denouncement of listeners to old musical pieces as inhibited individuals devoid of the joy of life. This sad prelude commences a series of upcoming disasters, along with a grotesque sequential panel.
The episodes at the closure render mysterious events, marking the sudden disappearance of protagonists, either by departure, death, escape, or floating away in a hot air balloon. The mystery is intensified by the narrator-protagonist’s self-reflexive awareness that he may merely be an idea, an image, a simulacrum the way Cairo City has always been (UL 196, 198). In line with this indeterminacy, the recognizable figures in Zorkany’s drawings are never repeated in the same style; they acquire new attributes with the changing situations, never becoming attached to an archetype, or reduced to a referent. By analogy, the mysteries are not resolved by magical resolutions; unresolvedness is a strategy inducing the reader to become aware of the constructedness of all narratives related to the self, Cairo, or a single global cultural history. By subverting readers’ expectations the verbal visual narrative affirms its dissidence, its opposition to ideologically charged generic and formal conventions established by mainstream literature or art. The use of spatio-temporal strategies offers empowering alternatives that are more engaging to local and global readers alike by opening up spaces for different points of view, engaging them in identifying conflicting perspectives.
31It is no wonder that novels that are graphic in part or whole are finding better chances to be translated despite their limited number. Jaqueline Brendt has postulated in her introduction to Comics Worlds and the World of Comics: Towards Scholarship on a Global Scale (2010) that bande dessinée, manga and manhau, historietas, beeldverhalen and fanzines “share the inclination toward escaping the ‘national’” (Brendt 5). UsingLife crosses borders by appropriating classical global and local multimodal sources across historical periods. It shifts inadvertently between Lucretius, classical and popular Arabic sources, global and local singers’ lyrics, high stylized classical Arabic language, everyday Egyptian dialects, and obscene language; all speech registers used are mutually unintelligible. Likewise, the graphic images toggle between various design layouts, inspired by various artistic styles unlimitedly.
32UsingLife transgresses boundaries among visual, verbal, and aural—mainstream and popular, and tends to be transcultural. Both Naji and Zorkany declined claims for national particularities, and this is evident in their joint work. Naji has broken with the classical Arabic tradition and mainstream culture that claim objectivity through “the signifying units of a language […] that are impersonal” (Bakhtin 1986, 95). Their creative work is in Bakhtinian terms a heteroglossia of languages, acknowledging a multifarious community of addressees, along with a changing relationship between speaker and addressee(s) that can never come to a standstill. The use of different speech registers is a technique of engagement, immersing the readers from disparate communities by providing them with space to become “actively responsive” (Bakhtin 1986, 95), by allowing “various social ‘languages’ […] to interact with one another” (Bakhtin 1992, 282).
33Correspondingly, Zorkany broke away with classical art training at the Faculty of Fine Arts, in Cairo, as well as with comics styles used by emerging Egyptian comics artists’ inspired by American and European comics. His drawings are aimed at trained and untrained viewers belonging to varied social communities. His visual language is in different styles since they are not reaching out for a fixed code, rather engaging viewers outside the framework of social conventions in order to establish a familiarity reaching their sensations. Familiar speech and unofficial art styles can “play a positive role in destroying the official medieval picture of the world,” Bakhtin postulates, giving examples from literary history (Bakhtin 1986, 97). Naji and Zorkany both aimed at a new strategy for engagement by opening fiction and graphics to “layers of language that had previously been under speech constraint” (Bakhtin 1986, 97). This is made clear in an interview Naji had with Mona Kareem, where he expressed his belief that the traditional novel is “nearing extinction […] and images continue to take over the human consciousness, leaving us with a new language” (Kareem 2014 npn).
