Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison - Believer Magazine
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Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison

Ahmed Naji
213 Snaps

During the 1921 obscenity trial involving James Joyce’s Ulysses, a dispute broke out between the prosecuting attorney and the defense team in the New York courthouse. The assistant district attorney angrily announced he was going to read an extract from the novel out loud to establish before the court that it posed a threat to society and morality. Protesting that there was no need to subject the court to such obscenity, the judge stopped him. Around a century later, in Cairo, during the obscenity trial of my novel Using Life, the assistant attorney for the prosecution challenged my defense attorney and the respected literary figures we had called as witnesses to read a section of my novel out loud.

Whatever the time and place—twentieth-century New York or twenty-first-century Cairo—no sooner does literature enter the courtroom than the same techniques of attack and defense come out. The accused litterateurs mount their case from the ramparts of expertise, demanding to be regarded, like engineers or doctors would be, as authorities in their field. The prosecution’s argument, on the other hand, is premised on the idea that literature is for everyone, which gives the criminal justice system the right to protect society from its harmful effects. If the prosecutor can read literature, then he’s also qualified to pass judgment on it. 

Language is the raw material of both literature and the law, but judges and lawyers claim their own mysterious authority over it. While the practitioners of the law permit their courts and prisons to encroach upon literature, they won’t allow literature to be read in their courts. Writers will defend themselves with tongues of fire, but on the stand they are stripped of their power, because their language is the proof of their guilt.

I’ve always found interviews with the media excruciating. Pressing me to explain my work and state what it is I’m trying to achieve, journalists seem to think that writers understand the full dimensions of the writing process. They don’t realize that writing is itself a way to understand, a way to doubt and question. When forced to defend myself, I always felt like the defense itself became a prison in which my relationship with literature was to be confined. I became trapped in a cage that they and I had together constructed out of sex, obscenity, taboos, and my conflict with censorship. I was being framed as a writer with an obscene agenda. But prior to my trial and conviction, even though I had published three books with literary presses, I never saw myself as a writer. Occasional journalist, day laborer in the arts market, often unemployed, intellectual masturbator, three-legged chair, daydreamer, mental adolescent, but a writer? Not sure. I was only thirty; I hadn’t decided what I wanted yet, and I didn’t see any reason why I should.

ONE MORNING IN SINAI

We’d arrived in Sinai the day before. It was April 2015. The sea and sky were blue; the mountains were at our backs. I was exhausted and dispirited, broken and unhealed after a string of failed romances. My life felt like something floating in a stagnant green pond. But now I was finally at the Red Sea and looking forward to seeing the colorful fish and corals. I had put my goggles on and was heading for the water when my cell phone rang. It was the office of the literary review Akhbar al-Adab calling to say they had received a summons from the public prosecutor addressed to the editor, Tarek al-Taher, and me.

Apparently, the public prosecutor was investigating an excerpt from my second novel, Using Life, which had appeared in Akhbar al-Adab in August 2014. I was told that a man had claimed the excerpt had made his blood pressure spike and given him a mild heart attack. He was accusing me of offending public morals and promoting obscenity. Dismayed, I left Sinai and headed back to Cairo. 

When I arrived in town, I met with Mahmoud Othman, a lawyer from the Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression, and my personal lawyer, Nasir Amin, and we headed to the public prosecutor’s office, which was located in Zenhum Court. The court sits at the end of Bayram al-Tunisi Street, a long, narrow road that slices through the archaeological remains of Old Cairo and the working-class neighborhood of Sayyida Zeinab. Next to the court is an animal hospital run by a charity and the Zeinhom morgue, or the Forensic Medical Authority. The court itself is a modern neoclassical effort whose enormous white columns have long turned the dusty yellow so beloved of Cairo; in front of it, a high wall partially blocks the view of the cemeteries and ruins of the old city.

We’d agreed that Tarek al-Taher would go in first with the lawyers to meet the prosecuting attorney. They’d see how it went and pick a strategy accordingly. If it looked like there was some room for discussion, they’d call me to come and join them in the interview. If not, they’d claim I just hadn’t shown up. You never knew if the public prosecution would do something unexpected—like decide to hold me in custody until the trial.

