“I don’t think identity is a tattoo—it’s something that changes over time.”
Ahmed Naji is a collector of occupational labels—occasional journalist, blogger, intellectual masturbator, documentary filmmaker, agent for belly dancers—accepting any label, and prescribing to none. The one that feels most true is simply “writer.” For Naji, to be a writer is not an identity in itself, but an avenue for discovery: “Writing itself is a way to doubt and question,” he says in Rotten Evidence, his expansive, intimate account of his time in prison, which was excerpted in The Believer this past February.
Naji, 34, did not consider himself a writer until he went to prison for writing. In 2016, a private Egyptian citizen claimed that he suffered “heart palpitations and a drop in blood pressure” after reading a passage from Naji’s novel, Using Life, which included descriptions of sex and drug use. Naji was arrested on charges of “violating public modesty”—it was the first time an author had been subjected to imprisonment for morality concerns in modern Egypt. As a result, Naji served ten months in Tora Prison.
In 2019, Naji moved to Las Vegas with his wife and infant daughter and began his term as the City of Asylum fellow for the Black Mountain Institute. Since then, Naji has published two books in Arabic: And Tigers to My Room, a love-story turned Middle Eastern sci-fi dystopian novel, and Rotten Evidence, a memoir about reading and writing in prison. Naji’s fiction has a subversive, experimental quality that hearkens back to his early days in the blogosphere—it blurs genre lines, mixing artistic mediums like music and graphic illustration with the written word. His prose is prophetic, yet unserious; it offers observations that are at once familiar, and singular in voice and perspective. When reading the excerpt of Rotten Evidence, I was struck by a sentence that dripped with typically Najian flair: “I’d known the power of the police, which was like the power of street dogs: they made a terrifying noise, but if you could keep your nerve, they’d get out of your way.” Naji’s work often offers these bits of irreverent wisdom; he has a unique ability to wax poetic and speak on universal truths in the same breath–it’s a tightrope that not many writers can balance with such sharp precision.
Naji and I first spoke back in 2019, a few months after he arrived in Las Vegas. We continued our conversation more than a year later, in a drastically different world. I met him for tea in Downtown Las Vegas, not far from where he lives with his wife, lawyer Yasmin Hosam El Din, and their young daughter, Sina. We talked about the trials of aging, the most full-proof method for distracting a detention officer, and reading and writing as strategies for survival.
THE BELIEVER: How did you first find your way to writing?
AHMED NAJI: I started writing poetry when I was in high school. I even won several competitions and prizes in high school, and then at college and university. I saw myself as a poet, and would even introduce myself as one. But then a very weird accident happened. Back then, I used to write my poetry on paper. It was in lovely, well-done handwriting, like calligraphy. And I had all my poems in one big folder. When I was in university in Cairo, every week or two, I would travel to see my family in Mansoura. And one day, I forgot the whole folder on the bus. Of course I went back asking about it, and I didn’t find it. I went to the guys at the bus station and asked for the folder, and they were like, “Are they government documents or important papers like contracts?” And I was like, “No, just poems.” and they were like, “Pssshhh.” So I lost them, and it was frustrating and very sad. After that, I tried to write some poems from memory, but then I thought, What am I doing? Why am I doing this? Maybe it’s a sign. And since then, my career as a poet was killed. I still write poems from time to time, but only for myself. I don’t publish or share them.
BLVR: Growing up, was there anything you were restricted from, or that you weren’t allowed to read?
AN: I wasn’t allowed to read anything. I was only allowed to study and study and study. My father is a doctor, so the plan was to be raised and trained as a doctor, and I was only allowed to read textbooks. But every year or so, I would be moving to a new school, and it was a lot of effort to get to know people and find friends, so I dove into books and comics and stories. When I was in high school, I would have my school book open and inside it, there would be a novel. And usually when my mom discovered that, [my parents] would take the novel and hide it. Or sometimes my mother would get angry and throw it out the window. They would blame every single thing on the books that I was reading. Like, “You don’t get high scores in school because you’re wasting your time with novels.”
