Sam Sacks on Using Life

Published first on: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-best-new-fiction-1513970981

In 2015,shortly after Ahmed Naji published his novel “Using Life” (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 196 pages, $21.95), a sexually explicit dystopian fantasy that imagines the destruction of Cairo under a tsunami of sand, an elderly reader wrote the authorities to complain that the book had caused him heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure. To most in the West, so strong a reaction would be taken as an endorsement of the writer’s gifts, but under Egyptian President Sisi’s authoritarian rule, the consequences were severe. Mr. Naji was arrested and sentenced to two years in prison for, in the words of the prosecutor, “misusing writing to create foul stories that serve artistic lust and mortal joy.” And though his conviction was eventually overturned he is still, as of now, forced to await a retrial.

Mortal joy, indeed. “Using Life,” which has been vividly translated into English by Benjamin Koerber, is a ribald, streetwise, outrageously inventive speculative fiction that hammers at the chaos and dysfunction of Egyptian life while testifying to the vitality of its counterculture.

The story is told from the near future, following a sequence of natural disasters known collectively as the “Setback,” which left Cairo buried in sand and led to the construction of a new and far more efficiently organized capital. As the narrator, Bassam Bahgat, wryly relates, these acts of God were anything but: They were actually manufactured by a shadowy international syndicate called the Society of Urbanists, which aims to “change the direction of humanity as a whole” by aggressively re-engineering its cities.

Bassam recounts the revolutionary years when he was a documentary filmmaker hired by this illuminati of architects to produce a series of videos about Cairo’s neighborhoods. He takes a fatalistic view of the transformations. Pre-catastrophe Cairo, he mordantly admits, is a cesspool of graft, pollution and standstill traffic, “where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere.”

But Mr. Naji comes both to bury Cairo and to praise it. “Pessimistic on the outside,” its residents are “idealistic on the inside,” and the howling anarchy of the city is infinitely preferable to the soulless utopia envisioned by the Urbanists. Bassam’s encounters with the Society alternate with graphic episodes of party-going, drug use and lovemaking. Similarly, interspersed within the story are lurid, Ralph Steadman-esque panel illustrations by Ayman Al Zorkany. The alleged immorality for which Mr. Naji has been prosecuted is really a tribute to Cairo’s irrepressible life force. Even as Egyptian authorities play to the dystopian script by attempting to punish the author for his heterodoxies, his book memorably celebrates the country’s underground seams of freedom and individual expression.

Teresa Pepe: ‘Literature’ is on trial in Egypt

In August 2014, an Egyptian citizen named Hani Saleh Tawfik came across issue 1097 of literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab, and upon reading the pages included in the section Ibda (Creativity), declared that “his heartbeat fluctuated, his blood pressure dropped and he became severely ill.” Tawfik went to court and filed a case against the author of the text, Egyptian novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji, and the magazine’s editor-in-chief, Tarek al-Taher, for having published a “sexual article” that harmed not only his health and morals, but also the morals of Egypt as a whole.

The text in question is a chapter from Naji’s most recent novel, Istikhdam al-Hayah (The Use of Life, 2014), as was specified by the magazine. It contains explicit sexual content – as many works of Arabic literature do (see the 1994 book Love and Sexuality in Modern Arabic Literature). On November 14, Naji and Taher will have to defend themselves and the novel in front of a criminal court. The author faces up to two years in jail or a fine up to LE10,000 (US$1250) if found guilty, as the charge falls under Law 59, Article 187, which covers defaming public morals. Taher is also accused of neglecting his responsibilities as editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Adab, since he told the prosecution that he did not read the chapter before allowing its publication.

In a Facebook status, Naji has explained that the accusation assumes that the text published is an article, and not part of a novel, which would make it a work of literature. It fails to understand the difference between journalism (supposedly based on true events) and fiction (based on imagination). It thus attributes the harmful thoughts and actions of the novel’s protagonist, Bassem Bahgat, to the author himself.