Outside, in the corridor, I took in the miserable atmosphere. The whole place smelled rotten. Families were camped out on the ground. Handcuffed detainees sat in the stairwells smoking, waiting to be taken before the prosecutor. Children griped in the arms of elderly women whose black abayas trailed on the dusty floor. Suddenly and without warning, everything would pause. Two police officers would appear—one plainclothes, one in uniform—and sweep the crowds aside, demanding they make way for His Honor the judge. Then, preceded by a potent scent of cologne, His Honor would appear before his subjects, striding quickly and purposefully through the crowd without looking at anyone. 

This was my first encounter with the grandeur and power of criminal justice. 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. I’d known the power of men of religion, with their expansive smiles and expressions of crazed love—expressions that, if refused, would turn on you with equal intensity. Thanks to Tahrir Square, and the neighborhoods of ‘Abdin and Bulaq Abu al-‘Ila, I’d also known the power of weapons, the military armored vehicles that occupy the street so you have no choice but to turn back. I’d known the power of men with money too. And the power of the masses, the mob, of tramps and vermin, rodents and hoofed beasts. But I had never seen anything like this. 

Absorbed in the dramatization of justice taking place around me, I watched until the pace gradually slowed and the employees began to leave for the day. It was nearly 5:00 p.m. and Tarek was still in the interview. At one point, the lawyer from Akhbar al-Adab came out, glowering. “Who is this Lady Spoon—a friend of yours?” he asked me, referring to a character in the book whom the prosecutor had shown great interest in. I fought back the urge to snort at his stupidity. The situation was serious, and a thoughtless reaction could have consequences. The legal team thought I should leave, the lawyer told me; there was no point getting dragged into an interview with this prosecutor. He was a lost cause. 

I learned later, via the lawyers, that the prosecutor had questioned Tarek aggressively. Apparently he had threatened to charge me with drug offenses because the protagonist of Using Life, Bassam Bahgat, smokes a spliff in the section excerpted in the magazine. Because the novel is narrated in the first person, he claimed, this amounted to a confession that I smoked hash. And if the details were in fact fictional, then it was still a crime, because I was disseminating false or misleading information. At this point Tarek attempted to draw an analogy to a TV series starring Ghada Abdel Razek: Surely you couldn’t try the actress for murder, he reasoned, just because she’d killed someone in one of the episodes? The prosecutor took in this new piece of information and said, deadly serious: “So you’re telling me this is a TV show now?” Tarek tried to explain, but the prosecutor was warming to his theme. “In that case,” he replied with a confident flourish, “where are the other episodes?”

The bit I liked best was when Tarek got so frustrated with the length of the interrogation that he delivered an eloquent intervention on the role of the judiciary and the public prosecutor’s office in defending cultural enlightenment and the values of freedom of conscience and expression. He reminded them of the commendable stance of Justice Muhammad Nur, the prosecutor who investigated the literary giant Taha Hussein for allegedly insulting Islam in his scholarship on pre-Islamic poetry. Muhammad Nur, said Tarek, had upheld freedom of speech by closing the case against Hussein—but here the prosecutor stopped him. “Justice Muhammad Nur?” he said authoritatively. “I don’t know anyone by that name.” The incident took place in 1927.

The interview had started at nine that morning. In the end, the questioning went on until six in the evening, and there was even some talk of transferring Tarek to the precinct where the original case had been brought, before releasing him from there, but finally they let him go. After our experience that day, our legal team decided not to respond to any further summonses, a strategy they thought would force the public prosecution either to drop the case—as often happened with cases brought by private individuals of no particular importance—or to decide that as upholders of the law and protectors of public morality, they had to bring the case to court. We also decided to keep quiet. If we made a fuss in the media, it might provoke them more, but if we said nothing, maybe they’d forget about the whole thing.

