Nine months have passed since writer Ahmed Naji was imprisoned for “violating public morality” by publishing excerpts from his novel Istikhdam al-Hayah (The Use of Life) in Akhbar al-Adab magazine. Naji is the only writer currently imprisoned for literature in Egypt. For his fans, however, it’s hard to explain why his case specially was dealt with in this way. Now, after the emotionally charged solidarity statements have settled, we can try to answer that question. This leads us directly to another question: “Why is Ahmed Naji different from others?”
Naji participated in the revolution of January 25, 2011. He went on, nevertheless, to provoke all revolutionary groups. Unlike the many who violently engaged in a process of polarization in the aftermath of the revolution, Naji stood on the edge, contemplating from the outside, continuing to antagonize those at either pole equally. Naji, after all, had already described his participation in the revolution as an “act of adolescence.”
Poets and novelists often sing the praises of individuality. But as soon as individuality is personified in someone real, someone who frees themself from the group pressures around him, those declared proponents of individuality become uncomfortable. Many hated Naji because true individuality, although a theoretically popular trait (praise for individuality is uttered with utmost admiration), is in reality, thorny, lonely and uncomfortable, even for those who claim to admire it.
To be in a herd is to have protection, comfort and warmth. Crowds are also a threat to authority: a group is naturally stronger than an individual. United groups can break walls individuals can’t. But being a regular part of a group isn’t always practical. Sometimes, if the opposition is a herd it is easier for an authority to control it. A herd needs a head and eliminating that head can easily scatter the herd.
This leads us to the January 25 revolution, which was no more than large groups consisting of individuals, each owning no more than a Facebook account.
In the Monty Python movie Life of Brian, believers follow a man called Brian who they imagine to be the new messiah. He repeatedly explains that he is not the messiah, but they don’t believe him. He screams at them: “You don’t have to follow anyone! You are individuals!” but they scream back as a collective echoing his words: “We are individuals!” He screams: “You are different from one another!” They scream back: “Yes, we are all different from one another!” It often seems to me that this interplay between individual and collective is the key to the unfolding of the revolution.
In contrast to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is the biggest organized group in the history of modern Egypt, and which scattered after the elimination of their head, the January 25 revolutionaries persisted. They’re still able to inspire and guide society toward their vision.
Actually, “scattering” is not the most accurate word. While it’s true that the Brotherhood is now scattered, the revolutionaries are regularly scattered too. It’s perhaps more accurate to say “breaking the spell.” It was possible to break the Brotherhood’s spell by ousting Mohamed Morsi — but the same has not been possible with the revolutionaries. The revolution is leaderless. From the very beginning this has been both the revolution’s inspiration and its doom. Because it’s leaderless and because it consists of various groups made up of different individuals brought together by nothing more than anger against the status quo, it was possible for them to infiltrate society, free and flexible, to break the spell of the governing military regime and the Islamists simultaneously.
It’s in this way that Naji is a representative of the spirit of the revolution, or the spirit of the internet and contemporaneity. The last two have been his constant line of argument. It was enough for Naji to indicate that one theory or another is outdated to start a trend of abandoning it.
What is both unfortunate and complicated is that in the same way that Naji was his own individual, the solidarity with him was expressed individually as well. After the first eruption of strong statements of solidarity, only a handful of people continued to bring up his name. Despite attempts by writers to organize a wider solidarity movement, similar to those which demand freedom for one prisoner or another, something in the awareness of those who stood with Naji realized that the issue here is a bit different; as if Naji himself would not have wanted that kind of solidarity or as if that solidarity is against Naji and what he stands for.
This is the main fault of individuality — it is incapable of providing one with protection. It could protect him intellectually but it wouldn’t protect his body from harm at the hands of the authorities.
It might seem normal today that Naji is imprisoned for what he wrote. But this is just a retroactive impulse. Before, none of his friends or fans imagined the possibility of his imprisonment. Naji had remained alone remote from the ongoing political conflict, and remote from prison sentences — because he is, first and foremost, an individual who only expresses very individual views, and his skirmishes resembled game-playing.
