Last month, a member of Egypt Solidarity Initiative, a website that promotes the defence of democratic rights, contacted Literary Review asking for help in highlighting the case of a prominent Egyptian novelist and journalist. On 20 February 2016, Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in prison for ‘violating public modesty’. The charges relate to his novel Istikhdam al-Haya (‘The Use of Life’), a hybrid of a graphic novel and prose fiction, which was published by Beirut-based Dar al-Tanweer in 2014. The story is narrated by Bassam, a man lost inside a ‘spider web of emotional frustration and failure’, and sex is a major theme.
As with any book printed abroad, Istikhdam al-Haya had to be approved by the Publications Censorship Authority before any copies were permitted to enter Egypt. The book was subsequently serialised in Akhbar al-Adab, an Egyptian literary journal. Chapter Six contains several descriptions of sex and drug use, including the following passage (translated by Benjamin Koerber):
In her apartment, we smoked a joint of hash … I planted a kiss, soft as a butterfly, on her thinly lined underwear and pulled it away with my hands. I plunged my tongue into her pussy. I drank a lot that night. I drank until I felt thirsty. I gave her a full ride with my tongue before she took me into her room, where we had slow and leisurely sex. She turned over, and I put my fingers in her mouth. Wet with her saliva, I stuck them in her pussy. Slipping and sliding. I stuck them in from behind. I grabbed her short hair and pulled it towards me. I humped her violently and then lay on top of her for a few seconds. I got out of bed and threw the condom into the trash.
It wasn’t until 31 October 2015 that a complaint was lodged at the Criminal Court by a reader in relation to the book’s content. Naji, together with Tarek el-Taher, editor of Akhbar al-Adab, was charged with publishing ‘obscene sexual content’ and ‘defaming public morals’ under Article 178 of the penal code, which provides a punishment of up to two years’ imprisonment and a fine for making, holding, distributing, leasing, pasting or displaying ‘printed matter, manuscripts, drawings, advertisements, carved or engraved pictures, manual or automatic photographic drawings, symbolic signs or other objects or pictures in general, if they are against public morals’. El-Taher was also charged with failing to carry out his duties as an editor.
Naji was originally acquitted at a hearing on 2 January this year. However, the prosecution appealed the decision and he was sentenced the following month to two years’ imprisonment by a court in Cairo. The court argued that Article 67 of the constitution, which guarantees freedom of artistic and literary creativity, was not intended to protect those involved in ‘corrupting morals with their poisoned pens under the guise of freedom of thought’. The court also fined el-Taher approximately £870. Naji was reportedly detained at the hearing and immediately transferred to prison. His lawyers have requested that the sentence be suspended until they file a last appeal.
Human rights and freedom of expression in Egypt have deteriorated in recent years. Daniel Calingaert, executive vice-president of independent watchdog Freedom House, claims: ‘The Egyptian government’s current campaign of repression is a wide-ranging and brutal assault on the fundamental rights of Egyptians, which surpasses the scale of repression under former President Hosni Mubarak. It has decimated the political opposition, crushed civil society, and muzzled a range of independent voices.’ Amnesty International’s annual report for 2015 states: ‘Detainees faced torture and other ill-treatment. Courts handed down hundreds of death sentences and lengthy prison sentences after grossly unfair mass trials. There was a critical lack of accountability; most human rights violations were committed with impunity … People were arrested and tried on charges of “debauchery” for their perceived sexual orientation or gender identity.’ PEN has been monitoring many cases of writers and journalists who have been jailed solely for exercising their right to freedom of expression, association and assembly. Last year, there was also a crackdown on cultural organisations, including several raids on a publishing house and an art gallery.
Over five hundred Egyptian writers and artists, including Ahdaf Soueif and Alaa al-Aswany, have signed a statement expressing solidarity with Naji. Readers can add their names in support by visiting http://egyptsolidarityinitiative.org/open-up-the-public-space-solidarity-with-egyptian-writers-protest/
Readers might also like to send appeals expressing concern at the conviction and sentencing of author Ahmed Naji; calling for his immediate and unconditional release; and urging the Egyptian authorities to release all other writers and journalists currently detained in Egypt in connection with the peaceful exercise of their right to freedom of expression in accordance with Article 19 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Egypt is a state party.
Appeals to be addressed to:
His Excellency Nasser Kamel
Embassy of the Arab Republic of Egypt
26 South Street
London W1K 1DW
Fax: +44 20 7491 1542
His Excellency President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi
Office of the President
Al Ittihadia Palace
Arab Republic of Egypt
Fax: +202 2 391 1441
Ahmed Ali Ibrahim el-Zend
Ministry of Justice
Arab Republic of Egypt