Here it’s worth mentioning what was going on at the time in Egypt more broadly. The new constitution adopted in 2014 contained numerous articles guaranteeing freedom of conscience and expression and banning the use of detention in freedom of speech cases. For the culture and media elites, this was a precious victory—a fruit of the uprising of June 30, 2013, that its proponents called a “revolution.” The judges and prosecutors, on the other hand, were furious at this new limitation on their powers and were determined to bring journalists to heel, and so the Public Prosecution Office began deliberately detaining journalists on charges relating to their political opinions and professional activities. The Journalists’ Syndicate took the issue to the Supreme Administrative Court, which ruled that it was unconstitutional to detain journalists, but the Public Prosecution Office wouldn’t budge. Not only did they go ahead with the new cases, they also decided to reopen all pending cases involving charges against journalists. One of those cases was mine.

THE TRIAL

The legal team warned me to stay silent in court. No matter what I was asked, I was to say nothing, to let them do the talking. Our case was built on the testimony of three witnesses who were figures of major literary and political significance in Egypt: Muhammad Salmawi, a writer and member of the committee that had written the 2014 constitution; Gaber Asfour, a literary critic, academic, and former minister of culture; and Sonallah Ibrahim, a writer and former political prisoner.

  The public prosecutor alleged that my writing constituted pornography, and therefore didn’t fall under the article of the constitution that protected freedom of creative expression. We had picked our three witnesses to testify that my writing was not porn but literature. The attorneys told me that in cases like this, the courts usually decided to split the difference by issuing a guilty verdict and handing out a fine. In the history of the Egyptian criminal justice system, nobody had ever gone to prison for gross violation of public decency. Against all our expectations, the court found me innocent. The ruling came out on January 2, 2016. I thought it was a sign of a good year ahead, but I was, as usual, naively optimistic. 

THE PATH TO GREATNESS

The public prosecutor quickly appealed the verdict, and, the following month, we again found ourselves in court. I showed up with two thousand dollars in my pocket—enough to pay the fine I might get—just in case. The sentence wasn’t announced immediately; instead, my codefendant, Tarek al-Taher, and I were kept waiting in the courtroom until the day’s hearings were finished. Finally, three police officers appeared and asked us to follow them. They led us through a maze of back corridors crowded with courthouse staff and prisoners, to an office where a young lieutenant sat at a battered desk with two other higher-ranking police commanders. The lieutenant read out the sentence: two years in prison for me, and a fine for Tarek.

I burst out laughing, and Tarek launched into an enraged monologue about how important he was and how it must all be a mistake. Ignoring him, the eldest and most senior of the three officers turned to me.

“What was the charge?” he asked.

“I wrote a novel.”

“What, and you insulted someone in the novel? Or accused some general or politician of corruption?”

“No, it’s literature. It’s not about anyone real. It’s kind of like science fiction.”

He pointed one finger at me, his other fingers clutching a ritzy string of prayer beads, and said: “Listen, son. You’re on the path to greatness now. I know that judge. He’s a tough one, god help us, and he makes some strange decisions. But you’ll come out of this stronger. You’ve made a great man of yourself. Your name will go down in history.”

“What am I meant to do with my greatness if I’m in prison?” I spluttered, still laughing. “Can’t you keep the greatness and leave me to play in the mud?”

NO BOOKS

Three days later, a senior police officer wearing a major’s epaulets flicked through the books in my bag. I was naked except for boxers, and surrounded by plainclothes detectives and regular guards. This ritual marked my handover from the police precinct to prison. At the prison gate, I’d been ordered to strip for inspection in front of the welcome party, then left to stand nearly naked while they signed paperwork and went through every scrap of fabric in my duffel bag with no sense of urgency. Finally, someone handed me a pair of blue trousers and a blue shirt with the word nazil (prisoner) written on the back.

The major—later I found out he was the prison’s chief of intelligence—picked two books out of my bag: Patrick Modiano’s Des inconnues, translated by Rana Hayek, and Almog Behar’s Chahla ve-Hezkel in Nael Eltoukhy’s translation. He shook his head. “I can’t let you bring these in unless they’ve been approved by National Security. They’ll have to be left in Property. There’s a library, you can use the books there.” Then he picked up the black leather notebook I used for jotting down thoughts, journal entries, and sometimes notes for my journalism.

