‘Rotten Evidence’: A Conversation with Translator Katharine Halls

By Tugrul Mende

This month, Ahmed Naji’s Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison was published in Katharine Halls’ English translation. The book chronicles Naji’s two years in prison, which began in February 2016. You can hear Naji talk about the book in BULAQ’s “Reading and Writing Behind Bars.”

Here, translator Katharine Halls speaks about her experience translating this powerful, genre-encompassing book and how it fits into to the Egyptian literary landscape.

When did you start working on Rotten Evidence?

Katharine L Halls: It’s been a long journey! I started working on it during the first lockdown, in the spring/summer of 2020, though I’d known Ahmed for quite a while before that. I started translating parts of it, then a long excerpt was published in The Believer, which was really great, because that was when we first had the chance to work with Daniel Gumbiner, the editor who subsequently worked with us on the book as well. In late 2021, McSweeney’s made us an offer. I was a bit surprised there wasn’t initially more interest from other publishers, given how high profile Ahmed’s case was; it was covered by PEN America, with well-known writers from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Philip Roth to Margaret Atwood and Orhan Pamuk signing petitions of support. But it was a dream come true when McSweeney’s went for it; I think they’re the perfect home for Ahmed and his writing.

Why did you choose this book?

KLH: In the lockdown, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I was reading a lot, and I read Rotten Evidence, or حرز مكمكم as it was then, pretty much as soon as it came out. People I respected had been very complimentary about it: Belal Fadl said it was “the single best and most important book I’ve read this year” and Haytham El-Wardany called it “one of the most significant books, if not the most significant, of this year’s Cairo Book Fair.” Now, I trust Haytham’s taste absolutely, so, I read it, and I agreed. Ahmed has such wit, and such a perceptive, funny way of observing social situations and putting them on down the page. Then there’s its political and cultural significance. The events in the book took place during a period in post-revolutionary Egypt when the military dictatorship—which had overthrown the democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood government in a coup, massacring a thousand civilians in the process—was trying to reclaim moral authority by cracking down on perceived threats to family values and all that crap. Ahmed was a victim, an unlikely one perhaps, of that moral crusade. And this phenomenon—failing governments embarking on moral crusades to distract an angry public from their utter failure to address any of the real challenges facing their countries—is by no means restricted to Egypt; it’s also behind the recent wave of attacks against queer communities that we’ve seen in Jordan and Lebanon. So I think Rotten Evidence, as well as being a great read, is a really important document of this cultural moment.

How would you characterize Rotten Evidence, and how would you situate it in the current literary landscape—how it fits in Arabic and in English?

KLH: In the Arabic literary landscape, or Egyptian literary landscape, Ahmed has always had quite a distinctive style; he writes this kind of surrealistic gonzo rock n’ roll dystopian fiction which is very recognizably set in Egypt, with these fantastical, sexy elements which are very him. Prior to Rotten Evidence, this had already earned Ahmed a loyal following. But when the case happened, he suddenly got a huge amount of support from people who didn’t necessarily like his writing, in fact in some cases heartily disliked it, but supported his right to free expression and went on record to say he should be able to write what he wanted without ending up in prison. In the same way, Rotten Evidence has earned him a much wider readership than his other work, because it’s so culturally and politically important. Just to reiterate, nobody before Ahmed had ever been sent to prison for the crime of obscenity. So as a record of this significant historical moment, and as a beautiful account of how one writer lived through it, this book matters to a lot of people in Egypt.

Only one of Ahmed’s books has appeared in English so far (Ben Koerber’s translation of Using Life, published by The University of Texas Press) so I can’t predict exactly where this one is going sit in the literary landscape, but to judge by all the reviews and speaking invitations he has had so far, it’s going to be a success. I think it will resonate especially in the USA right now, where freedom of expression is undergoing an epic assault from the right. Books are being banned all over the country because a bunch of conservative and evangelical loons don’t want kids to read about women’s rights, sex education, civil rights, queer people’s lives, and much more besides. Rotten Evidence shows you what happens when that worrying phenomenon goes even further.

