Journalist and novelist Ahmed Naje was referred to criminal court Saturday for Akhbar al-Adab’s publication of an excerpt of his novel The Use of Life (استخدام الحياة), which passed through the censor’s office in 2014 and has been on sale at major bookshops for a year:
Naje and Akhbar al-Adab editor-in-chief Tarek al-Taher were referred to a criminal court because of the chapter’s “obscene sexual content.” The chapter does indeed contain a description of sex and drug use, as do many contemporary Egyptian novels. The offending chapter six can be read online.
According to Mada Masr, the lawyer acting for Naje and al-Taher has said he will be allowed to access the case file at some point on Monday. “This will clarify when the case was filed and the court date, which the prosecutor verbally informed [the attorney] has been set for November 14,” Mada Masr reported.
Mada reported that Naje’s case falls under Law 59, Article 187, which covers defaming public morals. Naje’s attorney told the Associated Press that the author faces up to two years in jail or a fine up to 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1250) if found guilty.
During investigations, lawyers were apparently told that the lawsuit was filed by a citizen who said his heartbeat fluctuated, blood pressure dropped, and he became severely ill upon reading the chapter in the magazine. The public prosecutor then decided the case was worth taking up.
Joe Rizk of Dar al-Tanweer, which published the novel, said this attack follows a common pattern: A book is available for some time, and then a conservative notices “offensive” content within and files a complaint. Novelist Youssef Rakha also pointed out that the novel exerpt is being positioned as an “article”: “the idea is, these laws apply to ‘articles’ published in newspapers, not books.”
Naje, meanwhile, wrote in a Facebook statement on Sunday that the text is a work of fiction, not an article.
Naje’s novel, which was published last year, is a hybrid work: part prose fiction, part graphic novel. The visuals were done by Ayman El-Zorkany, and have been displayed in art spaces in Alexandria and Cairo without any apparent fuss.
The Use of Life had already met a standard different from novels published inside Egypt. Because it was printed in Lebanon by Dar al-Tanweer, it had to be imported into Egypt, and thus has already received a pass from the Egyptian censor. However, Naje said on Twitter that this “doesn’t protect the book or any book from going to the court.”
The Use of Life is set in Cairo and shifts between the past, present, and future as it tells the story of Bassam, a man lost inside a “spiderweb of emotional frustration and failure.” Sex and sexuality is one of its core themes.
Akhbar al-Adab’s chief editor Tarek al-Taher apparently told prosecutors during questioning “that he only reviewed the title of the story, without reviewing the whole text,”Egypt Independent reported. Al-Taher reportedly added “that he would not have published it had he read it.” Al-Taher was additionally charged with not meeting his duties as an editor-in-chief.
This is hardly the first such case. The first graphic novel to be published in Egypt, Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro (2008), was banned on the grounds that it “offended public morals”: the police raided the Malameh publishing house, confiscated all copies of the book, and banned Malameh from printing further copies. Al-Shafee and publisher Mohammed al-Sharkawi were both charged under article 178 and each fined 5,000 LE. It took five years before the graphic novel was republished and made available in Egypt once again.
Many Arab writers posted notes of solidarity, including Emirati journalist Sultan Sooud al-Qassemi. On Twitter, Egyptian novelist Muhammad Aladdin sardonically congratulated Naje, while popular Egyptian cartoonist Andeel drew a single-panel cartoon in support of Naje, and the artist Ganzeer tweeted drolly that “Ahmed Naje’s writing is apparently okay in novel but too sexually explicit for newspaper.” Youssef Rakha was the most sober, suggesting that it “feels like a war on Arabic literature, which is very frustrating.”
I have a piece on the Al Fanar site looking at the problems scholars face conducting research on sensitive topics (which can be almost any topic) in the middle east. After hopes were raised of greater access to and circulation of information after the Arab Spring, academics seem to be facing more repression than ever now. Foreign scholars are worried about getting in trouble or losing access to the countries they study. But I came across some cases of young scholars persevering in their work under extreme circumstances.
Lynch says he knows many scholars working “under the radar” and respects their decision to do so. Some have gone to extraordinary lengths. A European Ph.D. student who requested anonymity has been working in Egypt since 2010, researching labor relations. In 2012 he was questioned by the security services and told to “choose another country.”
The young researcher went on visiting a factory town, hiding in the back seat of a rented car when it passed police roadblocks on the way there. But “It’s been tricky to make new contacts,” he says. “People are extremely afraid of talking.” He also suffers from “the mental part of all this—the stress and anxiety and the feeling you’re a criminal when you’re not.”
“I’ve wondered every day if it was worth it,” he says. But “you don’t want to risk being excluded from the one place where you’ve invested so much time and effort, the geographical focus of all your academic endeavors.”
It’s hard to measure the extent to which Middle East specialists face intimidation because many prefer not to draw attention to any difficulties they have. “When a scholar gets into trouble, he or she thinks: if I can cast it differently, if I do it in a different country etc,” says Brown.