BLVR: What role did religion play in your life, growing up in a majority Muslim country?
AN: My family is practicing and they are a little bit conservative. I grew up going to the masjid and the mosque for all five prayers, and going to a bunch of religious, social, and political activities. So I was surrounded by this atmosphere. But then once I started reading intensely in high school, that made me have doubts about everything. When I was like fourteen or sixteen years old, I discovered Nietzsche and other writers, like Naguib Mahfouz—all of this pushed me towards this different way of thinking. By the age of sixteen, I was against religion, and I could say I was agnostic. Especially when you’re a teenager, you have this power like you’re inside of Zeus. You revolt to the extreme.
That’s when I began writing and publishing. I started writing a blog in 2003 and started using the nickname “Iblis,” which means evil or devil. It was a nickname that was given to me by some of my friends, and there are still a lot of people in Egypt who know me as Iblis on the internet. This character that I created for the blogosphere was the first thing that got me a little bit famous in some circles. After three or four years I started to meet with other bloggers. Remember this was in 2005 and 2006, so everything was about blogging, and it was a huge, important movement in Egypt and in the Arab world that has had an impact politically, socially, and culturally. I met with other bloggers and they started to get to know my real name. I wrote my first novel, Rogers, when I was twenty-one years old, but I thought it was so chaotic and complicated that no one was going to be interested in it. I decided to publish it for free on my blog, but after the first month, I got offers from three different publishing houses who were interested in publishing it as a novel. So I signed this deal and it was published, and then it was translated into Italian and got a lot of attention and so on. But again, all of this happened because I started writing under this nickname Iblis as a blogger. And of course back then, part of writing under a nickname was because a lot of writing was critical of Islamic mythology and it had a lot of sarcasm. Religion was an interesting topic for sarcasm and cynicism and jokes. But it’s dangerous to do this with your name in Egypt.
BLVR: You’ve mentioned that you never considered yourself a writer until you went to prison, and that only then did you decide to take writing as a profession seriously. I’m curious if that’s connected to having written under a pseudonym for a lot of the early years of your career. Why did you not feel like a writer back then?
AN: Well, that’s because I started publishing and writing in my blog when I was seventeen or eighteen years old. It was 2003, and back then, writing and publishing on the internet didn’t seem to have anything to do with writing for literature. We were just exchanging thoughts and making jokes. And I wasn’t aware back then, the importance of blogging and using the internet as a medium for writing. I didn’t have this intuition. Me and the other bloggers thought that there was a gap between us and the writers who were publishing books and being part of cultural and the national debates. We were just people using nicknames, and fake pictures, and writing about things that were unclear whether they actually happened or not.
BLVR: How do you perceive identity and labeling yourself as a writer? You’ve mentioned that people have referred to you as an Arab writer. How would you identify yourself?
AN: I would describe myself as a writer from Egypt, but this doesn’t mean that I will continue my life holding this identity. I don’t think identity is a tattoo—it’s something that changes over time. In Egypt, that identity is being projected onto you from other institutions, and it must stick with you. What happens when you stick with one identity is that after a while, it builds a wall around you, and then a window, and this window will be the only way you look out into the world. I don’t want this. I want to be able to discover beyond this border, to change and question my identity and what I think about myself. So I think identity is a process of thinking.
BLVR: I wanted to ask about translation. You’ve worked with a lot of translators—what has your experience been of being translated from Arabic to English? Do you prefer to work with the same translators or do you usually seek out different voices depending on the project?
AN: Well, it’s not my choice. You don’t choose the translator, the translators choose you. It happens when a translator reads your work, and finds something interesting in it. They translate a part of it, and then reach out to publishing houses and to other literary institutes until they find support so they can publish it.
Translating from Arabic to English for me is different from translating to other languages, because with English I can read it, so sometimes I will have notes and comments on the translation. I’ve been lucky with the translators that I’ve worked with, especially with Italian and English. Using Life was translated by Benjamin Koerber, and he’s an amazing translator. My upcoming book Rotten Evidence is translated by Katharine Halls, another great translator. She translated the piece that was published in The Believer. I will have questions about certain paragraphs or sentences, so I read parts of it, but not usually the whole book. With Using Life, I read through it, but I trusted Ben. Also I didn’t live in the U.S. then, so my connection with English was not as strong as it is now. Now, it’s not only about the dictionary definition of words, but the culture and how the meanings of the words are changing.
Lately most of my work, or my non-fiction work like articles, will be published in both Arabic and English. As a writer, I always have what’s called the imaginary reader—the person you imagine in your mind when you write. The imaginary reader in my mind was mainly Egyptian and Arabic, but now, I’ve started to find myself thinking of American and Western readers while writing nonfiction. For example, a German magazine called Arts of the Working Class recently asked me to write something about the Egyptian revolution, because of the 10 year anniversary in late January. But I hate nostalgia, and I didn’t want to write about it. So we came up with some ideas and said, “Let’s try to imagine how the world would be if we won the revolution.” I came up with a hilarious piece called “THE TANTA MUSEUM OF WHITE HISTORY.” Tanta is a very small, tiny city in Egypt. It’s like Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s interesting because when I started writing, I found myself… Do you know Arabic?
BLVR: I do.
AN: So when I first thought of this piece, I thought of the title in English: “White People Museum in Tanta” and then I tried to translate it into Arabic, which would be like “awal mathaf lil bayd fi tanta.” But “bayd” or “white” in Arabic, also could mean “eggs.” It also could work fine for the joke, but for the first time I was like, “It’s cooler in English than it is an Arabic.” So this is what I’ve picked up living in this country and starting to read more in English, interacting with people in English. You start to have all these ideas in your vocabulary and your mindset, and when you navigate through all this language and translate it to writing, it’s a very interesting process.
BLVR: So it’s starting to make its way into how you form ideas, or the words that you use are coming through in English first, at times.
AN: And sometimes even translating it into Arabic is complicated because some words in English have different meanings. Like for example, you notice the word “awake,” you know?
BLVR: Do you mean “woke”?
AN: Yeah, woke. So if you just translated it into Arabic, it doesn’t reflect the cultural meaning. Even here in English, there are many people who if you went to them and said “I’m woke,” they’d be like, what is that supposed to mean?
III. [AHMED BLOWS RASPBERRIES]
BLVR: You’ve expressed some contempt for prison literature, and the common tropes of prison writing, such as a person of privilege who hasn’t interacted much with people outside of their class writing about their cellmates, and sometimes exploiting their stories. What ultimately made you decide to write Rotten Evidence? In what context can prison writing be useful, rather than exploitative?
AN: Well any prison writing is useful, but for me, what I hated most of the time about prison literature in addition to what you mentioned is that there is this sense of victimizing yourself and depicting yourself as a hero. I was not interested in doing this, and I’m not interested in reading books that are about the same thing over and over. Like “I am the victim, but I am a hero and I will win because the human soul will always win in the end and break through the prison walls.” [Ahmed blows raspberries]
I wanted to write something that had so much respect for the other inmates. That’s why I don’t share their secrets, or include their names or any details about their personal lives. I was surrounded by ex-military officers and police officers and corrupt judges and businessmen. You live with these people, and you eat and drink with them, and they tell you everything. But I feel like using this drama is distracting from the main issue. The main issue is the prison itself, and how one could be sent to prison because of literature, and what reading and writing and books could do to help people inside of prison. So I wanted this to be my focus: literature in the court, and literature at the prison. I don’t talk that much in the book about myself or what I am doing. I talk about my feelings and how prison affects it, and how you change over time and how books help you to survive.
BLVR: Did having your work censored by the state lead to any measure of self-censorship as you began to write again after being released from prison?
AN: I have always had self-censorship since I was very young. Self-censorship is what made me use the nickname “Iblis.” I was always aware of the red lines. I made sure to stay away from it. And I think being aware of the red lines is very important because it helps you to understand your limits and it helps you to negotiate and to challenge those red lines. I think the idea of saying “I don’t believe in self-censorship” is bullshit in any time or in any culture. The red lines are different of course, from culture to culture, and the challenges you face when you cross them change from time to time. But I’ve always been aware of it, before and after prison.
BLVR: Were you able to write openly while guards and officers were around, or did you have to write in secrecy?
AN: I wrote while I was in my cell, but I would only write about my dreams, so they wouldn’t know what I was writing. Also, most of them can’t read.
BLVR: When you were finally released, were you able to bring your notebooks with you? In the piece, there’s a scene where one of the other inmates had to tear apart his journals and set them on fire. How did you manage to get yours out?
AN: I got a hold of this magazine—the cover was a picture of Dominique Hourani, a Lebanese singer with giant fake boobs. I took out some pages from the magazine and I put my novel papers inside. Then, when I was finally released from prison, I had only one bag that contained all of my clothes and stuff. I put this magazine on top of everything. I wanted the officers when they opened the bag to see it. And as I predicted, when they opened the bag, the officer saw it, he held it up, and he made the silly jokes that I predicted he was going to say. He was like “Again? You are here because of sex and women and you will be back here because of them.” And then he left the magazine, and he left the bag without even searching it.
BLVR: He didn’t look through it at all?
AN: No! It works. I’ve tried this before outside of prison—if you want to distract men, just show them a picture of boobs in anything, and they’ll just be like “Oh, boobs! Hahaha. Let’s do a joke!” and that’s it! They’ll forget about their real job.
IV. A VERY AMBITIOUS GUY
BLVR: In the piece, you described your process of writing and revising your work entirely by hand, in notebooks, and the old-school note-taking systems that consisted of. I’m curious whether writing by hand for a prolonged period of time had any lasting impact on how you write now. Do you ever find yourself writing by hand these days?
AN: Yeah, I’ve started to have it as part of the process. Before that, all my writing was done directly on the computer, but after this experience… [Ahmed pulls out his notebooks] This is the notebook that I always use to write all the ideas and the notes for the stuff that I am working on, or for other work. Sometimes I’ll be imagining a story, and I think, This paragraph of the story needs to be written by hand. So I write it first by hand and then copy it on the computer and edit it. Lately I’ve started to change my technique; I bought a big sketch book, so now, when I’m thinking about a story, I will start by sketching, and I’ve discovered it’s very, very helpful to map out all the details, especially for novels and big projects or long stories. Suddenly, you start to understand the map of the story and the world. So when you go into the process of writing, you already know what is perfect, and you don’t have to go into a long process of editing and re-editing in the end. It’s a more enjoyable process than just waiting, sitting on the white screen.
BLVR: You’ve also written about the challenges that come with writing by hand, such as not being able to remember whether you were being concise for some deliberate reason, or whether it was because of physical strain and exhaustion. You also wrote that since you deliberately kept your sentences short and unencumbered by lyricism, when you later went back to read your work, you felt as though you’d discovered a new form, or a new voice. Tell me more about that. How has that factored into your work now?
AN: Months after he died, a long article by Edward Said was published—I think in English, the title is “Thoughts on Late Style.” He studied several writers who died of old age, along with their last works before they died. He talked about how writing, especially in old age, is exhausting not only for the mind, but for the body. Imagine if you are sixty-five years old, sitting on a chair in a wooden office, holding a paper and pen and using all your body and muscles, and writing for hours and hours—it’s exhausting for the body. It takes energy. I started to understand, and to notice after reading Edward Said’s article, how our body’s health and motivation is a big part of the process of writing. If you suffer from chronic pain or a disease, for sure this will have an affect on your work and your writing.