It’s also really important for English-speaking audiences to read an insider account of life under the US-backed Sisi dictatorship in Egypt, where there are still thousands of political prisoners held in the direst conditions. Ahmed’s old friend and sometime cellmate Alaa Abdelfattah, who’s a big figure in the book, is still in prison after nearly a decade (you can take action here: https://freealaa.net/take-action).

But politics aside, Ahmed is a smart and funny writer, and in Rotten Evidence he also talks about his taste in books, his childhood, his love life, and so on; in many ways, this book is him introducing himself to US audiences. He’s continuing to write, as his attention shifts to what it’s like being an “Arab-American,” and I think once they’ve read Rotten Evidence, US readers are going to want to follow him on that journey.

Did you have a lot of conversations with Ahmed during the translation process?

KLH: Absolutely loads. Ahmed is an amazing writer to work with: he’s humble, respectful, open-minded about edits, and always invested in having conversations about his texts and how they might change in translation. So we talked a lot throughout the process. At the earliest stage, we had a lot of discussions about the text on the word, sentence, and paragraph level. Sometimes we rephrased or explained things; we cut the odd detail; or we made the paragraphs flow a little differently. For example, I suggested we shuffle a few paragraphs around in the last two pages, to give the ending a little bit more impact.

Then, when we came to work with Daniel, our conversations were much more about the overall structure of the book. It has a very non-linear, non-chronological structure which skips around between different events and life stages. It starts with Naji going into prison and ends with him still in prison, but in between these two points, he goes back to his childhood, he talks about the book Using Life and how an excerpt came to be published in the magazine, he details different stages of the court case which sent him to prison. Now, it’s obviously not a problem when events don’t appear in chronological order, but we realised that the court case chronology could be confusing. I mean, the case was tortuous and arcane enough in real life. But the chronology of the book works ok in Arabic, because readers of the Arabic probably know the outline of the case; everybody in Egypt was following it closely as it happened. That wasn’t going to be the case for anglophone readers.

So we tried very hard to make sure that the structure of the book helped readers follow the journey of the court case. We moved whole chapters, we took a big chunk of a chapter and put it into another chapter, and Ahmed even wrote some new passages especially for the English version so as to fill in some gaps that Anglophone readers might not have been able to fill in for themselves.

How does this differ from the “prison literature” that’s come before it?

KLH: In the book, Ahmed has quite a long polemic against Egyptian prison literature which he feels is overly politicised and therefore dehumanizing, and certainly he doesn’t try to score political points, even if the book is inherently political. The English-language prison literature context is a bit different. I read a few of the big prison literature titles while I was working on Rotten Evidence—Malcolm Braly’s On the Yard and Jack Henry Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast, for example—and a lot of them, understandably, are really violent and masculine. I couldn’t even finish Belly of the Beast. I think what’s special and different about Rotten Evidence is that it has a lot of sensitivity. It’s not that prison in Egypt isn’t a violent place—of course it is, desperately so, and Ahmed does convey that—but rather that Ahmed is a keen observer of social relations and thus he’s also interested in the finer details of prison life, like how the guards relate to one another, or how the head chef of the canteen accumulates power within the prison hierarchy. It’s a very nuanced observation of the interlocking relationships of power in prison.

 You are also working on Hilal Chouman’s Sadness in my Heart. Are there other projects you’re working on right now that you could tell us about? How do you juggle your work as a literary agent at 10/11 and your work as a translator?

 KLH: Being a literary agent involves a lot of the same stuff I do as a translator—reading books, deciding what I like, thinking about how to make publishers want to buy them—just with a broader scope now. There are more emails now, unfortunately, so I have to make sure I set time aside for translating. I’m midway through On The Greenwich Line by Shady Lewis for Peirene Press, which is due out in late 2024 or early 2025. It’s been a while since I first read it and I’m struck by how relevant and timely its portrayal of Britain is; it’s very firmly set in the Britain where school roofs are caving in and cynical politicians think it’s ok to house asylum seekers on disease-ridden boats. I’m also working on a very different book, Haytham El-Wardany’s Jackals and the Lost Letters, an incredibly dense work that’s somewhere between fable, philosophy, and literary criticism, and is inspired by the medieval collection of animal fables known as Kalilah wa-Dimnah.

Tugrul Mende is a regular contributor to ArabLit.