Friday Finds: ‘A Rot of Evidence’

Ahmed Naji A Rot of Evidence: A Journal of Reading and Writing in Prison” appears in the Persecution issue of the Michigan Quarterly Review, and a section of it is online:

They note that Naji will appear with other contributors to MQR and Sukoon for a virtual reading hosted by the Arab American National Museum on November 21. Those interested in attending can RSVP at the AANM website.

In Naji’s essay, he reflects on his time in prison, where he served ten months of a two-year sentence, handed down for the immodest language in his novel Using Life. Prison, he writes, was not how he had imagined:

I had imagined prison as a gray room isolated from the outside world. But when prison became my life, my previous imaginings of it, formed from scattered literary and artistic treatments, seemed naively romantic. In reality, prison, as it turned out, is full of European romantic paintings, which for contemporary Egyptians are beautiful objects that they hang in their homes and juice bars. And with such colorful depictions, the state seeks to improve its human rights and gladly opens its jails to foreign media and delegations.

On the occasion that prisoners are pardoned, the prison authorities would order us to our cells. They would then bring out the army conscripts working in the prison, dressed in civilian clothes, and line them up in the prison garden. The prison doors would open for journalists and TV cameras to photograph them. The conscripts pretending to be prisoners, with the paintings of tropical beaches and Norwegian forests serving as background, would dance and laugh for the cameras. They would prostrate, staining their foreheads with the yard dust, and raise their arms with prayers and thanks to the President and the Minister of Interior for their mercy and their guidance.

Naji writes that, in this crowded place, he was forced to wear a mask to keep himself hidden, although there was one time he could remove it:

Reading was the intermission during which I could remove the mask. While reading, I answered everyone who interrupted me with short, non-evocative responses, as if to say that I did not exist with them when I read.

There are darkly funny moments in the essay, too, such as when Naji discusses Mahfouz with a Lieutenant General who is also an aspiring writer:

A Lieutenant General and head of a security sector stopped the prison transport truck before it set off to a police station and asked the guards to wash it inside out. He then began to scold them and the lower rank officers for neglecting maintenance and for not taking good care of the ministry’s resources. He then came over to me, removed his sunglasses, and asked me seriously, “Do you think Nagib Mahfouz smoked hashish?”

The answer I was sure of was, “Yes, sure, he must have tried it,” but I also felt I was snitching on Mahfouz. I thought these are crazy days. I have been in prison for a long time, and I have no idea what’s going on. Maybe they’re fabricating a case against Nagib Mahfouz or his ghost. I stuttered, then fell silent. But the general’s gaze, and his suit decorated with golden swords, kept urging me to answer, so I said, after hesitating:

“I don’t know, excellency.”

Read more at the MQR website, and find the whole essay in their Fall 2020 Issue on Persecution.