On Saturday, an Egyptian court will decide whether novelist Ahmed Naji is a threat to public morals. But first, they had to literally separate fact from fiction.
Naji published a chapter containing scenes of sex and drugs in an upcoming novel, The Use of Life, in Egypt’s biggest arts magazine, and prosecutors thought he was delivering a first-person account of drugs and sex.
“The prosecutor doesn’t understand the concept of the novel, so he’s dealing with it as if it’s a personal confession,” said the 30-year-old novelist. “So for them, it’s not the main character of the novel, it’s Ahmed Naji who was having sex using a condom and smoking hash.”
Naji’s case is a good example of the Egyptian legal system’s propensity to enable busybodies. Suits by random lawyers are broadly defined and based on public interest, like changing Father’s Day to coincide with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s birthday.
But the most infamous are Hisba suits, which allow third parties to sue to protect society’s understanding of right and wrong. Egypt may have a secular government, but prudes staff its institutions and other moralists can take advantage of the system.
All of that applies here. Naji’s book had already passed by Egyptian government censors, but it didn’t make it past a lawyer who felt scandalized when he read the paragraph of sex and drugs. He got so worked up, the lawyer alleges, that his blood pressure dropped and he became ill.
So the lawyer, Hani Salah Tawfiq, brought charges of harming public morals against Naji and his editor-in-chief, who was also charged with negligence for letting such content pass through. The young author could be fined close to $1,300 and go behind bars for up to two years.
Naji isn’t concerned though, and his indifference and a highbrow confidence show it. Dressed in all black with a chevron mustache, he ate dinner at a Cairo kebab restaurant discussing his case before an art talk.
“They are ignorant,” Naji said of the prosecutors. “They find this kind of case involving media or journalists as a good opportunity for them to appear as a guard of public morals and to get some attention.”
Naji didn’t go to his court sessions, which force defendants to stand in a cage and don’t exactly imply innocent until proven guilty. When President Mohamed Morsi went on trial after being ousted, he would yell through the bars, so the authorities encased it in glass—another indication of the rights of the accused provided in Cairo. So instead, Naji sat a coffee shop and let lawyers do the talking.
Naji’s lawyers brought on Sonallah Ibrahim, the doyen of Egypt’s old nationalist left, as an expert witness, and prosecutors responded by asking him to read the passages in question.
Egyptian courts are no stranger to absurdity like this. In fact, one of Ibrahim’s books is about an absurd court in an Egyptian retelling of Kafka’s The Trial. He refused, and so did the head of the Cairo’s writer’s union, whose testimony explained to the court the difference between fiction and non-fiction and why a bare-breasted painting is not pornographic. Naji isn’t sure if the court gets the nuance.
The magazine that published the excerpt, Akhbar al-Adab, is not a stranger to political struggles, despite being publicly owned. Naji has been working there since he was 18. After refusing to work with a pro-Mubarak editor before the 2011 revolution and going on an outright strike against another editor, whom he later described as a Muslim Brotherhood shill after it, he finally fell into a rhythm with the new editor.
They didn’t think twice about publishing the chapter containing the sex scene. The chapter, after all, is pretty vanilla and quotidian, as far as sex in literature goes.
Naji and his lawyers also believe that there could be a connection with the military government’s effort to up its moral credentials. Naji got calls from one newspaper reporter telling him that the prosecutor leaked court documents to him. Sisi recently approved forming a national council for morals, and specifically named cultural and literary sectors as part of its purview.
But it’s hard to tell in Egypt as to what motivates what writers and novelists like Naji see as obvious repression. A lot of institutions don’t talk and sometimes go rogue to make arrests or issue warrants. Connecting the dots between attacks on art or basic freedom of speech is difficult.
Just this week an art gallery and a major publisher were both raided in Cairo. What immediate threat they posed to the regime isn’t obvious and the Cairene cultural scene has been reeling, trying to make sense of it.
As for the lawyer that brought the case against Naji, the writer’s lawyer doesn’t mince words.
“He is a stupid man.”