The chapter is actually narrated in first person. It recounts a normal day in the life of the 23-year-old Bassem spent in the alienating city of Cairo, a city that never sleeps, but rather “branches out” and “erupts.” Bassem finds consolation among his friends, with whom he spends the night smoking hashish, drinking alcohol, listening to music and talking about sexual fetishes. This group appears to him as the only gift he has received from the capital. Bassem spends the day after in the greener and calmer neighborhood of Zamalek with his beloved Lady Spoon, as he likes to call her because of the earrings she wears. She is described as an Egyptian Christian, educated abroad and nine years older than himself, who has decided to live the rest of her life in Egypt but has lost faith in men her age. The island of Zamalek and the comfort of her house are like a shelter inside the unstable city. The chapter culminates with a graphic and poetic description of their sexual intercourse. It ends with Bassem surrounded again by his friends, staring at the sunset from the top of Moqattam hills.

Using 19th–century jargon, the prosecutor describes the chapter as “lustful written material,” and accuses Naji of using his mind and pen for “malicious” purposes in “violation of the sanctity of public morals.” The accusation seems to disregard the fact that the novel had already received a pass from Egyptian censors, when it was imported to Egypt after being printed in Lebanon by Dar al-Tanweer.

Naji’s novel is not the first Egyptian book to be taken to court for spreading immorality. In 2008, Magdy al-Shafie experienced a similar accusationfollowing the publication of his graphic novel Metro. The author and his publishers were fined LE5,000, and Metro was confiscated and barred from publication until two years ago.

But the news of Naji’s trial immediately reminded me of an account of the trial of the Lebanese author Layla Baalbaki in 1964, which is included in the 1977 book Middle Eastern Women Speak. Like Naji, Baalbaki had been accused of having published explicit sexual content in her book Safīnat hanān ilā al-qamar (A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon, 1964). The questioning concerned two sentences: “He lay on his back, his hand went deep under the sheet, pulling my hand and putting it on his chest, and then his hand travelled over my stomach,” and, “He licked my ears, then my lips, and he roamed over me. He lay on the top of me and whispered that he was in ecstasy and that I was fresh, soft dangerous, and that he missed me a lot.”

Just like in Naji’s case, Baalbaki’s novel had been published nine months before, and after she obtained legal permission to print and publish it. Following the accusation, however, the book was confiscated (Naji’s novel is still available).

After more than 50 years, the account of Baalbaki’s trial, written in arid juridical jargon, can still highlight some important issues concerning the work of literature, the meaning of fiction and censorship. It raises some points that should be mentioned in defence of Naji as an author, and in defence of literature and creativity in general.

Baalbaki’s defense lawyer, only referred to as “Salim,” obtained a support letter from a committee of well-known Lebanese intellectuals, who were asked to read the novel and the rest of Baalbaki’s works before the trial. Salim argued that such a committee would be able to explain better than him “that the work under discussion is a work of literature; that its goal is to elevate literature in general, and its aims are as far as possible from arousing sexual desire in the reader and thus harming public morality.” Among the points raised by the lawyer and committee during the trial, the first concerns the role of writers and the nature of literary writing:

I would like to remind the court that the defendant is a serious writer. What is a writer? A person who tries to communicate his/her thoughts and emotions to other people through the medium of words. The author, or writer, is in a sense a camera, but one which photographs life with words, creating pictures in which we may see her thoughts and feelings clearly.

In this passage, the lawyer explains that writers of literature are endowed with a special sensibility that allows them to decipher and depict the surrounding reality for their readers. Unlike the journalist, whose writing is based on factual, reliable truth, writers of literature write about an emotional, subjective truth, based on thoughts, feelings and emotions.

