What’s the Real Nature of Ahmed Naji’s Novel ‘The Use of Life’?

Ahmed Naji’s court date has been set for November 14, at which time he and his attorneys will have to defend his novel-excerpt published in Akhbar al-Adab, which has been accused of defaming Egypt’s “public morals.” What kind of book is Naji’s The Use of Life, which now finds itself at the center of such a court battle? 

Elisabetta Rossi, who translated the novel Arabic into Italian, answers:

By Elisabetta Rossi

Naje's book.
Naje’s book.

If we were to attempt to classify Ahmed Naji’s work within a well-defined genre, we would face no small issue: The young author, born in Mansura in September 1985, has distinguished himself on the Egyptian literary scene for his unique experimental writing, where genres and artistic elements converge to shape a hybrid literary product.

Naji started blogging in 2005 at Wassia’ khayalak (Widen your imagination), a free space where he writes about cinema, art, literature, sociology, and human rights. It was 2006 when he got his Master’s degree in journalism, after which he found work at the weekly literary magazine Akbar al-Adab. He followed with his debut novel in 2007.

But Naji has many other interests as well: In 2009, he published an e-book titled Saba῾a durus mustaqqah min Ahmad Makky (Seven lessons drawn from Ahmad Makky), a short work of art criticism. He also wrote about the history of Egyptian blogging in “Blogs from Post to Tweet” (2010), an overview of the main Arab blogs from 2003 to 2010.

Since his early days as a writer, Naji has presented himself as a new voice in Egyptian contemporary literature. His first novel, Rogers, published in 2007 by Dar Malamih, could be defined as fantasy. Yet it’s something more: In this novel, with neither plot nor temporal laws, the words of the author are mixed with those of the songs from Pink Floyd’s The Wall, which cleverly interleave the narrative. The “Wall” stands as the symbol of alienation, and the whole story is a game played by the protagonist’s imagination and hallucinations. It was an original literary experiment that had an important echo also in Italy, through Barbara Benini’s translation.

The nightmare, the anguish of alienation, and the individual’s inability to communicate are also some of the main themes that can be found in The Use of Life (2014), a new experimental novel that, like Rogers (2007), uses another artistic “ingredient” to develop the story: the illustrations and comics of Ayman al-Zurqany. These give a face to the characters and describe their feelings and thoughts. The use of comics and drawings  — here perfectly combined with the prose — represents an absolute newness on the Arabic scene. It also testifies to the growing importance of the art of comics, which can be found in magazines like TokTok, al-Shakmagiyya, and the science-fiction Fut 3aleyna bokra, written and illustrated by Sherif Adel.

In Naji’s case, the book isn’t exactly a “graphic novel.” Instead, it’s a middle ground between novel and riwayya musawwara.

The story in The Use of Life revolves around two main characters: Bassam and the city of Cairo. Bassam is a young man who lives, frustrated, in a city where he can’t smile or express himself. Everything is difficult in the dirty, polluted, degraded city. Even relationships: “Every romantic relationship in Cairo is tense. Naturally, every romantic relationship is, in general, tense. But the amount of pressure exerted by the city and its inhabitants complicates the tension of these relationships. At any moment, a male might lose his masculine image in front of a bawwàb or an old biddy neighbor,” Bassam says in the novel.

And what about the city of Cairo? Many times, postmodern literature has described metropolises as hellish places to live. But here, Nagy creates a semi-fantastic expedient — the secret “Society of Urbanists,” which aims to radically transform the capital.

Within this surrealistic texture, we follow the adventures of many unconventional characters, including transgressive Mona Mi; the transgender Sally; Rim, the girl split between freedom and tradition; Mud, Bassam’s tormented friend; as well as the two Society of Urbanists antagonists, Ihab Hassan and the magician Paprika. The last two represent an encounter in the novel between fiction and reality. Ihab Hassan is in the reality an Egyptian-American postmodernist theorist who’s well-known and appreciated by Naje. In the novel, however, he is an eccentric professor who holds many secrets about the history of architecture. Meanwhile, Paprika is a magical character with powerful and unknown magical powers.

The leitmotif that links the characters is often sexuality, a topic that Naji treats without holding back. The novel appears particularly irreverent when the author talks about masturbation, fetishes, and pornography:

“What do young people in their twenties do in Cairo? Do they lick pupils, pussies, do they suck dicks, do they lick dust or do they inhale hashish mixed with sleeping draught? Till when will fetishes be exciting, innovative, and stimulating?”

This is what Bassam asks in the censored chapter six. This particular segment of the story deals with the use of drugs among young people in Cairo, and it starts with the scene of a party full of music, cigarettes, and hashish, and it culminates with a detailed scene of Bassam having sex with an older woman. Naje’s work is salted with other sexual situations, which provide contrast with the harsh traditionalism described through Bassam’s ironic lens.

The novel also has science fictional elements. As Professor Ada Barbaro shows in Science fiction in Arabic Literature (La fantascienza nella letteratura araba, 2013), the imagination of a different future is one of speculative fiction’s core obsessions. Indeed, this is the target of the secret Society: create a new model of the world system, which will erase the problems of the present. Another science fictional element, which leans toward the apocalyptic, is found at the book’s beginning. It opens with a description of a naksa, a terrible destruction of millenary Cairo caused by a series of unexplained natural disasters which will overwhelm the city and its historical and cultural heritage.

Dreams, illusions, imagination, subtle social criticism, and irony: All these elements constitute the sophisticated reflections of a sensitive author who aims to create his own style, where the Fantastic, Pulp, Noir and New Weird literature blend together in a new form of literary language.

Elisabetta Rossi studied Arabic language and culture in the Faculty of “Oriental studies” in the University of Rome “La Sapienza”. She lived in Cairo in 2013 and in 2014, she had a scholarship given by the University of Rome “La Sapienza” to study Arabic language at the “Ayn Shams University” in Cairo, where she made a research about Egyptian comics and graphic novels. In 2015 she got a Master Degree with the translation and the analysis on Nagy’s work, titled “Use of Life: the meeting in Cairo between fantasy and graphic novel.”