Ahmed Naji remains on trial for the excerpt of Using Life that appeared in Akhbar al-Adab magazine, although it’s been nearly a year since his two-year prison sentence for “violating public modesty” was suspended by an appeals court:
Today, the book at the center of the case appears in Ben Koerber’s English translation, published by University of Texas Press.
Naji was charged following a complaint that an excerpt from the text of his graphic-novel hybrid caused a 65-year-old man to experience a dangerous drop in blood pressure. In the spectacle that followed, prosecutors suggested Naji was guilty of the behavior of his characters and that his “vulgar” language was destroying the country’s social fabric.
English-language readers can decide for themselves how dangerous Naji’s dystopia might be. From the University of Texas Press website:
Set in modern-day Cairo, Using Life follows a young filmmaker, Bassam Bahgat, after a secret society hires him to create a series of documentary films about the urban planning and architecture of Cairo. The plot in which Bassam finds himself ensnared unfolds in the novel’s unique mix of text and black-and-white illustrations.
The Society of Urbanists, Bassam discovers, is responsible for centuries of world-wide conspiracies that have shaped political regimes, geographical boundaries, reigning ideologies, and religions. It is responsible for today’s Cairo, and for everywhere else, too. Yet its methods are subtle and indirect: it operates primarily through manipulating urban architecture, rather than brute force. As Bassam immerses himself in the Society and its shadowy figures, he finds Cairo on the brink of a planned apocalypse, designed to wipe out the whole city and rebuild anew.
Although Naji has been released from prison, he is still unable to leave Egypt. The trial still looms over him, and the situation for writers has, if anything, grown more dangerous. Novelist Basma Abdel Aziz recently had three of her newspaper columns pulled before publication. According to Internet Monitor, more than 400 websites — including leading independent publication Mada Masr, for which Naji writes — have been filtered or blocked. And Hossam Fazulla of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression recently told Agence France Press that Egyptian artists are being subjected to increasing limitations.
Yet authors continue to publish. Earlier this year, Naji brought out a new short-story collection, لغز المهرجان المشطور, which had been in the works for some ten years, and had just come together before he was put in prison in February 2016. This collection was published by Dar Merit; you can find three short stories, translated by Mona Kareem, on ArabLit.
Win a copy of Using Life on Goodreads.
Watch the book trailer: