Author Tony White interviews Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji ahead of his hearing in Cairo today
[UPDATE: Ahmed’s trial has now been adjourned until 7 May 2017.]
On 21 February 2016, Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for ‘violating public modesty’, following the publication of an excerpt from his novel Using Life in Cairo’s weekly literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. On 22 December 2016, Egypt’s highest appeals court temporarily suspended Naji’s sentence, and he was released. A further hearing due to be held in Cairo today, 2 April 2017, will determine whether Naji will face another trial or be sent back to prison.
Author Tony White interviewed Ahmed Naji in March 2017. The following text is an edited transcript of that interview, adapted to be performed live at the English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2017. White asked Ahmed Naji about writing in prison, getting married, and what he will be doing in Cairo while he waits to hear the latest verdict.
If you wait a minute I’ll close the window. We have a high school for girls next door, and at this time of day they all come out of the school and they make so much noise. They fill the air with their noise and their talking. If I go on to my balcony to smoke or drink coffee, the classrooms are all opposite, and of course there is always a show! They are always waving and whistling, saying, ‘Hi! What is your name? Do you have wifi? Open the wifi to us! Give me your number!’
This is Yasmin’s place. I love this neighbourhood. It’s called Al Aguza. And I love it, first because the river is only two minutes away—the Nile—and I love to walk beside the river every day. And a funny thing is that five minutes from where we live is the house of Naguib Mahfouz, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. He used to live right here, and he also he used to have a tradition of walking, of getting out of his house and walking beside the Nile. Every day he would write for at least three hours, and then he would walk for an hour or two along the river. And now there is a huge statue of Mahfouz, walking, that the government made. It’s a miserable statue. Even he himself used to make negative comments about it!
Anyway, Al Aguza is something in between— Like, in the sixties and seventies it was the main hub of the artistic community, and theatre and cinema and so on. And now it’s become like a cool neighbourhood, but also a shabby neighbourhood.
So here we are. First I’d like to thank Cat [Lucas of English PEN] and Steven [the poet SJ Fowler] and everyone, for organising this event. I know that such an activity can feel disappointing, especially for the organisers. It is not an easy world that we live in, and these are not easy times, so you’re doing all this work and supporting writers, for the love of literature and writing, and freedom of expression, but sometimes this offer, this support, goes unheard. Or that may be how it seems. But actually it does reach the ears of those writers around the world who are facing a critical time, and even if this offer doesn’t affect their legal situation, it can have a huge effect on their mood.
I mean in my case for example, when I was in prison, when my family came to visit with messages like this from outside, and they told me well this person has written about you, or we have received a letter from that person, this news affects your mood very well. Because in prison you are not allowed to be in touch with anything, and sometimes you feel that you have been forgotten. So to receive the news that someone has remembered you, this helps very much. And then, after you get out, to find such love and solidarity? It really helps you to recover from the traumas that you have experienced.
When I was in jail, in my cell there were British prisoners, Americans, people from Latin America. And everybody envies the British prisoners because the British have a special magazine for British prisoners who are held in prisons outside of the UK. So this British guy, his embassy was visiting him every forty days, and bringing him a bunch of food, cornflakes, you know, sometimes old magazines and books. Usually they were strange books with titles like In Bed with the Duke, for example. But suddenly I found they had brought him one of China Miéville’s novels. This was a new writer to me, and I fell in love with him.
Before I went into prison my relationship towards writing literature was dependent upon my mood. I didn’t see myself as a full-time writer, I saw myself as a journalist. I only wrote literature when the desire to do so became irresistible, but in prison my relationship to literature changed.
It is interesting writing a novel in prison. For one thing, you are not allowed to write in prison, so I had to hide it, because if suddenly the guards entered the cell to do a check-up or whatever, and they found it, they could take it. And it was also strange because I was writing with pen and paper, and I hadn’t done that since I was about twelve years old! And of course in prison you don’t have an office or a table, you just have a mattress on the floor, so you are writing with your body, in a physical position that is very hard to keep up. It becomes very painful.
