In a letter sent this week to Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, PEN America and more than 120 writers and artists from around the world demanded the release of novelist Ahmed Naji, currently sentenced to two years in prison for “violating public modesty” with an excerpt from his book Use of Life. Meanwhile, supporters will gather in cities around the world today for public solidarity readings of the excerpt.
Use of Life is an experimental work that incorporates visual elements, including comics drawn by Ayman al-Zorkany. The excerpt printed in 2014 in Akhbar al-Adab newspaper included references to sexual acts and drug use, and the 65-year-old reader who brought the charges against Naji claimed that it caused him heart palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, and severe illness. In addition to Naji’s prison sentence, the newspaper’s editor Tarek el-Taher also received a fine equivalent to about $1,300.
Naji will receive PEN America’s annual Freedom to Write Award in absentia on May 16. The letter sent to Sisi this week was signed by a long list of luminaries including Margaret Atwood, Philip Roth, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Dave Eggers, Patti Smith, and Stephen Sondheim. After consultation with Naji and his lawyers, the letter asks not for a pardon which would only benefit him, but for a change in the law that allowed him to be charged in the first place. Egypt’s 2014 constitution guarantees freedom of artistic expression, but is contradicted by a pre-existing law, Article 178 of the Penal Code which criminalizes “content that violates public morals.”
For the international solidarity readings, the Use of Life excerpt has been translated into nine languages including English. (An English translation of the entire novel is reportedly forthcoming from University of Texas Press.) In the U.S., gatherings are planned in the Bronx, Brooklyn, Boston, San Francisco, Chapel Hill, Philadelphia, Austin (TX), Claremont (CA), and Washington, D.C. More details can be found at the Naji support blog set up by ArabLit.org founder Marcia Lynx Qualey.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.