On July 25, 2019, ARC in collaboration with apexart hosted Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who was the 2016 winner of the PEN/Barbey Freedom To Write Award, for a lecture entitled “Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison.” Naji was formerly sentenced to two years in prison when a literary magazine published a chapter of his novel. Naji discussed the growth and trajectory of his career as a novelist, what life was like in an Egyptian prison, the power of literature, his new project, and more. He is now a Shearing/City of Asylum Fellow at the Black Mountain Institute.
When I first saw this picture, it was in 1995. I was sitting with my grandfather and we were watching the news and TV. And when this picture appeared he felt annoyed and sad. I was very young at that age and I asked him, “What’s going on,” and, “What is this story?” And he said it like, “Some kids tried to kill this guy.” And I asked him, “Why did they try to kill him?” And he said, “Because he writes.” At that age I was ten years old. I was reading mainly comics or books for kids and teenagers. And of course while reading I started to imitate what I was reading–I started writing. So suddenly my grandfather was telling me that someone tried to kill this guy cause he was writing. It stayed in back in my mind.
And I continue writing but I know writing is dangerous. So it goes on, I published my first novel in 2007, called Rogers, and then after a while I publish my second novel Using Life. When I published the novel I knew it was dangerous in Egypt and the Arab world. I knew also what is a red line. From an early age I knew that there are [three main] red lines that as a writer you cannot cross. The first red line is the religious mythology. You can’t come close to the Islamic mythology. [The second red line] the national identity imagination. You could talk about politics but you can’t talk about the imagination and the mythologies that created the national identity. The third red line is sex. When you are talking about sex there is a set of words assigned for you.
But I was seeing myself as birthing another Egyptian writer generation who are trying to use different language. So [my new novel] was published in 2014 and after it was published, I was in the south of Sinai on the beach and suddenly I received a phone call from my editor-in-chief (I used to work as a journalist back in Mansoura). He called and he said, “We just received an announcement from a prosecutor and they are summoning you to come do an investigation.” So we discovered what happened: a chapter of the novel had been published in the newspaper and a guy read the chapter and he went to the police station and said, “I read this chapter and it hurt my feelings. It affected my blood pressure and made me faint and it made me throw up.”
So the case was basically this: the prosecutor was saying, “This is pornography.” And we could say, “No, this is not pornography, this is literature.” We thought the worst scenario was they will fine us or something like that. But it ended up the court sentenced me to for two years. I was sent to Tora prison.
Because there is nothing to do inside this prison everyone is reading. Even people who never opened a book before, they start to read inside the prison because it’s the only way to make the time pass. And the collection of books they have in the prison is very interesting, because of course they have a big amount of religious books, but [surprisingly] there was a large amount of books that were banned outside the prison.
But when I was searching inside the prison I found this amazing novel … That Smell. So this novel was published by Sonallah Ibrahim. When he tried to publish it in 1969 … it was banned because of the sex. So I was shocked. It was impossible to find this edition back outside of the prison but suddenly I found it inside the prison library.
It’s interesting to see that people in prison after reading will start to write. Because usually prisoners feel, I don’t know how to describe it, but it’s kind of sorrow and pain, and they use writing to document this pain. For example, when I entered the prison I found this guy who’s always writing. He had been in prison for five or six years and he had, like, several notebooks. I called him the Marcel Proust of the prison. He said, “I’m wiring my diaries because I don’t want to forget the pain and the suffering that I [felt] here.” And he showed it to me and basically what he’s writing is, “Today is Sunday. I woke up at 10. I walk toward the bathroom. I eat two eggs.” So at the end when Marcel Proust was released from prison, on his way out the guard searched the bags and found the diaries and he read them and they had details about the prison and he said, “I can’t allow you to go out with this because it has details about the prison. So I’m not gonna sign your release paper until you burn it.” So this alerted me because back then I started to write in the notebooks that he allowed me. So in my notebooks I tried to not write any details about the prison. But I wanted to document my days, to not forget the days. So I used it to write my dreams.
Dreams are very important to the prisoner because dreams are the only window you have with the outside world. So you go to sleep and each time you go to sleep you hope you see your friends or family or the places that you are missing. Sometimes after a while you will start to play with your dreams. You will think all day of someone or something so when I go to sleep maybe it will visit me in dreams.
Dreams also bring a big role into most of Muslim and Arabic prisoners because in Islam and, I believe, in Christanity, we had this story about Yusef-Joseph the Prophet. So in the story of Yusef, he was sent to the Egyptian prison and he stayed in the Egyptian prison for seven years. So Yusef is in the prison and he was in his cell with two other prisoners. The prisoners have a dream and they told him a dream. After they had the dream he started to predict what was going to happen to them. He told one of them, “Well, your dream means you are going to get out of the prison and you will become a very important guy and you will become close to the king. And when this happens please don’t forget me and tell the king about me.” And the story goes on when the king had a dream, he was puzzled by this dream and so he told his adviser and suddenly his adviser remembered Yusef, so they summon him and he comes and he told the king what his dream was about: “In seven years you will not have food or the water will be low in the Nile.”
So as a Muslim prisoner, even as a Christian or Arabic prisoner, one of the hopes you have to get out of the prison is dreams. So I started to offer a prediction, and explain for others. People would wake up in the morning and come and tell me their dreams. Everyone in the prison started to trust me. So I became a holy figure within the prison.
Until I was in prison, I wasn’t looking at myself as a writer. I used to look at myself as a journalist, as a filmmaker. I was writing but I didn’t see myself as a writer, it wasn’t the main purpose of my life–until a small accident happened in the prison. So we had this guy and we are going to name him Mr. X. He was terrible and awful guy. So one day I woke up to go to the bathroom and I found Mr. X crying, crying like a baby. So I was worried, I went to him and asked him, “What happened? Are you OK? Something with the case?” He said, “No, no, everything’s fine. I was just reading this novel. I left it on my bed because even when I look at the cover, I start to cry again.” Suddenly I started to say, “What is the hidden power behind the literature and behind the writing that could reach and affect a guy like this?”
[My next book is called] Rotten Evidence. It’s about reading and writing in an Egyptian prison. I got out of the prison in December 2016. I married my wife Yasmine and she got a scholarship in Syracuse, New York. The plan was to join her after that and then I tried to leave the country and I wasn’t allowed to leave the country. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country as a free man. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country for a year and a half. And this year and a half was harder than being in prison.
So it took me a year and a half [but] finally I was able to get a short window for one week, so I was able to join my wife and we moved to DC. Then with help from PEN America and many music friends from this sphere in the state I was able to get [a] fellowship at the Black Mountain Institute at UNLV in Vegas.
Edited for brevity and clarity by Olivia Salama, September 2019.
Today marks a “Day of Blogging” for Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who is serving two years in prison: guilty of having written the playful, language-rich, genre-crossing novel Using Life, he will be given the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, today, in absentia, in New York City. When Naji was charged with “violating public morals” for an excerpt of his novel published in a journal, he initially won his case, but lost an appeal and has been in jail since February 20.
Below, Ben Koerber reflects on the play in using life.
…The mother that reads a story to her child: this is resistance. Building a small house: this is resistance. Singing at night is resistance. Having sex is resistance. Resistance is not just bearing arms; it is also the ability to adhere to the virtue of play, and to pursue–promiscuously, and with an eye to passion and pleasure–methods for using life…
I recall Bisu saying something to this effect some ten years ago.
July, 2006: Lebanon had been invaded again by the Israeli army after clashes with militants from Hizballah. A debate was raging in the Egyptian blogosphere on strategies for solidarity with the ordinary Lebanese citizens caught in the crossfire. “Resistance” was the rarefied term that Hizballah used to refer to the bullets and rockets it fired randomly southward. Bisu, blogging from somewhere in or around Cairo, had a different understanding of the word.
Like most people, I knew Bisu before I knew Ahmed Naje. The former was for a time the trickster-protagonist of the blog “Wassa’ Khayalak” (“Widen your Imagination”), and was known for his devastating parodies of state-sponsored intellectuals, producers and consumers of kitsch, religious hypocrites, as well as other bloggers who took themselves too seriously. (The name “Bisu” is explained as a pseudo-diminutive form of Iblis or “Satan”; before knowing any better, I sometimes imagined him as sprightly little smug-faced sanfur – Arabic for “smurf” and an occasional topic of Bisu’s posts). That was all back during the heady days of what Ahmed Naje, in his history of the Egyptian blogosphere, refers to as the “Diluvian Age”: a period of glorious cyber cacophony that lasted, roughly speaking, from the suppression of anti-Mubarak protests in 2005 to the draining of writers away from blogs to Facebook and Twitter a few years later. Sometime in late 2009, Bisu transformed, or molted, or something, into someone called “Ahmed Naje,” which also happened to be the name of a journalist, editor, and novelist in real life. There was no great “coming out” ritual here, only a courteous nod of admission to what many readers had already begun to suspect.
Fortunately, little else changed, and the blog stayed true to its slogan, “Live like you’re playing.” Bisu’s ludic imperative about the virtues of play were with me when I began to translate Ahmed Naje and Ayman Zorkany’s novel, Using Life, in late 2015. Something I had read in graduate school by Roland Barthes about interpretation as “play” seemed to recommend itself in my efforts at self-justification, but I was happy that Bisu’s sporadic use of the term was possessed of a more immediate vitality, and beckoned with the warmer and more inviting ontology of the nonce-concept. Barring some orange-haired apocalypse in November, my translation of Using Life is on schedule to be released by the University of Texas Press early next year. But though it may serve as the original work’s primary representative in the English-speaking world, I would urge we consider it as just one “play” on the book written by Ahmed Naje and illustrated by Ayman Zorkany.
The English-language play on Using Life has been preceded by many others, in different idioms and media.
There are Ayman Zorkany’s illustrations, which both complement and “translate” the text written by Ahmed Naje. Some of these may also be viewed on the Arabic book’s Facebook page.
Looking further back in the Arabic tradition, one may contemplate the uncanny resemblances between Zorkany’s illustrations and the monstrous hybrids of Zakaria al-Qazwini’s 13th-century Wonders of Creation manuscripts.
Curiously, while moral panics surrounding comics in the United States have historically targeted the genre for their graphic content, the illustrations in Using Life have not featured prominently in the recent legal controversy; perhaps this is because Zorkany’s images, while seemingly grotesque, are only so to eyes not accustomed to the realities of urban decay in contemporary Cairo.
