art of resistance, Egypt

Ahmed Naji: The Guide For Using Life.

ahmed-nagy-1-768x430/Ahmed Naji, photo via Daily News Egpyt/

The Egyptian novelist and journalist Ahmed Naji has been given a two-year prison sentence two months ago for “violating public modesty” after publishing a book with references to sex and drugs. An Egyptian citizen brought charges against the author after an excerpt of his novel The Guide for Using Life was published in the magazine Akhbar al-Adab.

The prosecution argued that the published work “violates the sanctity of public morals and general ethics”. The United Group, an organisation comprised of lawyers, legal researchers, and human rights advocates, submitted the appeal to the prosecution with the cooperation of Nagi’s family.

The sentences handed to Naji and Al-Taher have received widespread condemnation and have been criticised for being unconstitutional by many politicians, writers, media figures, associations, and parties.

Naji wrote the experimental novel collaborating with the illustrator Ayman al-Zorqani, who drew for the book. The following English translation was done by Ben Koerber (it was first published on Arabic Literature). Read the excerpt, share your support for Naji’s case!

That’s not to say life in Cairo was completely miserable. There were good times to be had year-round: some during our long summer, and quite a few during our short winter. Such times were, invariably, either days off work or days without it. They say the city never sleeps, they say it bursts at the seams. The city rotates and revolves. The city branches out. The city beats, the city bleeds.

In their places of work and worship, the people of this city swarm. They shop and scurry and go for a piss, so the Wheel of Production might go on spinning despite the traffic. That’s how it all looks, if you’re an eagle soaring up above. But if you’re just a little mouse of a man spinning inside that great Wheel, you never get to see the big picture. You go to work and do your job, and might even earn a reasonable salary. If, by some great fortune, you manage to see the fruit of your labors, it still won’t move you an inch. Whether you work or not, the Wheel of Production keeps on spinning, and the current carries you along.

Which brings me to the time Mona May and I went over with a group of friends to Moud’s apartment in Garden City. This was after a party at Youssef Bazzi’s place. We stayed up until the morning smoking hash and competing to finish a whole bottle of vodka. I remember seeing the music dissolve into monkeys that clung to the ceiling. There was a blonde German tapping her leg to the beat. Erections popping around the room. A young Palestinian-American, with poor Arabic, talking a lot about racism. Smoke, cigarettes, hashish. And more smoke.

“Bassam,” says Kiko, turning to me with a totally bloodshot look. “I’ve got smoke in my eyes.”

“Go easy on ’em, baby.”

I pull a tissue over her eyes and blow gently.  The German girl watches with a confused look.  As I pull the tissue away, my palm drips with the dark freshness of Kiko’s face.  I plant a light kiss on her lips.

“Did you know there’s a kind of sexual fetish called ‘licking the pupil’?” says the German girl in English.

“How exactly do you mean?”

“Yeah, I read about that once,” interjects Moud.

“That’s disgusting,” objects Kiko, wrapping her arms around me.

What are your typical twenty-somethings to do in Cairo? Might they go for pupil licking? Are they into eating pussy? Do they like to suck cock, or lick dirt, or snort hash mixed with sleeping pills?  Or one might ask how long it would take for any of these fetishes to lose its thrill.  Are they good for life?

Everyone here has done lots of drugs, both during and after college. Yet here we all are, little islands unto ourselves, with no greater aspiration than to hang out together. We manage to stay alive by sucking our joy out of one another.

Mona May is standing next to the speakers. Her eyes are glazed over as though her soul’s been sucked up by the music monkeys on the ceiling, and her body sways to the beat.

After a while, taking drugs clearly got old. Or they were just not enough. And if one of us ever gave in to total addiction, his life would be over in a few months: this we know by trial and experience. Those of us left in this room are too chicken to end our lives in this or any other way, maybe because we still cling to some sort of hope, some sort of love or friendship.

For all that Cairo takes from its residents, it gives nothing in return – except, perhaps, a number of life-long friendships that are determined more by fate than any real choice. As the saying goes, “He who goes to Cairo will there find his equal.” There’s no such thing as smoking by yourself. And the food’s only got taste if you have someone to chow it down with, happily, carcinogens and all.

In this city, you’ll be lucky if you can get over your sexual tension, and appreciate sex as just one of the many facets of a friendship. Otherwise, your horniness will make you a testy bitch. Kiko rubs my back, and I feel a heat between my legs.

useoflife/The Use of Life/

As dawn came up, Moud went to his room, and everyone else went home. Too lazy to head back to 6th of October City, I lay down and fell asleep on the couch. I woke up early with a slight headache, an army of ants marching in the space between my brain and my skull. I went to the bathroom and took one of the pills Moud had brought from overseas to fight hangovers. After taking a warm shower, I called Lady Spoon and agreed to breakfast at Maison Thomas in Zamalek.

On the way, the streets were washed over and empty of traffic.  It’s a holiday: perhaps the Islamic New Year, or Victory Day, or Revolution Day, or Saltwater Catfish Day.  Whatever it was, the city looked drowsy and everyone was checked out.  At moments like this, I barely recognize the place.

When I’m able to get from Qasr al-Aini to Zamalek in under 20 minutes, I almost feel like she’s decided to warm up to me.  But I know that wicked smile on her face: She’s telling me, “At any moment, I can have you stuck in traffic for over an hour, with nothing to do but sit back and feel sorry for yourself as the noise of the streets slowly sucks the life out of you.”  Open veins spewing blood all over the bathroom.

I met Lady Spoon outside the restaurant.  She had on a long white dress showing her arms and a bit of cleavage.

“You smell really nice,” she said, kissing me on both cheeks.

“It’s Moud’s cologne.”

It was her neck that made me fall for her. She’s nine years older than me, but she knows how to stay youthful, exercising regularly and always eating healthy. She’s pretty, cheerful, and has a successful career in advertising. Unfortunately for her, she’s a Protestant and happens to love Egypt, and her chances of meeting someone with both these qualities in Cairo are slim at best.

She studied overseas before spending quite a long time being terrified of getting married or settling down. Sometimes, she’d like to have children. She had been used to dating men who were older than her, but suddenly, they had stopped showing an interest. Those that did show interest didn’t interest her. This was the first time that she would be dating someone younger than her, which made her embarrassed to tell her friends.

The name “Lady Spoon” was given to her by Mona May.  She saw her once at a concert wearing a pair of spoon-shaped earrings.

These were the same earrings she had on now. They swayed with the movement of her hand as she chopped a loaf of bread. In spite of the dryness in my throat, I’d been smoking since I woke up this morning. Cigarettes have a different sort of taste with the morning breeze in Zamalek: something resembling bliss, desire, a softness in violet and orange.

Our breakfast was eggs, along with slices of the finest quality pork, imported from abroad. After honey, jam, and a glass of orange juice, I’m back to life.  As the poet says, “You ain’t you when you’re hungry.” At Maison Thomas, her smile nudges me awake under a white bed.

We walked around the streets of Zamalek in the direction of her apartment.  She had a thin silver bracelet around her ankle and toenails painted red.  Sometimes we would walk hand in hand, and sometimes with my arm around her waist.  Under the shade of the trees, we laughed. We shot smiles at the officers standing guard outside different embassies, but their solemn demeanor didn’t change.

I thought … Do I love her?

Of course I love her.  I can’t touch a woman I don’t love. But then, what is love exactly?  It’s a relaxing of the heart, a tranquility in your soul, a warmth in your stomach.  It’s like any love in Cairo, always ready to disappear.  A lover of companionship.

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