EGYPTIAN NOVELIST AHMED NAJE, 30, is facing charges for sexually explicit fiction following a complaint from a “concerned citizen” who read an excerpt of Naje’s Using Life [Istikhdam al-Hayat] in the literary weekly Akhbar al-Adab. Both Naje and his editor were charged in October with “infringing on public decency,” a crime that could send him to prison for two years. Earlier this month, Naje and his editor were acquitted in the second hearing of the case, but the prosecution has appealed the case and a retrial is being scheduled.
I have known Naje 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.
Naje’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. Naje’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 Naje about his expository experiment on the themes of sex and drugs in a context of censorship and persecution. This interview began during Naje’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 NAJE: 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.