A Writer on the Swing of Fear

I was a young lad watching TV with my grandfather, who appeared full of sorrow when he followed a news segment that showed a frail, old man lying in a hospital bed with tubes attached to his body. My grandfather quipped that the old man was a good man and did nothing but write, not understanding why they had tried to kill him.

I found out from my grandfather that he was named Naguib Mahfouz. A few years later I would find out that the brief clips I saw were of Naguib Mahfouz becoming conscious after he survived an assassination attempt in 1994. It was a young man who hadn’t read any of Mahfouz’s works who stabbed him in the neck repeatedly, based on a fatwa where a few sheikhs deemed him an apostate because his novel spread blasphemous ideas.

I saw Naguib Mahfouz’s novels for the first time in my high school library, years later. I would escape from over-packed classes, the putrid stench enveloping the schoolyard, and would go the library replete with different kinds of books.

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I grabbed a Naguib Mahfouz novel and went to the library manager to take it out. She sighed heavily, started to bismalah (invoking God’s name), and chased the devil away, then she said she wouldn’t let me borrow this novel or any other Naguib Mahfouz novel.

The teacher, doubling as the library director, explained to me that some ‘less than moral’ scenes in Naguib Mafhouz’s novels were not suitable for a teenager like me and that the novels also contained atheistic and blasphemous ideas. To settle it, she pointed to a shelf of Shakespeare’s plays translated into Arabic and she said you can take any book by him because he’s entertaining.

But I didn’t want entertainment, I wanted ‘fun’ instead. I hid a copy of Mahfouz’s The Thief and the Dogs under my shirt and walked out of the library, without her suspecting. I devoured it in one night and returned it the next day without her noticing. From this moment on, I realised the governing rules of literature in the country that I was living in. You needn’t be a dictator or a dissident politician to be assassinated. You can be a peaceable person with fifty novels under your belt, win a Nobel Prize for Literature, be ninety years old preparing for a serene retirement and still face an assassination attempt for a novel you wrote forty years earlier.

Even if you were a writer who does not oppose the government, like Naguib Mahfouz, and even if those in power celebrated your stellar achievements by putting your books in school libraries, that doesn’t make you immune from having a teacher prevent students from reading your writing. In her eyes, you are spreading kufr (blasphemy) and Shakespeare’s books are piously dripping with Islam.

Literature, then, is a secret activity. It must be practised away from prying eyes and with extreme caution.

Fear is a constant companion of the Arab writer. Fear is a compendium of varying degrees, one on top of the other. If you look closely to the writer or the book, there is fear of political authorities. Then there’s fear of religious authorities. And the most troubling of all, fear of the reader’s reaction, if they didn’t grasp what you’ve written or feel that you’ve unsettled national, religious, social or any other mores.

Therefore, early on, when I started writing, I decided to befriend this fear. For I would lose a war with it.

I am, ultimately, a son of this time and place and what happened in the past inevitably affects the present.

During the 60s, all forms of cultural media and production in Egypt were under the purview and control of the state, similar to other countries that followed the Soviet model of cultural management. In this period, the state enforced a set of literary rules and criteria that, if you wanted to bypass, meant not getting your work published.

The Ministry of Culture refused to publish a young Sonallah HYPERLINK “https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/sonallah-ibrahim-egypts-oracular-novelist” Ibrahim’s seminal That Smell and Notes from Prison. Sonallah recounts that the culture minister asked to see him for a sit-down. In a long interrogation about one of the scenes, where the recently-released hero has sex with a prostitute and is unable to sustain an erection, the minister mockingly turns to Sonallah and asks him, ‘so are you like your hero, you can’t get it up’?

Sonallah’s novel was never fully published in its entirety until years later in Egypt.

However, Egypt was able to escape the Soviet shroud early on, specifically in the late 70s. The state’s grip loosened over cultural and artistic productions and censorship was limited. It still remained, though, in the hands of large, state-affiliated publishing houses and book distributors. This made private publishing unfairly doomed from the start.

Instead of state censorship, this was outsourced to religious institutions: Which were at once competitors and conspirators in the battle for political power from the 70s until Sisi’s ascent to the presidency.

This claustrophobic climate shaped the identity of contemporary Egyptian literature. We evil writers learnt to maintain the secrecy of our craft. We lived in secret societies on the margins of official public culture. Since the 70s, the best works were published at the expense of the author and the state curbed its public distribution until the book market opened up at the turn of the noughties.

The Internet appeared and suddenly publishing became easier and writers were able to write using pseudonyms. Gulf states pumped thousands of dollars into the book and publishing industry. More bookshops popped up, as well as publishing houses. Stylistically, new genres of writing blossomed – crime, horror and others that were stellar in their commercial success, but duly short-lived.

