Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian journalist, writer, and criminal. At least that’s what the Egyptian government thinks of him. Naji didn’t think of himself as a “Writer” with the capital “W” until 2016, when he was sentenced to two years in prison for obscenity and disturbing public morality after excerpts of his novel, Using Life, were published in an Egyptian literary magazine.
Fast-forward to today, and Naji has recently published a memoir of his time in prison: Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in Prison. While already published in Arabic, English readers will have to wait a bit longer for the full translation. In the interim, several chapters from Rotten Evidence were recently translated to English and published in Michigan Quarterly Review. He’s currently a fellow with the Black Mountain Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada, where he lives with his family.
I met with Naji near his home in downtown Las Vegas. We discussed his time in prison, the similarities between the United States and Egypt (particularly within the countries’ respective police forces), and the value of reading no matter where you are.
The Rumpus: It’s 2020, and this year has been a rollercoaster. What is the value of reading and writing in today’s age?
Ahmed Naji: As you can imagine, this past year, there’s all this amount of anxiety. I believe this is a huge problem for people’s mental health. I think fiction helps people get through hard times and it makes people feel that they are not alone, which is a huge problem that we are facing now. So sometimes it helps anxiety and that feeling of suffering.
The other thing, of course, is about how we can imagine a new life, and how we view the future and how we will handle it. Like, are we going to get out of this pandemic or not? People are starting to understand that we need imagination to be able to imagine our new life in the future, post-pandemic. A couple of weeks ago I met with a few writers and philosophers. We were discussing, “What does the pandemic tell us about our current world?”
Now we are positioned to reconsider the future of work, and whether we go back to work as we knew it. Also, what is the future of education? All these questions, people are arguing and debating. We’re all debating, writing, exchanging ideas, and following our imaginations of the future. I think this could lead to a better world.
Rumpus: You were talking about how the pandemic has influenced our work lives; how has it influenced your writing, and your writing process? Is your recent work more informed by the events of this year?
Naji: It hasn’t had a big impact, but I have some friends who basically deleted their work. I had a friend, for example, who sent me a first draft of a novel he was writing. It’s written in Arabic and set in Asia and Europe, and basically it’s a story about a group of people, a community, who design a virus. So, of course he was finishing the first draft, then all of a sudden the pandemic began and he’s like, “This doesn’t make any sense.” The reality was worse than what he had imagined. So, some writers had this issue. Suddenly, when (the pandemic) arrived, in the first couple of months, many writers were asking themselves, Is what I’m writing worthwhile; does this make any sense?
And the reader notices. You know, before this all happened we might be watching television or a movie and there would be a crowd scene. Today, the audience is thinking, Wow, this is so weird.
Rumpus: It seems so out of touch now.
Naji: Exactly. There are elements that you wouldn’t have minded before. For me, it hasn’t changed my life too much, but for my wife, she’s a lawyer. Her work is with American policymakers on international issues, so she’s very busy. And, we weren’t able to hire a babysitter. So, I’ve been spending more time with my daughter.
Rumpus: So what’s it been like being a stay-at-home dad? How are you balancing that with your writing?
Naji: There is no balance. I don’t regret it, but also, it is hard and sometimes painful, like most of the time I’m thinking, is it better to go through the pandemic alone or with family? Sometimes the three of us will be yelling at each other; sometimes one of us will get angry and leave the house. Even my young daughter, she will go and open the door and try to leave the house. But on the other hand, it would be very lonely without family. We only have each other; we don’t have any family here in Las Vegas so we are stuck together. In general, I have to say we’re very lucky to be in Vegas. We are very lucky to have the Black Mountain Institute fellowship. We have received so much support during such a hard time.
Rumpus: You’ve published Rotten Evidence in Arabic, and you’re working on getting the English translation out. Can you tell us what it was like writing about your experience in prison? How do you approach something like that?
Naji: When I got out of the prison, I didn’t want to write about it at first, because I hate prison literature. There is an element of hypocrisy in it: people will write about prison like it’s an achievement and like it requires courage. I didn’t have this sense. I don’t like that.
