Ahmed Naji: “I Believe in Freedom of Expression”

Ahmed Naji

Ahmed Naji

Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji served nearly a year in prison for “violating public modesty” when an excerpt of his novel The Use of Life was published in a state-run newspaper. Now free, the writer draws inspiration from his experience.

“Before jail, I used to see myself mostly as a journalist and found it more difficult to be motivated. Now that is easier and has become a habit. I write fiction for two hours every day,” he told Walt Curnow for a recent interview in The Guardian.

The 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. 

A 65-year-old reader claimed that the excerpt published in Akhbar al-Adab newspaper caused him to have heart palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, and severe illness because of its references to sex and drug use. Naji was initially acquitted in January 2016, but a second trial resulted in a fine and the maximum prison sentence of 2 years. In addition to Naji’s prison sentence, the newspaper’s editor Tarek el-Taher also received a fine equivalent to about $1,300.

For several months, the Egyptian court system refused to release Naji as he went through the appeals process. He was finally freed on December 22, 2016, but he may ultimately end up serving the remainder of his sentence: he’s due to appear in court again in April for another appeal.

Naji doesn’t see himself as someone with a message, but he does recognize the importance of free expression. “I believe in the freedom of expression, freedom of thought and belief, as well as freedom of literary creativity,” he told Curnow. “There shouldn’t be any kinds of restraints on the mind.”

Read the entirety of Curnow’s interview here.

Previous CBLDF coverage of Ahmed Naji:

Help support CBLDF’s important First Amendment work in 2017 by visiting the Rewards Zonemaking a donation, or becoming a member of CBLDF!