‘Literature’ is on Trial in Egypt

By Teresa Pepe, Postdoctoral fellow, IKOS

In August 2014, an Egyptian citizen, named Hānī Salāh Tawfīq, came across the issue n.1097 of the literary magazine ʾAkhbār al-ʾAdab, and upon reading the pages included in the section ʾIbdāʿ (Creativity), he declared that ‘his heartbeat fluctuated, his blood pressure dropped, and he became severely ill’. In October 2015, after one year and three months from the journal publication, Tawfiq went to court and  filed a case against the author of the text, the Egyptian novelist and journalist Ahmad Nājī and against the journal Editor in chief, Tāriq al-Tāhir, accusing them of having published a “sexual article” (maqālah jinsīyah) that harms not only his health and his moral, but also the moral of entire Egypt!

The text in question is a chapter from Ahmed Nājī’s last novel, ʾIstikhdām al-Hayāh (The Use of Life, 2014), as was specified on the literary magazine. It contains explicit sexual content, as many works of Arabic literature do.[1] On the 14th of November, Nājī and al-Tāhir will have to defend themselves and the novel in front of a criminal court. The author faces up to two years in jail or a fine up to 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1250) if found guilty, as the charge falls under Law 59, Article 187, which covers defaming public morals (khadsh hayāʾ al-mujtamaʿ). The editor Tāhir is also accused of not living up to his responsibilities as the editor-in-chief of ʾAkhbār al-ʾAdab, since he told the prosecution that he did not read the chapter in question before allowing its publication.

Figure 1 Cover of Ahmad Nājī ‘s novel Istikhdām al-Hayāh, Dār Tanwīr, Beirut, 2014

In a Facebook status, Nājī explained that the accusation assumes that the text published is an article (maqālah), and not part of a novel (riwāyah), and therefore a work of literature (adab). They have failed to understand the difference between a piece of journalism (supposedly based on true events) and a work of fiction (based on imagination). Therefore, they have attributed the harmful thoughts and actions of the novel’s protagonist, Bassam Bahgat, to the author himself.

The chapter under accusation is actually narrated in first person (it can be read here). It recounts a normal day in the life of the 23-year old Bassam, spent in the alienating city of Cairo. In a city that never sleeps, rather ‘branches out’

( tatashaʿʿab) and ‘erupts’ (tandaliʿ) Bassam finds consolation among his group of friends, with whom he spends the night smoking hashish, drinking alcohol, listening to music and talking about sexual fetishes. This group of friends appears to him as the only gift he has received from the capital. The day after, Bassam spends the day in the green and calm neighborhood of Zamalek with his beloved, Lady Spoon, as he likes to call her because of the earrings she wears. She is described as an Egyptian Christian woman, educated abroad, 9 years older than he who has decided to live the rest of her life in Egypt, but has lost any faith in the men of her age. The island of Zamalek and the comfort of her house are like a shelter inside the unstable city of Cairo. The chapter culminates with a graphic and poetic description of their sexual intercourse. It ends with Bassem surrounded again by his friends, staring at the sunset from the top of Moqattam hills.

Using a 19th century jargon, the prosecutor describes the chapter as a “lustful written material,” and accuses Nājī of using his mind and pen for “malicious” purposes in “violation of the sanctity of public morals”. The accusation disregards the fact that the novel had already received a pass from the Egyptian censor, since it had been printed in Lebanon by Dar al-Tanwīr, before it was exported to Egypt.

Nājī’s novel is not the first Egyptian book to be taken to court on charge of spreading immorality. In 2008, the author Magdy al-Shafee experienced a similar accusation following the publication of his graphic novel Metro. The author and his publishers were forced to pay 5,000 EGP (625$) in fine. Metro was confiscated and prevented from publication until only two years ago (2013, the news is available here).

However, the news of Nājī’s trial immediately reminded me of a text included in the BA course Middle Eastern Literature History at the University of Oslo, which I used to teach with prof. Stephan Guth.

