Rotten Evidence: Ahmed Naji’s Incarcerated Fiction

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.

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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.

Thank you.

Edited for brevity and clarity by Olivia Salama, September 2019.

About Alaa: Prison isolates and so does your silence

Published first time at Mada: https://madamasr.com/en/2017/10/18/opinion/u/about-alaa-prison-isolates-and-so-does-your-silence/

Editor’s note: 25 days to #FreeAlaa is a campaign led by friends, family and supporters of political prisoner and activist Alaa Abd El Fattah, highlighting two outstanding cases against him: One, which was adjourned on October 19 to November 8, concerning the five-year sentence that Abd El Fattah has already served three-and-a-half years of, in relation to a protest outside the Shura Council building in November 2013 against military trials for civilians. The second is a case against him for “insulting the judiciary,” which was adjourned from September 24 until December, in which Abd El Fattah could face a fine and more years in prison.

They woke us early that day. We could hear the sound of dogs barking and some other sounds that were more unusual. A prison guard was yelling, “Inspection! Inspection! Put on your uniforms and get ready.” Alaa [Abd El Fattah] and I got up and started our routine of hiding things. He was trying to hide the radio to stop it from being confiscated, even though he had already acquired permission to keep it. I was trying to hide the coffee pot. I was also trying to hide my journal among a bunch of envelopes and paper. The atmosphere in the prison ward was tense. No one was prepared, as we were given no prior warning.

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Alaa and Manal 2006 New year EVE

Generally, on inspection day, a prison services committee arrives, accompanied by hoards of Central Security Agency forces, policemen, dogs and metal detectors. The committee also visits the prison administration and checks the official paperwork. They inspect the wards and check for any violations of prison rules, and for the presence of prohibited items like glass containers, electronic devices, metal cutlery, mobile phones, pills or narcotics of any kind and any suspicious papers. During this particular inspection, they confiscated all the pots and pans we used for cooking and heating our food. They left just two pots and one metal frying pan for the 60 prisoners on our ward.

We put on our prison uniforms and lined up in the sun for around five hours — the amount of time it took them to go through the ward and scatter everything: clothes, food and trash, in heaps on the floor. After two hours of standing, they allowed us to lean against the wall. Then they called for Alaa, who had to go inside for about 20 minutes. He came back out again, laughing. When I asked him what it was about, he said they were going through every piece of paper in our cell. “But, what did they want to ask you?” I said. Alaa kept a small notebook with a photo of Lenin on the cover. In it, he would record figures concerning the economy published by Al-Ahram, like government debt and the state deficit, and other figures pertaining to the financial situation in the country. It was one of the exercises Alaa resorted to in order to try and stimulate his brain and to maintain a connection to the outside world. The task was to record the figures published by Al-Ahram and to track how they changed over time. Based on these official figures from state newspapers we were restricted to in prison, Alaa would come up with his own analyses of the economic crisis.

The figures in Alaa’s notebook unsettled the inspectors, who suspected them to be telephone numbers, or perhaps a code for communicating with the outside world. When they asked him about them, Alaa began to explain in detail the meaning of every figure, which left them paralyzed and unable to decide what to do. After all, these were numbers published in Al-Ahram, the newspaper they allow prisoners to receive and read. Eventually, the head of the inspection committee intervened and permitted Alaa to keep the notebook. They did confiscate the radio, however.

Forgetting what the world is like outside prison is a nightmare Alaa and I thought about a lot. As a computer programmer and technician, this was an even bigger nightmare for him. How would he cope with the technological developments taking place during his time in prison after he is released?

Would he be able to go back to work? The internet world changes in a matter of weeks, let alone a period of wasted years. We thought of that Iranian blogger who, upon his release from prison after five years, found blogging to be a thing of the past. Unable to find his place in the present, he waged an attack on social media, calling for a return to blogging.

After each of his court sessions for “insulting the judiciary,” Alaa would come back with dozens of epic stories from Muslim Brotherhood leaders implicated in the same case as him: Tales of an imminent coup d’état, and the intervention of divine powers to rescue them. They were stories of desperation and defeat that also somehow refused to acknowledge a crushing new reality. I used to wait for him after each session to hear the latest tales. After we laughed a little, the silence would set in. We were afraid the same thing would happen to us one day. What did we really know about the world outside?