A florid style of writing took over the literary sphere, while the writers themselves were marching towards a stark reality. They were writing novels tracking class and social changes and, when the winds of the Arab Spring hit in early 2011, some writers who topped ‘best-seller’ lists became opinion-makers. For a moment, I felt that the spectre of fear had lifted its shadow from Arab literature. New identities were formed and with it a new vernacular sprang up that people used on the internet. Then suddenly everyone asked, where’s the revolutionary literature?

And before any revolutionary literature could rear its head, the revolution was crushed, as with all other revolutions, and the breathing space for Egyptian and Arab literature dwindled.

The authorities regained their control of the arms of artistic and cultural productions and currently the state holds 90% of all television channels, newspapers, magazines and news sites. The remaining sites are mostly blocked.

Currently, Egyptian and Arab writers are either imprisoned, exiled or prevented from writing and publishing their works. Saudi author and Arab Booker Prize winner Raja HYPERLINK “https://arablit.org/2018/04/25/why-raja-alem-is-publishing-sarab-in-translation-before-she-publishes-in-arabic/”Alem HYPERLINK “https://arablit.org/2018/04/25/why-raja-alem-is-publishing-sarab-in-translation-before-she-publishes-in-arabic/” announced recently that a translation of her novel, Sarab, would be published in German and English before the Arabic version. There is not even a date of when her novel in the original Arabic is set to be published.

The novel’s events take, as their starting point, the 1979 Kaaba (Grand Mosque) siege in Mecca, when a group of extremists surrounded the holy site. The siege ended in a series of mysterious, unruly bloody events that saw guns and tanks blot the holiest site for Muslims.

It’s only natural that Raja, a daughter of Mecca, writes about this incident that undoubtedly shaped her childhood. But this historical incident has become shrouded in mystery in the Kingdom. A red line encircling it, where no one discusses or even comes near it. This has forced Raja to delay publishing her novel in Arabic.

Egyptian author Alaa HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaa_Al_Aswany” Al HYPERLINK “https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alaa_Al_Aswany”Aswany, who publishing houses were always racing to print, has also been unable to publish his latest work, The As If Republic. The reason is that the novel examines the January 25 revolution through a series of characters, including a military general. Egyptian publishers were scared to catch the ire of the authorities. His novel has been published in Beirut. Even though it is Egyptian through and through, the novel is banned in Egypt.

The latest victim of the games of censorship and stifling dissent is Ezzedine Choukri Fishere, the successful author whose novels have been turned into dramas on Egyptian television, including Abou Amro El Masry, which is on TV screens now. His name was taken off the credits and events were changed, in order to appease the political vision of the current regime.

There are new forms of censorship and narrowing of the public space daily. Censorship has become a looming spectre. Red lines dissolve and no one knows what is allowed or what is forbidden anymore.

The writer moves on the swing of fear, sometimes forcing him to hide what he thinks or alluding to it discreetly, instead of discussing it valiantly and truthfully. And sometimes fear drives him to the white noise of the internet and social media, turning him into a political megaphone critiquing and denouncing. And in the middle, artistic questions disappear. Talking points turn towards literature itself and its utilitarian aesthetics.

There is a mighty dark ghost, a spectre, haunting this country, and I am looking for a way to hide from its panoptic vision or running away from its grip.

Translated by Farid Farid

 

THE LIFE OF BASTARDS

On a wall facing the police station in Zamalek, one of Cairo’s bourgeois neighborhoods, someone has written:

The life of an ethical individual is based on following the universal

system of ethics, but the life of bastards is based on reversing

that universal system.”

Next to this sentence is a huge graffiti of the face of an urban legend known as Al-Haram, ‘The Pyramid’. He is rolling a hash joint between his fingers, and his head is surrounded by a large halo, like a saint.

Al-Haram is classified in some areas as the god of drug dealers, of guile. In sha’bi [working-class] neighborhoods, small icons of Al-Haram are sold, bearing this verse from the Quran: “We have covered them up, so that they cannot see.” Anyone who wears the icon is thus protected by the shadow of Al-Haram from the eyes of police officers, ethical individuals, and the dogs of the universal system of ethics.

But the deep philosophical statement accompanying the graffiti is not one of Al-Haram’s sayings. The author of the quote is not known . . . and why was it used alongside this image?

This was in the period following the events of 25 and 28 January 2011. The walls of Cairo were heaving with thousands of writings and drawings, most of which were political in nature. But the graffiti of Al-Haram, with its enigmatic quote, remained a deep fissure in the harmonious spirit of revolutionary patriotism that blanketed the country at that moment in time.

***

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There is more than one world.

To every issue there is more than one angle, more than one layer. In the universal system of ethics there is a preoccupation with democracy, revolution, the dignity of a prophet, barking dogs, debts and loans and states declaring bankruptcy, struggles taking place onscreen and on the news. But we, here, in the world of bastards, are aware that these are delusions, a lying depiction of life.

