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.
This event was supported by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
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.