There is Using Life merchandise. The book’s publication in Egypt coincided with an exhibit held at the Medrar artists’ collective in downtown Cairo (Nov. 24 – Dec. 1, 2014), which featured Zorkany’s drawings in a variety of printed formats, including T-shirts, hoodies, pins, coasters, and coffee mugs. These items were available for sale until recently at Cairo’s Townhouse Gallery, which has been subject to raids, closures, and partial demolitions by various state agencies.
There are interpretive dance performances. The cultural center Darb 1718, in Cairo, hosted one in late 2015, which, though I attended, cannot now find a trace of on the interwebs.
There are critical reviews. An important context for playing with Using Life and understanding the surrounding controversy are several not-yet-translated articles by Egyptian artists and academics. Some appeared in a recent issue of the Cairo-based literary review ‘Alam al-Kitab (“Book World,” no. 94/95, Nov.-Dec. 2015); for example, the intriguing essay by poet Ahmed Nada compares the trial of Using Life with that of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” a poem which has been translated into Arabic by Yusuf Rakha (in his recent novel, The Crocodiles, itself translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger), and before him by the inimitable Iraqi poet Sargon Boulus.
Lastly, or rather primarily, Using Life (Istikhdam al-Haya in Arabic) is itself a translation, in textual medium, of the aesthetic and architectural work that has conspired to design contemporary Cairo.
One of the great ironies of Naje’s imprisonment is that such direct and draconian displays of state power are largely peripheral to the critical concerns expressed in his novel. Instead, Using Life directs the reader’s gaze at the more subtle mechanisms of repression and constraint at work in contemporary Egypt: the perfidy of friends and lovers, the “kitschification” of culture, and, most importantly, conspiracies wrought in the realm of architecture and urban planning. The book is a play, in the first place, on the utterly unlivable state of today’s Cairo – “a miserable, hideous, filthy, rotten, dark, oppressive, besieged, lifeless, enervating, polluted, overcrowded, impoverished, angry, smoke-filled, simmering, humid, trashy, shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city,” according to the protagonist, Bassam Bahgat.
Let the reader be aware that among the city’s current residents, Bassam’s feeling is far from unusual. Cairo’s decades-old crises in housing, electricity, waste management, and traffic (to name a few) have left the city both physically and psychologically scarred, and have remained unresolved amidst the waves of revolution and counterrevolution unleashed since January 25, 2011. The intervention of the security services into urban planning has disfigured the city even further: un-breachable metal sidewalk fences, forcibly depopulated public spaces, and huge, concrete block walls constructed in the middle of major streets are now familiar sights around the capital.
Yet as parts of Cairo have shut down, new aesthetic practices have emerged over the last decade to open new spaces for expression, as well as to re-purpose old ones. Graffiti artists have laid claim to the city’s walls and barriers. Comedians and cartoonists have attracted cult followings through YouTube, and bloggers have emerged from the obscurity of their bedrooms to pioneer new literary genres. In fashion, advertising, and graphic design, independent artists have made spectacular interventions in fields traditionally dominated by foreign brands.
In Using Life, Zorkany and Naje have managed to synthesize many elements of this resurgent urban culture into something that, together with its “translations,” may serve as a guide-book of sorts for playing Cairo. All of these “plays” of/on Using Life – which, incidentally, were all performed or published before Ahmed Naje was sentenced to two years in prison – not only constitute forms of translation more inventive than the linguistic plays of professional interpreters, but that they also offer models for those contemplating solidarity in a manner suggested by the playful work itself.
Using Life is a novel of Cairo, and of a younger generation of Egyptians struggling in a culture and society that is both extremely deeply-rooted (in history, tradition, etc.) and unmoored. The first chapter is nothing short of apocalyptic in its vision, first burying Cairo under a mountain of sand, then destroying half the city in an earthquake — in which the Great Pyramid itself: “was reduced o a pile of rubble”, and:
All that was left of our great heritage — our civilization, our architecture, our poetry and prose — would soon meet a fate even worse than that of the pyramids. Everything collapsed into the earth or was buried under oceans of sand.
The novel proper then is a look back to before the collapse, beginning with more or less present-day Cairo — the city and society already breaking down, yet still stumbling on, for now, in its familiar raucous, chaotic state. The narrator, Bassam Bahgat, describes his roaring twenties, when, after a stint working for a human rights organization, he got a job as a documentary filmmaker. Eventually he’s hired to make a series of films, basically on Cairo. He becomes involved with a ‘Society of Urbanists’, dedicated to a sort of very ambitious urban renewal, with a focus on architecture and city planning; eventually the Society reinvents itself as a global alliance of corporations — dozens, eventually — controlling sixty per cent of the world’s agriculture and a major player in all sorts of industries. There’s a look at the development of the old city — planned, but escaping those plans:
No city was meant to be like this. Cairo was supposed to be more intelligently designed, more precise, more efficient. […] What we need is a revolution.
The city dominates the book, defining for the characters — both as they are simply trying to get by, as well as working to upset various aspects of the contemporary order:
There’s nothing more difficult than making decisions in Cairo, since it’s Cairo that usually makes decisions for you.
Bassam crisscrosses both the familiar Cairo and a more fantastical, imagined one; whether led down its familiar streets or given a glimpse of more sensational recesses the city, and its experience, remain fundamental:
Cairo. The heat. The scowls, the sliminess, the sweat. The pain. The scream muffled inside. The streets that don’t let you laugh or smile, or even cry or shout out in pain.
Bassam — a young man: “worried about turning twenty-five without having a good story to tell” — describes his casual relationships and the lives and ambitions of those he interacts with, from the small-scale to the globally ambitious. Women figure in prominent and often powerful roles, in a novel that plays in many ways at subversiveness. Subversiveness extends to form as well, as the narrative is not limited to writing, either: a few sections are presented in cartoon-panel form, while a section on ‘The Animal of Cairo’ pairs illustration with brief description. (The artwork is by Ayman Al Zorkany.) Using Life crams many stories into the larger and dominant Society of Urbanists-conspiracy-tale, but it’s a jittery narrative, hopping all around like its protagonist who often feels he is without control. There are raw scenes here, too — including quite a bit of casual and incidental sex — presenting a welcome broader picture of Egyptian life and society, and the struggles of a younger generation in the contemporary world — convincingly twisted by Naji into his panoramic tale, but more impressive piece by separate piece than in the stuttering whole.
A translation that feels somewhat stilted amplifies what surely is already in the original an aggressive prose challenging traditional narrative norms (especially of what (especially ‘Western’) readers seem to expect from Arabic fiction); Using Life is obviously not meant to be a smooth read — but winds up being a somewhat frustrating one in English.
Multimodality is not new to Egyptian culture whose ancient sign system was the hieroglyph (Lambeens & Pint 240); correspondingly, ancient Egyptian two dimensional mural art was at times sequential, illustrated by hieroglyphic inscriptions. Moreover, a bas-relief dating to the Old Kingdom circa 2,000 BCE at Cairo Museum may be considered as the earliest pictorial cartoon, according to Afaf L. Margot. It bears political insinuations by depicting a conflicting relationship between the keeper and the sacred baboons in his charge (Margot 3). Later, Coptic and medieval Arabic manuscripts combined text and image (Coptic Museum). In modern times, Egyptian cartoons evolved in the second half of the nineteenth century with the founding of newspapers in 1870. Their political humor was strongly connected to the growing antagonism against rulers (Margot 2).
2Children’s comics in Arabic flourished in Egypt as early as 1923 with Al-Awlad (Children), an eight–pages–long black and white newspaper, to be followed by Katkot (Chick) with serialized comic strips that have developed, ever since (Nadim Damluji 2016). The emergence of the first graphic novel by Magdy El Shafee met great obstacles for being considered by the authorities as “infringing upon public decency.” It was banned under article 178 of the Egyptian penal code criminalizing such publications. Author and publisher were put to trial and had to pay a EGP 5000 fine. It was translated into English by Chris Rossetti (2012), and later reappeared in new Arabic editions. Censorship was growing apace during the Mubarak era, and graphic novels employed text and image to flout conventions by exposing the authorities despite the censored environment.
3Graphic novels have gained popularity with the 2011 uprising in Egypt. More graphic novels have appeared since, such as Ahmad Nādī, Ganzeer, and Donia Maher’s The Apartment at Bab El Louk (2014), winner of a Mahmoud Kahil Award. Bab El Louk is a Cairo district close to Tahrir Square where the Egyptian uprising took place. During the uprising, Tahrir Square turned into a “carnivalesque” performance stage intermediating aural, verbal, visual, and digital, blending media and performance, most of which had political insinuations. In Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms this would be considered as “carnival” upturning social hierarchies. Tahrir Square became more of a mūlid (folk fair) location, where performances became similar to the Bakhtinian marketplace, combining “loud cursing” and “organized show… imbued with the same atmosphere of freedom, frankness, and familiarity” (Bakhtin 1984a 154), thus balancing social differences.
4The carnivalesque blending of media and performance, the pairing of (temporal) language and (spatial) image brings us back to Bakhtin’s theory which examines the utterance within the genre; this has been related by some critics to the combination of media. Gunther Kress has argued for a semiotic dimension of genre systems as combining varied activities within a medium. He starts off by proposing language as a multimodal medium (Kress 185), and all texts as multimodal (Kress 187). This multimodal approach to all texts or forms of communication shows that different modes have various potentials and limitations, and are articulated in specific ways in different cultures.
5In a similar argument, Lars Ellestrom propounds that all “‘texts’ and ‘systems’ overlap,” being parts of material, sensorial, spatiotemporal and semiotic aspects,” which he calls “the four ‘modalities’ of media.” Subsequently, “all forms of art, media, languages, communication and messages have some characteristics in common,” allowing them to merge without dissolving (Ellestrom 10). Mark Evan Nelson and Glynda Hull have noted that Bakhtin’s theory on the multimodal “chronotopes,” the time-space conjunctions (Bakhtin 1981), may be considered as precursors to the interpretation of multimodality merging multifarious potentials in media. They have concluded that synthesizing several theories in a study within this scope enables a better understanding of a multimodal novel ( Nelson and Hull 416-417). Multimodality has challenged the borders separating media and has opened new forms of cultural practices and analysis that cross borders. It has promoted new strategies for collective engagement in a mediated world, creating a space for cosmopolitan repercussions.
6Departing from traditional trends, experimental fiction proliferates in a cultural context where several forms of sign systems and media overlap. The carnivalesque environment referred to earlier that evolved with the Egyptian uprising has brought together creators from different social and cultural communities. Ahmed Naji’s (1985) and Ayman Al Zorkany’s (later Zorkany, 1982) Istikhdāmal-Hayãt (2014, Using Life) is a multimodal novel challenging borderlines dividing classical and contemporary verbal narratives, comic strips, popular music, and film-making. It moves freely between the classical and the popular, as well as between world and local cultures (later referred to as UL). The popular has acquired global dimensions with the spread of information technologies, science fiction, and cyberpunk sub-genres, even among subcultural groups living at the margins. Verbal and visual overlap, enticing the reader to meander visual, verbal and musical rapport, communicating thematic connections on multiple levels simultaneously. Indeed, as Ellstrom argues, “intermediality is a precondition for all mediality” (Ellestrom 4).
7By transgressing boundaries, verbal narrative and visual text contest plot-line consistency, as well as sequential chronology in graphics, which problematizes a critical reading of the novel within a single theoretical methodology. Any critical approach has to be shaped with relevance to the experimental nature of the creative work within its cultural context. Subsequently, I will draw from several critics that range, among others, from Mikhail Bakhtin, to Thierry Groensteen, Gunther Kress and Pascal Lefévere.
8Naji writes and Zorkany draws. Both are experimenting with mainstream novels and comics conventions, subverting the role of the Western superhero as well as the popular Egyptian arch-villain to articulate a futuristically fantasized estranged world. The objective of this paper is to explore strategies of engagement in UsingLife, a multimodal narrative, combining fiction, non-fiction, graphics and lyrics. It will trace modes of going beyond standardized formal conventions, breaking away with habitual reading protocols of classical Arabic and mainstream Egyptian fiction to create a culture of dissent. Besides the informal practice in the verbal text, of blurring boundaries among various language registers in Egyptian everyday spoken language, it merges professional and amateur writing. Correspondingly, Zorkany’s comic strips break with the artistic hierarchy set by the College of Fine Arts since its establishment in Cairo in 1908. Unlike the aestheticism of Fine Arts, comic strips hold an oppositional potential interrogating habitual modes of viewing. Furthermore, Zorkany drifted away from the drawing styles commonly used in Egyptian comic artists. His comics have a wider range of drawing/shading style, and panel composition.
9Naji and Zorkany have closely collaborated to synthesize verbal and visual; they have welcomed readers’ critical interaction, as acknowledged at the end of their book. In fact, the visual and verbal narrative strategies used, subvert the expectations of readers habituated to mainstream fiction, and graphic novels pandering to traditional tastes. They had to face the challenge of appealing to a wider and more varied audience, a multiplicity of cultural sources, and a wider range of artistic styles, ranging from cartoons, illustrations, and graffiti to commercial ads. The far reaching economic and social changes in Egypt as a consequence of globalization policies have formed a pluricultural society. This has unsettled mainstream culture and valued principles of all cultural groups. Verbal language has been affected mostly, and the visual took precedence with the spread of communication technologies. Subsequently, this has introduced new potentials for engagement with the world.
10A society that is constantly disoriented as a result of rapid changes effected by unknown sources is in constant need to relate. Moreover, the proliferation of the graphic novel as a multimodal form came in response to an urge to engage with the world through an immersive form. According to Kress, multimodality brings to our notice that perception is the result of the human body’s engagement with the world through the senses. The fact that the senses coordinate together “guarantees the multimodality of our semiotic world” (Kress 184). For Pascal Lefévre, the sensual is experienced through form: “The first and foremost dynamic process of form is engaging the feelings of the reader” (Lefévre 5). The fact that the body provides the means of engagement with the material world, would relate multimodality to “the issue of subjectivity” (Kress 187), and ways of its engagement with the world. Multimodality may be thought of as an epistemological tool invoking the reader’s interaction in order to rethink complex local global relations ensuing from the clash between global technological politics and parochialism in an uneven world. Today’s reader is a global and local citizen located at the crossroads of cultural encounters, and contemporary writers worldwide have become aware of limitations inflicted by traditional artistic forms, as well as the difficulty in relating to a single national culture. Subsequently, multimodal creative works worldwide are hardly confined to one literary or artistic tradition. Such is the case with Using Life (2014; later UL), the work under study.
11The novel’s title, Using Life is an appropriation from the Roman poet and philosopher Titus Lucretius Carus’s (c.99 CE-c.55 CE) poem, The Nature of Things: De Rerum Natura, which is based on Epicurean philosophy. An epigraph appropriated from Lucretius is quoted in the book’s front-matter pages. The epigraph quoted in Arabic translates as follows: “Birth-giving reccurs on and on; life is not given for possession but for use” (UL 5). Naji’s appropriation of an ancient western classic, his merging of the local with the global, his mix of establishment with popular cultural products, and placing events in a contemporary setting endow the novel with a cosmopolitan context. The narrative events take place in cosmopolitan Cairo, configured as an unreal/real City that may represent the monetizing hurly-burly of any metropolitan city. However, the narrative subverts the call for “using life,” advocated by the book’s title and the Lucretian epigraph by failing to affirm them. Unlike Lucretius’s poem resplendent with natural imagery and sensuality promoting intellectual pleasure, the preponderant imagery in the novel is that of a yellowish desert, sometimes orange at its best, and that of a ravaged Cairo razed to the ground.
12As opposed to Lucretius’s birth-giving nature, the events in the novel are stirred into action by a geographical catastrophe—a devastating desert tsunami inundating Cairo under a sand avalanche, along with a deadly massive earthquake causing streets and bridges to break down, land and ground to fall down and eventually, the collapse of the pyramids; Cairo is immersed in an overwhelming agony, a bewildering pathos. The language used to describe the tsunami appropriates that of the sacred texts, with phrases like “the wrath of god” and “Heavenly damnation,” relating the overwhelming situation. Again, as in The Nature of Things, the element of chance—not divine intervention—is persistent, however, paradoxically, disabling the natural use of life.
1 * Editor’s note: the graphic’s allusion seems to be to David’s “The Death of Marat.” A reference to (…)
13The presence of death in life initiated in the verbal narrative, is visually configured by a graphic design in a two-page spread with a caption appropriated from the Natasha Atlas’s lyric: “You’re looking for paradise, while it surrounds you” (UL 12-13). Instead of an enchanting landscape illustrating the lyric’s words, the graphic drawing is of a devastated bathroom. The drawing is in shades of grey and a predominantly obscure background. Streaks of light emanating from an unknown source make visible a toilet, a tub overflowing with a bloody liquid, sharp-cutting metal tools, and female underwear negligently thrown.1 The prevalence of decay is heightened by the use of stark chiaroscuro. The contrast of light and deep shades adds a claustrophobic noir atmosphere. The image may be viewed from another perspective as, to use Thierry Groensteen’s terms, a “tabular surface,” for spatial relationships, (Groensteen 13). The contrast between the white typography placed at the top of the drawing and the black background heightens the contradictory relationship between the meaning of the lyric and the visual affect. The sharp contrasts in shades, along with the deformed non-representational objects, function as tools to immerse the viewer in apprehensive emotions (Fig. 1).
14Subsequently, the graphic spread cannot be viewed as a comic strip; the textual code emerging from the obscure space is deliberately disrupted by the gloomy environment evoked by the grey shades and sharp contrasts. The visual function of the typography becomes more active than the textual code in the lyric. The graphic drawing plays a double function: its placement at the beginning of the novel anticipates traumatic forthcoming events. However, once retrieved by memory along the flow of events, it impacts retrospectively, especially towards the end. The opening graphic spread disrupts the code transmitted by Natasha Atlas’s lyric, subverting the embedded meaning. The comic strips that follow are not set in consecutive order to create an alternative narrative; nor are they used as illustrations to the verbal texts. Conversely, they are as disconnected as the narrative text, at times supplementing the inarticulate in verbal language. The sparing snatches of dialogue in the subsequent strips are by an anonymous narrator, who even disappears from several sequences. Unlike classical comics that impose verbal on visual, the panels are generally self-sufficient, following what Groensteen propounds as a “poetics of reticence, ambiguity, and indeterminacy” (Groensteen 30).
The third verbal text following the graphic spread is an entry on Ibn ‘Arūs, a medieval Upper Egyptian folk singer who turned from his life as a bandit to become a popular lyricist upon being jilted at the age of sixty by the young girl he loved. Ibn ‘Arūs’s lyrics are sung to this day at local fairs, or festive occasions in Upper Egyptian villages, by Shawqī Qenawī, a contemporary popular ballad singer, also mentioned in the entry on Ibn ‘Arūs. The dates and national origins of Ibn ‘Arūs are not definitive, as the narrator claims that information descending from ancestors and exchanged among contemporaries is liable to constant modification along the ages. The insertion of this entry pseudo-documenting the lives of both popular singers ji lted by their lover[s] function as commentary on the previous episode recounting Bassam Bahgat’s—the protagonist narrator—disappointment as a result of his partner’s betrayal; parallel situations in the novel intensify elements of indeterminacy and chance. The multimodal use of text, graphic design and popular music to map related private agonies among members of different social communities, enhances the sensation of “tsunami” morbidity on the local horizon. The second chapter extends this morbidity to the international horizon with texts and graphics critical of private and public Western modes of living. Enhancing sensations by the use of three modalities of media–verbal, visual and aural–simultaneously immerses the reader-viewer in the narrative experience.
16Instead of a chronological plot-line, a series of episodes are spread along ten chapters, alternating verbal narrative, graphics or comic strips, as well as popular musical extracts. As verbal narrative visual comics and musical excerpts do not proceed in sequential order, they are mutually interruptive. Shifting visual, verbal and musical effects requires a pause, which disrupts narrative time and space. The verbal and visual are not attributed meaning in isolation, but relative to their occurrence in the text, and depend on the connections made in the process of reading. Multimodality or the use of multifarious media as referred earlier, coincides with the time-space “chronotopes,” hence merging different historical temporalities and diverse locations.
17The novel evolves through multiple temporality, and plurality of cultural narratives. Narratives from Cairo’s past and present are related, to provide a background for ongoing events in the protagonists’ private lives. In one of his interviews, Naji rightly opines that, “Cairo is a museum holding a plethora of historical buildings” (Ali 2014). Cairo residents daily commute along different phases of history marked by distinct architectural constructions and monuments, at times merging with shanty towns and popular districts. Past and present are active in the everyday life of ordinary Cairo inhabitants. Along with the presence of the historical past, the present has provided technological devices introducing parallel realities. Subsequently, events in the novel alternate inadvertently along the protagonists’ private lived time and simulated reality. Correspondingly, Cairo’s surviving monumental architectural constructions provide a cultural context of lived pasts, surrounding commuters, along with mediated pasts diffused through the media. Within the private domain, there are lived, recounted, dreamed and simulated times. By the same paradigm, Cairo is being lived as embodied space, and as virtual space. Inadvertent shifts in experiencing material and virtual realities in private and collective memory are one of the strategies used to destabilize progressivist ideologies. The shifts are prompted by environmental degeneration, social instability, abjection, and failed projects. Contingent cultural transformations make it difficult to mobilize a narrative of private or collective history on a single axis, which explains the plurality of cultural narratives on Cairo and of its inhabitants. These narratives are inserted in the action as comments on ongoing situations linking Cairo’s past history to present actualities, in the same way protagonists reflect on their past lives in present sociopolitical situations.
18Cairo has taken on several faces; the cityscape has undergone several changes under successive rulers. This is also configured in the changing roles of Egyptian women acting as traditional veiled women (Fig. 2) or unveiled modernized funky women (Fig. 3). These seeming binaries come along a series of graphic drawings. In a chapter titled, “The Animals of Cairo,” a variety of male and female figures are featured combining grotesque human and animal features; they are named: “the Scoundrel,” “Stray Dogs,” “Dervishes,” “cockroaches,” among others. Verbal and visual text subverts these stereotypes by revealing their complexity, making it difficult to stigmatize them under one appellation. They configure an identity crisis incapable of coping with new demands from the altered social and economic changes. Both veiled (UL 90) and unveiled women (UL 92) fail to find a balance between developing their distinctiveness while still fitting in. Unlike former graphics combining visual and verbal in one panel, in this series, the verbal and visual are split into different panels to be read and viewed separately.
19Identity in crisis is a consequence of the persistent tradition/modernity conflict predominating the history of Cairo’s architecture, cultural heritage, as well as social relations, and has been configured in different strips. This conflict has never been resolved either in Cairo’s urban planning, or in the lives of its residents. The tradition/modernity conflict is further developed towards the end of the novel; a sequential panel features a televised story of a worker at a printing press, who abandons his wife after becoming emotionally attached to the printing machine he works on, and fantasizes about having a sexual relationship with it (UL 156-161). It is a humorous strip with multiple cultural specific connotations. Most of the panels are in a grotesque style, merging reality with fantasy; they convey a visual metaphor, alluding to inability in managing technological advancement to meet habitual living, or difficulties in reconciling rationality and affect. It may read as a tragicomic sequence, which adds to the ambiguity of the situation instead of clarifying it.
20The disconnected segments configure a lurking catastrophe which the reader/viewer apprehends as early as the opening chapters, especially that the opening episodes, graphics and musical extracts manifest the end of Cairo, the sad finale, before starting the narrative leading to this end. The reader is gradually led to sense a double risk lurking in the urban, ecological and sociopolitical environments. While the sociopolitical and environmental conditions of Cairo predict an inevitable disaster, later configured as a sand tsunami, its geopolitics is being manipulated by an economic strategy planned by the International Architects Association. This multinational Association is planning to sweep off Cairo City to have it replaced by a New Cairo. Cairo has always been designed by successive rulers to become the center of power. Moving the center of power from historic Cairo to a “New Cairo” by an international association of architects is of significance. The Association is a “global player,” an “outsider” economic and a political actor and not the choice of local inhabitants. Its political activity beyond governmental control has increased the vulnerability of the system, which brings about Cairo’s devastated condition. The latest previewed transformation by the Architectural Association claiming to have worked with reference to stored archived material lacks solid credentials, and their work turns out to be drawing a virtual map of New Cairo, a map that, “precedes the territory–precession of simulacra–that engenders the territory […]” (Baudrillard, from “The Precession of Simulacra,” 1981). Environmental degeneration and globalizing capitalism work concurrently. Towards the closure, global capitalism overlaps with crime increasing the threat, which is marked by a series of mishaps. Inadvertent events occur, such as the mysterious disappearance of Maud, one of the protagonists, the discovery of traces of a crime in the Association underground offices, and the frozen human flesh discovered by Bassam in Moonie Moon’s refrigerator. The horrendous verbal images recuperate the prelude graphic spread featuring a tub floating with a bloody liquid in an abandoned bathroom. On one level, the closing events relate to the queries raised by the opening spread; on another level they raise additional questions as to the identity of the assassins and their intentions; together these reiterate the limitations of verbal and visual language to be fully articulate. The ambiguity of both verbal and visual languages, their inability to articulate a consistent plot-line configures Cairo’s devastated condition as well as the chaotic condition of its inhabitants.
21The speculative architectural project of New Cairo undertaken by the International Architects Association, created in response to a capitalist transnational scheme, intertwines with the fictional narrative (Plesch 145) recounting the interment of Cairo as a consequence of a devastating sand tsunami. The environmental disorder configures degenerating social relations, chaotic governmental policies and lack of governance. The verbal and architectural narratives critique centralized planning, cultural globalization, digitalization and monetization. This is rendered in the third sequential panel (Chapter 3), featuring Bahgat’s first encounter with two members of the International Architects Association, who commission him to make a film on Cairo’s architecture (UL 37-41). The different postures of standing outsider and seated insider, commissioner and commissioned, self-assuredness and incertitude are rendered by focusing on posture and facial expressions. While Bassam’s posture conveys helplessness, his eyes reveal anxiety and negative affect (Fig. 4). Conversely, the Association members’ blank eyes shaped in straight, circular and interwoven lines convey a tunnel vision (Fig. 5). This blank look creates a gap revealing the complexity of the relationship, whereby one party’s inner emotions remains ambiguous; in that sense the images become performative as they immerse readers in the action.
22The presence of Ihab Hassan (1925-2015), the U.S.-American-Egyptian postmodernist critic, as a member of the International Architects Association is an implicit subversion of the postmodernism Hassan advocates. The construction of a New Cairo according to a simulated map designed by an international association, is totally divorced from Cairo’s cultural history, and marks the failure of a postmodernist approach claiming its inclusiveness of cultural difference. Conversely, Bassam Bahgat, protagonist-narrator and his friends, contest the Association’s rationalized globalizing scheme by leading the life of the flaneur. This mode of living also challenges the popular—turned—elitist postmodernist approach which had initially subverted rationalized modernization, but has later turned into theorization. The turn from live experience in an old Cairo throbbing with life, to the theorization and simulation of a “New Cairo” that replaces the old impedes the natural process of living. Subsequently, this explains Cairo’s eventual devastation by an unprecedented sand tsunami.
23However, the life of the flaneur does not promote the natural process of living either. Frustration with the flaneur’s mode of living is rendered in the fourth comic strip (UL 71-78), configuring the impact of hasheesh on Bassam, the protagonist-narrator in the spatial graphic mode. Bassam is rendered in a condition of temporary amnesia that dissociates him from material reality, carries him afloat a paper boat sailing on a sea of dreams. The journey proceeds along downfalls and lifts, sinking in the sea, and flying in an air balloon, until he finally lands on a desolate location. The strip is made of a series of single images most of which are without captions, or with onomatopoeic sounds like the “crack” of the collapsing paper boat (Fig. 6). One does not view the panels in terms of before and after; the reader draws the meaning by reconstructing a simultaneous relationship connecting different images. Bassam’s distraught condition materializes with the sudden appearance of an unknown person giving him back his lost purse. Instead of thanking him, Bassam resents the stranger’s help, and responds with abusive language. Bassam subverts the superhero image; his life as flaneur indulges him in half- accomplished pleasures. However, his indulgences cannot be classified as negative affect, as they are among the few choices offered in a censored environment.
24The Bassam Bahgat-Ihab Hassan dis/alliance renders the paradoxical relationship dis/ connecting dissenting intellectuals from the masses. Hassan’s presence is reminiscent of similar politico-cultural circumstances that have, with variation, previously taken place in Cairo’s history. Ihab Hassan emigrated to the United States in 1946, when Cairo was metamorphosed by Khedive Ismail to become “part of Europe,” engendering a cosmopolitan cultural environment. These were times when Egyptian Surrealists were at the peak of their performance; while closely connected to the International Surrealist movement, Egyptian Surrealists failed to achieve some of their aspirations in a cultural climate torn between modernists and conservatives (Kane 10-12). Similarly, Hassan, the postmodernist critic, while fully integrated into the American culture was totally divorced from the local culture to which he was related by birth. Most contemporary subversive youth movements as of the 1970s have appropriated the Egyptian Surrealists’ modes of contesting the establishment. However, Naji and Zorkany push “degenerate” or “decadent” art a bit further. Naji’s use of explicit language that almost verges on porno, his challenging description of sexual and gender relationships contest the growing social bigotry. Consequently, he has been unjustly persecuted and had to spend two years in jail in retribution (Koerber 2016). Ironically, this has increased the sales of the novel to over two million copies, a sign of wide reception, and the success of his strategy to debunk political repression and social inhibitions. The political establishment’s unequal war against Naji’s “decadent” fiction has contributed to the revival of political awareness, and augmented public resentment. Jacques Rancière defines “policing” not as “disciplining” of bodies” rather as a rule governing their appearing.” Conversely, Rancière argues that, “politics […] is antagonistic to policing.” “Politics runs up against the police everywhere” (Rancière 29, 30).
25The subversion of formal genre conventions of the realistic novel, such as the absence of chronological temporality, of superheroes, of a conclusive message, as well as the lack of explicit language frustrates the habitual expectations of mainstream Arabic novel readers. In the same vein, Zorkany’s subversion of formal comics conventions–the want of interpretive aids, the grotesque morbidity of his hybrid figures, unidentified mysterious location, heightened mood of existential estrangement in the fictional narrative–dramatically diverges his work from the commercial comics tradition. Furthermore, instead if using one style throughout, Zorkany experiments with a wide range of graphic styles. His comics production combines sequences of abstract drawings, as in the “You are looking for paradise,” panel and drawings with figurative elements, which do not form a coherent narrative. Thierry Groensteen calls this graphic mode: “infranarrative comics” (Groensteen 10). In addition to the absence of a sequence linking the panels, occasionally, the panels and plot-line are not logically related. These visual strategies disorient the reader and make it difficult to infer a single interpretation, opening multiple semiotic possibilities.
