Before it was published, censors approved Ahmed Naji’s subversive novel ‘Using Life’ – so how did he end up in jail for what he wrote?
On a scorching Saturday morning in July, Ahmed Naji stood in the crowded cage of a Cairo courtroom. The 31-year-old author had been convicted six months earlier of “violating public morality” for publishing a piece of literature. In his novel, Using Life, an irreverent portrayal of youth culture on the cusp of the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the protagonist performs cunnilingus, rolls hash joints and gulps from bottles of vodka. Censors had approved the book, which is also sometimes translated as The Use of Life, but when an excerpt appeared in Cairo’s premier literary review, Akhbar Al-Adab, an absurd series of events eventually led Naji to prison. Though he was released in December thanks to a high-powered team of Egyptian lawyers and campaigns from international arts communities, he lives in fear that anything he says or writes could land him back in Egypt’s most notorious prison. He described to Rolling Stone how self-censorship has entered into his considerations at the keyboard. “When you are writing, you are thinking… someone will read something or this could affect the case and so on,” says Naji. “It’s hard to move on and write.”
Torn from the pages of Kafka, Naji’s case sheds light on the risks of free speech in an authoritarian state. In Egypt, if a citizen experiences personal injury from an offensive piece of writing or television program, he or she can bring a case forward to the public prosecutor claiming the violation of public morals, a vague clause enshrined in the constitution and taken from the French legal system. There have only been few instances of such cases moving forward, but public prosecutors do often relish in the opportunity to serve as the moral police. “The accused disseminated written materials that exude sexual lust and fleeting pleasures, lending out his pen and his mind to violate the sanctity of public morals and good character,” the prosecutor told a local news outlet last year. Naji’s story shows literature’s ambiguous power to agitate and the state of arts and letters in a country that experienced a widespread uprising just six years ago.
As the Arab Spring spread across the Middle East in January 2011, the revolution in Egypt toppled a longtime despot, President Hosni Mubarak. “At the time of Mubarak, it was a calm, silent swamp,” says Naji of political stagnation prior to 2011. “After the revolution, there is more a sense of resistance – resistance from both sides, from the youth’s side and from the older people and the regime and system’s side. The conflict is too hot.” Muslim Brotherhood apparatchik Mohammed Morsi rose to the presidency in the country’s first democratic election, held in June 2012. A year into Morsi’s ham-fisted tenure, General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi staged a military overthrow. As the junta consolidated power, authorities pursued a bloody crackdown against the Brotherhood and, ultimately, against activists of all stripes. Today, public protests are illegal, many opposition groups (whether secular or Islamist) have been outlawed and room for free expression has shrunken considerably. Young people who participated in the 2011 revolution and even the 2013 ouster of Morsi are absent from politics or government. But the creative dissent that ballooned amid the revolt in Tahrir Square, from street art to politically inflected verse, led to experimentation in other realms – especially literature.
Beyond his fiction, Naji is known for writing serious criticism about trends in popular culture, first on his blog in the mid-2000s and later in newspaper columns. “Naji – in his character, in his tone of writing, in the topics that he deals with – is very iconoclastic. He is deeply subversive,” says Khaled Fahmy, a visiting professor of modern Middle East history at Harvard University. “And this is something that the state readily understands as literally an existential threat. [His writing] is deeply political precisely because it doesn’t talk about politics.” Fahmy recalls an article in which Naji profiled rappers and producers who created a dirty, anti-establishment brand of hip-hop known as mahraganat, which grew in impoverished neighbourhoods of Cairo and became the soundtrack of protest. As the first writer to explore the underground genre that has since become a sensation in Egypt and Europe, Naji told the story with sensitivity and grit, spending hours in crude basement studios. “Of course, he will hate me when he hears this,” says Fahmy. “Really, Naji is the voice of the revolution.”
When Naji entered the courthouse on the morning of July 16th, it was the first time that any friends had seen him since he had been incarcerated six months before; only immediate relatives are permitted to visit inmates of Tora Prison, a maximum-security hell. About 40 friends, colleagues and journalists showed up on the 100-degree morning to attend. Inside the hearing room, scores of detainees’ families crammed onto stiff wooden pews. A tea salesman wove through the crowd, carrying a tray of soda cans, white plastic cups and a thermos of hot water.
A white-uniformed officer led Naji to the defendants’ cage, an enclosure with bars and a crosshatched fence so narrow that not even a finger could poke through. On the entrance of the hearing room hung signs that said No Smoking and No Cellphones, but the room was dank with smoke, and phones were out everywhere. In his prison blues, Naji looked fit and in good spirits. He smiled broadly at his friends and lit a cigarette.
