If you were thrown in jail for writing, would you succumb to cynicism, or would you keep pushing forward? When Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji was imprisoned, it made him believe more in the power of literature.
In an unprecedented trial, Naji was fined $1,000 and sentenced to two years in prison in 2016 after Akhbar al-Adab, a state-run literary magazine, published an excerpt from his 2014 novel The Use of Life. Following the publication, a male complainant stepped forward, accusing Naji and Akhbar al-Adab of causing him "heart palpitations, sickness, and a drop in blood pressure." Naji was initially acquitted; one month later, the chapter, which contains descriptions of sex and hashish-smoking, was considered enough by a higher court to convict Naji of violating "public morality."
Naji's book, which takes place in an alternate Cairo, one that is grubby and bleak and flattened by a series of natural disasters, centers around Bassam, a young man trying desperately to make connections in this landscape. A uniting force throughout the cast of postmodern characters is, perhaps unsurprisingly, sexuality - why you engage in it, who you engage in it with, what it means, and what it does not.
As word spread about Naji's plight, over 600 Arab and Egyptian writers, artists, thinkers and activists stepped forward to call for his release. Several prominent Western creatives, including Patti Smith and Zadie Smith, spoke out as well. Zadie Smith was particularly significant for Naji; he had been reading an Arabic translation of her novel On Beauty when he heard word of her support.
Naji is currently out on appeal; after over 300 days in jail, he was released on Dec. 22, 2016. Though he has spoken very little about his time behind bars ("Jail is jail," he told The Guardian), the outpouring of support, and the legacy of writers castigated for "vulgarity," from Kerouac and Ginsberg to Egyptian writer Sonallah Ibrahim, has made Naji believe even more in the power of literature. “Before jail, I used to see myself mostly as a journalist and found it more difficult to be motivated," he said to The Guardian. "Now that is easier and has become a habit. I write fiction for two hours every day.”
Though Naji faces the possibility of returning to jail (his next court date is set for April), he remains unfazed in his belief that he is part of something greater - greater than censorship, greater than nationalism. He is part of a legacy. He is part of something powerful.