It’s not possible to speak of Naji without referring to his constant ridiculousness
After his sentencing, many speculated that his punishment was in fact not due to his so-called violation of morality but for political reasons — perhaps in an attempt to belittle obscenity’s capacity to provoke authority. Despite the merits of these views, the simplest explanation is the most convincing: Naji is in prison because of the obscene words he wrote. Revisit the published chapter and ask yourself: Is it possible for a middle class Egyptian, who is not educated about the arts and doesn’t believe in freedom of expression, to not be angered by such obscene words? Then: What would a person like this do upon reading that chapter, knowing that he or she has the authority to imprison the writer? Of course they will exercise that authority. All the (constitutional) talk about “freedom of expression,” “freedom of opinion” and “how can words be taken to court?” would be no more than empty speeches to be destroyed in the face of that kid who needs to be taught a lesson.
In this context, it’s not possible to speak of Naji without referring to his constant ridiculousness. Naji seemed to find this ridiculousness a sort of entertaining game rarely void of its own logic and intelligence. He was able to transform any serious decision into something ridiculous with no more than two words. With one word, he could embarrass any major effort to formulate theories. In return, and as time passed, many were able to hone their own skills to engage with his ridiculousness until it became an exciting game for us that both developed our intelligence and taught us that opinions should not be communicated for the perceived prestige they bestow on their owner, because Naji and his internet were able to destroy that prestige in one second.
What happened, however, was that an outsider, knowing nothing about the rules of the game stormed in and tore away its papers, imprisoning one of its players. This is the best explanation for the shocked disbelief many felt at Naji’s imprisonment, especially among those who had previously been played by Naji’s ridiculousness. It was a violation of the rules. Naji belongs to our side of the game, not theirs.
There are, of course, many who had suffered from Naji’s game of ridiculousness and who attacked him after his sentence. That’s normal. It sometimes happens that the defeated want an authority to come in and imprison the victor. What’s strange, however, are those who never dealt with Naji and who only started to attack him after his sentencing. Were they afraid he would attack them with his ridiculousness in the future? Perhaps they found his existence suspicious, though they were unable to figure out why? Or perhaps they felt that he must have come from a culture hostile to theirs? Either way, cowardice and baseness often meet in the same person and one shouldn’t pay too much attention to these kinds of cowards, who are most probably miserable as well.
Apart from his individuality, Naji did not have a broad base of influence. He wasn’t on TV, didn’t sell tens of thousands of books, and he doesn’t have a government position aside from being a journalist at the elitist magazine Akhbar al-Adab. He only had a Facebook account, a Twitter account and some articles he wrote whenever he could be bothered.
His influence is deep but not broad, perhaps. I mean that he’s that kind of person whose influence reaches those around them due to the freshness of their logic, not because they occupy broad, naturally influential bases. This is also a reason why those who know him were shocked — because there was no fear of him exercising a broad political influence, and he had never assumed a leadership position.
Naji often aimed his arrows of sarcasm at social status. He was capable of destroying the status of many around him very simply. Despite all that, he never faked temperance and wretchedness, like some of the 1960s poets, for example. He has always sung the praises of wealth and spoke of the importance of money and living well. After the departure of Mohamed ElBaradei to Vienna and the disappointment this caused many of his loving followers, Naji warmly saluted him on Facebook for finally choosing a life of comfort.
If there’s one main goal Naji believes in, it’s progress. And the way to achieve it is conflict. Over the past few years, he has often repeated that “conflict is the dynamo for progress.” It seems to me sometimes that the progress he meant was for people around him to start thinking about things they hadn’t thought of before. This is not an easy matter at all — it demands going down a long path of provocation and ridiculousness, in both of which Naji is very skilled.
Originally published in Arabic. Translated by Assmaa Naguib.