As of Thursday, May 12, journalist and fiction writer Ahmed Naji will have been in Cairo’s Tora Prison for 83 nights. Solidarity readings all over the world are being planned for the day as part of ongoing local and international efforts to pressure Egypt’s government to release him.
The 30-year-old author is serving a two-year maximum sentence for “violating public modesty” with his novel The Use of Life, which explicitly refers to drugs and sex. Although it went through Egypt’s censors when released in book form in 2014, an individual claimed that reading a serialized chapter in state-run magazine Akhbar al-Adab, of which Naji is a staff member, caused him to become ill. Acquitted by a lower court in December, Naji was arrested from a higher court on February 10 when it upheld the plaintiff’s appeal.
The day of readings — which are so far set to take place in London, Kampala, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Washinton DC, Berlin, Turin, Udine, Sheffield Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Oslo, Beirut, Tunis, Kuwait and Paris — was thought up by poet Mona Kareem and ArabLit’s Marcia Lynx Qualey, both currently based in the US and both involved in the world day of readings on January 14 for Ashraf Fayadh, the Palestinian poet sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia.
For that, Qualey organized translations of Fayadh’s poetry into various languages, and translations of Naji’s work into German, Turkish, Dutch, and Slovenian have similarly emerged out of the planning of Thursday’s events.
“We hope these translations will continue to live on and have their effect after May 12,” Qualey tells Mada Masr, explaining that translations into English, French, Spanish, and Italian were already underway or finished. Ben Koerber’s English translation is with University of Texas Press, waiting to be published.
Inevitably, Naji’s ordeal has raised the profile of his writing and many more people, both locally and abroad, have read bought and book — an illustrated, semi-fantastic, seemingly autobiographical novel about young people in Cairo — than would have otherwise, although it has long since sold out in Egypt and is yet to be reprinted. At each reading, the offending chapter of Naji’s novel will be read and a talk will be given about Naji’s case.
Qualey, who is coordinating the effort, says Naji was one of the first readers of the ArabLit blog when she launched it in 2009. Qualey is in touch with Naji’s lawyers, and has the support of PEN International, English PEN, and PEN America
“Some of the participants reached out to me with their events already in order,” she says. “Others, I am coaxing and prodding and elbowing a little. Many will have events later in the month.” In Cairo, simultaneous reading will be held on May 16 at 8 pm at downtown’s Mazg Institute for Arts and Culture and at Kotob Khan in Maadi. That day also sees a 24-hour blogging session aimed at getting the law under which Naje was imprisoned amended.
On Monday, PEN America announced that it sent a letter to President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi demanding Naji’s release. Its 120 signatories include Woody Allen, Orhan Pamuk, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, and Margaret Atwood, and it called the sentencing “emblematic of the Egyptian government’s deeply troubling crackdown on free expression.” On May 16, PEN America, which is in touch with Naji’s lawyers and family, is awarding him its annual PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award. Thirty-five of the 40 previous recipients who were jailed at the time they won the award were subsequently released.
Naji’s lawyers have submitted appeals against his sentence, but these are still pending. Further appeals are being contemplated, say his legal team. Article 65 of Egypt’s Constitution protects freedom of expression, while Article 67 protects freedom of artistic and literary creation and forbids the jailing of writers and artists for publishing their work. After Naji cited was sentenced, under Article 178 of the Penal Code, seven members of the 2014 constitutional drafting committee said the sentence was unconstitutional.
Novelists Gaber Asfour, Sonallah Ibrahim and Mohamed Salamawi supported Naji in court, and several local campaigns were launched in February, with petitions and prominent cultural workers releasing short videos in support of Naji. Writer and producer Medhat El Adl said the sentence was an “extreme shock,” and author Alaa al-Aswany said “if this is how it is, my published novels contain things that would put me in prison too.”
Mada Masr, Qoll, Za2ed18 and Zahma published a joint statement as part of this campaign, while Culture Minister Helmy al-Namnam attended a February 25 press conference held in solidarity with Naji, arguing that any law conflicting with the Constitution must be dealt with, that the case sets a precedent extending far beyond Naji’s novel, and that a literary work challenging social norms is not a crime justifying imprisonment.
