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Writers in exile
16 min read

Not my Egypt

Ahmed Naji is trying to understand the zeitgeist. In the 36 years of his life he has witnessed dictatorship, revolution, counter-revolution, military coup, jail and exile.

Ahmed Naji’s story is unique. He is the first author jailed for a work of literary fiction in Egypt’s modern history. What is more, he was not jailed for the political views one might glean from Using Life, but for “obscene” and “immoral” language, as well as depictions of drugs and sex.

Read journalist Edgar Mannheimer's exclusive interview with Ahmed Naji in this week's " Writers in Exile".

Credits Interview by Edgar Mannheimer Translation: Edgar Mannheimer February 19 2022

Ahmed Naji is a self-defined exiled writer. In the past, writers and dissidents would be formally exiled by the state. The enigmatic author Waguih Ghali, for example, had his passport revoked in 1968 (and committed suicide shortly thereafter). In our time, instead, countries like Egypt adopt policies making it impossible for certain groups in society to make a living (if they do not play by the military’s rules).

“I see myself as belonging to several different groups in Egypt. I am a writer, journalist, documentary filmmaker and activist who participated in the January 25 Revolution. All these groups are persecuted by the Egyptian state.

Naji spent nearly a year in prison because of his second novel, Using Life. When he was released it was practically impossible for him to work, so he decided to leave the country. From his exile in the US, Ahmed Naji witnessed Egyptian friends and acquaintances living in the diaspora return to Egypt to visit their families - only to be arrested at the airport or in their homes and sentenced to several years in prison - sometimes for simply writing something critical of the regime on facebook. He did not want to risk this.

“The most traumatic and painful experience I had to go through was last year when my mother got sick and passed away and I wasn’t able to visit her, and until now I haven’t seen her grave.”

The eleventh anniversary of the Egyptian Revolution took place on January 25, 2022. A few revolutionaries on social media praised the massive uprisings that ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak in 2011. But if one would observe the Egyptian public sphere without prior knowledge, one would never have guessed that a revolution ever took place - the day passed by unnoticed. Instead, the country was embroiled in a debate about the Arabic version of Perfect Strangers (أصحاب... ولا أعزّ), recently released on netflix. The film has the same plot as its previous 20 versions - at a dinner party with old friends, it is suggested that everyone put their phone on the table and share all calls and texts with the group - chaos ensues. The film deals with infidelity, pedophilia, homosexuality and (vanilla type) sexual kinks. In one scene, the Egyptian star actress Mona Zaki takes off her panties and stuffs them in her brand name purse as part of an extramarital sexting affair. The country descends into moral panic. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians denounce the film on social media. A member of parliament calls for a boycott. A famous lawyer threatens to sue the Ministry for Culture. Bickering and shouting on talk shows about Egyptian family values. A cinematographer friend of mine whose mother belongs to the boycott faction summarised her mother’s perspective. She is well aware that sex occurs in Egypt - even between same-sex(!) couples - but must it be shown on TV? “And you, my daughter, would you work with such a production?!” Not my family. Not my child. Not my Egypt.

Six years earlier, in 2014, Ahmed Naji’s second novel, Using Life, was published. Egyptian surrealism - chaotic depictions of depression, sex, hash and secret societies against a dystopian backdrop of Cairo - a rubbish pit populated by “soulless beasts”. According to the prosecution, a man experienced a drop in blood pressure and suffered a minor cardiac arrest after reading an expert of the book, published in the literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. That is apparently how striking it was to read lines like, “She could kill small children by jabbing them in the neck with the tip of her shoe, give you a blow job in a swimming pool, and swallow your semen in a single gulp.”

Naji describes in the essay “Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison” (2021) how he and his co-defendant Tarek al-Taher, editor-in-chief of Akhbar al-Adab, were led through back corridors of the courthouse to a room where a young lieutenant sat behind a battered desk with two other high-ranking police officers. The lieutenant read out the sentence: two years in prison for Ahmed Naji and a fine for Tarek al-Taher. Naji burst out laughing, and al-Taher embarked on an indignant objection.

Ignoring him, the eldest and most senior of the three officers turned to me.

“What was the charge?” he asked.

“I wrote a novel.”

“What, and you insulted someone in the novel? Or accused some general or politician of corruption?”

“No, it’s literature. It’s not about anyone real. It’s kind of like science fiction.”

He pointed one finger at me, his other fingers clutching a ritzy string of prayer beads, and said: “Listen, son. You’re on the path to greatness now. I know that judge. He’s a tough one, god help us, and he makes some strange decisions. But you’ll come out of this stronger. You’ve made a great man of yourself. Your name will go down in history.”

“What am I meant to do with my greatness if I’m in prison?” I spluttered, still laughing. “Can’t you keep the greatness and leave me to play in the mud?”

