Friday Finds: Ahmed Naji, ‘Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison’

In its February 2021 issue, The Believer published an excerpt of Rotten Evidence by Egyptian novelist and essayist Ahmed Naji, in lucid and smart translation by Katharine Halls:

It opens:

During the 1921 obscenity trial involving James Joyce’s Ulysses, a dispute broke out between the prosecuting attorney and the defense team in the New York courthouse. The assistant district attorney angrily announced he was going to read an extract from the novel out loud to establish before the court that it posed a threat to society and morality. Protesting that there was no need to subject the court to such obscenity, the judge stopped him. Around a century later, in Cairo, during the obscenity trial of my novel Using Life, the assistant attorney for the prosecution challenged my defense attorney and the respected literary figures we had called as witnesses to read a section of my novel out loud.

Naji goes on to discuss, as The Believer heading declares, “Ulysses on Trial, Potent Cologne, Sonallah Ibrahim, Public Decency, Public Prosecutors, Des Inconnues, Chahla ve-Hezkel, Cellblock 2/4, Reading for Pleasure, Dostoyevsky, The Function of Power, Jaildogs, Unsolicited Advice, An Islamic Romance Novel, Notebook Systems, Proust, Using Life, Using Zahrat al-Khalij, Half Calling, and The Hidden Force of Literature.”

Read it all at The Believer.


As his bio succinctly notes, Naji is a “writer, journalist, art critic, and criminal.” Of his several books, only Using Life (2014) is in English translation. It was published by University of Texas Press in Ben Koerber’s English. Naji also has an electric short story, in Elisabeth Jaquette’s translation, in The Book of Cairo, and a brilliant surreal short in the Summer 2019 (THE SEA) issue of ArabLit Quarterly, translated by Spencer Scoville.

One of Naji’s short-short stories, “The Plant,” previously appeared on the English PEN website in Mona Kareem’s translation; two more appeared on ArabLit.

More translations of Naji’s work by Halls: ‘An Egyptian at the American Protest,’, 2020; ‘Tool: Portable Bidet, $13.99’ in The Believer, 2020; ‘Getting over a Breakup: Medication from Ibn Hazm to Antidepressants’ and ‘The World Cup, Chaos and Corruption,’, 2018.

Naji is currently a City of Asylum Fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute.

An interview on Rotten Evidence:

The Fine Line Between Nihilism and Hope: Talking with Ahmed Naji