After more than an hour in the cage, Naji was called away from the hearing room to the judge’s quarters, where the defense team requested a suspension of the sentence. Article 178 of the penal code, on which Naji was convicted, criminalises “harm to public morality.” In the context of creative production, Article 178 contradicts articles of the 2014 constitution, which guarantee free expression for artists and entertainers. “Every police officer I spoke to had never heard of anyone being jailed by this law,” says Ramy Yaacoub, deputy director of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and a friend of Naji’s who coordinated advocacy for his release. “[But] we do not have definitive evidence as to the political motives of the case.” (A spokesman for the Office of the Public Prosecutor directed me to a Judges Club spokesman who did not reply to a request for comment.)
The same judge who delivered Naji the maximum sentence in February 2016 was also assigned to hear the request for suspending the sentence. “The choice of words is so bad that it could only appear in a society without morals,” wrote the judge in the February ruling, going on to assert writers’ duty to support public morality. It was no surprise that, on that July day, he sent Naji back to prison.
In Arabic, adab can be defined either as literature or as morality, and the judge had put his energy into making sure that the former reflected the latter. In this paternalistic perspective, literature ought to be morally upright. Throughout Naji’s career, however, he has made fun of the very notion of service to the state or literature serving some higher good. “His heroes are not national heroes,” says Fahmy of Naji’s characters. “His heroes are also not bandits and criminals. His heroes are people who score petty victories in petty moments in life.”
Naji doesn’t remember when he started writing, but it was long before he could grow the Frank Zappa moustache that has become perhaps his most recognisable feature. Born in a Nile Delta town of Mansoura, he hails from a family of doctors, his father a pediatrician. Growing up between Egypt, Kuwait and Libya, Naji rebelled by devoting his energy to reading comics and novels, rather than studying chemistry and biology. He moved to Cairo at 16 to attend journalism school, and went on to serve as a staff writer of Cairo’s prestige magazine for arts and culture journalism and criticism, Akhbar Al-Adab. It is the closest the city has to a Cairo Review of Books – the weekly might have critiques of new books by Jonathan Franzen or Zadie Smith and a translation of Hemingway as well as new Arabic poetry and short stories.
He fell into writing his first novel Rogers by accident: he had published the chapters piecemeal on his blog, each one shaped around a song from Pink Floyd’s The Wall. The posts pushed “the limits of the novel genre,“ he says, with “dreams and fantasies mixing with realities,” so he was surprised when a publisher approached him in 2007. By age 22, he was a published author. If Pink Floyd was an inspiration for his first book, then David Bowie deserves credit for Naji’s 2014 novel Using Life, which even mentions the glam-rocker in the acknowledgements alongside friends and collaborators. “In many songs he has this lovely sense of dystopia,” he says. The novel also captures Cairo’s “total corruption,” something he has come to know intimately over the past two years.
“It’s the kind of case that gives [the prosecution] the opportunity to appear in the image of the public moral guards,” Naji told me over dinner in December 2015, back when a conviction seemed improbable. We sat in a smoky downtown Cairo tavern that had made an appearance in his novel. Over steak and beer, Naji related how the entire legal debacle started.
The novel had initially been published in early 2014, by a joint Lebanese-Egyptian-Tunisian publishing house called Tanweer. The August 3 issue of the journal Akhbar Al-Adab published a chapter from the book. The problems for Naji came when one reader claimed that he keeled over from reading it, as reported to the police on August 13th. “[His] heartbeat fluctuated,” read the local police blotter. “His blood pressure dropped and he became severely ill.” Hani Salah Tawfik, a 65-year-old lawyer whose heart had survived decades of dictatorship, was undone by salaciousness. “Because it contains sentences and expressions that are sexually explicit, it caused me psychological harm,” Tawfik stated, according to the hand-written police report.
It didn’t matter that government censors had already approved Naji’s novel. Historically in Egypt, private citizens have themselves served as censors, something silently (or gleefully) cheered on by the authorities; the targets have been controversial personalities, from heterodox scholars to the superstar comedian Bassem Youssef. It is up to the public prosecutor to take up such cases, which they often do to bolster their reputation. “It’s a question of one prosecutor who wants to show off,” says Amr Shalakany, director of the Law and Society Research Unit at the American University in Cairo. “It’s completely performative.”