The text is the account of the trial of the Lebanese author Layla Baalbaki in 1964.[1] Like Nājī , Baalbaki had been accused of having published explicit sexual content in her book “Safīnat hanān ilā al-qamar” (A Spaceship of Tenderness to The Moon, 1964)[2]. Just like in Nājī’s case, Baalbaki’s novel had been published nine months before, after the author had obtained lawful permission of printing and publishing it. However, following the accusation, the book was confiscated (Nājī’s novel is still available).

After more than fifty years, the account of Baalbaki’s trial, written in an arid juridical jargon, can still highlight some important issues concerning the work of literature, the meaning of fiction, and the challenges faced by writers in the Arab world. It raises some points that should be mentioned in defence of Nājī, as an author, and in defence of literature and creativity in general.

It is worth noticing that Layla Baalbaki’s defense lawyer, ‘Salim’, obtained a support letter from a committee made of well-known Lebanese intellectuals, who were asked to read the novel and the rest of Baalbaki’s works before the trial. Salim argued that such a committee would be able to explain better than him “that the work under discussion is a work of literature; that its goal is to elevate literature in general, and its aims are as far as possible from arousing sexual desire in the reader and thus harming public morality” (p.282). Among the points raised by the defense lawyer and the committee during the trial, the first concerns the role of writers and the nature of literary writing:

I would like to remind the court that the defendant is a serious writer. What is a writer? A person who tries to communicate his/her thoughts and emotions to other people through the medium of words. The author, or writer, is in a sense a camera, but one which photographs life with words, creating pictures in which we may see her thoughts and feelings clearly (p.284).

In this passage, the lawyer explains that writers of literature are endowed with a special sensibility that allows them to decipher and depict the surrounding reality for their readers. Unlike the journalist, whose writing is based on factual, reliable truth, the writers of literature write about an emotional, subjective truth, based on ‘thoughts’, ‘feelings’ and ‘emotions’. Indeed, in the chapter under accusation, Ahmed Nājī, far from giving us detailed information about character, focuses on his/Bassem’s emotions and feelings while he wanders in the city of Cairo. The description of the sexual intercourse is depicted in a realistic manner, a mode of writing that has been dominant in most of Arabic literary production since the beginning of the XX century.[3] Nājī, just like Baalbaki does in the passage under accusation, gives acts and emotions their accurate names in order to actualize the idea he is presenting. But an accurate reading shows that the passage is not meant at arising sexual desires. Rather, it shows that sexuality is experienced as a refuge from the bustling and chaotic city of Cairo, which tends to erase any trace of humanity. Sexuality is experienced also as a liberating act of freedom, in a society permeated by a repressive and conservative attitude towards the body.  Indeed, Bassam ruminates: In this city the lucky ones who overcome the phase of sexual repression find themselves in a situation in which sex is only a small component of friendship. Otherwise, sex becomes an obsession (my translation).  

Nājī is speaking not only in his name, or in his fictional character’s name, but is depicting the condition of a large part of Egyptian youth who struggle to survive in this capital. Bassem reflects on the fact that if you look at Cairo from above, you will see that ‘human beings appear like ants that buy, sell and pee while the production wheel does never stop’. But, standing on his feet amongst the crowd, he feels as ‘a small rat entrapped in the production wheel’, unable to go out of his cage, and not even perceiving the consequence of his own movements.

This feeling of loss and alienation in the city and in society in general appears often in Nājī’s literary work. Indeed, it is present also in his previous novel, Rogers, that recounts the life of the young protagonist Roger through flashback, descriptions of hallucinations induced by alchohol, hashish, and mixed with the lyrics of Pink Floyd’s album The Wall. The same theme can be also found in his autofictional blog Wassiʿ Khayālak-ʿIš kaʾannak talʿab (Widen Your Imagination. Live as if you were playing).  In this blog, Nājī , adopting the fictional name Iblīs (Diabolos, the Devil), tempts the readers to enlarge their imagination and join him in a world inhabited by spaceships and whales, where he sits beside Trotsky, Jonny Cash and the Egyptian belly-dancer Samia Gamal. It is somehow ironic that Nājī chooses this title, and is then brought to court because his work is read as mere representation of reality.