Since I got out and started to write the novel on the computer, I’m now facing some very interesting questions. The sentences are too short. They look good, but when I start rewriting on the computer suddenly these sentences expand. And I’m starting to ask myself, when I wrote it in prison did I make this sentence short because there was some literary motivation behind it, or was it just because of the pain in my body and my hand that I was writing sentences like that?
Before I went to prison most of my work was related to journalism, but since I got out of prison and because we are waiting for another decision from the court, the lawyer advised me to keep a low profile, because they are watching us. So I can’t write anything at the moment, because at first I thought that I was under their eyes, and this was a very weird feeling because suddenly you become the censorship in what you think. I mean I would start to write an article about something for example, and as I was writing it I would think what if the judge saw this article? Might it affect our appeal? And I would find that I couldn’t continue.
Yasmin and I wanted to get married in March. Actually, we had planned to get married in May or June, but we are waiting for this second decision in the court and we don’t know what will happen. Now for sudden family issues we have had to postpone the wedding date, but I hope we can make it by the end of April.We are afraid that if I have to go back to prison, that this time Yasmin would not be able to visit me, because according to the prison regulations only family and immediate relatives are allowed to visit. And even then, it’s all dependent upon each police officer’s mood.
When I was in prison before, in the first couple of months they allowed me to send and to receive letters, but after that I wasn’t allowed to write or to receive letters at all. I had to do this huge negotiation with the officer to just be able to send letters to Yasmin and to receive letters from her. So this was the only person that I could write to. Also they would read them and sometimes for example if Yasmin asked me about details in the case and I answered it, they would read it and say ‘No you are only allowed to write stuff about love, or something like that. You are not allowed to mention anything related to politics or to your legal case’. So the letters were censored and some letters they refused to send, the officer would read it and say, ‘No you are not allowed to write this’.
The court is downtown, like ten minutes from here by car, or half an hour’s walk, but we won’t be going to court. When I was sentenced before, I did have to be in the court. In the Egyptian court tradition you stay in the cage until the judge has given his orders to the police officer. The judge doesn’t have to declare his verdict to the court, so he listened to the prosecutors and to my lawyers then he left, and I had to wait in the cage with some police officers. Then another officer came and took me to another room, where I was told that I had been sentenced to 2 years. They immediately put me in a police car and moved me to the police station.
I don’t have much to say about it, really.
This time the judge hasn’t asked me to attend, because this is the highest court in the Egyptian justice system. Regular citizens are not even allowed to enter; only lawyers.
So we will be at home. And I think that I will start my day by making what we call the ‘championship breakfast’. This is omelette – a lot of omelette – with falafel, and fried potato, and spicy tomato, and some greens, and vegetables, and honey, and cheese.
After breakfast I think Yasmin and I will stay at home and wait to hear from the lawyers. I will be reading. Yesterday I bought a new book by China Miéville. I finished the first novel I’d read of his, the one that I started when I was in jail: Kraken. I finished that, and now I’m reading Iron Council. So I will be reading my new China Miéville novel, and waiting for the news.
My lawyers are optimistic. They say that the judge has let me out, so he’s probably not going to give me another sentence, or send me back to prison.
Well, they may be optimistic, but I’m not.
After my experience, I don’t have any optimism.
But then, also, the judge might not even give his verdict on the same day. It could be in two days’ time, or next week. But if he finds me guilty again, and he announces the verdict, then a police officer will be sent to catch me. Either that or you, yourself, have to go to the police station.
If it’s good news of course we are going to celebrate, but if it’s bad news we are also going to celebrate!
On Saturday 1 April 2017, UK-based writers gathered for the English PEN Modern Literature Festival 2017, to present new works in tribute to writers at risk around the world. Writers, poets, novelists, playwrights and artists came together to continue English PEN’s relationship with innovative contemporary literature over an extraordinary day where each of the writers presented brand new poetry, text, reportage & performance in celebration of fellow writers around the world.
Ahmed Naji’s novel Using Life translated by Benjamin Koerber will be published later this year by the University of Texas Press.