After Tawfik complained, the public prosecutor decided to investigate the case, combing through Naji’s blog and interviewing staff from Akhbar Al-Adab. In November 2015, a criminal court held its first hearing about the novel’s pornographic nature. In further hearings, eminent Egyptian authors testified on Naji’s behalf. The next month, Naji awaited a ruling, set for the first week of January 2016.
As he cut into his steak, Naji told me that, if anything, he had expected to get in trouble for his journalism, but never for his fiction. ” I wrote many articles against Sisi, against Morsi,” he said, speaking of the current president and his ousted predecessor. “Sometimes I get some threats… This is normal, and I am used to it.”
He happened to know two journalists sitting at the table beside us. We chattered with them, and one joked that he’d visit the author in prison. We all chuckled.
“Welcome to the hell that is Cairo, where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere,” writes Naji in Using Life. The novel begins in the not-too-distant future, when violent sandstorms and earthquakes eviscerate much of the Egyptian capital; even the Pyramids of Giza are subsumed by sinkholes. The protagonist Bassem, 46, writes up his memories of two decades prior in a report itself titled Using Life. (He survived Armageddon simply because he lived deep in the suburbs.) In the post-apocalyptic city, he is melancholic and recollects his days of parties and hanging out. Using Life also melds the graphic and written: Short sci-fi comics by the artist Ayman Zorkany are peppered among chapters, like an illustration of grotesque spacemen-cum-mummies attacking Bassem and his cohorts. “It’s a story about the miserable Cairo and a couple of guys trying to find joy in this life, trying to create meaning in the city,” says Naji.
Though the novel has sold out in the Middle East, the book’s offending excerpt had been republished online, and more than two million readers have viewed Naji’s prose. That’s more than any book has ever sold in Egypt. (American readers will have a chance to read it this autumn when University of Texas Press publishes scholar Ben Koerber’s graceful translation.)
Cairo has long been the literary engine of the Middle East, home to novelists, playwrights, and poets who have revolutionised the Arabic language. Naji is one voice among a new generation of writers playing with form, genre and politics. “He always tries a [new] idea and then very quickly turns it on its head,” the novelist Nael El Toukhy, who worked with Naji at Akhbar Al-Adab, told me. “He is a trendsetter.”
Though Using Life rarely discusses politics directly and it was first drafted prior to the revolt, it represents a harsh critique of the political and social inertia of post-2011 Egypt, where the revolution failed to provide meaningful change. “Give yourself a break,” Bassem says in the book. “You’re nothing but a cocksucker among cocksuckers. Quit the drama, little one, and enough blaming yourself. In the end, it’s not so bad to be a cocksucker in Cairo. Just relax and take it all in.”
Three years since its publication, many of the narrator’s observations – about blogging, the peculiar dwellers of downtown Cairo, or why McDonald’s in Egypt tastes better than its American counterpart – remain apt. The novel is packed with a steady stream of vulgarity you might hear muttered at a street café, but seldom read on a typeset Arabic page. Perhaps because the novel discusses sex and drugs so nonchalantly, the narrator inadvertently anticipates its censorship. “A coalition of social, political, and religious taboos conspires to keep everything that ferments in the city’s underbelly from rising to the surface,” he writes. For anyone who has spent time in a polluted megalopolis that rarely gives back, Naji’s prose is a jolt of reality: “Let Cairo go fuck herself, morning afternoon and evening, today and tomorrow and forever.”
On January 2nd, 2016, the judge acquitted Ahmed Naji for the charge of disturbing public morality. The author grinned as his lawyer clenched a cigar between his lips. Naji’s Facebook wall quickly filled with scores of messages. “Congrats on your innocence,” one friend posted.
A couple of weeks later, in preparation for the fifth anniversary of the uprising, Egyptian authorities raided several downtown arts spaces and dozens of popular cafes. The regime wanted to restrain any attempt at political organising or demonstrations. “You have people getting arrested everyday,” says Naji. “Everyday. Maybe your friends [sitting] in a cafe will get arrested.” Such crackdowns have become routine fare here. In a column for the widely circulated newspaper Al-Masry Al-Youm, Naji drew attention to the shuttering of one independent art gallery to illustrate the “siege of Egyptian cultural institutions.” He blamed authorities for leading the country down the road “increasingly toward darkness,” through its stifling of expression. Soon after, Naji received an alarming update. The prosecutor would retry his case in a higher court.
