In the terrifying new world order, Cairo is a place where people walk about with microchips in their heads, where everyone laments a green Egypt that never was, and where scientists warn against “unsafe levels of nostalgia” that come from hearing strains of old songs. Such is the premise of Ahmed Naji's dystopian novel, Using Life, fluidly translated from Arabic by Ben Koerber and just published in the US by the University of Texas Press. The story is a rich, wild ride narrated by Bassem Bahget, a forty-six-year-old looking back to his youth just before Cairo's destruction by violent sandstorms and earthquakes. Surprisingly, though, it isn't the novel's critique of authoritarian regimes, but all of the fucking (to stick with the translator's term of choice) the protagonist gets up to that led the Egyptian government to charge and convict author Ahmed Naji of “violating public modesty.” The trial and sentence condemning Naji to prison sparked protests in Egypt last year and brought his work to the attention of the foreign press and PEN America, which led an international campaign for his release. The attention and praise the book has since received, including a rave review by Zadie Smith in the New York Review of Books, are inevitably connected to these circumstances, but now that Using Life has been published in English we can see that they are fully earned by the author's exceptional work.
Though tempting for readers unfamiliar with Egyptian politics to assume that Naji's case is about enforcing Islamic values, it's more complex than that. Freedom of expression is guaranteed under the Egyptian constitution, and the escalation of arrests and prosecutions under President el-Sisi is in defiance of Egyptian law. As Naji remarked in an interview, “the moral code in Egypt is closely tied to the structure of power.” Indeed, Naji is the first writer in Egypt to receive a prison sentence for his fiction since the January 25 Revolution of 2011, and his arrest rallied the Egyptian and then the international literary community to his cause. What we see here is an authoritarian regime stoking fear and self-censorship among those who would speak out against the government, not a guarding of Islamic traditions.
Naji's raucous celebration of Egyptian popular culture, Arab history, sex, and youth plays out in the contested urban spaces of Egypt. The story opens with young Bassem, a filmmaker in his twenties who's just trying to smoke some hash, fuck, and hopefully make it across town without vomiting on the minibus, but all the while Cairo bears down on him. “Welcome to the hell that is Cairo, where life is one long wait, and the smell of trash and assorted animal dung hangs about all the time and everywhere.” After Bassem is hired by the secret Society of Urbanists to make documentaries about city planning and the architecture of the Egyptian capital, he quickly becomes bound up in the battle by members of the Society over the future of his city.
The struggle between liberalism and authoritarian rule plays out as a question of the future of Egypt's capital between powerful figures in the Society of Urbanists. Ihab Hassan (a character that plays tribute to the literary critic Ihab Hassan, an expat Cairene who championed postmodernism) argues that Cairo should be reformed through a revitalization of its neighborhoods, through a democratization of space, while the soul-sucking, gorgeous centenarian Paprika demands Cairo be wiped out to make room for a new order. It is Paprika who rules the day and it is from the bizarre new world that the older Bassem writes to us.
In Using Life, questions of architecture and city planning come up throughout, a footnoted account of the nineteenth-century mobile capital of Algeria's storied prince Abd al-Qadir being just one delightful example of the theme. The unsettling illustrations by Ayman Al Zorkany serve as brilliant complement to this question: is Cairo Bassem's lifeblood, or is it eating him alive like an undiagnosed flesh-eating bacteria? Throughout the book, the Egyptian capital is like a beast clawing at Bassem's skin, insidiously infiltrating his lungs. It is a city that might rear up and lash out at Bassem at any moment, that holds him hostage in its traffic jams, and that presses such despair on Bassem it shapes even his intimate relationships. There is Reem, a woman whose identity is subsumed by religion and then by her love for another woman, and Mrs. Spoon, a sexy older woman. But of the women he fucks, it is Mona May, Bassem's elusive objet petit a, that readers will find most vividly rendered.
The novel describes Bassem's sexual relations in explicit terms. With every “fuck,” “dick,” and “pussy,” the author reclaims the centuries-old Arabic literary tradition of speaking frankly about sex. In Using Life, Naji puts that tradition in conversation with innovations like illustrations, tangential footnotes, and a fluid time structure. The result is a book that infuses new urgency and excitement in the Egyptian, and now international, literary world.
At thirty-two years old, Ahmed Naji has already been working in Egypt's vibrant literary scene for over a decade. His blogging, critiques of the Egyptian regime, editorial work, and genre-blurring novels have earned him a devoted following in Egypt. Naji completed Using Life on the eve of the 2011 Egyptian “January Revolution” that ousted longtime president Hosni Mubarak, and the novel reflects the tumult and pressures of that era. After the Egyptian weekly Akhbar al-Abad published a chapter of Using Life in 2014, Naji was charged with “indecency and disturbing public morals.” The indictment, prosecution, conviction, and ten months Naji spent in jail all stemmed from a reader complaint claiming that the sex and drugs in that chapter gave him heart palpitations. The trial hinged on whether Using Life was fiction or nonfiction, a question the Egyptian judiciary spent months investigating. Had Naji himself smoked hash and eaten out a married woman (Mrs. Spoon), or was that a fiction? Naji has called the trial “Kafkaesque.” Rightly so. After such a conviction, one has to ask: what is fiction?
“I'm not a writer with a message,” Naji has said. “I'm more of a writer with questions.” As too many governments in the world bends towards authoritarianism, one can only hope Naji will keep using his considerable gifts to ask those questions.