Naji spent ten months in prison. The only thing one is allowed to do in an Egyptian prison is read (in some cases even that is forbidden, as for the human rights activist and political prisoner Alaa Abdel Fattah). Naji gained new perspectives on the literary canon.

One man came up to me carrying a copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Eternal Husband. “Have you got anything else by this guy?” he asked. “He’s hilarious!”

For the past four years Naji and his family have been living in Las Vegas, where he is a fellow at the Black Mountain Institute. His three-year-old daughter, Sina, was born in the US and he excuses her small interruptions, as she is sitting in his lap.

“My daughter was born here and at the hospital we were given forms to fill out. The first thing I noticed is that they don’t ask you anything about religion - in Egypt this is a given. But they did ask us detailed questions about the race of the father and the race of the mother. So I asked my wife, Yasmine [Hosam El Din], who is a lawyer and who studied the American legal system, and she said that officially - according to federal law - we, as Arabs, are white. This is strange - on a federal level we are white, but we don’t enjoy the privileges of white people in society.

Ahmed Naji’s story is unique. He is the first author jailed for a work of literary fiction in Egypt’s modern history. What is more, he was not jailed for the political views one might glean from Using Life, but for “obscene” and “immoral” language, as well as depictions of drugs and sex. However, Naji is far from the only person whose voice has been muffled by the current Egyptian military junta, spearheaded by General Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Everyone is saying the same thing about freedom of speech in today’s Egypt: It has never been worse. A military officer literally guards the printing presses of the country’s leading newspapers. In order not to lose money, newspapers practice self-censorship. Most independent TV and radio channels, established in the years following the revolution, have either been banned or bought up by the military’s production companies.

Depictions of poverty and excessive wealth are not welcome - it is incumbent on TV productions to show the socioeconomic Goldilocks zone of just right. When the forthcoming film “Feathers” (ريش) (2021) was shown at the Egyptian Gouna Film Festival, a group of Egyptian actors staged a walk-out in the middle of the film, due to its depictions of poverty. Social media is heavily surveilled - Egyptians can be sentenced to jail for a tweet. Not even young girls who do makeup tutorials on TikTok are safe. In a bizarre case, two girls were given two year jail sentences and heavy fines for “human trafficking” and “violating family values and principles”.

But the literary scene in Egypt is an isolated cosmos. There is no formal censorship, and the infamous Egyptian security apparatus does not feel threatened by novels and books of poetry. This is in part due to the fact that few “political” books are being written. Or due to the fact that authors avoid certain subjects in order to be able to work in peace. In any case, many people believe that Ahmed Naji was targeted because an excerpt of Using Life was published in Akhbar al-Adab, a magazine seen by the state as belonging to the world of journalism.

However, Naji claims that there are currents in the Egyptian literary scene, parallel to the elephant in the room, and not everything is negative.

“First of all, the market is growing bigger and bigger. And this has produced many new genres in Egyptian and Arabic literature. We now have a horror genre, we have detective stores, we have sci-fi and we have historical novels. There is an increasing number of women writers from my generation and younger who are publishing and writing and this is amazing - both in quantity and quality. All of this is good news.

Unfortunately, there is also a lot of bad news. Lack of freedom of expression naturally leads to authors writing under fear - with many of them choosing to leave the country. But it is also about market dynamics, and where the money comes from.

“The Arabic literature industry is controlled more and more from the Gulf states. Money from Dubai, Qatar and soon also Saudi Arabia. This shifts the borders of the conversation. The most important literature prizes and grants come from the Gulf states. This affects everything of course - it sets the narrative. In the past few years, the books that win prestigious prizes are mainly historical novels. In the past ten years, 2-3 historical novels have been published each year - and most of them are lame. For example, a 600-700 page novel about the life of [the 13th century Sufi poet] Ibn Arabi. These novels all share the same perspective - believing in one eternal identity called arabism, repeating the same old story over and over.

Naji pauses to gulp down a glass of water.

“Saudi Arabia is the Arab world’s largest consumer of literature. Hilariously, some books that are banned in Egypt are readily available in Saudi Arabia,” a country infamous for its human rights violations.

Like what?
“Like my books! says Naji, laughing. But also bigger authors like Alaa al-Aswany. The next step, I believe, will be the Saudis entering the publishing market - they are already buying up the copyright of Egyptian authors.”

Ahmed Naji and I have something in common - we both think a lot about identity, and our conversation centers around expressions and understandings of identity politics in the US and Egypt. Naji has lived in the US for four years now. In the beginning, he had a hard time adjusting to the politics of bearing identity labels. Journalists asked him questions as a brown writer. In the newly published essay, “Taming the Immigrant: Musings of a Writer in Exile” (2021), Naji describes how he first did not understand what brown meant, and tried avoiding the label. In the end, however, he acquiesced to his new reality.