On February 20th, 2016, an appeals court sentenced Naji to the maximum sentence: two years. It was first time that a writer had landed in prison for fiction – not activism or reportage, but fiction – in recent memory, perhaps since the presidency of Gamal Abdel Nasser, who oversaw a populist junta from 1956 to 1970, according to one of Naji’s lawyers, Mahmoud Othman of the Association for Free Thought and Expression. Also named in the case was Akhbar Al-Adab‘s chief editor Tarek El-Taher, who was fined 10,000 Egyptian pounds (at the time, about $1,275) for printing the offending excerpt. “Self-censorship has increased since Naji’s conviction,” says Othman, describing the chilling effect on other artists and media personalities whom he represents. Poet Fatma Naoot, for instance, was convicted last year of religious contempt for a Facebook post, and sentenced to three years (which she eluded by fleeing abroad; a court suspended the sentence in November). But Naji’s obscenity charge was surprising given that Fifty Shades of Grayis on sale at many Cairo booksellers.
Prominent intellectuals and publishers held public forums to draft a strategy; more than 500 Egyptian artists signed a public statement against his imprisonment. Even the government functionaries tasked with policing culture joined in protest – the culture minister publicly stated he believed the penal code article on which Naji had been convicted should be overturned. In May 2016, Naji’s younger brother, Mohamed, flew to New York to accept the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award on Ahmed’s behalf, at a black-tie gala with an illustrious guest list. Salman Rushdie and Zadie Smith, among scores of other celebrity authors, wrote notes of solidarity. On the back page of one Egyptian newspaper, Naji’s face appeared next to Woody Allen’s, who, along with hundreds of writers, had signed PEN’s petition to modify Article 178 of the penal code so that Egyptian prosecutors could no longer bring criminal charges against writer for “violating public morals.”
Hani Saleh Tawfik, the lawyer who began Naji’s imbroglio, claimed to have experienced a fluttering heart and lowered blood pressure after reading Naji’s fiction, which, according to the police report, included “pussy licking, dick sucking, and other such words that should not be written in a newspaper like Akhbar Al-Adab.”
“The Egyptian journalists were not able to reach me,” says Tawfik, a pudgy man, with a thick, messy grey goatee. After weeks of searching, when I finally track him down at his small windowless office in Cairo, he is wearing an orange plaid button-down, and on his desk are stacks of files that reached his shoulders. Two female attorneys join us.
“If you come into my house, you need to have good morals when you are entering,” he says in Arabic, referring to Naji’s text, or perhaps my uninvited presence in his legal office. “I don’t care if others would buy or approve of it, but if you come into my house you can’t say such vulgar things. You can write anything, and I have the right to reject it or accept it. But this kind of official newspaper enters my house under the banner of adab.” Here, Tawfik uses the dual meaning, as both literature and morality. “I am refusing what is written. I’m not against Ahmed Naji personally. I’m against him entering my house with such words.”
Tawfik stands up from his desk and begins rifling through one of the high piles on his desk. He pulls out a translucent, rose-colored folder. Tawfik opens the file and takes out a blogger’s open letter to Tawfik. One sentence in particular drove him crazy: “Everything was normal; you just don’t know how to read.”
He pulls out a special edition of Akhbar Al-Adab from February 2016, published the week of Naji’s conviction. There’s a spray-painted portrait of Naji on the cover, and every article inside is dedicated to him. “He is on every page,” Tawfik says, pointing at Naji’s photo in the corner of each sheet. “The journal is publishing Ahmed Naji and talking about his values and cursing me – because I said no.” Tawfik switches to English to yell: “Do not enter my house!”
“This is not a sexy magazine or something like that,” he says. “I don’t want it to get into my house through an official newspaper. I am angry now.” His fuzziness about how he got his hands on the niche literary magazine with a small circulation and his impetus for bringing the suit leaves many questions unanswered. He continues to raise his voice as I ask him about his motive for bringing the case, whether it had anything to do with Naji’s political writings or other factors. He refuses to answer.
“All freedom has limits,” he says. “Its limits are not harming someone else.” And yet, as we talked late into the night, Naji sat in prison, himself harmed.
Naji’s conviction was only superficially connected to the broader clampdown on dissent and free expression. “It’s not that [President] Sisi called up this prosecutor,” says El Toukhy, the novelist, referring to the Egyptian strongman who took power in July 2013, “but the climate of Sisi as the top authority… they are inspired by him.” The atmosphere of state censorship and self-censorship, arbitrary detentions of political prisoners and journalists, encourages citizen informants and police dragnets to take petty complaints forward, and then one ambitious prosecutor can make a name for himself by prosecuting a well-known writer.