34Along the same lines, Groensteen postulates that towards the end of the twentieth century comics are “becoming literature,” or what we call the graphic novel. He quotes Alain Berland, that a comics author should engage “in multiple hybridization with other artistic disciplines” (Groensten 175). Groensteen does not see that this would lead to an “artist’s book.” Naji’s and Zorkany’s joint book shows that the need to hybridize is an urge to run counter to the mainstream. Their multimodal text belongs to a worldwide emerging youth subculture seeking uninhibited means of communication to engage addressees by touching on their sensations, while being indifferent to cultural legitimacy. Lambeens and Pint argue that an: “intelligent combination of code and sensation in fact reveals the distinctive possibilities of the comic genre in comparison to other more established genres like film, literature or painting” (Lambeens and Pint 255). Comics have opened new possibilities for Egyptian writers and artists, and the word “komix” has become a loanword appropriated in Egyptian dialect. Subsequently, komix calls for a cross-cultural method of research that resists compartmentalization within one critical scholarship.
BRENDT, Jaqueline, (ed.). “Introduction: attempts at cross-cultural comic studies.” Comic Worlds and the World ofComics:TowardsScholarshiponaGlobalScale. (Series, Global Manga Studies, vol. 1). International Manga Research Center, Kyoto Seika University, 2010. The Coptic Museum, Cairo. http://www.coptic-cairo.com/museum/selection/manuscript/manuscript.html
El SHAFEE, Magdy. Metro. Cairo: Mohammed El Sharqawy, 2008. Translated by Chip Rosetti. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2012.
ELLESTROM, Lars (ed.). Media Borders, Multimodality and Intermediality. Hampshire: Macmillan, 2010. Palgrave, 10.1057/9780230275201
FATHI, Ibrahīm. Kumīdyaal-Hukumal-Shumūliyy . [The comedy of totalitarian regimes.] Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1991.
GROENSTEEN, Thierry. ComicsandNarration. Translated by Ann Miller. Mississippi: University of Mississippi Press, 2013.
KANE, Patrick. “Art Education and the Emergence of Radical Art Movements in Egypt: The Surrealists and the Contemporary Arts Group, 1938-1951.” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 44: 4 (Winter) 2010: 95-119.
LAMBEENS, Tom and Kris PINT. “The Interaction of Text and Image in Modern Comics.” Texts,Transmissions, Receptions: Modern Approaches to Narratives. Eds. André Lardinois, Sophie Levie, Hans Hoeken and Christoph Lüthy. Readout Studies in Humanities, Vol. 1. chapter 14. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2014.. Accessed 09/12/2016. http://booksandjournals.brillonline.com/content/books/9789004270848
LEFÉVRE, Pascal. “Recovering Sensuality in Comic Theory.” International Journal of Comic Art. 1, (1999): 140-149.
LUCRETIUS CARUS, Titus. The Nature of Things: De Rerum Natura. Trans. from Latin by William Ellery Leonard. July 31, 2008 [Gutenberg EBook # 785]. http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/785
MARGOT Afaf Lutfi Al-Sayyid. “The Cartoon in Egypt.” Comparative Studies in Society and History. 13: 1 (Jan. 1971): 2-15. http://www.jstor.org/stable/178195. Accessed: 17-01-2016 17:14 UTC.
NAJI Ahmed, and Ayman EL ZORKANY. Istikhdām al-hayāt. Cairo , Beirut & Tunis: Dar al-tanwīr, 2014. In English, Using Life. Trans. from Arabic by Benjamin Koerber. Austin: Texas University Press, forthcoming 2017. Awarded PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, New York, 2016.
NELSON, Mark Evan, Glynda HULL and Jeeva ROCHE-SMITH. “Challenges of Multimedia Self-Presentation: Taking, and Mistaking, the Show on the Road.” Written Communication. 25: 4 (October 2008); 415- 440. DOI: 10.1177/0741088308322552. http://wcx.sagepub.com/content/25/4/415
PINT, Kris. “The Avatar as a Methodological Tool for the Embodied Exploration of Virtual Environments.” CLCWeb: Comparative Literature and Culture 14:3 (2012): http://dx.doi.org/10.7771/1481-4374.2037. Accessed 09/11/2016.