The other [issue I have] is there is an element of documenting the history, especially the history of writing in the prison. Which also I don’t like. There’s also another element, where the writer will enter the prison and not write about the experience, but write about other cellmates. They’ll do that because those writers will come from the middle class, bourgeoisie, and they will have to interact with people from different social classes. That’s also something I don’t like.
Rumpus: What did you want to write about and set out to document, then?
Naji: So, when I started writing about [my time in prison], I made a couple of promises not to go down that path: I’m not writing about my cellmates; I’m not writing about the history. I made the focus on reading and writing inside the prison, and then the court case. I entered the prison and I was in a cell that was full of sixty or so cellmates. The size of this cell was the size of this coffee shop. And you enter there and you find everyone is reading. Most of [the inmates] had never opened a book before. But they didn’t have anything else to do, so everyone is reading to pass the time.
As a writer and because since I was eighteen years old I had been working as a journalist, I had been surrounded by journalists and other writers. And among journalists, we always talk about the “regular, normal reader.” But we never met him. But suddenly you are sitting in the prison next to people who you would describe as a “normal” reader. The way they read and the way they interacted with me was very interesting.
I remember, for example, an old guy in his fifties came to me holding a book by Dostoevsky, and he said to me, “Do you have any other books by this guy? He’s so funny. He is hilarious.” I said, “What? You think he’s hilarious?” and he’s like “Yeah, he’s so funny.” I asked him why; this was the first time I had heard someone talk about Dostoevsky as funny. He told me, “Well, his books are always full of clowns, there are always misunderstandings that create problems; there are many people who are stupid, or acting stupid.” And I slowly started to discover, yes, Dostoevsky is very funny, in fact. But as an intellectual among intellectuals who talks about Dostoevsky, I would say “No, he’s analyzing human psychology and blah blah blah.” So, there are people there that don’t have the cultural history that I have. They’re reading Dostoevsky, they would not be able to pronounce his name, but they know him as a funny guy.
And of course, I was in prison because of my writing. And so I doubted what I should do, like is it worth it? Am I going to continue on this path? Am I a writer, or not? It was a transforming period also in that way. The discussion and the debate and the case… that’s basically what the book’s about.
Rumpus: I’m sure you did plenty of reading in prison, but what books really made an impression on you? What other books did you end up thinking about in a different way?
Naji: I read a lot of books. It was a year where I had time to read a lot of books because there was nothing else to do. I had time to read a lot of Arabic classics. Like books from writers who died a thousand years ago.
But there is an accident that happened there. I was doubting what I was doing as a writer and whether it was worth it. So we had a guy in our cell who was a horrible person. A monster. Like, he really didn’t have any feelings. I woke up at around 3 a.m. and went to the bathroom and I found him standing in the bathroom and crying. This was the first time not only to see him crying, but really seeing him showing any emotion. So, I was shocked; why was he crying? I went to him and asked him, “Are you okay? Did something happen?” And he said “No, no, I’m fine, nothing happened. I just am overwhelmed. Have you read this novel?”
He mentioned a romantic teenage novel popular in Egypt. And I was like no, I didn’t read it, and I don’t think I will. And he was like, “No, you have to read it; it touched my heart. I left the book on my bed because every time I look at the cover of the book, I cry.” He told me I had to read it. Of course I couldn’t; I understand why he liked it, but it’s not good literature.
It made me think. This guy framed a family member for the theft of millions of dollars, but he never showed any emotion. Now he’s reading a novel and he got very, very emotional. He was crying. So I started to think, what’s hidden in these books? How come a monster like this guy could be crying because he’s reading? This question was one of the reasons I decided to become a writer. Until I entered the jail, I didn’t see myself as a writer.
Rumpus: Really? Why is that?
Naji: I always thought of myself as a journalist, filmmaker, community member, family member. Belly-dancer agent. A year before entering the prison I was making a career shift because journalism was getting hard in Egypt. So I was moving to another career to start working as a promoter and an agent for belly dancers.
Rumpus: Oh, wow. That’s a shift. Why that?