Baalbaki’s lawyer goes on arguing:

“It is important, for the court, Your Honour, to look at the book in its entirety, rather than singling out two sentences in the work as representative and stating that these two sentences alone are harmful to public morality.” (p.284).

This seems to echo Saint Augustine’s claim, written over 1600 years ago with regard to scriptures, that meanings found in one part must be found congruous with meaning found in other part of the work. In other words, interpretations have to work for the whole text. [4] Likewise, René Wellek and Austin Warren, in their famous book Theory of Literature, argue that a literary work of art is a “highly complex organization of a stratified character with multiple meanings and relationship” that needs to be analysed in its entirety (p.17, 1949).

Indeed, by reading the work as a whole, one may understand that the novel is not only about sex and drug use. The Use of Life is a hybrid work between an ordinary novel (riwāya) and a graphic novel (riwāyah musawwarah), as it includes prose texts written by Nājī, and drawings by the Egyptian cartoonist Ayman Zurqany (some of them can be seen here). The story rotates around two main characters: Bassam, and the city of Cairo. Bassam is accompanied by his group of friends, the secret “Society of Urbanists,” who aim at radically transforming the capital.  Among is enemies, we find Ihab Hassan, the Egyptian postmodern writer and the magician Paprika, which again shows that the novel plays with surrealism, and pop culture (a more detailed analysis of the novel is provided by Elisabetta Rossi, translator of the novel into Italian, here.

Baalbaki’s lawyer concludes his defense, arguing that:

The concept of public morality must also be discussed, as the Lebanese legislation does not give a detailed definition of public morality, rather it is subject to change and development according to the time. They are subject to change and development also according to the writer’s time (p.287).

In the course of the past year, the Egyptian government has launched a campaign against homosexuals, Shi’as, and belly dancers among others, who have been subject to detention and prosecution, all in the name of defending ‘public morality’. In a discussion held by the Egyptian Organization for Personal Rights in August 2015, the researcher Amr Ezzat pointed out that in the debates following the citizens’ arrest and prosecution, the expression ‘public moral’ is recurrent, but used in a very vague manner. Nājī’s case, once again, brings attention to the ambiguous meaning of this word, at a time when sex scenes and pornography abound on the Internet and TV but are not admitted in a novel.  Besides, an accusation referring to public moral must define what is meant by ‘morality’ in a time when the military regime transgresses the most basic human rights and continues to target and persecute journalists, artists, political activist and in general the young generation that has lead the January uprisings in 2011.

Let me end with pointing out that Layla Baalbaki was finally declared innocent and the confiscated books were returned back to their owners.  However, following the tormenting legal process, she almost disappeared from the literary scene, privileging journalism, instead.

Nājī will have to wait until the 14th of November to see how the trial will evolve. In the meanwhile, authors from the entire Arab world are showing their support in form of facebook status, blog posts, articles and using the ashtag ‘ana mutadāmun maʿ ‘ (in support of) Ahmad Nājī.

This blogpost was first printed at Mada Masr in the morning October 13. Reprinted at the NewMe-blogg with their permission.

[1] The text is included in the book Middle Eastern Women Speak, ed. by E. W.  Fernea and B. Q. Bezirgan, 1977.

[2] The questioning concerned two sentences:

He lay on his back, his hand went deep under the sheet, pulling my hand and putting it on his chest, and then his hand travelled over my stomach…

He licked my ears, then my lips, and he roamed over me. He lay on the top of me and whispered that he was in ecstasy and that I was fresh, soft dangerous, and that he missed me a lot.

[3] See Selim S., “The Narrative Craft: Realism and Fiction in the Arabic Canon”, Edebiyat, Journal of M.E. Literature, vol. 14, issue 1-2, 2003.

[4] For more on the wholeness of narrative fiction see H.P. Abbot, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative Fiction, 2008.

[1] For a more detailed account of the topic see: Love and Sexuality in Modern Arabic Literature, ed. R. Allen & H. Kilpatrick, London: Saqi Books, 1994.