PLESCH, Veronique. “Literary Spaces.” In Once Upon a Place: Architecture & Fiction. Ed. Pedro Gadanho and Susana Oliveira. Lisbon: Caleidoscópio (2013): 145-47.
RANCIÈRE, Jacques. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy. Mineapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
In his work, Tawq al-Hamam (The Dove’s Collar), the Andalusian writer, Ibn Hazm, tells the tale of a man he describes as wise, reasonable and sensible—until the day he travelled to Baghdad and stayed in one of its inns. ‘There, he saw the innkeeper’s daughter, fell in love with her, and married her. When they were alone together, she saw him undressed and, being a virgin, was alarmed by the size of his penis. She fled to her mother and would not see him. Those around her advised her to go to him, but she refused, and came close to death, and so he left her. Regretting his decision, he attempted to win her back but could not, even with the help of al-Abhari and others, for none could find any solution to his predicament. His mind became disordered and he went to stay in the maristan [infirmary], where he suffered for a long time until he had almost recuperated and found consolation, and yet still whenever he recalled her, he would sigh deeply’.
A few years ago, my mind also became disordered, like that of the wise man, but since these days we don’t go straight to hospital for that sort of thing, I decided, for the first time in my life, to visit a psychiatrist. I complained to him for a whole hour: I frequently burst into floods of tears, I slept for hours and couldn’t get out of bed, I was suffering liver problems that the doctors seemed unable to find a reason for, my hair and beard were thinning, I’d resigned from my job several months previously, I saw no reason to live and was overwhelmed by despair, I consumed a vast quantity and variety of drugs which brought me neither pleasure or relief. He listened, then pronounced that my complaints were the side effects of my recent breakup; the psychosomatic symptoms, too, were simply the pains that accompanied the end of an intimate relationship. In another context, I’d have been angry, refusing to see my emotional experience—my epic of shattered love—compared with or ranked alongside the love affairs of others. We all believe that our romantic journeys are unique. But I was drained and in pain, and willing to accept any diagnosis of what was happening to me. I was ready to try whatever the doctor prescribed, without hesitation or objection.
The doctor gave me a strip of antidepressants. They relieved the pain and brought some equilibrium to my disturbed body, but it took time to find ‘consolation’, as Ibn Hazm called the convalescence of the wise man in his story.
Although I fell in love like the wise man, my beloved left me, not because of the size of my penis, but because of its fondness for adventure, along with other reasons too numerous to mention. When I was in the darkest depths of pain after our separation, friends pressured me to get over it as fast as possible, so I decided to get away, and left the city to escape their nagging. On my journey, while I wallowed in my pain and sabotaged any potential chances for future relationships, I discovered a whole breakup industry—an economy of strategies for getting over love.
Ibn Hazm devotes a chapter entitled ‘al-Dana’—a word which describes a sort of gruelling and all-consuming grief—to the pain of love lost and the trials of breakups. It is followed by a chapter entitled ‘al-Suluww’, (‘consolation’), in which he writes: ‘Consolation after a long separation is like the disappointment which enters the soul when it achieves what it has long sought; the intensity of its striving abates and its desire fades away’. Then, through the story of his experience with a courtesan with whom he fell in love as an adolescent, and who accompanied his family on their peregrinations to and from Cordoba before finally leaving him, Ibn Hazm arrives at the first cure for the trials of love and separation, the ‘consolation’ of the chapter’s title: A healing process which he divides into the stages of forgetting, indifference and replacement.
But Ibn Hazm seems to contradict himself, often repeating that any love from which one can be ‘consoled’, and any relationship that can be forgotten, is not to be counted on. For Ibn Hazm, it is not true love. Notice that, unlike in today’s psychoanalytical and romantic writings, in Ibn Hazm’s time, passion and love represented a link to the metaphysical world. Every soul was split in two, and each half sent to this life to search for the half, which would complete it; it was the meeting of a half with its lost counterpart which represented true love, as opposed to the kind of passion which cannot be counted on. Ibn Hazm wrote his Dove’s Collar to help lovers distinguish true love from ephemeral lust, and to guide them past critics and naysayers along its thorny path. All this, of course, sounds very different from today’s discourse, in which the ideal of virtuous love has been replaced by notions of healthy and toxic relationships, balance between the two parties, the importance of equality, respect, and non-exploitation, and other concepts which have filtered through from the realm of political correctness to replace terms for love such as gharam and hawa.