26Although the final strip (Chapter 9) is sequential, it requires decoding the various layers of signification. It is a parody of horror comics, critical of Western assumed power based on technological advancement; simultaneously, the panels ironically convey the vulnerability of folk heroism. The strip configures an invasion by monstrous figures spurred on by Paprika and Madame Dawlat, both Architects Association members, along with the escape of the perpetrators who may belong to the Architects Association members. The monstrous unidentified figures in the strip are drawn in a “rhizomatic style” in contrast to Paprika (Fig. 7). Paprika is drawn in a dynamic line whereas the hooded figures appear as a sprouting rhizome. Bassam and Hassan are identified in the panels in the act of invoking forces of resistance; in a diagonal layout, Hassan uses a spray can to fend off the monster’s assault, and is seen in the act of escaping with a bag. Conversely, Bassam is the only one to stand his stead, while he scares the assaulters by the use of explicit language–Hassan arms himself with technology, while Bassam relies on his innate forces (Fig. 9). The friction between two styles of drawing gives it a vital agility (UL 215-224).
27The protagonists’ figures are not represented in the same way all through; although they are recognizable they remain unrealistic. Drawings figuring Ihab Hassan have undergone an erasure (Fig. 8); Zorkany has previously caricatured “Ihab Hassan,” the postmodernist icon, as an aristocratic snob (UL 116). In the final strip (UL 222), Hassan appears holding a spray can–lower left panel–to scare off the monstrous figures. The image comes with a caption that translates into English as, “God has deemed this to be fair” ( Fig. 10). The word “fair” in Arabic translates as “hassan,” the surname of the American critic, posturing as one of the protagonists in the novel. This caption, which is appropriated from a sacred text, may serve as a commentary on the whole situation, expressing satisfaction with the break in the Association’s bond, and considering it as a blessed supernatural intervention.
The final comics strip disrupts the reader’s expectations of knowing the victor in the fantastic/real battle featured, and the strip sequence ends with no resolution. An unidentified monstrous figure sits blowing arrows; his crane reveals a conspiratorial scheme aiming at the destruction of Cairo’s architectural constructions (Fig. 9). The sequence configures the verbal narrative line that has assumedly occurred before the events of the novel begins. It also relates to an earlier entry about Hanafī Ahmed Hassan, another well-known singer of popular lyrics. His most reputed ballad is ShafīqaandMetwalī an old popular ballad about the shame killing of Shafīqa, upon the denouncement of her secret love bond with Metwalī. This entry preludes the series of killings taking place among the Association’s members towards the close of the novel. It enhances the element of betrayal, denouncement, and distress. Distress is sensed on the local and international levels.
29The prelude included the morbid graphic spread, ironically captioned “You’re looking for paradise while it surrounds you”; a chapter titled “Music’s Cemetery,” recounting betrayals and disappointments; the finale’s prelude–an episode also titled, “Music’s Cemetery,” alluding to the decline of harmonious living. In the finale is the announced death of music acts as a commentary on Paprika’s schemes, a leading member of the Architects Association, who along with her accomplices are proceeding with their atrocious plan–the mutilation of Cairo’s architectural and cultural history. The chapter evokes a dolorous tempo of a musical piece, and sounds the dissonance of the chaotic events. This noise, the concoction of a medley of fraudulent plans and horrendous events is allied to the constant denouncement of listeners to old musical pieces as inhibited individuals devoid of the joy of life. This sad prelude commences a series of upcoming disasters, along with a grotesque sequential panel.
The episodes at the closure render mysterious events, marking the sudden disappearance of protagonists, either by departure, death, escape, or floating away in a hot air balloon. The mystery is intensified by the narrator-protagonist’s self-reflexive awareness that he may merely be an idea, an image, a simulacrum the way Cairo City has always been (UL 196, 198). In line with this indeterminacy, the recognizable figures in Zorkany’s drawings are never repeated in the same style; they acquire new attributes with the changing situations, never becoming attached to an archetype, or reduced to a referent. By analogy, the mysteries are not resolved by magical resolutions; unresolvedness is a strategy inducing the reader to become aware of the constructedness of all narratives related to the self, Cairo, or a single global cultural history. By subverting readers’ expectations the verbal visual narrative affirms its dissidence, its opposition to ideologically charged generic and formal conventions established by mainstream literature or art. The use of spatio-temporal strategies offers empowering alternatives that are more engaging to local and global readers alike by opening up spaces for different points of view, engaging them in identifying conflicting perspectives.
31It is no wonder that novels that are graphic in part or whole are finding better chances to be translated despite their limited number. Jaqueline Brendt has postulated in her introduction to Comics Worlds and the World of Comics: Towards Scholarship on a Global Scale (2010) that bande dessinée, manga and manhau, historietas, beeldverhalen and fanzines “share the inclination toward escaping the ‘national’” (Brendt 5). UsingLife crosses borders by appropriating classical global and local multimodal sources across historical periods. It shifts inadvertently between Lucretius, classical and popular Arabic sources, global and local singers’ lyrics, high stylized classical Arabic language, everyday Egyptian dialects, and obscene language; all speech registers used are mutually unintelligible. Likewise, the graphic images toggle between various design layouts, inspired by various artistic styles unlimitedly.
32UsingLife transgresses boundaries among visual, verbal, and aural—mainstream and popular, and tends to be transcultural. Both Naji and Zorkany declined claims for national particularities, and this is evident in their joint work. Naji has broken with the classical Arabic tradition and mainstream culture that claim objectivity through “the signifying units of a language […] that are impersonal” (Bakhtin 1986, 95). Their creative work is in Bakhtinian terms a heteroglossia of languages, acknowledging a multifarious community of addressees, along with a changing relationship between speaker and addressee(s) that can never come to a standstill. The use of different speech registers is a technique of engagement, immersing the readers from disparate communities by providing them with space to become “actively responsive” (Bakhtin 1986, 95), by allowing “various social ‘languages’ […] to interact with one another” (Bakhtin 1992, 282).
33Correspondingly, Zorkany broke away with classical art training at the Faculty of Fine Arts, in Cairo, as well as with comics styles used by emerging Egyptian comics artists’ inspired by American and European comics. His drawings are aimed at trained and untrained viewers belonging to varied social communities. His visual language is in different styles since they are not reaching out for a fixed code, rather engaging viewers outside the framework of social conventions in order to establish a familiarity reaching their sensations. Familiar speech and unofficial art styles can “play a positive role in destroying the official medieval picture of the world,” Bakhtin postulates, giving examples from literary history (Bakhtin 1986, 97). Naji and Zorkany both aimed at a new strategy for engagement by opening fiction and graphics to “layers of language that had previously been under speech constraint” (Bakhtin 1986, 97). This is made clear in an interview Naji had with Mona Kareem, where he expressed his belief that the traditional novel is “nearing extinction […] and images continue to take over the human consciousness, leaving us with a new language” (Kareem 2014 npn).
34Along the same lines, Groensteen postulates that towards the end of the twentieth century comics are “becoming literature,” or what we call the graphic novel. He quotes Alain Berland, that a comics author should engage “in multiple hybridization with other artistic disciplines” (Groensten 175). Groensteen does not see that this would lead to an “artist’s book.” Naji’s and Zorkany’s joint book shows that the need to hybridize is an urge to run counter to the mainstream. Their multimodal text belongs to a worldwide emerging youth subculture seeking uninhibited means of communication to engage addressees by touching on their sensations, while being indifferent to cultural legitimacy. Lambeens and Pint argue that an: “intelligent combination of code and sensation in fact reveals the distinctive possibilities of the comic genre in comparison to other more established genres like film, literature or painting” (Lambeens and Pint 255). Comics have opened new possibilities for Egyptian writers and artists, and the word “komix” has become a loanword appropriated in Egyptian dialect. Subsequently, komix calls for a cross-cultural method of research that resists compartmentalization within one critical scholarship.
BRENDT, Jaqueline, (ed.). “Introduction: attempts at cross-cultural comic studies.” Comic Worlds and the World ofComics:TowardsScholarshiponaGlobalScale. (Series, Global Manga Studies, vol. 1). International Manga Research Center, Kyoto Seika University, 2010. The Coptic Museum, Cairo. http://www.coptic-cairo.com/museum/selection/manuscript/manuscript.html
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Ahmed Naji — winner of the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award — remains on trial for his novel Using Life, for its alleged violation of “public morals.” The novel recently appeared in English, and Naji and translator Ben Koerber talk about the book, the legal case, and what Naji’s working on next:
Ben Koerber: To start off, could you give us a brief update on your case and the legal (and extralegal) sanctions against you and the novel?
Editor’s update: The North Cairo Appeals Court has ruled it has no jurisdiction over Naji’s case and has referred it to a criminal court. PEN America has called the situation “half free.“
Ahmed Naji: In the meantime, I remain banned from leaving the country. As for the novel, no ruling has been issued against it, but due to the increasing censorship of the book market in Egypt, we’re having difficulties publishing a new edition (in Arabic). The owners of some presses have refused to print it, since the National Security Investigations Service have obligated them to report any book before printing. At the same time, we’re worried about printing it outside Egypt, since this means it will have to pass through the office of censorship for artistic works at the Customs Administration. This office has banned several books from entering Egypt as of late.
BK: Some commentators have tried to link the case against you to the rise of fascism in Egypt, or to the police state. Yet it seems that Using Life — and indeed some of your other works — conceptualizes politics and repression in somewhat different terms. Do you agree? How might the novel itself be used to reflect on your case, or politics in Egypt more generally?
AN: I finished the novel’s first draft at the end of 2010 [i.e. before the Egyptian uprising of January-February 2011]. The novel itself does not specify its political context, but provides the general contours of two worlds. The first world is governed by a nameless general, while the second world – after the “Tsunami of the Desert” – is ruled by a conglomeration of multinational construction firms. At the time I was writing the novel, I had been preoccupied with the idea of the nation state – which began to take shape in the late nineteenth-century – and its potential demise. Politically, the novel is about this imminent moment of change.