A verdict in the “insulting the judiciary” case is due in December, a sentence that could potentially double Alaa’s jail time and increase his isolation from the world. Tomorrow, a court will review Alaa’s appeal against his five-year sentence for breaking the protest law, of which he has already served three-and-a-half years behind bars.

It’s not true that prison doesn’t change one’s ideas. If you come out and that is the case, then you’ve lost your mind. We change both inside and outside prison. Mulling over old disputes and differences was our bread and butter. Reading was like a breath of fresh air. They understood this. In the words of one inspection officer who checked my list of requested books, “Here is your opium.”

Alaa is also waiting for a verdict in a lawsuit he filed against the prison administration to allow him to receive books. On the day of the inspection, we were preoccupied with finding new material to read. Sometimes I would suggest to Alaa that he should apply for a master’s degree to advance his professional experience. He used to say he’d consider it, as he didn’t want to give them something they could use against him. “What if I apply for a degree and they refuse to let me sit my exams or to have access to the necessary books?” he would wonder.

The list of those unjustly detained is getting longer by the day, and many prisoners are suffering from deteriorating health and lack of access to adequate medical attention. Some have been in prison for two years without even knowing what they’ve been accused of. As the list gets longer and longer, so our desperation grows, and we wonder: What is the point of writing? What do we gain by making demands? What’s the use of our hashtags? Do any of these efforts accomplish anything?

There is nothing more important than to think about them, to remember them. Prison isolates people from the world and the world from them. In Alaa’s case, the state is more eager to isolate the world from him than to isolate him and break him. This is why every act of remembering counts. Every tweet or re-tweet, even if you think it has no impact on the prisoner, I am telling you, is appreciated. When family members tell prisoners others are writing about them or talking about them, it lifts their spirits. They are remembered.

Because having your name mentioned outside the prison walls means you exist outside the walls, in the hearts and minds of those who love you or share your values.

And one day, upon their release, because most prisoners will one day be released, they will see the words of support that didn’t reach them in their cells, and it will help ease some of the anger and resentment over the time that was lost.

Remember Alaa. Remember all prisoners. If we can’t break their chains ourselves, do not let your silence isolate them. Do not give their jailers another victory by your forgetfulness.

Translated by Asmaa Naguib

Thank You PEN

I was honored to be a guest speaker at Pen America New Year New BOOKS party, celebrating with them our love for books and writing. And also remembering other writers who are jailed because of their writing.

we live in the times where a dark ghost hovering over the world, spreading desperate making people losing faith in human rights values and, distributing fear and ruling by Ignorance.
And in times like this, we need to get together, to insist on the power of words, literature, and human rights values.
We are not politicians. We don’t have an army. But we resist by keeping Writing, by keeping our imagination wild. We may win some bottles, we will lose others but at least we will enjoy it.
Thank you, Pen, for what you did to me, for other writers, and for giving me the opportunity to meet and take pictures with one of my favorite writers @jennifer Egan

 

Farewell to the youth

I first saw the beast in 2005, in downtown Cairo, in front of the Journalists Syndicate steps. Young men and women gathered and chanted “kifaya” (enough). The beast, dressed in military uniform, stormed out of police vehicles. It was also disguised in civilian attire, beating up protesters and dragging them along the ground. In the streets of downtown Cairo, security forces undressed and sexually assaulted female protesters. It was a great shock. We thought this was the worst the beast could do to us. We thought this offense was enough to destroy the beast. These presumptions reflect the naivety and arrogance of our youth, and are telling of its pure heart and true emotions. Repelled by the consequent feverishly confrontational rhetoric, I withdrew from all battles with the beast.

I had encountered the same naivety five years earlier. I was a high school student in 2000 when I joined a students’ protest in solidarity with the Second Intifada. The former Israeli prime minister and war criminal, Ariel Sharon, had visited Al-Aqsa Mosque and sparked the Palestinian uprising. Israeli forces then assassinated a 12-year-old, Mohamed al-Durrah, while he was in his father’s arms. Our schoolteachers encouraged us to protest, but did not demonstrate themselves. They encouraged us to walk in small angry groups, chanting for the liberty of Palestine, vowing never to forget retribution for Durrah. The security forces then allowed us to demonstrate in bigger groups outside the schools gates, roaming the streets of Mansoura, where I spent my teenage years. The children and students surrounding me were in ecstasy because they had obtained the right to scream and found freedom in the streets for the first time. And when groups of marching students encountered each other they embraced theatrically. Schools in Mansoura, as across the country, are segregated by gender. It was amazing to watch boys and girls mingling in these protests, as opposed to the usual scene of male students waiting outside of girls’ schools to harass them, pick them up, or engage them in emotional adventures. But the crowds, screaming, over-excitement and the egoism of those miserable souls dying to lead the chants, left me mentally disassociated, despite being a part of it all.

