"My approach was to joke about prison"

In 2016, Egyptian journalist and writer Ahmed Naji was imprisoned for one year, because his writing allegedly "harmed public morals". His new book "Rotten Evidence" chronicles his journey to and through prison. Darkly humorous, Naji offers vivid insights into the cruel and mundane world of Egyptian prison.
In 2016, Egyptian journalist and writer Ahmed Naji was imprisoned for one year, because his writing allegedly "harmed public morals". His new book "Rotten Evidence" chronicles his journey to and through prison. Darkly humorous, Naji offers vivid insights into the cruel and mundane world of Egyptian prison.

In 2016, Egyptian author Ahmed Naji was imprisoned for one year, his writing allegedly "harming public morals". His new book "Rotten Evidence" chronicles his journey to and through prison. Darkly humorous, it offers vivid insights into the cruel and mundane world of Egyptian prison. Interview by Hannah El-Hitami

By Hannah El-Hitami

In your new book Rotten Evidence you write: "Until I went to prison, I never saw myself as a writer". You "decided to be a writer" after eight months in detention in Egypt. How did that happen?

Ahmed Naji: Before going to prison, I had already published two novels, but I saw myself as a journalist. I didn't consider myself a writer, because I thought this would be too much commitment and I found that overwhelming. But suddenly I was imprisoned for being a writer. When you are in prison you start to rethink everything. You ask yourself if what you did was worth going to prison for. I found the answer one night, when I woke at 2 a.m. to go to the bathroom and found one of my cell mates crying inconsolably. Usually, this guy was cold as ice, but now he could not stop weeping.

I asked what was wrong and he told me he was reading this book, some romantic novel for teenagers. He was so moved by it that just looking at the cover would remind him of certain sentences and make him cry more. "You have to read it!" he said. "It crushed my heart!" For days after he insisted I read the book. I tried – but I could not finish it because it was so bad. This incident convinced me, however, that there is a hidden power in fictional writing and literature – considering it was able to affect someone as cold-hearted as my cellmate.

Being imprisoned has become a very common experience

You were imprisoned seven years ago, from February to December 2016. Why is now the moment for you to publish a book dealing with your time in prison?

Naji: I didn't want to write about prison initially, because I am not a great fan of prison literature. But since 2013 there has been a huge crackdown on freedom of expression and political movements in Egypt. Being imprisoned has become a very common experience. Most families have a relative who has been through this experience in the past decade.

Cover of Ahmed Naji's "Rotten Evidence" (published in English by McSweeney's (source: publisher)
Genuine and defiant: how does one secure a steady supply of fresh vegetables without refrigeration? How does one write and revise a novel in a single notebook? Fight boredom? Build a clothes hanger? Negotiate with the chief of intelligence? And, most crucially, how does one make sense of a senseless oppression: finding oneself in prison for the act of writing fiction? Naji's book stands as a testament to the power of the creative mind, in the face of authoritarian censorship

Yet when I looked around for books talking about what is happening in prison, I was surprised not to find any. Some people write about their experience on Facebook, but that's it. So I decided to write a book after all. I began drafting some fragments in 2017 after my release. The Arabic version was published in Egypt in 2020.

I am surprised it was published in Egypt.

Naji: They did ban it from being exported, for example to the Gulf countries, which are a major market for Egyptian books. So we ended up making another Arabic edition that was published by Khan al-Janub in Berlin. I myself have been living in the United States since 2018.

When I moved here, I was suddenly surrounded by a community of artists and writers. I wanted to communicate with them and part of that is reading each other's work. I was really happy when translator Katharine Halls read the book, loved it and decided to translate it into English.

Why don't you like prison literature?

Naji: Egyptian prison literature is dominated by political narratives. You read Muslim Brotherhood prison literature and they are always emphasising their victimhood, because that is how they build their culture of revenge and violence.

Then you read leftist prison literature and there is a sense of heroism, sacrificing yourself for the cause and the nation. Both groups were incarcerated in the same prisons and yet they seem to be talking about totally different worlds. Political narratives create distortion.

Your position was not that of a political prisoner. You were detained for an absurd reason: because your writing allegedly triggered palpitations in an old man. How did that affect your position as a prisoner?

Naji: It was confusing, which is partly why I wrote this book. When you work as a journalist in Egypt, as I did, you expect to be detained for political reasons at some point. I was prepared for that. But my case was different than anything I had prepared myself for. When I entered the prison I wasn't categorised as a political prisoner. My category was obscenity. My cell mates were corrupt police officers, businessmen, multi-millionaires and foreigners smuggling drugs. The experience was not at all what I imagined it would be.