As you involve your body with writing, it could also open the door for new rooms. I have dyslexia, so my text is always full of grammatical and spelling mistakes. That’s why I always use copyediting to revise it. With dyslexia, the problem is that you will be writing one word, but in your mind you are thinking of the three or five words. But when using pen and paper, I started to notice that I’m more focused, and I’m more precise in choosing the right words and leaving out what is unnecessary.
BLVR: Thinking about the physicality of writing reminds me of our past conversations about aging. What has your relationship with aging been like in the past few years?
AN: I’ve started working on a nonfiction book called Thirty-Three in Paradise. It has a lot to do with my time in America, discovering my body in exile, and fatherhood. I arrived in America in August of 2018, and three weeks after my arrival, it was my thirty-third birthday. And that’s also when my daughter Sina was born. During this time I came across this information that in Islamic mythology, all people in paradise are thirty-three years old, because thirty-three is supposed to be the age when you have the perfect body. But I thought, No, if I’m going to paradise, I don’t want this body! So I have a lot of ideas about body-building in gyms and aging and how it affects the body. The article I’m working on now that is supposed to be published in March is called “A Comparative Study on Gym Etiquette Between East and West.” I’m starting from this idea and going to analyze the history of gyms in this country, and what body building means. In the U.S., there’s also this idea of fighting against aging. Here, when people grow old, they start to do sports more, and in the Arab world, when people grow old, they relax. Which makes sense. If I’m fifty-five, why do I need to run five miles in the morning?
Especially here in Vegas I’ve noticed there are a lot of clinics that deal with adult people and adult care. Every time I drive Sina to preschool, I pass by an adult care place, and there’s a sign that’s like “Come join us, it’s better than staying at home alone.” I started to question, what does it mean to be old here in the U.S., and to be old in Egypt? In the Arab world it’s a privilege to be old. Like when you start having gray hair, people will call you shekh, haji, or uncle, and they will treat you with respect. Even before leaving Egypt I started to get “uncle” from kids who are like twenty years old, they started to call me “amo.” Yeah. But it’s a privilege. And here it’s the opposite. It’s like, “You’re old. Just go and sit in the dark and die. Or go work at Vons and bag groceries.”
BLVR: It’s so sad. Still, I can’t help it! The idea of someone calling me “amtu” makes me cringe.
AN: It’s coming, my dear! You’ll get it pretty soon.
BLVR: Since we last spoke, your novel, And Tigers to My Room, has been published in Arabic. It’s a love story about a woman rediscovering herself after divorce. Midway through, it turns into a futuristic piece of Middle Eastern science fiction. How has it been received?
AN: The good news about it is that I just signed a movie copyright deal with an American production company called Hamsa Production House in Brooklyn. And I’m working with Malika Zouhali-Worrall—she’s a British filmmaker living in New York. First, she was interested in doing a documentary about me. Then, she became more and more interested in the novel. She doesn’t read in Arabic, so she paid for a translator to translate half of the novel just so she could read it. And now she bought the copyright for developing the movie. We were dealing with it just like an independent movie project, but suddenly last year, we got a grant to develop a project from the Sundance Festival. Part of the movie will be animated. So we have an animation studio who is also interested in participating. This is one of the projects that I’m so excited about. We signed the deal. Now she has a script writer who is working on the text, and basically the movie will be a drama, adapting many details of the novel.
BLVR: When you think forward into the next few years, what do you dream about in work and in life?
AN: Well in writing, I’ve had this dream for a novel, and I always think that it’ll be my masterpiece. For years it’s been growing in my mind. But I don’t know when I will start writing it. I have collected details and notes and I’m always thinking of it in my head, but I don’t know when I will write it. In life, I’m a very ambitious guy—I want to sleep.