I would learn five years later, upon my graduation from university, how Hosni Mubarak’s regime not only allowed the anti-Israel protests but supported and even instigated them. Mubarak wanted the cameras to film the angry crowds as they burned the Israeli flag in order to point at the image, address the gods in Oslo’s mountains and Washington’s valleys and say, “I am here to control these beasts, so that they don’t burn down everything.” When the anti-Mubarak protests later took to the streets, security forces encircled them. Because they had not become beasts yet, Mubarak’s regime made sure they did by undressing female protesters and sexually assaulting young protesters. Instead of becoming beasts, however, they chose defeat and sought revenge through victimhood.

I became jaded by the ridiculousness of the charades we are summoned to participate in, such as elections. This was in addition to the calls for limiting religious and sexual freedoms in the name of religion, and other travesties that conjure up the idea of the nation. They instruct you on the importance of loving the nation and tell you how to do so. These directions did not suit me or various other people I met online. We thus preferred to create our own virtual reality, outside authorities’ control. We created a space that contrasted with the tedious moral principles of our fathers. Egypt was passing through great times. Everyone on television was talking about a democratic transformation. In the authority’s blind spot, we made small venues to hold parties and play music prohibited from broadcast radio and television (both public and private), because it doesn’t contain the usual tacky love song lyrics. In one of these parties, Alaa Abd El Fattah suggested we create a parody of the president’s website, and that I compose its comic content. These were the kinds of games we played. We used delve to into our virtual bubbles and make fun of the naked king, and how his entourage and slaves praised his garments.

I met my first wife on an online forum for the fans of [popular Egyptian singer] Mohamed Mounir. We were teenagers, barely 18 years old. Together we spent an often turbulent 10 years of love, marriage and divorce, a complete cycle of life. Others met on the forums and blogs of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Revolutionary Socialists, the “foot fetish club,” the “Bin Laden warriors” or the “‘Fatakat housewives’” forum. In contrast to the [political stagnation] that manifested in catting about Mubarak’s unfading pitch-black hair dye, the internet was a new home for those holding similar views to get together. The faint humming of these groups’ discussions gradually became audible. With the help of hearing aids, the old guards began to describe that humming as the voice of youth. They labeled young people as aliens to society, and then agents of the West and immorality. In any case, they did not take young people seriously or understand them.

“The old corpses should make way for the new corpses.”

The old zombies were taking up all the seats. The zombie general, the zombie sheikh, the zombie president, the zombie businessman, the zombie ruling party, the zombie opposition, the moderate Islamist zombie, and the radical Islamist zombie. And all they offered the youth was to be zombies and let go of their idealistic dreams and ethics. We were forced to mingle with these zombies. We were forced to converse with them, coax them, sometimes praise them, in order to protect ourselves against their evil. “With cold hands, we got into their midst; we looked but could not see,” is how poet Youssef Rakha described the situation years later in his great poem, On Sleeping with Reality. When we opposed them or refused to consume their archaic understanding of the nation and religion, we were faced with torture, marginalization and siege.

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photo by : Pauline Beugnies

“Live like your parents have lived,” said the zombies. In his movie The Mummy (1969), late Egyptian filmmaker Shady Abdel Salam tells us that our parents lived as scavengers. Girls walk in the streets with their shoulders curved forward and heads looking down with a desire not to be noticed. They don’t look left or right, often getting catcalled and harassed in silence. When they decided to stand up against mass sexual assault in the heart of the city, zombies accused girls and women of attracting criminal harassers and arousing them.

Demonstrators first took to the streets to protest police brutality and torture. They were accused of insulting the police. Protests kept growing in size and magnitude, eventually calling for the removal of the zombies’ leader (who taught his disciples his hair-dying technique). The zombies then congregated to address the youth. “Consider him your father,” they said, in reference to their leader.

Common traits of young people include passion and emotional vulnerability. As much as passion fueled the revolution, gushing blood in the veins of the agitated masses, it also prompted mercy and pity. It was precisely this passion that transformed the revolution into a quest to seek retribution for the martyrs, and prevent the children from killing their zombie fathers.

In many of Pauline Beugnies’ images in her photo book Génération Tahrir, we can see heated discussions between girls and mothers, between the young and the old. What’s not audible, however, is the sound of the screams, debates and opposing views. But the photos do make clear to us the magnitude of the authority the zombie fathers possess and the immense pressure young people are under.

I knew many young men and women who took to the streets, burning car tires and occupying the frontlines in the battle against the criminal elements of the police force. But the moment their phones rang, they would quickly escape to a quiet spot to answer their mothers’ calls. “I’m fine and far away from the clashes,” they would say. They must have thought rebellion could exist in a parallel reality away from familial life. I have also known activists who work on LGBT rights and are brave enough to advocate this issue in a [conservative] society like Egypt’s. They defend these rights in a court of law, in front of the police, and so on, yet cannot muster the courage to announce this to their parents. My female friends who gave officers the finger as they were being shot with the police’s rubber bullets used to weep in the face of parental and societal pressures. They are pressured to assume a single path in life, a future that includes nothing but marriage and bearing children in a cycle of reproducing more zombies.

This cowardliness and hesitancy led young people to always try to find a middle ground, only to eventually be deprived of everything by their fathers. They cheered for moderate Islamists, as the Brotherhood youth claimed that Islam is an identity and a moderate religion compatible with democracy. The Brotherhood youth claimed there was no place for secularism in our national identity. Then the Islamist zombies announced that there was no difference between Islamic State militants and us. They called those militants “mujahidin” and pledged to send their young people to fight on their side in Syria. When young democrats cheered for the civilian coalition led by a military general, they justified this. “Look at Sisi’s eyes,” they said. “They radiate warmth and love; he will save this nation and build a secular state.” The general responded by prohibiting speech and jailing everyone. Others were killed in public squares and football stadiums.

The Gulf sheikhs, the agents of the Western gods in the region, backed up the general. Along with the zombies and the general, they opted to deprive young people of all spaces, even virtual reality. Internet surveillance systems were put in place and a single tweet could put its writer behind bars. They invested millions in the internet, turning it into a mega shopping mall, controlling its content through social media companies that decide what’s trending. If a single story surfaces on a new torture case inside an Egyptian prison, it is quickly buried under piles of entries and clicks on the new shapes of Kim Kardashian’s butt.

A few weeks ago, I began sensing a faint, dull pain in my left testicle. The doctor told me I’m suffering from a case of varicocele in my testicles. He advised me not to stay standing for long periods of time, cut back on sexual intercourse and refrain from prolonged erections. When I asked him about the cause, he simply said, without taking his eyes off his newpapers: “Most probably it is genetics and age.”

No more prolonged erections for our generation; we are dispersed all over the world. Some are in jail, some are exiled and some are willing to be drawn to the Mediterranean’s European shores. Others aim for an exit from hell to God’s promised heaven through a path of beheadings. Those who have stayed have secured a place among the zombies. They appear on television as youth representatives, take selfies with the zombie general and sheikhs, and compete over the crumbs Gulf amirs and sheikhs often throw at them.

Now it is time for documentation, archiving and preservation before we depart with the past and our youth. Let’s bid farewell to our sorrows and ghosts. Let’s search within for a new path and revolution. The greatest danger lies in giving into nostalgia, to the old ideas and principles, and to assume there is a golden moment in the past that should be retrieved. The greatest danger is in revering the picture. Any form of reverence — for the revolution or the martyrs or higher ideologies — is enough to turn you into a zombie without even noticing it.

This essay was first published in French as an introduction to the book Génération Tahrir, for which photographer Pauline Beugnies followed the stories of various artists and politicians during the 25 January revolution in 2011. Mada Masr published the original Arabic text here.

A solidarity message From Salman Roshdi

Salman Roshdi

Ahmad Salman Rushdie (AKA) Salman Rushdie one of my favorite writers, In the prison I was lucky to sneak 2 of his books ( Shame, Midnight’s Children) and read it there. It saved my mind, and helped to give me some lights in the dark days there..
Now, after I get out. I found that letter from my strong friend Salman