In Rotten Evidence, you describe the sense of camaraderie among cellmates, but also the agony of being constantly surrounded by people. What's it like to look back on that now?

Naji: Writing about my cellmates was the hardest part of the book. You live with these people, eat with them, sleep next to them. You have to take care of each other, even if there are fights or disagreements at times. In most prison literature, the writer is amazed by prison. He is in a place crowded with people from different backgrounds. But I did not want to create a gallery of exotic types. Nor did I want to look at them through the lens of officialdom, which sees them as criminals. So I did not focus too much on their cases, catching instead the moments of solidarity and love, of friendship and silly jokes.


In the book it sounds like you found them pretty annoying much of the time.

Naji: Well, I did not want to idolise them either. Not every prisoner is a hero. They are just humans. And of course we got annoyed with each other because we were locked in a cell together. If we hadn't irritated each other, we wouldn't have been human anymore.

Your book does not focus much on the horrors of prison, on torture and inhumane conditions. Day-to-day life is described with a dark sense of humour. Yet every now and then there is a scene that reminds the reader of the seriousness of detention in Egypt: inmates in a neighbouring cell banging on the door for hours, shouting that someone is dying; a body being carried away; the random humiliation and violence inflicted by the guards. How do you make sense of these two layers, the absurdly comical and the terrifying?

Naji: My approach was to joke about it. As I said, after my time in prison I noticed that there wasn't enough prison literature. At the same time, there are masses of texts by human rights organisations and sometimes the media documenting what goes on in Egyptian prisons. They have details of human rights violations and focus on that because the aim is legal action. I on the other hand was writing for myself and for the reader. Had I wanted to build a torture case, I would have gone to my lawyer, but I wanted to go beyond that. And I was very careful not to put myself in the position of the victim, especially while writing.

Every night, you wait for your dreams to come

In the book you write: "I made sure never to pity myself or bemoan my fate". I imagine that is quite difficult. How did you manage?

Naji: I just don't feel comfortable assuming either position: hero or victim. Even if I am a victim, writing for me is a means of liberating myself from this status.

You kept a dream journal in prison and dreams play an important role in the book. Why?

Naji: My mother had a strong connection with dreams. It was part of our family tradition. In the morning over breakfast we would share our dreams and she would interpret them and sometimes make decisions based on them. So I already had that connection and had started reading more about dreams and the subconscious. In prison I discovered a new meaning of dreams: they become your only window to the outside world, to escape from the world you are imprisoned in. [embed:render:embedded:node:42963]Every night, you wait for your dreams to come. You miss your family and friends, so you hope to see them in your dreams. People talked a lot about their dreams in my cell. In the Koran, there is the story of the prophet Yusuf, who is unjustly imprisoned in Egypt. Based on the dreams of his cell mates, he predicts their future and his prophecies actually come true. Lots of people I met in prison were obsessed with the idea that dreams reveal the future.

How does the current situation for press freedom and freedom of speech in Egypt compare to 2016 when you were imprisoned?

Naji: The situation is getting increasingly worse on all levels. And that is connected to the situation in the world. We are witnessing the rise of fascism in so many countries all over the world. Some of the ideas we thought had long been established – human rights and democracy – are being questioned. That gives legitimacy to authoritarian regimes. They may be cracking down on freedom of expression, but as long as they are also protecting European borders from immigrants, people will support them.

As a student you were part of the Muslim Brotherhood, but left when your university group called for the burning of a book that supposedly contained depictions of sex and insulted God and the Prophet. Years later your own book was banned for similar reasons by a regime that is fighting the Muslim Brotherhood. What does that say about the political landscape in Egypt?

Naji: It says that neither side has ever defended freedom of expression. There is no hidden agenda in that. The Muslim Brotherhood clearly believes in censorship as a way to produce the right Muslim society and protect certain cultural values. And the military does exactly the same, but with a focus on a nationalist identity. Total freedom of expression is, however, granted by the Egyptian constitution, a constitution that was written by Egyptians after several revolutions and decades of struggles against foreign rule. Of course, no regime that ruled Egypt has ever respected the country's constitution. But collectively, the majority of Egyptians have proved that they believe in these ideals.

Interview conducted by Hannah El-Hitami

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