Reader gets low blood pressure; writer goes to jail. A tale of the absurd, but also a tragedy.
I spent two years living in Egypt in the 1990s. I loved the country: its people, its food, its literature, its history. I made great friends and learned a lot. Alas, the government’s grip on the nation’s artists remain as tight as ever five years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak.
Ahmed Naji, a prodigious young writer, is in prison as a result of a sequence of events that sounds like an episode from one of his novels.
In 2014, a newspaper published an excerpt from his novel The Use of Life. The piece had been approved already by government censors even though it contained alcohol, sex and hashish. So far, so good. But later a 65-year-old reader filed a case against Naji, alleging that the excerpt had caused him heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure.
The case went to court, with the prosecutors arguing that Naji’s work constituted a “disease” that was destroying social values in Egypt. Naji and his lawyer said his novel consisted of nothing that wasn’t heard regularly on the streets of Cairo and seen in classical Arabic literature. Naji was acquitted.
However, the prosecutors then appealed to have the case tried at a higher court. This time Naji was sentenced to two years in prison in a ruling that contravenes the Egyptian Constitution: article 67 explicitly forbids the imprisonment of artists and writers.
According to PEN America, since 2014, when Abdel Fattah el-Sisi became President, Egypt has become more draconian in its treatment of artists, writers, journalists, and activists. Theaters and art galleries have been closed down and peaceful dissent suppressed. The Committee to Protect Journalists, an international watchdog and press freedom advocate, says that only China has jailed more journalists than Egypt in the last few years.
Bad news for writers and bad news for this great, great country that gave us Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfik el-Hakim, Alifa Rifaat, Leila Ahmed, and so many other great literary figures.