Now, it seems this moment has come to pass. In the western world, for example, we see the rise of far-right movements, who view the nation state as a unified racial entity, and at the same time as a lucrative commercial enterprise that bestows its benefits on a racial elite. Perhaps Trump in America is the best embodiment of this state of affairs. We see it too in the Third World and the Arab countries, where a new generation of dictators present themselves as CEOs capable of making profits through brokering deals and selling their real estate assets.
In Egypt, 6th of October City hasn’t yet become the fantastical, futuristic city of the novel. But to the east of Cairo, the state is siphoning its entire economic resources into building what they’re calling the “New Administrative Capital.” It’s supposed to be a “city of the future” where the president and government will be relocated, far from the present Cairo. I don’t like the image of the writer as a predictor of events, but I can only be amazed that the end I wished for Cairo in the novel is presently taking place in reality. The plan announced by the government is to let the city choke and die while they flee along with their presidential palaces, administrative buildings, and security apparatuses to a new city that’s completely fortified.
BK: Who or what are the “Animals of Cairo”? Can we live with them? Can we live without them?
AN: They’re portraits of characters and personality types that grow and reproduce in Cairo. The reason they took this shape – Ayman’s drawings together with some abstract prose poems – is because I didn’t want to write about the city as it’s typically been portrayed in the Arabic realist novel, where you choose a well-defined geographic location – a working-class neighborhood, a residential building, a city street – and follow the fates of a group of characters and their class struggle. Instead, I wanted to write something more fantastical, based on the city’s most widespread characters.
BK: Bassam has a complicated relationship with “ass-kissing” (ta’ris) and “cocksuckery” (khawlana). I’m not sure the translation is able to communicate the cultural baggage of these terms. Could you explain?
AN: I really like Ben’s translation of both expressions, and I think the reader can grasp their cultural connotations from the context of the novel as well. I find the topic of “ass-kissing” in Arab culture really quite fascinating. In one sense, it’s a way of surviving and making do in a culture dominated by an ethos of control and subjugation, as is the case with Arab political culture. It’s a topic that’s garnered considerable attention in the Arabic novel, as for example in the works of Muhammad Mustagab, or with some of Naguib Mafhouz’s famous characters – Mahgoub Abd al-Dayim in Cairo 30, or Anis Effendi in Adrift on the Nile. There’s also, of course, the works of Albert Cossery.
BK: What role do the footnotes play in the novel?
AN: The novel is the art of polyphony, of voices in the plural. The footnotes were a way of experimenting with this idea. Sometimes they provide clarification or explanation of the main text, and sometime they conflict with it by raising doubt about its accuracy or presenting a different narrative of the same event.
BK: The novel is a very “open” text, with gestures toward reader participation at many levels. What did you hope to achieve with these gestures, and how have readers responded?
AN: I strive to let writing become an open dialogue. I like for the text to contain many spaces and secrets, so that the reader can fill in the gaps and become more immersed. The readers responded to this in different ways. The responses I always get for these types of experiments gives me a sense of personal fulfillment, as well as the opportunity to form new friendships. With Using Life, some readers colored in the novel’s illustrations, and others send me their ideas and images of other “animals of Cairo.”
The text’s openness to interpretation helps achieve another artistic goal that I strive for, which is that writing induce others to exercise doubt and ask questions about the work, its subject, and their own lives.
BK: Your thoughts on seeing the novel in English? What do you think American readers will make of it?
AN: I’m really excited about it. I remember, years ago, when my first novel [Rogers, 2007] was translated into Italian [Rogers, et la Via del Drago divorato dal Sol, 2009], and I expressed my concerns to the translator, Barbara Benini, that it wouldn’t find an audience in Italian culture. But I was surprised to find myself invited to Italy for the book tour, and to hear from Italian readers their reactions and the connections they made between the novel and their own personal experiences. I don’t know how it will be with American readers, but I’m eager to know how they respond.
BK: Can you share any details about your upcoming projects?
AN: Currently I’m trying to finish a nonfiction book on my trial and time in prison. Starting with my own experience, it looks at the broader issue of literary language vs. the language of the law, and asks why literature goes to the courtroom. I review various cases brought against literary works in Egypt and France, since that’s where the charge of “obscenity” or “offending public morals” has been brought against literature, beginning with Voltaire. I also look at the case brought against James Joyce’s Ulysses in New York, and the case against Allen Ginsberg’s poem “Howl”.
Iwas in a classroom in Turkey recently, explaining the word utopia. From u and topos: “no-place,” possibly a pun on eu-topos, “good place.” See also: dystopia. That, too, is a place that doesn’t exist, but—
“Oh,” someone interrupted, “it exists.”
My students were Syrian refugees, and they were taking no lessons on where the border lay between the real and the unthinkable. They knew that not all dystopias are fictional, that one person’s nightmare is another’s dark norm. For them, survivors of tyranny and war, it was no great leap to imagine a place in which, as the OED defines the word, “everything is unpleasant or bad.”
Dystopian literature has its representative figures and their defining specters—Orwell, rule by fear; Huxley, rule by consumerism—and their descendants have opened up the genre to a strangely thrilling variety of possible hells. Hell tends to be another word for “dehumanization,” and the key insight of this recent flowering is that there are as many ways to dehumanize as there are humans to write them. Whatever the threat in question—climate meltdown, runaway mutants, an all-knowing state—these works are usually understood as cautionary tales. The alternate worlds they present are supposed to shock us into repairing this one. Their implied tense is the future perfect: this is what will have happened, they warn, if we don’t pay attention. But they also serve as reminders that for many, the world is already a dystopia.
Three new novels from Egypt, where the revolutionary hope of 2011 has given way to a society in which things are, by many accounts, worse than ever, hold up a black mirror to the present. “The future is now. And it stinks, I tell you.” That’s Bassam Bahgat, the narrator of Ahmed Naji’s Using Life. He’s writing twenty years after the Catastrophe, a series of violent natural events that leave Cairo buried under a tsunami of sand and result in the building of New Cairo on its outskirts. (This is not very far from reality—sandstorms blow through Cairo every spring, and the government is planning a new capital in the desert; China has already pledged $35 billion.) Dystopia is often linked to natural disaster, but here the novelist’s device seems to function less as a warning than as a coping mechanism for somber times: if politics get you down, lie back and think of Armageddon. Nakba (“catastrophe”) and naksa (“setback”)—references to the Arab defeats of 1948 and 1967—are now only shorthand for the Storm. By commandeering the political obsessions of the old order, this brave new world seems to have done away with history itself.
Not that Bassam has much time for regret. He’s suspicious of nostalgia, which he sees as a form of amnesia:
For several years after the event, many made desperate attempts to save what they could. The Egyptian people were joined in the perpetuation of this farce by UNESCO and the people of the world. “Humanity faces a catastrophe.” “Our heritage is threatened with extinction.” To hell with all of it, really. As if Cairo’s very existence were not a disaster in and of itself. As if abandoning it to such a sorry state long before the naksa, and the devolution of its human residents into soulless beasts, were not the real tragedy.
Behind this snub, we are given to understand, lurks a complicated affection. Using Lifeis an old man’s letter to his youth, a bittersweet portrait of Cairo before it was destroyed. This turns out to be a report on what is for us the recent past, its details recalling the years around 2011. It was a time of house parties and arguments and hash, of stifling bus rides and talking until morning before melting into bed “like honey.” Bassam and his friends struggle to live and love in a city where a welter of slow-burning crises conspire to eat them alive. It’s not just the raw displays of state power; it’s also the smell of waste, the traffic, the harassment, the repression. Yet however much he insists that Cairo was a “miserable, hideous, filthy .?.?. overcrowded, impoverished, angry .?.?. shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city,” his memories cast it in a prelapsarian glow. There are moments of exquisite feeling—a lover’s “soft-spoken thighs,” Jimi Hendrix’s guitar shrieking “like a hen laying its first egg.” Bassam is both disenchanted (from reading Foucault he learned that “there was no longer any hope”) and full of passionate intensity, just like a young man, or rather like a young man pretending to be an old man remembering his youth. (Naji is just past thirty.)
Things start to veer off course, and the novel into outright fantasy, when Bassam falls in with the Society of Urbanists, a shadowy outfit with pharaonic ambitions in urban planning— like the Freemasons, if they’d stuck to masonry. Though global and tentacular, the group is centered in Cairo: its members might meet at the base of the pyramids, or naked in a Jacuzzi, or in a plane circling the city. Our desultory hero is recruited to make a film about them in the style of “documentary hyperrealism” (“What cocksucking Frenchman came up with such a lame idea?”), and slowly teases out their philosophy, which involves a lot of esoteric knowledge, fierce secrecy, and the eating of watery food. His recruiter, Ihab Hassan (a real-life theorist of postmodernism, one of the novel’s many in-jokes), lets him in on the secret. The society’s members keep an archive of the architectural truths they have discovered over the millennia, which are transmitted “like phantom genetic material” among them. Some of this data is published—James Joyce and the brothers Grimm, and almost every visionary you can think of, were Urbanists in disguise—and some is kept at the bottom of the sea. The society was responsible for the world’s first city, the Suez Canal, the catacombs of Paris, cheap postwar housing, and almost everything else. Its members, we are hardly surprised to discover, can be traced back to Adam.
The design of modern Cairo, according to this pseudo-history, was the result of a power struggle between the Urbanists and a coterie of European architects, which the Urbanists lost. Now, under the leadership of a ruthless, nationless mind reader called Paprika, they want redress. (Softcore descriptions of every female character’s figure are gratuitous—“her breasts pressed against her T-shirt like a pair of lemons”—and in Paprika’s case somewhat undermine her mystique as an evil shape-shifting sprite.) Their mission is the eradication of pain through architecture. Their powers are limitless, their logic neatly hubristic: to end suffering, many must die. After the disaster, they embark on a project of radical social engineering whose ripples extend well beyond Cairo:
The whole world was now more or less the same: no room for rebellion, no space for screaming. The forests had been masterfully redesigned, and temperatures kept carefully under control. . . . Peacocks were placed under strict surveillance, as the number of endangered species increased with every passing hour.
Once the utopians have had their way with it, the unruly city comes to seem a paradise lost. Ostensibly a document of frustration with the old world, the novel is also an attempt to imagine how much more miserable things could be. Yes, it seems to say, this life is unlivable, but how would we feel if we lost it all?