While they, in the universal system of ethics, speak of the significance of music and literature in the ‘dialogue of civilizations’, we realize that there is no need for this sort of steering from ‘the system’ for literature and music to flow in this direction.

In Egypt over the past few years, the music of bastards has grown in popularity. Known as mahraganat [literally: ‘street festivals’], this new genre combines hip-hop beats with electronic sounds and the voices of its bastard stars. The songs are recorded in houses, in makeshift shacks, in the dim light of back alleys — and the lyrics transgress all the usual systematic and ethical boundaries.

Without needing to be steered, I recently discovered an incredible similarity between this music that was born on the sha’bi backstreets of Cairo, and a type of gang music that is flourishing like crazy in Brazil.

What borders need to be crossed, then?

The real borders don’t lie between two languages or countries with different visa-issuing procedures. The real borders are between two systems:

The first, universal and ethical, imposes stereotypical images of human beings — as individuals and as peoples — then claims they are all human, with equal rights. ‘Love for the greater good’ drives them to a ‘dialogue’ whose foundations are ownership and competition.

The second is the world of bastards, where the individual is complete within him/herself, and draws his freedom and adventurous energy in exploring life from reversing that universal system — not with the aim of demolishing or imploding it, but for that small secret pleasure.

But that secret pleasure is not all. There’s another side to it: as one of the inhabitants of the world of bastards says: “In this state there’s no security, your life is a poker game, up and down. When you let a bit of wind blow you back and forth, when you run after your bread or the smell of danger, when you roam around all night without a moment to rest your head against a wall or you feet on the ground, when time — for you — is chance, and place is a stroke of luck . . . at that moment, and that moment alone, you know you’ve become a bastard . . .”

But don’t forget: the key to playing poker is courage

The kind of courage that’s not shaken by being outnumbered

The kind of courage without which there is no freedom.

Egypt Art On Trial

Ahmed Naji, 31, is an Egyptian novelist and journalist born in Mansoura in 1985. He is the author of three books, Rogers (2007), Seven Lessons Learned from Ahmed Makky (2009), and The Use of Life (2014), as well as numerous blogs and other articles. He is also a journalist for Akhbar al-Adab, a state-funded literary magazine and frequently contributes to other newspapers and websites including Al-Modon and Al-Masry Al-Youm.  He has been a vocal critic of official corruption under the rule of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.

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In August 2014, Akhbar al-Adab published an excerpt from his third book, The Use of Life, which had been previously approved by Egypt’s censorship authority. In the excerpt, the narrator smokes hashish, drinks alcohol with his friends, and enjoys a sexual relationship with a woman. Hani Saleh Tawfik, a 65-year-old Egyptian man, filed a case against Naji, alleging that reading the excerpt had caused him to experience heart palpitations, sickness, and a drop in blood pressure.

Prosecutors argued that Naji’s use of “vulgar” phrases and sexually explicit scenes constituted a “disease” destroying Egyptian social values. Naji and his lawyer argued that the words used in his novel were widely used in common conversation in Cairo and also in classical Arabic literature. Naji also said that the prosecutor was treating his fictional novel as if it were fact, threatening to add charges against Naji for “dealing with hashish” because the novel’s excerpt described drug usage. In December 2015, a lower court acquitted Naji. The prosecution appealed the case in February 2016 to a higher court, which found Naji guilty and sentenced him to two years in prison—the maximum sentence for the charges he faced. The editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Adab, Tarek al-Taher, was also fined approximately $1,250 for publishing the excerpt.

The Egyptian Constitution, drafted in 2014, explicitly guarantees freedom of artistic and literary creation, freedom of thought and opinion, and freedom of the press. Article 67 forbids the jailing of artists and writers for publishing their work. However, Article 178 of the Penal Code, under which Naji was sentenced, criminalizes content that violates public morals. Naji’s lawyers submitted a motion to the Prosecutor-General arguing that the sentence against Naji should not be implemented since it violates the Egyptian Constitution, which was finally accepted in December 2016. His legal team has also appealed the verdict, and has asked that the case be retried altogether.

The crackdown on artists and writers in Egypt has intensified since President Sisi took power in 2014, including new restrictions on the press, arrests of writers, journalists, and activists, shuttering of theaters and art galleries, and violent suppression of peaceful dissent and public demonstrations. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, as of December 1, 2016, Egypt ranks third in the world in its number of jailed journalists, behind only Turkey and China.

Egypt’s literary and political communities have expressed widespread support for Naji. Seven members of the committee that wrote the Egyptian Constitution published a statement in February 2016 condemning Naji’s sentencing as unconstitutional, arguing that the conviction contravenes Article 67 of the Constitution. Over 500 Egyptian writers and artists also signed a statement in February 2016 in solidarity with Naji, criticizing the government’s “multi-armed attack on a number of writers and journalists because of their opinions” and the “terrible and terrifying path taken by the regime.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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