The author’s lawyers would not speculate as to why a suit was brought forward targeting Naji. “If it’s not orchestrated, he’s very fucking unlucky,” says Yaacoub, the policy analyst, noting the bizarre circumstances that led to the conviction.
Tawfik himself provided little clarity about the case; he is but a node in a long history of censorship in the country. “History is full of people who went to prison or were burned at the stake for proclaiming their ideas,” the Nobel-Prize winning Egyptian author Naguib Mafouz, told the Paris Review in 1992. “Society has always defended itself. Nowadays it does so with its police and its courts. I defend both the freedom of expression and society’s right to counter it. I must pay the price for differing.” Naji has paid the price.
So, too, did Mahfouz. In the late 1980s, the extremist Muslim leader Omar Abdel-Rahman, better known as the Blind Sheikh, had issued a fatwa against Mahfouz for his supposed depiction of God in the 1959 novel Children of Gebelawi. (Abdel-Rahman died this month while serving a life sentence in the United States for a conspiracy charge related to the 1993 World Trade Center attack). Rather than pursue legal action, though, in 1994, a rogue Islamist stabbed the Mahfouz, Egypt’s literary giant, in the neck. He survived the attack.
By last late summer, a half year since his conviction, Naji had fallen out of the spotlight. “In Egypt, there is always something new,” Naji’s brother Mohamed told me in August, eating pizza across from Tahrir Square. Ahmed Naji was among dozens of others behind bars for simply doing their jobs: in 2016, 25 journalists were in prison for charges like disseminating fake news or membership to an illegal group; the singing troupe called the Street Children, who were incarcerated for “attempting to overthrow the regime,” in their sardonic viral videos, and innumerable others. “With time, people have lost their enthusiasm about the case,” Mohamed, a cardiovascular doctor, told me. He was losing hope. At an appeal hearing in late November, sitting among scores of supporters and friends, Mohamed seemed resigned to the fact that his brother would serve out the remainder of the two-year sentence.
In early December of 2016, the country’s top appellate court was due to rule on Naji’s appeal, his chance to get out after he had already served ten months – but the prosecutors failed to submit their memo and case files, so the ruling was postponed. In response to the prosecution’s tardiness, the appeals judge suspended Naji’s sentence and issued an injunction for his release. “That was a miracle,” says Yasmin Hosam El Din, Naji’s fiancée and an attorney who serves on his defence team. “He would never get released if the prosecution was working normally.” The court would continue to investigate the legality of the February 2016 verdict – which could result in him serving the rest of term in prison – but for now, at least, Naji would be free.
As he stepped onto Cairo’s pavement, Naji did not want to be photographed or interviewed for the local press. But he hadn’t lost his sense of humour. On Facebook, he posted a video of Elvis Presley singing “Jailhouse Rock.”
“The reason why I have not given up on the revolution is precisely because of Naji,” says Khaled Fahmy. “Revolutions are not won overnight or by a deathblow or a knockout blow. They are won bit by bit, stage by stage, day after day, and one struggle after another. And his is a very significant struggle, and the jury’s still out.”
At the end of December, after 300 days offline, the prolific writer posted a long message of warmth and gratitude on his public Facebook page where he used to blog. “I would never have been able to endure the cockroaches, sweats, freezing cold and various humiliations of prison life without the companionship of my fellow prisoners,” Naji wrote. To his friends he offered a small promise: “Our nights are coming, with exuberant embraces and long nights of talk on the horizon.”
With the case still in play, he is unable to leave the country to visit his ailing father in Kuwait, who he hasn’t seen in over a year. “I’m not nervous, I’m bored,” says Naji of waiting for the next appeals court session, which will be in April. “I want all of this file to be closed, however it will be closed.” Still in pajamas and drinking an espresso, he hands me a copy of The Mystery of the Split Festival, a collection of a dozen short stories he wrote in the decade before his incarceration, which was just published in Arabic. He wanted it out before 2016’s end as a way of documenting his twenties and signalling that he will move on to new approaches in his writing.
While in prison, he wrote a quarter of a novel, literally putting pen to paper, something he hadn’t done since childhood. Writing was a way to break up the seemingly endless days. He concealed the drafts during the warden’s regular check ups for fear that the chapters would be confiscated. He snuck them out and has since typed them up. “Now my plan is to give more time to literature.” Despite everything that’s happened to Naji, the next book is his priority. To write fiction in Egypt today is to resist.
Jonathan Guyer is a fellow of the Institute of Current World Affairs and contributing editor of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs.