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

Nurturing Love in Prison ‎

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ahmed Naji

Translated by: Radwa El Barouni

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

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

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