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Egyptian Writer Convicted of “Violating Public Modesty” Faces Final Appeal

Ahmed Naji is currently serving a two-year prison sentence, after a man claimed the author’s words made him sick.

Ahmed Naji (image via @oxist/Instagram)
Ahmed Naji (image via @oxist/Instagram)

The Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, who is currently serving a two-year prison sentence for “violating public modesty” with a work of fiction, will have his final appeal on December 4. He was charged in February, following accusations from an Egyptian man that reading Naji’s words in the 2014 book Istikhdam al-Haya (The Use of Life) had caused him to experience heart palpitations, sickness, and a drop in blood pressure. At Naji’s final hearing, on November 26, a judge rejected his request for a stay of execution of his sentence.

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Page from Ahmed Naji’s The Use of Life (2014), with illustrations by Ayman El Zorkany (image courtesy Ayman El Zorkany)

The complainant, 65-year-old Hani Saleh Tawfik, had read just an excerpt from The Use of Life, a graphic novel about a Cairo man caught in a “spider web of emotional frustration and failure.” According to Naji, the Egyptian censorship board had approved the publication, and the excerpt appeared in the literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab, whose editor received a fine of about $1,100 for his involvement.

Spanning one chapter, the excerpt includes descriptions of the narrator smoking hashish and enjoying alcohol and sex, such as in a scene that details the act of cunnilingus. The University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies, which reaffirmed its intention to publish the novel in English after news emerged of Naji’s imprisonment, has uploaded an unedited translation of the excerpt. A sample of the text reads as follows:

What are your typical twenty-somethings to do in Cairo? Might they go for pupil licking? Are they into eating pussy? Do they like to suck cock, or lick dirt, or snort hash mixed with sleeping pills? Or one might ask how long it would take for any of these fetishes to lose its thrill. Are they good for life? Everyone here has done lots of drugs, both during and after college. Yet here we all are, little islands unto ourselves, with no greater aspiration than to hang out together. We manage to stay alive by sucking our joy out of one another.

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Page from Ahmed Naji’s The Use of Life (2014), with illustrations by Ayman El Zorkany (image courtesy Ayman El Zorkany)

Naji was initially acquitted in a Cairo misdemeanor court in December 2015, but his prosecutor appealed the case. In a higher court, the prosecutor said the excerpt “spewed sexual lust and transient pleasures” and that Naji used “his mind and pen to violate public decency and good morals, inciting promiscuity.” He was sentenced under Article 178 of the Egyptian penal code, which says that anyone who makes or intends to publicly share an object or picture that is “against public morals” will be punished.

Yet, following Naji’s imprisonment, seven authors who helped pen Egypt’s constitution in 2014 signed a statement saying that the sentencing was unconstitutional. Article 67 of Egypt’s constitution, they argued, specifically guarantees “freedom of artistic and literary creation.” Naji also received support from over 500 Egyptian artists and writers, who published a statement condemning the court’s decision; they came to his defense “to raise the alarm about the terrible and terrifying path taken by the regime, a path that leads the entire country towards the abyss, through ‘assassinating’ the public space of expression and confiscating the political space.” Other examples of cultural crackdowns in Egypt since President el-Sisi took power in 2014 include the seizure of books on Egyptian street art by custom officials as well as the temporary shutdown of Townhouse Gallery (which partially collapsed this year) by authorities.

PEN America has been actively campaigning for Naji’s freedom, asking supporters, particularly in the days leading up to his final appeal, to spread his story with the hashtag #FreeNaji.  In May, the association honored him with its PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award.

Page from Ahmad Naji's 'The Use of Life' (2014), with illustrations by Ayman El Zorkany (image courtesy Ayman El Zorkany)
Page from Ahmed Naji’s The Use of Life (2014), with illustrations by Ayman El Zorkany (image courtesy Ayman El Zorkany)
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Page from Ahmed Naji’s The Use of Life (2014), with illustrations by Ayman El Zorkany (image courtesy Ayman El Zorkany)
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