Jailed Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji was included on a parliamentary committee’s list of recommended pardons sent to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi on Sunday, the same day that the next hearing in Naji’s appeal of a conviction for “violating public modesty” with an excerpt from his book Use of Life was adjourned until December 18.
Use of Life is an experimental work that incorporates visual elements, including comics drawn by Ayman al-Zorkany. A 65-year-old reader claimed that an excerpt printed in 2014 in the state-owned Akhbar al-Adab newspaper caused him to have heart palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, and severe illness because of its references to sexual acts and drug use. In addition to Naji’s prison sentence, the newspaper’s editor Tarek el-Taher also received a fine equivalent to about $1,300.
The list of proposed pardons was the second one released by the Egyptian parliament’s Detained Youth Committee, which Sisi established in October in an attempt to calm tensions with Egypt’s restive young people, who are angered by high unemployment, lack of educational opportunities, and attacks on free expression under his government. Although the lists are only recommendations for Sisi, he did approve the pardons of all 82 prisoners from the first round. The second list includes even more names, however, and currently only those who have exhausted all of their appeals are eligible for pardon. Naji does not fall into that category, so will apparently have to go through with his appeal hearing at the Court of Cassation next week in any case.
In an essay for the New York Review of Books last week, author Zadie Smith effused about Use of Life, which will be published in English by the University of Texas Center for Middle Eastern Studies in 2017. As she points out, Naji’s work is part of a wave of surreal and experimental art and literature that is currently flourishing in Egypt in the face of continued government repression:
He is part of a great creative renaissance in Cairo, of young novelists and poets, graphic novelists, and—perhaps most visibly—graffiti artists, who have turned the city’s ever increasing walls into a staging site for political protest and artistic expression. Since 2014, President Sisi has cracked down on this community, with new restrictions on the press and multiplying arrests of artists and writers, and yet the Egyptian constitution guarantees both artistic freedom and freedom of expression. Naji has been prosecuted instead on Article 178 of the Penal Code, which criminalizes ‘content that violates public morals.’
To bring attention to Naji’s case, and bring pressure on Sisi’s government, Smith encourages supporters worldwide to take part in English PEN’s #FreeNaji campaign through social media and direct contact with Egyptian authorities. Visit the campaign resource page here to take action for Ahmed Naji!
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Contributing Editor Maren Williams is a reference librarian who enjoys free speech and rescue dogs.