Egyptian Novelist Ahmed Naji and Editor Tarek al-Taher Will Go Back to Court in ‘Public Morals’ Case

Experimental novelist Ahmed Naji and Akhbar al-Adab editor Tarek al-Taher will return to court in February for another trial after their acquittal earlier this month:

najiNaji announced on Facebook and Twitter yesterday that prosecutors had challenged the January 2 acquittal in the case of whether an excerpt from Naji’s novel The Use of Life had harmed public morals. He and al-Taher, he said, will be retried. The trial is set to resume February 6, and both could face jail time.

The Associated Press reported that their lawyer, Mahmoud Othman, said “Naji faces up to two years in prison and a fine of up to 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,245) if found guilty of violating a law against publishing material deemed contrary to public morals.”

During the first case, the prosecution had asked for the maximum penalty, which is two years in prison.

The case began when an Akhbar al-Adab reader filed a lawsuit, claiming his health was harmed by an excerpt of Naji’s novel. Prosecutors decided to take up the reader’s complaint against the excerpt.

Naji’s experimental novel, which mixes elements of a prose and a graphic novel, was published in 2014 and was approved by Egyptian censors. Novels published in Egypt don’t have to pass through this step, but Naji’s novel was published in Lebanon and imported into Egypt.

The excerpt in question was published in Akhbar al-Adab in August 2014. Throughout the case, the prosecutor has conflated fact and fiction, suggesting that writing fiction about an act was essentially the same as admitting to having done it.

“The prosecutor is dealing with it as if it’s my own confession,” Naji said in a Skype interview last November. The prosecutor has already referred to the characters in the novel as though they were real people, Naji said. Because drug use is discussed, the prosecutor has threatened that he could add charges against Naji for “dealing with hash.”

During the case, the prosecution asserted that “the defendant went too far with his intellectual abnormality by describing sinful sexual relationships using terms that turn humans into animals that chase after their desires,” according to Egypt’s Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. The case was less about the sexual acts themselves and more about the sorts of words that Naji used to describe them.

After the acquittal, Othman told Mada Masr that the testimonies of former Egyptian culture minister Gaber Asfour, head of the Egyptian Writers Union Mohamed Salmawy, and internationally acclaimed novelist Sonallah Ibrahim strengthened his case. Now, this groundwork will have to be laid all over again.

As Naji wrote on Facebook: We’ll start again from scratch and reinvent the wheel in order to explain what’s creative freedom and what’s literature again.

Naji also thanked all who’d supported him and his editor through the first trial, and said he hoped the support would continue through this appeal.


From translator Elisabetta Rossi: What’s the Real Nature of Ahmed Naji’s Novel ‘The Use of Life’?

From author Youssef Rakha: Busted: The Trial of Ahmed Naje