From noon on Monday, May 16 through noon on Tuesday, May 17, the world will host a “Day of Blogging for Ahmed Naji.” This comes on the same day he receives his PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, in absentia, in NYC:
Naji has been in jail since February 20 on charges of “violating public morals” with a published excerpt of his novel Using Life. This day of blogging, in organizers’ words, is “to offer a writer who’s been sentenced to jail for two years the chance to get out of prison, but also to ensure that he is the last person imprisoned for his writings.”
Naji first emailed me in 2010, in his capacity as a journalist at Akhbar al-Adab. By then, he was already a relatively well-known novelist, at least in the tiny circles where these things are well-known.
He started blogging in 2005 at Wassia’ khayalak (Widen your imagination), at 20, and he wrote about a variety of things: movies, books, politics, society, human rights. In 2006, he got his Master’s in journalism and started working at Akbar al-Adab. He published his first novel, Rogers, in 2007, and in 2010 it was just appearing in Italian translation. By 2010, he was part of the center of a new literary movement that sought to tear down the more polite literature of the twentieth century and build something new.
Even when he became a successful journalist and novelist, he maintained an interest in blogging and other ways words could be used.
And he didn’t wait for 2011 to free him from his mental chains. “I had that since I started writing.”
Still: “Of course a new era has begun,” he told me in March of 2011. “What is it? How it will be? We’re still waiting for an answer to these questions.”
In the spring of 2011, he emphasized to me several times that “the coming steps will not be easy.” He believed that a “big part of the societal attitudes toward art have been created by military regime which has ruled Egypt for the last 60 years.” And “if we could have a democratic state, this will be a first step.”
He added, back in 2011, that he hoped “there will not be many novels about the revolution. I believe using the revolution as literary topic will lead to kitsch literature, and will turn that great moment to silly stories.”
But before that, in 2010, when Naji was part of a burgeoning new literary movement. He told me his favorite books were Nael Eltoukhy’s 2006 (2009), Ihab Abd El-Hamid’s Failed Lovers (2005), and Yasser Abdel-Hafez’s On the Occasion of Life (2005).
I must like this question, because I asked him again, over email, at the end of 2011. He gave just one new title: Youssef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal (2011).
The last time we talked was in November 2015, over Skype, and it was mostly about the case against him (and the noise in the background, since I was sitting in a parking lot). He said he was trying to finish a collection of short stories. He was working on edits, hoping it would be published in 2016.
He characterized the trial against the excerpt of his novel as not about sex, but about language. Those things that the prosecution claims are “against public morality,” Naji said, you can find them in the hadith, or the reports about the life of Muhammad.
Naji traced this new public morality to the beginning of the nineteenth century, when Arabic literature had its nahda, or “awakening.” That’s when authors like Muhammad Husayn Haykal (Zaynab, 1913) and Salama Moussa put their stamp on Egyptian literature. “They cared very much about not using these words. So they disappeared from the written language, even though you can hear it everywhere on the street.”
Naji said he thought an examination of language was essential to creating a new literature. And: “I believe I have the right to use it.”
As we talked, he listed off a few other Egyptian writers that he saw as at the center of this project: Mohammed Rabie, Youssef Rakha, Nael Eltoukhy.
I didn’t record our talk. But I wrote down that he said, at the end: “I hope they stay safe, I hope.”
From Naji’s reading list:
There is no full-length book in translation by Ihab Abdel Hamid. But you can read “Cairo” over at the Qisus Ukhra blog.
Nael Eltoukhy’s 2006 hasn’t (yet) been translated into English, but his 2013 novel Women of Karantina was translated by Robin Moger and is available from AUC Press.
Yasser Abdel Hafez’s Book of Safety (2013) will be published soon in English.
Mohamed Rabie’s International Prize for Arabic Fiction-shortlisted Otared was translated by Robin Moger and will be out this fall from Hoopoe Fiction.
Youssef Rakha’s Sultan’s Seal, trans. Paul Starkey, is available from Interlink.
UPDATE: Selected blogs for Naji
The New Inquiry, Using Life: Instructions for Play (Ben Koerber)
(Hany Fawzy, Za2ed18) هاني فوزي يكتب: ناجى والمجال العام.. والغضب
Editoriaraba, Blogging Day Per Ahmed Naji (Chiara Comito)
Oum Cartoon, Six Cartoons for Ahmed Naji (Jonathan Guyer)
On Detained Egyptian Novelist Ahmed Naji (Mai El-Sadany)