As though in response to this question, soon after an excerpt from the book was published in an Egyptian magazine in 2014, a surreal chain of events landed Naji in jail for “violating public morality.” It’s hard not to read Benjamin Koerber’s rollicking translation in light of Naji’s legal ordeal, which began after a “concerned citizen” complained to the public prosecutor that a scene involving cunnilingus had caused him heart palpitations and psychological harm. As Koerber explains in his introduction, Naji’s case marks the first time in modern Egypt that an author has been imprisoned for a work of fiction. One of the ironies of the case is that the offending chapter was also the novel’s happiest, one in which simple pleasures—morning sex, a walk in the sun—become scraps of joy snatched from the jaws of the city. Another is that Naji, who has written critically and explicitly about the current regime in his journalism, should have been undone by a work that announces itself so clearly as fiction; the prosecutor took the chapter to be a confession of its author’s indecent behavior. Naji was acquitted last year; his case is pending retrial, but a bootleg copy of his novel circulates online. The book is an experiment, wild and weird, full of non sequiturs and oddball imagery. (The text is interspersed with surreal comics by Ayman Al Zorkany.) Perhaps it is subversive precisely for its love of whimsy; in a culture beset with political gloom, it agitates for the freedom to be unserious.
If Naji’s dystopia has the low-stakes lightness of a dream, Mohammad Rabie’s Otared is an unadulterated nightmare. The novel begins with a cannibal crime scene of rare ghoulishness and gets steadily grimmer. Our guide to this underworld is Ahmed Otared, good cop turned partisan. It’s 2025, and East Cairo has been occupied for two years by the armies of the Knights of Malta, land pirates with no territory of their own who speak “Arabic like Tunisians, and English in many different dialects.” The invasion was as swift and total as it was unopposed; only a lionhearted few still hold out. The bourgeois island of Zamalek has become the eye of the resistance. From the top of a tower in its midst, Otared, a matchless sniper, looks out over the divided city (the West remains free) and trains his scope on the enemy, cold-blooded behind his mask. “I was an ancient Egyptian god with a borrowed face, whose true features no man could ever know. . . . A Greek god, full of contempt for the world that he’d created.”
Whatever one thinks of the legitimacy of armed struggle, it does not take long for the resistance to overstep even the widest definition of guerrilla warfare and devolve into outright slaughter. What is remarkable about this shift is how slow we are to notice it. Otared is a companionable narrator, and at first we cannot see the murderer for the fancy prose style; one of the novel’s most chilling moves is the ennoblement of evil through formal beauty. Served by Robin Moger’s exceptionally fine translation, its mazelike structure and sensitive flashes of description are a lesson in the seductions of art. (Here is our terminator describing a line of blood: “It reminded me of an ostrich’s tail feather, a column of water rising from a fountain, the glowing tracks of fireworks launched across the sky.”) At regular intervals Otared takes stock of those he has killed, and these lists grow longer every time, a paratactic mess of names and bodies. Yet the slowly gathering rhythm has the effect of an ostinato, a musical pattern repeated and amplified. Violence is so carefully and insistently woven into the pattern of the novel that it cannot be senseless; something else, we come to suspect, must be at work.
And so it is. One of the longer roll calls of the dead provides a hint that Otared’s killing spree might not be quite what it seems:
And I killed a southerner called Gowhar, dressed in a broad-sleeved robe. I shot him in the neck with a single bullet, and he took to his heels, bleeding, and I let him go because I knew he’d die in a few minutes and that nobody would be able to help him.?.?.?. And I looked for Samira al-Dahshuri. She’d be walking beneath the overpass, I knew, and I swept the area through my scope, and when I saw her I fired without hesitation into her liver. It had been cirrhotic for years, and maybe she felt the bullet ripping through it and killing her. Maybe that is why she hunched over and peered at the spot as she died.
What kind of a sniper is this, and why is he blessed with a total, transcendent awareness of his victims’ lives? Why, at the moment of their death, does he describe them with something close to love?
Another clue lies in the novel’s cyclical structure: some sections pan back to 2011, and at its midpoint is a single, very brief chapter set in the year of the Hegira 455, or ad 1077. It is a testament to Moger’s flair for the varieties of English—and how they might map onto the many registers of Arabic—that within a few lines it is beautifully, mysteriously apparent that we have been transported a thousand years back in time. Here, a man attends a burial and comes to a violent understanding (“Hope shall be set in your hearts, and hope there is none, and hope is your torment”), which foreshadows the novel’s final revelation. It is not spoiling things too much to say that this key, when it comes, both clarifies the novel’s cruelty and upends it, turning its sadists into angels of mercy. A dystopia can also be a world turned on its head.
Yet the realization that Otared’s savagery is only a negative image of the truth does not redeem it entirely. Having sat through the horror show—public suicide and stoning, a miscarried fetus on a plate, homeless girls raped by a homeless man—one could be forgiven for not standing to applaud its basic conceptual trick. One part of the nightmare, however, contains the seed of something brighter. The chapters set in 2011 revolve around a man, Insal, who adopts a little girl after her parents disappear. The girl, Zahra, develops a strange ailment that causes her eyes, ears, and mouth to seal themselves shut until she is nothing but a smooth lump of flesh that has to be fed through a tube, cut off from the world of the senses. Eventually she is reunited with an aunt who suffers from the same affliction. That Zahra’s character should be one of the few not only to survive the novel but to experience a moment of connection comes as a poignant relief.
Zahra kept running her hand over her aunt’s cheek. Slow, even passes, testing out her favored sense: touch. At the nasal openings, she stopped, lifted her head, and stuck the tips of her first and middle fingers into the holes. There was a momentary lull, then the aunt released a sudden blast from her nose and Zahra snatched her hand away in feigned alarm. The aunt rocked her head back, as did the girl, then the two foreheads met once more. They were laughing.
The drama of dystopia is that it rarely succeeds completely; these novels draw much of their power from the resilience of the human. In other words, embedded in dystopia is the possibility of miniature utopias, clearings of solidarity or autonomous thought. Basma Abdel Aziz’s The Queue may be named after a hallmark of authoritarian states (it shares its title with Vladimir Sorokin’s 1983 Soviet saga), but its real subject is the queuers and their stubborn fellow feeling. We are in a parallel world of Brechtian simplicity, where the highway is marked Public Road, scripture is the Greater Book, and the only newspaper is the Truth. The Gate is both a place—a door set in an octagonal fortress—and the source of all authority; it came to power after a popular uprising was crushed many years before. (The phrase “winds of change,” often heard in 2011, marks out the revolt as a reference to that one.) No aspect of life falls outside its jurisdiction: the Gate announces the arrival of winter and decides who is entitled to phone lines. Even window-shopping is taxed. When a group rises up against the reigning injustice, this, too, is brutally put down. As punishment for these Disgraceful Events, the Gate closes, and outside forms an ever-lengthening queue, which threatens to replace society itself:
So many shopkeepers spent so long in the queue that they couldn’t buy or sell anything or supervise their employees, and so they decided to get rid of their merchandise.?.?.?. No one knew when rush hour was anymore; there were no set working hours, no schedules or routines. Students left school at all sorts of times, daily rumors determined when employees headed home, and many people had chosen to abandon their work completely and camp out at the Gate, hoping they might be able to take care of their paperwork that had been delayed there.
The novel is organized around a single medical file, that of Yehya Gad el-Rab Saeed, a man in his late thirties with a bullet lodged in his body. This he acquired during the Events, but when he is taken to the government-run hospital and sees people around him dying of bullet wounds, he realizes that a gaslighting operation is under way:
The doctor asserted that the high mortality rate was due to the fact that these rioters were simply too sensitive. Upon hearing one another’s harsh words, they’d succumbed automatically, their hearts having stopped before the ambulances even arrived. Others had stumbled upon the grisly scene and were so traumatized by it that they froze, and then they collapsed, too, falling one after another like dominoes.
Another doctor is willing to help, but nothing, not even surgery, can be done without permission from the Gate. So Yehya joins the queue and its economy of frail hope. It is a microcosm of Egyptian life: it ought to be a utopia, or at least a great leveling.
Thrown into cohabitation, people pray together, work, sleep, roast sweet potatoes, propose marriage. A conservative preacher is forced to reckon with the opinionated young woman standing next to him. But as the queue grows, inertia creeps over the crowd. Though they stand together, day after day, fear keeps them suspicious and strips them slowly “of everything, even the sense that their previous lives had been stolen from them.”
Another obstacle to Yehya’s operation is that his bullet does not officially exist. It cannot be mentioned, let alone removed, being evidence of the state-led crackdown on the Events. (Here too reality is catching up: the 2011 revolt has been expunged from the history curriculum in Egyptian schools.) Radiology wards are shut down, their equipment confiscated; X-rays circulate like samizdat. As the hospital becomes a battleground in the war on truth, conversations in the queue are mysteriously reflected in people’s medical files, which seem to be updated in real time. It turns out that nothing of the queuers’ lives escapes the Gate, not even the hour of their death.
Elisabeth Jaquette’s limpid translation achieves the spare, sterilized quality that medical prose and the communiqués of overbearing states have in common. This economy of style is integral to a world in which human interactions have been painfully circumscribed and stripped of trust; bleakness is related to bleach. This is a study of totalitarian logic with the plainness of a Kafka parable—and, unlike Naji’s and Rabie’s novels, it pulls off its unnerving effect without resorting to the degradation of women’s bodies. (A scene of harassment on the metro ends with the offender being beaten with a handbag and decamping in fright.) Nothing human is alien to it; see how compassion has sharpened, not softened, the prose:
With practiced care, Yehya slowly bent his right knee, leaned his torso to the right, too, and then lowered one side of his skinny bottom onto the edge of the wooden chair. He let the pain swell to its full magnitude for a moment, until he knew he could bear it without groaning or crying out, and then slid his whole rear end onto the rough-edged wooden seat, stretching his left leg out a bit.
A healthy man might take three words to sit down; a man in pain takes seventy-seven. Abdel Aziz, a psychiatrist who treats torture victims in Cairo, knows how wounded bodies move.