In the The Use of Life chapter currently under scrutiny, Naji, far from giving us detailed information about the character, focuses on Bassem’s emotions and feelings while he wanders in the city. The sexual intercourse is depicted in a realistic manner, a mode of writing dominant in most Arabic literary production since the beginning of the 20th century (see Selim S., “The Narrative Craft: Realism and Fiction in the Arabic Canon.” Journal of M.E. Literature, vol 14, issue 1-2, 2003). Naji, just like Baalbaki, gives acts and emotions specific names in order to actualize the idea he is presenting. My reading shows that the passage is not meant to arouse sexual desire, but show that sexuality is experienced as a refuge from the bustling and chaotic city, which tends to erase humanity. Sexuality is experienced also as a liberating act in a society permeated by repressive and conservative attitudes toward the body. Indeed, Bassem ruminates: “In this city the lucky ones who overcome the phase of sexual repression find themselves in a situation in which sex is only a small component of friendship. Otherwise, sex becomes an obsession.”

الرقابة

It seems here that Naji is hoping to not just speak in his name, or in his fictional character’s name, but to depict the condition of a large part of Egyptian youth who struggle to survive in the capital. Bassem reflects on the fact that if you look at Cairo from above, you see that “human beings appear like ants that buy, sell and pee while the wheel of production never stops.” But standing on his feet among the crowd, he feels like “a small rat entrapped in the production wheel,” unable to get out of his cage, and not even perceiving the consequences of his own movements.

This feeling of loss and alienation in the city and in society in general appears often in Naji’s literary work. It is present also in his previous novel, Rogers (Dar Malamih, 2007), which recounts the life of a young protagonist through flashback descriptions of hallucinations induced by alcohol, hashish and the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s album The Wall. The same theme can be also found in his autofictional blog Wassiʿ Khayālak-ʿIš kaʾannak talʿab (Widen Your Imagination, Live as if You’re Playing). In this blog, Naji, adopting the fictional name Iblis (Diabolos, the devil), tempts readers to enlarge their imagination and join him in a world inhabited by spaceships and whales, where he sits beside Trotsky, Jonny Cash and Egyptian belly dancer Samia Gamal. It is somehow ironic that Naji chooses this blog title, and is then brought to court because his work is read as merely reporting reality.

Baalbaki’s lawyer goes on to argue:

It is important, for the court, your honor, to look at the book in its entirety, rather than singling out two sentences in the work as representative and stating that these two sentences alone are harmful to public morality.

This echoes Saint Augustine’s claim, written over 1,600 years ago with regard to scriptures, that meanings found in one part of a text must be congruous with meaning found in other parts. In other words, interpretations have to work for the whole text (for more on the wholeness of narrative fiction, see H.P. Abbot, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative Fiction, 2008). Likewise, René Wellek and Austin Warren, in their Theory of Literature (1949), argue that a literary work is a “highly complex organization of a stratified character with multiple meanings and relationships” that needs to be analyzed in its entirety.

By reading the novel as a whole, one understands that it is not only about sex and drug use. The Use of Life is a hybrid work between an ordinary novel and a graphic novel, as it includes prose by Naji and drawings by Egyptian cartoonist Ayman Zorkany (some of them can be seen here). The story rotates around two main characters: Bassem and Cairo. Bassem is accompanied by his group of friends, the secret “Society of Urbanists,” who aim to radically transform the capital. Among its enemies, we find Egyptian postmodern writer Ihab Hassan and the magician Paprika, which again shows that the novel plays with surrealism and pop culture (a detailed analysis of the novel is provided by Elisabetta Rossi, translator of the novel into Italian, here).

Baalbaki’s lawyer concluded his defense by arguing that:

The concept of public morality must also be discussed, as the Lebanese legislation does not give a detailed definition of public morality, rather it is subject to change and development according to the time. They are subject to change and development also according to the writer’s time.

In the course of the past year, the Egyptian government has subjected gay men, Shias and certain belly dancers to detention and prosecution in the name of defending ‘”public morality.” In a discussion held by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights in August 2015, researcher Amr Ezzat pointed out that in the debates following such citizens’ arrest and prosecution, the expression “public morality” is recurrent, but used in a very vague manner. Naji’s case, once again, brings attention to the ambiguous meaning of this phrase, at a time when sex scenes and pornography abound on the internet and television but are — sometimes — not admitted in a novel. Arguably, an accusation referring to public morality must define what is meant by “morality” in a time when leaders transgress basic human rights and persecute journalists, artists, political activists and in general the young generation that led the January 2011 uprising.

