Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji will be tried a third time for “harming public morality” with an excerpt from his book Use of Life which was reprinted in Akhbar al-Adab newspaper in 2014. Naji was previously convicted and sentenced to two years in prison last year; he served 10 months of the sentence before his conviction was vacated and a retrial ordered.
Use of Life (also referred to as Using Life) is an experimental work that incorporates visual elements, including comics drawn by Ayman al-Zorkany. The book’s protagonist, Bassam, is a young man living in a fictionalized Cairo that has been reshaped by a series of natural disasters. An English-language edition is available from University of Texas Press.
The criminal charge against Naji came after a 65-year-old reader claimed that the excerpt published in Akhbar al-Adab caused him to have heart palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, and severe illness because of its references to sex and drug use. The author was initially acquitted in January 2016, but a prosecution appeal resulted in a fine and the maximum prison sentence. In addition to Naji’s prison sentence, the newspaper’s editor Tarek el-Taher also received a fine equivalent to about $1,300.
Although Naji was released from prison pending a retrial in December 2016, last July he was informed that he is currently banned from traveling outside of Egypt “on the basis of a decision by the Attorney General.” This week the North Cairo Appeals Court decided that it has no jurisdiction in his case, and sent the charge back to criminal court where it will start over from the beginning.
Egypt’s constitution, just drafted in 2014 following the removal of dictator Hosni Mubarak, includes a clause guaranteeing freedom of expression. Nevertheless, the government under current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has continued to crack down on both journalists and creatives including visual artists, novelists, and even comedy writers for TV shows like Live from the Duplex, featuring the foul-mouthed puppet Abla Fahita.
Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.