The wise man in Ibn Hazm’s story ended up in the maristan because he was suffering and in pain. At the time, the function of the maristan—an infirmary for the mentally ill—was to relieve pain and suffering, rather than to subdue the patient and ready them for a return to the treadmill of production. There, Ibn Hazm’s wise man did not forget his beloved, but sighed whenever her name was mentioned. He learned, with time, to silence his longing, to control his reactions and to maintain his equanimity. Forgetting one’s beloved was only for false and contemptible lovers.
Today’s breakup advice tends to place forgetting at the centre of its recovery plan. On self-help websites, the foremost piece of advice to heartbroken lovers is usually to forget: Stay away from your ex, keep communication to a minimum, get rid of anything that reminds you of them. After that, the advice gets confusing: Don’t sit in your room moping, go out and meet new people, life is full of pleasures and adventures—but don’t rush into new relationships, because you might get hurt. Put your sadness aside and get out of yourself. Cry and express your emotions, they say—but if your sadness lasts too long, they accuse you of weakness, of giving in to pain, of wallowing, or worst of all, of a pathetic attempt to win back the attention of the person who used to care about you.
It’s no wonder the advice is contradictory. There is no clear route map for avoiding or overcoming pain, or for the confusing task of getting over both the pain of a breakup and the memory of love.
One friend of mine who went through a painful divorce decided to go to a psychoanalyst, rather than a psychiatrist. Instead of being prescribed medication like me, my friend has spent hours with her therapist, and is still doing so, a year and a half down the line. Looking like she’s got it together and is proud of it, she spends more than ten hours a day at work, sometimes works six days instead of five, cares for her dog, and steers clear of any potential relationships, on the grounds that she isn’t ready yet, according to her therapist. She wants to maintain the stability she has now because, in her words, ‘I need a bit of time to work on myself’.
Analysing her last relationship, my friend found that she had always been attracted to men who would lie to her and exploit her emotionally. My response to that was to ask: ‘Are there men who don’t’? She shook her head. ‘You don’t understand. The problem isn’t them, it’s me—for being attracted to men like that’.
She pays around $25 for each session with her psychoanalyst, but she no longer has suicidal thoughts now, or borrows our phones to stalk her ex on Facebook, and she’s convinced that she’s forgotten her last relationship—she just needs to focus on her own issues.
Unlike her, I’ve never tried to forget. I remember the mistakes and happy moments of every passing fling. What would be left, if we forgot our emotional connections, the most profound and affecting of the experiences which make us who we are? And anyway, you never really forget. You just put the relationship and all of its associations in a black box, and since there’s nowhere to put the box, you end up carrying it on your back forever, thinking no-one’s noticed. Every time you try to open a door to let love in, the black box eyes you from the corner of the room, shattering your focus and distracting you from the person beside you, who’s waiting eagerly for the moans of the climax which will offer proof that the two of you have truly connected.
Every ‘getting over it’ rests on an illusion of forgetting, on a flight into the future, yet no matter how hard you strain to break away, the memory will cling to you, or lurk in the corner of the room along with the broken pieces of your heart and soul. Maybe the solution is not to forget but to leave the wounds open, to wear them with pride and share them with others—whether you want to entice them to bed, or just to the cinema. Don’t hide your experiences from your new partner, because no matter how hard you try to forget, the monster will still be there, in the box, waiting for the right moment. Perhaps your new partner can help you tame the monster instead, help you transform your anger at yourself and your ex into the energy you need in order to change and build a new life and a new relationship. One day, the monster could be your pet.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.