Baalbaki was finally declared innocent and the confiscated books were returned to their owners. Following the tortuous legal process, however, she almost disappeared from the literary scene and decided to privilege journalism instead.

Naji will have to wait until November 14 to see how his trial will evolve. In the meantime, authors from many countries are showing their support in form of Facebook status, blog posts, articles and joining the Twitter campaign in support of the novelist using the hashtag لماذا يذهب الكلام للمحكمة# (Why do words go on trial?) in support of Ahmed Naji.

Translations of The Use of Life by Teresa Pepe.

Richard Jacquemond: Ahmed Naji, the Use of Life and the zombies

How do you feel when you learn that the author of the novel you’ve been reading and enjoying for the past few days has just been given a two-year prison sentence for violating public morality? One more on the li10703791_563500500447774_1872834144255459015_nst, you say. Tens of thousands of his fellow citizens rot in jail, where they are being abused in all sorts of ways, without any due process or a parody of it — some for wearing a T-shirt, others for demonstrating against the law that deprives them of their right to demonstrate, many more for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

You’ve just spent the last two weeks grieving for Giulio Regeni, speculating with Italian, Egyptian and other colleagues and friends about the causes and consequences of his murder, reflecting on your own responsibility toward your students. You remember your colleague Atef Botros, one of the finest and bravest Egyptian scholars you met in the past few years, banned from his own country and sent back to Germany, the day before you landed yourself at Cairo Airport the last time. What to do? What can you do, back here in France, except vent your anger on Facebook and sign the usual petition?

But then you remember that you were reading Istikhdam al-Hayah (The Use of Life), not only for the fun of it, but because you’ve dedicated most of your professional life to the study and the translation of Egyptian literature and that gives you a special responsibility. You remember Pierre Rabhi’s hummingbird. Pierre Rabhi’s name may not be familiar to the Egyptian reader, but he is one of the most influential thinkers in the French environmentalist sphere. He goes around telling this Native American legend:

One day, there was a huge forest fire. All the animals were terrified, helplessly watching the disaster. All but one tiny hummingbird, which kept flying back and forth between the fire and a pond, each time throwing a few drops on the flames. An old armadillo, annoyed by this pathetic agitation, cried out: “Don’t be a fool! You won’t put out the fire with those tiny drops of water one after another! — I know, replied the hummingbird, but I’m doing my bit.”

Fortunately, lots of people around you are in motion and after a few hours you find yourself part of this chain of solidarity where you’ll be able to do your own bit in the best possible way. An old acquaintance contacts you. She works now for the International Federation for Human Rights (IFHR) and asks you if you’re willing to sign a statement prepared by the IFHR and translate the novel’s incriminated chapter to French. That’s the least you can do. You share the chapter with your colleague Frédéric Lagrange and get back to the novel.

Translating is as close as one can get to “close reading” and as such, it is possibly the surest quality test you can submit a text to. You can feel from the first sentences you translate that Ahmed Naji’s text passes the test. Here is everything you appreciate in a literary text: Straightforwardness, irony, and sincerity. And also — among other things — there is this love-hate relationship with Cairo that you seem to share with so many Egyptians of all ages. You are amused by his ability to call a spade a spade, and you admire this about him. Here is another proof of the modernity of Arabic fiction. For more than a century, generations of Arab writers have fought for their right to express themselves — the way they want, the way they are. You remember the epigraph to Tilka al-Ra’iha (1966), when Sonallah Ibrahim quoted James Joyce: “This country and this life produced me. I shall express myself as I am.” Naji is a worthy son of this history.