Dystopia is the putrefaction of utopia; it is the promise of perfection turned sour. After the uprising that is now a distant memory, “the Gate and its guardians had prevailed, and they emerged stronger than before.” The Queue was written before the military coup that put Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in power, but it has proved prophetic. Since 2013, cases of death by torture have soared, and tens of thousands have been imprisoned without charge. Many have disappeared. The crackdown on noncompliance has led to a war on writers; Egypt is now the third-largest jailer of journalists on earth. Last June, a few months after his release from prison, Ahmed Naji wrote in a blog post about the fate of revolutionary art:
Day after day, things seem to be drifting to their pre–January 25 status quo, with some even believing that they are becoming worse. . . . Only a minuscule number of attempts remain, trying to continue under Egypt’s ever-increasing scrutiny and censorship.
These novels are among them, and they are reasons for hope.
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.
I first heard the name Ahmed Naji at a PEN dinner last spring. I looked up from my dessert to a large projection of a young Egyptian man, rather handsome, slightly louche-looking, with a Burt Reynolds moustache, wearing a Nehru shirt in a dandyish print and the half smile of someone both amusing and easily amused. I learned that he was just thirty and had written a novel called Using Life for which he is currently serving a two-year prison sentence. I thought: good title. A facile thought to have at such a moment but it’s what came to mind. I liked the echo of Georges Perec’s Life: A User’s Manual—the coolness of that—and thought I recognized, in Naji’s author photo, something antic and wild, not unlike what you see when you look at pictures of Perec. You could call it judging a book by its cover: I’d rather think of it as the readerly premonition that this book might please me. If he had written a book called Peacocks in Moonlight and posed for one of these author portraits where the writer’s head is resting on his own closed fist, I would have been equally shocked and saddened to hear he was in prison, but perhaps not as keen to read it.
As I was having these unserious thoughts the contents of the novel were being roughly outlined for us all from the stage. It sounded intriguing: a kind of hybrid, with certain chapters illustrated as in a graphic novel, and with a comic plot concerning a dystopian Cairo, although it was in fact the novel’s sexual content that had landed its author in jail. Though the novel had been approved by the Egyptian censorship board, a sixty-five-year-old “concerned citizen,” upon reading an excerpt in the literary weekly Akhbar al-Adab, had felt so offended by it that he made a complaint to the local judiciary, who then charged Naji and the editor of the weekly with the crime of “infringing public decency.” (The editor is not serving a jail sentence but had to pay a fine.) There was, to me, something monstrous but also darkly comic about this vision of a reader who could not only dislike your prose but imprison you for it, although of course at the dinner the emphasis was necessarily on the monstrous rather then the ludicrous. But when I got home that night I found an online interview with Naji in which the absurdity of his situation was not at all lost on him:
I really enjoyed the dramatic statement of that plaintiff reader. He told the prosecution that he buys the journal regularly for his daughters, but that one time, his wife walked into the room showing him my published chapter and ridiculing him for bringing such writing into their home. He said his “heartbeat fluctuated and blood pressure dropped” while reading the chapter.
Naji seemed bleakly amused, too, by the months of semantic debate that had led to his prosecution, in which the judges sophistically tried to separate fiction from a non-fiction “essay,” determining finally that this extract was in fact the latter, and so subject to prosecution as a kind of personal revelation:
According to their investigations and official documents, my fiction registers as a confession to having had sex with Mrs. Milaqa (one of the characters in my novel), from kissing her knees all the way to taking off the condom. They also object to my use of words such as “pussy, cock, licking, sucking” and the scenes of hashish smoking. Ironically, this chapter speaks of the happy days of Cairo, as opposed to the days of loss and siege dominant in the remaining chapters. This specific chapter is an attempt to describe what a happy day would look like for a young man in Cairo, but perhaps a happy life feels too provoking for the public prosecutor!
Which sounded even more intriguing. A few days later I’d managed to contact Naji’s friend and sometime translator Mona Kareem, who sent me a PDF of Using Life (itself translated by Ben Koerber) to read on my Kindle. It opened with a beautiful line of Lucretius, and I felt immediately justified in my superficial sense of kinship: “Forever is one thing born from another; life is given to none to own, but to all to use.” And as I read on, the novel’s title took on a different resonance again, for here was a writer not content to use only one or two elements of life, no, here was a guy who wanted to use all of it:
In September, as the city’s residents were just beginning to recover from the most traumatic summer of their lives, there came a series of tremors and earthquakes that would be known as “The Great Quake.” It resulted in the destruction of nearly half the city. The there was an eruption of sinkholes that swallowed entire streets, and distorted the flow of the Nile…The sinkholes did not spare even the pyramids, and nothing could be done for the Great Pyramid itself, which was reduced to a simple pile of rubble. All that was left of our great heritage—our civilization, our architecture, our poetry and prose—would soon meet a fate even worse than that of the pyramids. Everything collapsed into the earth or was buried under oceans of sand.
So here was the epic mode—the fantastical analogy for a present political misery—but right up next to it, unexpectedly, was the intimate, the bathetic, the comic:
[She] went back to rolling the joint, twisting one end into a little hat. She took out her lighter and set the little hat on fire. Watching the slow, dark burn gave me a tingle on my cock, which I put out with a scratch.
The girl in question is Mona May and she’s impossible. The narrator is a young man in a failing state but he is also just a kid in love with a (slightly older) woman who happens to drive him up the wall: “I looked at my face in the mirror, and asked myself a serious question: what am I doing here? If I could put up with her arrogance, her stupidity, her hallucinations, her mid-life crisis…what should I expect in return? At the very least, if I loved her, was still obsessed with her, then there was no reason for me to be here, since my presence clearly causes some kind of disturbance in her world.” Angst! Romance! Sex! Dicks! And illustrations, though these I could not see in the PDF, and had to content myself instead with the tantalizing captions. (“The leftover particles of shit that stuck to our bodies resulted in certain deformities. Marital relations suffered, and many died.”) Using Life is a riotous novel about a failing state, a corrupt city, a hypocritical authority, but it is also about tequila shots and getting laid and smoking weed with your infuriating girlfriend and debating whether rock music died in the Seventies and if Quentin Tarantino is a genius or a fraud. It’s a young man’s book. A young man whose youth is colliding with a dark moment in history.
In an attempt to draw more attention to Naji’s cause, Mona recently translated three very short, flash-fiction type stories for PEN’s website. They published one, “The Plant,” which begins like this:
I will not come through the door or the window,
but as a plant you cannot notice with your naked eye.
I will grow day after day, to the sound of your singing and the rhythm of your breath at night. A small plant you will not notice at first, growing beneath your bed.
From door to bed, to bathroom to closet, standing or sitting against the mirror. Through all these acts, and to the sound of your humming, I will grow. A small green plant. With grand slim leaves sneaking out from beneath your bed.
I read this voice first as the spirit of underground resistance, then as the essence of pervasive dictatorship, and then back to resistance once more. The second story, unpublished, was called “Ambulance” and began like so: “She was sucking my dick when suddenly she stopped to ask if I had given grandmother her medicine.” The last, also unpublished, was called “Normal,” and it opened this way: “One time as I was heading back to Sixth of October city, a prostitute showed up on the way dressed in the official uniform, a black cloak without a headscarf, and instead she had bangs and black hair falling over her shoulders. She was carrying a huge neon bag.”
Mona seemed a little perplexed that PEN had chosen only one of these shorts, but I could understand it. An imprisoned writer is a very serious thing indeed and should not be treated lightly, so it puts an activist in a certain sort of bind when the writer in question turns out to be lightness itself. Naji’s prose explicitly confronts what happens when one’s fundamentally unserious, oversexed youth dovetails with an authoritarian, utterly self-serious regime that is in the process of tearing itself apart. It’s very bad historical luck—of the kind I’ve never suffered. It’s monstrous. It’s ludicrous.
But the fact that the punishment does not fit the crime—that prison is, at this moment in Cairo, the absurd response to the word “pussy”—is exactly what shouldn’t be elided. In another historical moment, or so it occurs to me, young Ahmed would be at that PEN dinner, sitting right next to me, having come over from Cairo for a quick jaunt to see writer friends in Bed-Stuy, and he’d be a bit bored by the solemn speeches, sneaking out the back of the museum to smoke a joint perhaps, and then returning to his seat in high humor just in time to watch a literary giant whom he didn’t really respect come up to the stage to receive an award. That, anyway, is the spirit I detect in his novel: perverse and brilliant, full of youth, energy, light! Some writers, in the face of state oppression, will write like Solzhenitsyn. Others, like Naji, find their kindred spirits in the likes of Nabokov and Milan Kundera, writers who maintained their instinct for unbearable lightness and pleasure, for sex and romance, for perversity and delight, in the face of so much po-faced violent philistinism.
“I think I understand now,” writes Naji, in Using Life, “that the bullshit inside of us is nothing but a reflection of the bullshit outside. Or maybe it’s the other way round. In either case, the outside bullshit eventually seeps inside, and settles into the depths of our souls.” But on the evidence of his own writing the bullshit has not yet settled in Naji, not even in his jail cell. He is part of a great creative renaissance in Cairo, of young novelists and poets, graphic novelists, and—perhaps most visibly—graffiti artists, who have turned the city’s ever increasing walls into a staging site for political protest and artistic expression. Since 2014, President Sisi has cracked down on this community, with new restrictions on the press and multiplying arrests of artists and writers, and yet the Egyptian constitution guarantees both artistic freedom and freedom of expression. Naji has been prosecuted instead on Article 178 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes “content that violates public morals.”
An attempt to appeal was rejected in February. Naji’s last appeal is on December 4. If you read this and feel so moved, tweet #FreeNaji and any other social media action that occurs to you. Hundreds of Egyptian artists and intellectuals have signed a petition in support of Naji but there are also loud voices who feel that his example should not be used in a “freedom of literature” argument because they see his writing as not really literature, as fundamentally unserious. Using Life is certainly comic, sexual, wild—the work of an outrageous young man. We should defend his freedom to be so. “Falling in love in Cairo,” I learn, from his novel, “You have to prepare for the worst. You just can’t walk over to her and say, ‘Mona May, I’ve got the jones for you.’ Words like these could get a man hurt.” Over here, in New York, words won’t get you into too much trouble—not yet, anyway. What would we dare to write if they did?
Editor’s note: Ahmed Naji was released from prison on December 22, after Egypt’s highest appeals court temporarily suspended his sentence; a hearing will be held on January 1 to determine whether he will face another trial or be sent back to prison.
Ahmed Naji’s novel Using Life, in an English translation by Ben Koerber, will be published by The Center for Middle Eastern Studies (CMES) at The University of Texas at Austin next year.
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.”
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.