Naji: It seemed like we were totally losing after the Egyptian revolution and I knew that the institution was going to be worse and worse, so working as a journalist would be more dangerous. The other option would be to leave the country, and I didn’t want to leave the country. I tried to leave before, and I lived in Germany for a year. I didn’t like it.
So, I needed to find another job. And it happened that I used to love the nightlife and I had friends who were belly dancers. It came suddenly. I had a friend who was an engineer, a woman, and she suddenly decided to become a belly dancer. Back then I was helping a friend of mine who was an advertising agent, and he said come and work with me, come and work in branding. I did that for a couple of months before the court case and going to jail. And suddenly the work started to come.
Rumpus: Were you able to get used to doing that work before going to prison, or was it quite a shift?
Naji: No, actually it made sense more than talking about ideology and political ideas. For me, it was working fine with my nihilistic approach to life back at this time.
Rumpus: Do you think you’re still a nihilist, or a bit more optimistic now?
Naji: No, I think since prison I’m more optimistic. Because I have been through the worst. For example, since we came here, they denied my petition for a green card twice, because the Trump administration keeps making everything hard. We received our second denial a couple of weeks ago; of course, we paid a lot of money and it consumes a lot of time.. Until now I’ve paid almost twelve thousand dollars without getting anything. Me and Yasmin (my wife) are waiting to see what happens in November. If Trump wins, we definitely are thinking of leaving. Because if Trump wins, it doesn’t make sense to stay. I’m thirty-five years old. I’ve been fighting against fascist dictatorship regimes, so I’m not coming here to continue. We have seen the worst. What else can happen? Civil war, as many of my American friends are talking about right now, or what else will happen. Yasmin was asking me what is the worst-scenario if Trump wins? I said, “I think in the first two years he will try and put us in concentration camps. But even though, we would be able to flee out of the country!”
Rumpus: Do you miss Egypt? Because you had said you didn’t like living in Germany, when you left the country before.
Naji: No, I didn’t say I missed it. I said I wanted to leave. It wasn’t about missing Egypt. I don’t miss it so much. Sometimes, I will have some nostalgia for some foods, or the beaches, of course. My friends, most of them aren’t living there either; they’re in my same position and living all over the world. Some of them are still there, but the rest are all over Europe. In general, I am a person who stands against nostalgia. I’m not a big fan of nostalgia. Even if I had the feeling, I would make fun of myself.
Rumpus: I remember that there’s a line in your novel Using Life, from its protagonist, Bassam, that has a lot of negative descriptors for Cairo (“a miserable, hideous, filthy, rotten, dark, oppressive, besieged, lifeless, enervating, polluted, overcrowded, impoverished, angry, smokefilled, simmering, humid, trashy, shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city”). Do you actually feel that way about Cairo? Do you feel like that about Egypt?
Naji: Yes, about Cairo. Cairo is the worst place in Egypt. Especially nowadays. Under the current regime, they are building a new capital in the middle of the desert and they are demolishing Cairo. So it’s getting worse and worse. It’s a horrible city and a great city at the same time. It’s a very old city, a very big city that has many layers.
Rumpus: Do you think you’ll keep writing about Egypt? Do you have more to say about it as a place and as a part of who you are?
Naji: I really don’t know. I know for sure I had this idea for a book, for a novel. I’ve had the idea for about ten years now. I believe every writer has their masterpiece in there. But I’m waiting for the perfect time to start working on it. I believe that all of it will happen in Egypt. But also, because we are here, my daughter is American. I wish I would be able to stay here and get a green card. But I also don’t want to end as a writer in exile living in one country and writing about another country. If I continue to write about Egypt, I am writing about an Egypt that only exists in my mind. I don’t know what Egypt is now. I follow the news and talk to friends, but it’s changing so fast.
So, I want to be able to find a ground here and make a connection with where I live. I hope, for example, I’m starting to work on my English language. I hope after a time, maybe ten years, to be able to write in English, to write fiction in English. But also, I’m interested to write about what I’m experiencing and witnessing. I was following the Black Lives Matter demonstrations this summer and I wrote articles about it. I want to find a position where I can establish a career here, and be able to have a dialogue with Americans.
Photograph of Ahmed Naji by Ahmed Abd Al-Fatah.