By the end of the chapter, and in the middle of the sex scene that supposedly upset the Akhbar al-Adab reader who raised all this hell, you stumble upon a verb you’ve never seen before in the thousands of pages of Arabic fiction you’ve read: “rahaztu-ha.” As usual in such cases, you first think it’s a typo, but it does not make sense. You go back to your Bible: the English version of Hans Wehr’s Arabic-German dictionary. The root is not mentioned. This gets interesting. A modern writer who uses a root too rare to be accepted by Hans Wehr must be well read in the Arabic turath — another point for Naji. You go to your online Lisan al-‘Arab through the Baheth Arabic search engine and you find it:

.الرهز: الحركة. وقد رهزها المباضع يهرزها رهزا ورهزانا فاهترزت: وهو تحركها جميعا عند الإبلاج من الرجل والمرأة

Wow! This is one of the things that made you fall in love with this language more than 30 years ago, and it still works.  You can still discover, in the course of a novel published a few months ago, a single, classical Arabic verb that conveys such a precise meaning that you cannot find its equivalent in French. And what meaning: “To move, shake a woman during sexual intercourse” — mind you, Lisan al-‘Arab is not gender sensitive.

You spend a good chunk of time pondering, while looking for a single French verb that would carry the same meaning, and of course anything you can find sounds terribly vulgar compared to this beautifully archaic Arabic verb, and nothing you find conveys its precise meaning. Did our upset reader grasp the actual meaning of rahaztu-ha before fainting? It does not matter. What matters is that there was a time when the poets, writers, theologians, and many more who wrote in Arabic could write such words. And when their colleagues, who compiled the dictionaries of “pure Arabic” (al-‘arabiyya al-fusha), did not blush when they inserted them into their lexicons with their masader (word roots), derivations and meanings. You also find the root n/i/k  (to copulate; fuck) in Lisan al-‘Arab, but you won’t find it in any modern Arabic monolingual dictionary.

This is one of the strangest, one of the most hidden effects of the Nahda (the Arab Renaissance). The intellectual Renaissance elite imported from Europe not only nationalism, the novel and plenty of other material and cultural artifacts, but they also imported Victorian values that were alien to Arab culture and strove to impose them on its societies, with the help, a few decades later, of the Wahhabi Islamic model propagated by the Saudi state.

Arab societies never ceased to cultivate all sorts of forms and places of resistance to this moral castration imposed by their elites, whether secular or religious. Maybe the deepest and the most longstanding effect of the 2011 revolutions lies in that they have shaken and cracked this paternalist, patriarchal and puritan mode of social domination. This is what most frightens the current powers that be and this is why their first enemy is not “terrorism,” whatever that means, but this rebellious youth that took to the streets in 2011, to whom Naji and his peers belong and give voice.

As it happens, I first became acquainted with Naji’s writing a few days before travelling to Cairo, last January, through a short text published in Génération Tahrir, a book he co-authored with Pauline Beugnies (photos) and Ammar Abo Bakr (drawings), published in Marseille (Le Bec en l’air). In this powerful text titled “Farewell to the youth” (Wada’an lil-shabab), Naji juxtaposes the youth against “the zombies.” Before the revolution, “the old zombies were all around the place. There was the zombie-general, the zombie-sheikh, the zombie-businessman, the zombie-ruling party, the zombie-opposition, the zombie-moderate Islam, the zombie-extremist Islam. The only choice the zombies leave the youth is to become a zombie and to abandon the idealism of dreams and ethics.” The youth revolted, but now, five years later, “the sheikhs, the zombies and the president have decided to deny the youth even virtual space. Internet is submitted to censorship and even a single tweet can send you to jail.“

I let him conclude: “The time has come to archive, to record, to collect. Then, let us bid farewell to the past and to youth. Let us bid farewell to the ghosts, let us search from inside a new revolution, a new path. The worst danger would be to give way to nostalgia, to stick to old principles and ideas, to imagine that there exists a golden age, a moment in the past that can be recovered. The worst of all dangers would be to sacralise an image. For all of these choices, even if they lead you to other forms of worship — that of the revolution, the martyrs, the superior values of ideology — may transform you into a zombie without you being aware of it.”

Editor’s note: The translations of excerpts from Ahmed Naji’s Istikhdam al-Hayah are the author’s own.