I have known Naji since we were teenagers, publishing and discussing literature on the internet. He too grew up in Kuwait before returning to his native Egypt to study journalism. Since then, we witnessed the trials and arrests of several writers in the Middle East. Just last month, our colleague Ashraf Fayadh was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia for “spreading atheism” through his poetry. Meanwhile, other writers linger in jail, including the Omani poet Muawiya al-Rawahi, who is imprisoned in the United Arab Emirates for insulting state leaders.
Naji’s first novel Rogers was published in 2007 and later translated into the Italian in 2009. The novelist is recognized for his writings on contemporary art and indie music. With Clare Davies, he co-founded the art magazine Mhwln, dedicated to researching the history of contemporary art in Egypt. Naji’s second novel Using Life has been curated into exhibitions, an animated film, and a multimedia performance.
Using Life anticipates a dystopian end for Cairo at the hands of a secretive group of architects, and comic artist Ayman Zorkany provides the striking horizontal images of a city nearing its death. I asked Naji about his expository experiment on the themes of sex and drugs in a context of censorship and persecution. This interview began during Naji’s recent visit to New York and was later completed via email.
MONA KAREEM: You are facing charges for "indecency and disturbing public morals." What exactly bothered the public prosecutor about chapter five of your novel?
AHMED NAJI: 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!
I think they have other objections too, like the fact that your text is now in the public domain, exposing a life of immorality via literature. How do we deal with such a moral code?
There is no single method to deal with persecution and censorship. For example, my novel was published in Beirut before being released in Egypt. While there is no regulated censorship on books printed in Egypt, any book coming from outside must be approved by the censorship office. Meaning the book had to pass official approval before distribution. However, this did not prevent a “concerned citizen” from submitting a complaint against me, nor did it stop the prosecution from pressing charges.
There are articles in the Egyptian constitution that protect the freedom to write and create in all forms, but the public prosecution has persistently stood against these rights. They work as guards for social morals and virtues, rather than for laws that protect freedoms. This is getting worse since Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became president. He came to power through an alliance with state institutions such as the judiciary, and together they share the responsibility of guarding their gains. El-Sisi looks after his interests while the judiciary dedicates itself to policing morality and teaching us virtues.
Lately, the Syndicate of Musicians and the Syndicate of Filmmakers were given the legal power to police artists and performances. They can, for example, raid a party or a concert to ask for legal permits. They can even arrest artists for “immoral acts” or performances. The moral code in Egypt is closely tied to the structure of power.
How did Egyptian writers react to your trial? I know the novelist Sonallah Ibrahim will testify in court for you.
Writers from Egypt and other Arab countries expressed their support and solidarity, and it is because many of us feel threatened. When I called Sonallah, we joked about the accusations because they could be used against almost any book. Sonallah was once jailed for his political views. He advised me to take the case seriously and work closely with lawyers because we have no option but to go along with this Kafkaesque trial. Sonallah, Mohamed Salmawy (head of the Arab Writers Union), and Gaber Asfour (former Minister of Culture) will be testifying in court to clarify that my novel is a work of imagination and creativity. Their testimonies will address the difference between a novel and an article, the ways to approach a work of art, and the place of sexual descriptions in Arabic literature.
This is not the first time a reader acts as a volunteer policeman over Egyptian literature.
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.
I do not have a problem with the reader or his behavior and complaint. I actually apologize for the inconvenience I caused for their marriage. The problem lies with the public prosecutor who is given the power to interrogate and launch accusations. Despite the political conditions in Egypt, the prosecution worked for months investigating the difference between a novel and an article only to push this case against me. They were researching the nature of Ahmed Naji’s relationship with his fictional character Mrs. Milaqa. The lawyers and I initially thought the case would be dismissed, but the public prosecutor himself signed the decision to press charges accusing me of “misusing writing to create foul stories that serve artistic lust and mortal joy.”
Speaking of lust, tell me about the importance of sex and drugs in your fiction?
There is not much sex in this novel, but there’s desire: rough and flaming, or still and quiet. Desire is the ghost of this novel. As for drugs, you will see no addicts in the novel, but rather social gatherings in which alcohol and hashish are present. I think what gets them to label my work as “indecent” is the use of words, like naming sex organs. Such naming is not common in contemporary Arabic literature, although dominant in the Arabic canon, oral histories, and the everyday language. Lately, some writers, myself included, decided to reclaim this diction. As in the novel, lust — not sex — is always present in Cairo. We are talking about a city where police and society do not allow for a kiss by the Nile River, while turning their backs at the daily incidents of harassment. Sex disappears in Cairo, but the process of sex is continuously present in the public idiom when representing life in the city and the class structure. This repressed desire creates a deep sense of dullness that reflects on experiencing the city and its current tragic moment.
And how do these themes play into the novel’s dystopian vision of Cairo?
It revolves around love and friendship at its core because drugs and sex are closely tied to friendship. Drug consumption is often a collective act that helps build connections. Using Life is a novel about love and friendship in Cairo. I think Cairo is a city that deforms relationships. The breathless rhythm of the city pushes desire to its peak, while installing a feeling of permanent fear in the individual. Therefore, there is not a complete sexual adventure. For example, the protagonist Bassam tries to approach an aristocratic transsexual woman. He is eager to have this adventure with her, but when the foreplay starts, he escapes.
In the final chapter, we arrive at a new Cairo after it is hit by a tsunami. The new city is supposed to be like Dubai or some futurist utopia, but for Bassam it is a dystopia. In this futurist part, the fictional intersects with comics depicting a man who goes to the factory to work with a printing machine. The worker then dies under the overwhelming pressure of hard labor and mad lust for the machine. The chapter closes with the machine printing off his sentence “I want to fuck you to death.”
I know you like to work with other mediums, like the comics in Using Life and music in Rogers. How does this interdisciplinary approach serve your work?
It has to do with some literary hallucinations and illusions that frame my vision of the novel as an art nearing extinction. I think of the novel as something close to epic poetry. So this can be read as an epic about a world of machines and printing and modernity. Images continue to take over the human consciousness, leaving us with a new language. Readers are approaching novels expecting to watch a movie that has a clear beginning and ending. They speak religiously of plot, story, and dramatic elements. In my more hallucinatory work, I try to push these borders by examining the relations between the novel and other arts, and between the writing process and other artistic modes of production. I build my work on this ground.
In my first novel I used Pink Floyd’s The Wall to build the story. There were two worlds: one of the album and another of the novel. I think it helped readers interact with the text. The Italian musician Massimo Croce produced a whole album based on Rogers. To me, this back-and-forth with the reader and with collaborators is most enjoyable. I wrote Using Life while thinking of the illustrations. So I scripted the comics then passed them to Ayman Zorkany to produce them. Ayman too loves this type of creative process, inviting readers to color his comics however they like. One chapter entitled “Animals of Cairo” served as a visual dictionary of Cairo’s deformed and metamorphosed animals. Some readers sent us illustrations of other animals they imagined. I enjoy these small exchanges and consider them part of the writing process.
When is the English translation coming out?
Texas University Press is planning on releasing it sometime next year.
Mona Kareem is a poet and journalist based in New York. She has published two collections of Arabic poetry, and is currently completing a PhD in comparative literature while teaching writing courses.