“Arabic literature has an amazing tradition of fearless exploration of language and sexuality — this has been one of its great gifts to the world. Certainly there’s blow-the-lid-off-it erotic language in many texts composed before the twentieth century. Mostly this is accepted, although sometimes it’s been challenged, as The Nights has been recently,” says Qualey. “Even for work created in the comparatively prudish twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Naji’s eroticism is not particularly stand-out or shocking.”
In his non-fiction as well as his fiction, Naji is often experimental and provocative, investigating the local art market, denouncing corrupt intellectuals and the state, criticizing the European institutions’ support for cultural development in Egypt, and, in one article, arguing that if humans didn’t eat meat we would have never been able to create iPhones.
“The only choice the zombies leave young people is to become a zombie and to abandon the idealism of dreams and ethics,” wrote Naji in a recent piece. Five years after the revolution, “the sheikhs, the zombies and the president have decided to deny youth people even virtual space. Internet is submitted to censorship and even a single tweet can send you to jail.”
“Shock is one of the main attributes of productive reading,” wrote Iman Mersal in a thoughtful piece campaigning for his release. “The catastrophe starts when the reader thinks that what offends him would necessarily offend a society that did not read and has no intention of reading the novel.”
Qualey has a track record of organizing on behalf of jailed writers alongside her work, publishing daily content on the prolific ArabLit blog, including translations, interviews and reports on literary events and writers.
“I worked with the Omar Hazek campaign, mostly translating his letters from prison, and I thought that was primarily to boost Omar’s spirits and help amplify his voice,” she says. “I feel a bit differently this time around. Of course I want Naji to feel that the world stands with him, and even more I’d like him to be out of jail. But it’s also about standing against the quantum-entangled threats to creative expression.”
“It’s difficult to know which actions have an effect,” she admits. “Did the publicity around the international day of readings for Ashraf contribute to his sentence being reduced from death to eight years and 800 lashes [on February 2]? Did the ongoing publicity around Qatari poet Muhammad al-Ajami contribute to his release? Maybe they did. I don’t know. It just seems a bit better than shrugging our shoulders and saying that nothing makes a difference.”
Writers have regularly been jailed throughout the 20th century in Egypt, from colonial times up until now.
Asked how such incidents have shaped Egyptian literature, Qualey says: “It’s almost certain that Sonallah Ibrahim’s time in prison changed the direction of Egyptian literature. Time served by Nawal al-Saadawi had an effect, although in a very different way. There’s the shadow of the imprisonment of friends and allies in Radwa Ashour’s writing. Some of this has made for powerful and interesting art, but it’s also sometimes chained Egyptian literature to certain tropes and taken it away from more joyful, fun, outrageous, silly, populist literary expressions.”
“I hope it has no effect on Naji’s writing,” she adds. “I hope he comes out his cheerful, daring, experimental self. But I suppose ‘no effect’ is not really realistic. Every grain of sand that enters a writer’s life potentially becomes part of their writing, and this is a hell of a lot more than a grain of sand.”
In December, New York-based NGO Committee to Protect Journalists reported that Egypt was second only to China for jailing journalists, although as recently as 2012 there were no journalists jailed for their work in Egypt.
The crackdown on freedom of expression has not only been confined to journalists – in the last couple of days, for example, a young six-member group making satirical online videos were arrested, while several arts organizations have experienced surprise inspections in recent months. Poet Fatma Naout was sentenced in absentia to three years in prison for “contempt of religion” in January, and cartoonist Islam Gawish was briefly detained the same month for “misusing communication networks.”
See here for more information about the May 12 readings, or to get involved by organizing a reading yourself or translating Naji’s work. The Mazg Institute for Arts and Culture is at 10 Mahmoud Bassiouni Street, downtown Cairo, and Kotob Khan is at 13 Road 254, Degla, Maadi.