Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji faces up to two years in prison and a fine of 10,000 Egyptian pounds (approximately $1,245) for the publication of an excerpt of his novel The Use of Life, which an Egyptian prosecutor considers too racy and a detriment to public health.
In an article for ArabLit.org, Elisabetta Rossi explains that Naji “has distinguished himself on the Egyptian literary scene for his unique experimental writing, where genres and artistic elements converge to shape a hybrid literary product.” His work incorporates journalism, prose, various genres, and interwoven and sometimes disruptive literary devices to convey emotions, ideas, and meaning. The Use of Life also embraces visual elements, including illustrations and comics by Ayman al-Zurqany, and deals with topics of sexuality and drug use.
The initial case against The Use of Life was filed in 2014 by a citizen who claimed to experience heart palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, and severe illness after reading the segment of Naji’s novel in Akhbar al-Adab magazine. The excerpt contained references to explicit sexual acts as well as the recreational use of marijuana — both things the prosecutor considers amoral and violates the law for “infringing on public decency.”
Due to the fact that the segment was printed in a magazine, the prosecution is treating the work as an article as opposed to looking at the book as a whole. As such, many elements of the piece of fiction are being interpreted and presented as if they were fact. “The prosecutor is dealing with [the article] as if it’s my own confession,” said Naji in an interview with Aljazeera. Characters are being treated as real people and the mention of marijuana has led to threats that Naji could be charged with “dealing with hash.” As a small piece of the story, the subject matter is severely misinterpreted out of context and, coupled with vague laws that allow for the legal prosecution of written materials, prosecutors decided to take the case to court.
The issue faced by Naji, as well as all authors, cartoonists, and journalists in Egypt, is that the laws defining what constitutes public decency are overly broad and subject to interpretation. The ambiguity of the law under which Naji is being prosecuted “is wide enough to include any creative individual,” said Mahmoud Othman, Naji’s lawyer and a member of the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression. “The law doesn’t specify any details on what are these definitions that violate public modesty. What do we write and what do we not write?” Othman also considers the laws that allow for the courts to punish and essentially censor creators to be a violation of Egypt’s constitution, which states that individuals will not be imprisoned for published materials.
Freedom of expression continues to be a challenge in Egypt, with more and more creators trying to find alternative ways to publish their materials. Whether it be online or in the form of independent press, creators are finding refuge publishing in places that fall outside of the government’s direct line of sight.
Naji, though, will unfortunately see his first court session on November 14. The irony of the whole situation, though, is that Naji’s novel as a whole received the seal of approval of Egyptian censors when it was originally submitted for review, a legal requirement in the country, and it has been being legally sold in bookstores for years — a fact notably being overlooked by the prosecutor.
CBLDF will share updates as more information becomes available.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!