I have found that obedience and conformity in the United States are not strictly enforced or heavily guarded by armed soldiers or prisons, instead they present as a whisper, a sound vibration that crashes into your consciousness where they transform into ants that proceed to slowly and gradually eat away at your insides until they ultimately deform you after which they proceed to build you back up and mold you into what the system determines what you should become.

Eventually, I began to introduce myself as a brown writer, to discuss the collective of Brown Writers and to pepper my speeches with the exact labels I had balked at receiving upon my arrival to the country. In the US, I have, alhamdulilah, become a writer who is Brown, Muslim, Arab, Arab American, North African, and occasionally African. And, thank the Lord, I continue to amass titles and identities for they are the keys to grants, jobs, education and life. Yes. There it is, the deceit, yet again, only this time it appears to face a new kind of fear.

When I asked Naji about the differences between American and Egyptian conceptions of identity, he paused for a second.

“The differences are too large and too many. It is more interesting to speak about the similarities - and they are shockingly numerous. This is something I did not realise until I moved to the US. I have become a crazy big fan of right-wing podcasts and TV shows.

Which is your favourite?
“Lately what everyone is talking about of course - Joe Rogan and Jordan B Peterson. But I really think Steve Bannon is the Jesus Christ of the white race, the last hope for his race, says Naji laughing.

“But I’ve been noticing how much of these ideas are being repeated in Egyptian media, adapted to Egyptian society. The connection between Egyptian and Arab media and the American right-wing is so deep that they are not only copying ideas and messages but sometimes straight up translating terms and language. For example, there is a new wave of anti-black racism in Egypt, often led by a bizarre group of nationalists calling themselves Sons of Kemet [Kemet is a Pharaonic name for Egypt]. They will have the Egyptian flag as their profile picture and write their names in hieroglyphics. Oftentimes they are anti-black, anti-African…

“Anti-Arab is normal, anti-Arab I’m used to and I’m fine with that. But anti-African?! I was the target of one of their campaigns two months ago because I spoke out against them accusing Africans - whatever that refers to - of trying to steal the Egyptian civilisation. They would circulate, for example, a video clip showing an African American tourist at the pyramids, arguing with an Egyptian claiming that the pyramids are more her culture than the Arab Egyptians [using the identity political language of the left] since she has darker skin. The Sons of Kemet would then use that video as evidence that Africans are trying to steal Egyptian civilisation. And I’m just amazed - is there one single African museum on the entire continent that has stolen a single artifact from Egypt?! The whole fucking world knows who is stealing your civilisation, Naji says, giggling with frustration, referring, of cours, to the British Museum.

Arguably the most important artifact within the Egyptological field is the Rosetta Stone, which sits in the British Museum. A copy of it can be found in the Egyptian Museum, and in 2013 the Brits loaned the stone to Egypt for three month. In return Egypt withdrew its demand of a permanent return of the stone.

The Egyptian left is also affected by the consolidation of American media all over the world. Egyptian Gen Z’s were too young to have participated in the revolution, and their struggle is more to do with gender identity than broad, intersectional class alliances.

“I can’t blame them. I don’t want them to care about the 25 January Revolution - this is the past, a trauma for my generation. I’m actually happy that the younger generation is more cynically inclined toward the revolution. But I have also noticed how young, leftist kids are simply copying terms from the Western left. I call it terminology activism. You’ll find instagram accounts translating new terms every week, like “mansplaining” or “gaslighting” - you’ll get lost in these terms because they all boil down to the same thing - it’s the fucking patriarchy. We are not inventing the wheel. The problem is that one cannot compare the moral values of the US with the moral values of Egypt! Campaigns like MeToo make sense in places like the US and Europe, because we can use the power of social media to force legal institutions to move on certain cases - Harvey Weinstein is serving a prison sentence as we speak. But Egypt’s MeToo movement - the Fairmont case - was a disaster, they jailed the victims! Wake up, my friend, you are living in a different country, with different rules.

I ask Ahmed Naji what it’s like working as an exiled writer. Last year, while being interviewed on the Arabic Literature podcast, Bulaq, he said he was considering to start writing in English.

“This isn’t something I’m actively pushing for. I know it’s coming but not just yet. I’m working on it, reading in English and publishing several articles with the help of creative editors - but I don’t think I’m ready yet to take this step full-on. So I’ll continue writing in Arabic for the time being, working with a translator.”

Who are you writing for?
“In my mind I’m not writing for an Egyptian reader anymore. But neither am I writing for an American. I decided I’m writing for immigrants, like myself. In my mind there is a group in the world, millions of people, that share the same experience, the experience of immigration, and right now I’m writing for these people.”

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