“I know you’re a writer and all that,” he said in a conspiratorial whisper, “so I’ll let you keep your journal and your pens.”

I managed a muttered “thank you” in among my other nervous stammerings. I was exhausted from three nights of sleeping on the tiled floor in the precinct, from the three-hour journey to the prison in the back of a filthy metal van. From the tension, from the simultaneous hunger and lack of appetite, from the worry and fear, from the humiliation and abuse, from finding myself thrust all of a sudden into a battle I hadn’t chosen.

When I arrived in cellblock 2/4, one of my cellmates suggested I take a shower. I hadn’t washed in over four days; we hadn’t been allowed to at the precinct. In the shower stall, I pulled the dirty curtain closed behind me, shrinking from the walls, where cockroaches and other insects roamed, and turned on the faucet. It was the most incredible shower I’d taken in my life. 

MEETING THE AVERAGE READER

The cellblock was five meters wide and forty meters long. It was designed to hold sixty prisoners, but most of the time there were more of us than that. A meter-wide passage ran down the middle, and the sides were lined with two levels of reinforced-concrete bunks. Each bunk was 1.8 meters long and thirty centimeters wide. The bathroom and kitchen were at the far end. 

I’m not embarrassed to admit I’d had some romantic notions about prison. I’d always imagined an isolated cell where I’d spend my days alone with my books. But in the group cellblock, I was not alone at all. I found myself in the company of crooked judges, shady cops and military men, businessmen involved in multimillion-dollar fraud cases, cocaine smugglers from Latin America, and British and American citizens accused of dealing drugs in Egypt.

The cellblock was known as “public funds,” in reference to the kind of resources its residents were often accused of embezzling. It was home to the wealthier prisoners, as well as to foreign citizens, who were visited regularly by embassy representatives. Despite the differences in our crimes and backgrounds, everybody read books. It was the only licit way to pass the time. There was a TV in the cell, but it showed only two pro-
government channels; the books, however, ranged over multiple languages and subjects. Most of these people had rarely read before coming to prison, but now they had nothing better to do. For the first time in my life, I was meeting the Average Reader. They read for pleasure, without paying much attention to the cultural or historical context of the book. One man came up to me carrying a copy of Dostoyevsky’s The Eternal Husband. “Have you got anything else by this guy?” he asked. “He’s hilarious!”

I was taken aback by the idea that Dostoyevsky might be funny, because everything I’d read or heard about him said he was a master of psychology and of the complex character, and a chronicler of the misery of Russian feudalism. But this man—a judge accused of taking a four-million-dollar bribe—didn’t know that. He just enjoyed the figure of the fool who ridiculed the other characters, and the misunderstandings that so often set the plot in motion.

I learned a lot about literature and writing through my conversations with these readers, and was forced to rethink much of what I knew. My greatest pleasure was the monthly visit of the British and US embassy representatives and the chance to take stock of which books they’d brought. Also, our British cellmate always received a twelve-page newsletter published especially for prisoners abroad by the Foreign & Commonwealth Office. It was full of UK news, the latest updates on British soap operas, Premier League coverage, and even photos of the Queen in her newest hat. As for the books, there was clearly a person of refined tastes among the UK embassy staff in charge of the selection, which included writers like Julian Barnes, Zadie Smith, and my favorite—a prison discovery—China Miéville. The US embassy, on the other hand, sent Cold War spy novels, or romances and erotic fiction by writers like Jilly Cooper.

POWER’S PEACE OF MIND

The highest authorities in the prison were the warden and the chief of intelligence, followed by the police officers, in descending ranks. Any request or issue bearing any relation to me had to go through the chief of intelligence, a man called Muhammad, whom his men referred to as “the Bey”—or, as they said it, “Mahamma Beh.”

Convicted prisoners weren’t allowed visits in their first thirty days, but these rules could be sidestepped with permission from the Public Prosecution Office. I got my first visit, from my lawyer Mahmoud Othman, a few days in. As we sat on the visitors’ bench surrounded by three plainclothes officers, Mahmoud told me he’d brought some books and letters from Yasmine—to whom I would later become engaged—and my friends. After the visit, I inquired about the books and letters and was told they were with Mahamma Beh. He had to inspect them before handing them over.

I squirmed impatiently for three days straight, lying on my bunk and pacing the cellblock. Whenever security officers walked by or came in to help themselves to some of the pasta we’d cooked—the security guards often came in and took our food—I handed them a packet of cigarettes or a piece of fruit and asked about the books and letters. When I urged them to pass my question on to Mahamma Beh, they blew me off with excuses like “He’s left for the day,” or “He’s busy, his door’s closed,” but promised to mention it to him the next time they saw him. Finally, on the fourth day, I was given one letter and two of the books.

It took me a long time to figure out how to get things done in prison. I observed the occasional changes of leadership, followed the rise and fall of individual officers through the ranks, listened to the gossip of the older prisoners, and paid attention to what the guards bitched about when we gave them cigarettes or fruit. Through these Barthesian fragments of knowledge, I came to understand that the primary function of any power—including our own Mahamma Beh—is to widen its own sphere of influence through perpetual conflict and the swift elimination of peers and superiors. Its secondary function is peace of mind. Power doesn’t like disruption; it has enough to deal with in the shape of its competitors and those above it in the hierarchy. My insistent requests about the books and letters, I realized, were just a source of annoyance to those on the lowest rungs of power.

I didn’t get the other books and letters until much later. The security guys lied to me; mostly, they never passed on my requests to Mahamma Beh. They didn’t want to annoy him: to cause annoyance would be to fail in their task of faithfully guarding power’s peace of mind. They were just sheepdogs. Jaildogs. They exploited my need in order to extract more cigarettes and fruit, like heathen priests consuming the offerings I brought without ever delivering my supplications to their stone god.

GOOD ENOUGH FOR TV

In prison, under the pressure to assimilate to my new social environment, I found myself on the receiving end of all kinds of unsolicited advice. I murmured my assent in various conversations, like the one I had with the counterfeiter who wanted me to write the story of how he’d made a million dollars in one week, or with the corrupt judge who kept telling me stories of real-life cases and urging me to turn them into TV shows. Everyone had an opinion, it turned out: army captains and criminals unanimously agreed that the writer has a calling and must be the voice of the voiceless. You’re burdened not only with writing about them, but also with their ideas about how their story should be written.

I got these petitions on a daily basis from my fellow convicted criminals, our companions in pre-trial detention, and the upstanding gentlemen of the Ministry of Interior. One of them would spot me at a distance, come over, and say: “Hey, I’ve got a story for you. Good enough for TV.” (The more educated ones would say: “You can use it for your next novel.”) After I got to know them better, people would ask, when they noticed me sitting with pen and paper, “Are you writing about us? Are we going to be in your book?” Even outside prison, I’ve met people with the same strange desire to have their stories told, to have their lives written down or turned into a film or TV series. Both before prison and after, people have asked me: “Why don’t you write about me?” I envy their confidence in themselves—and in my own humble self. How the hell do they know I’ll write the story the way they want it written? How can they entrust their deepest secrets and most meaningful experiences to someone they don’t know?

People have their reasons. Some people are trying to find out something the writer is concealing from them—how the writer sees them, what he or she thinks of them. What they really want is to look at themselves, so they make the writer a mirror; they want to see their experience represented in a grand and unique portrait. Then there are those with more conceited artistic aspirations who think their life stories are so full of exciting exploits that other people will find them entertaining: readers will marvel, they’re convinced, at the richness and drama of their tale, and, of course, at the intelligence and tenacity of its protagonist. The dumbest reason of all comes from those who think the writer will turn their life into a smash TV show and make them famous or—worse—rich.

Writers have their own motivations for telling people’s stories, but as prison writing goes to show, they don’t always make for great literature. Writing about prison means writing about other prisoners, and more often than not, the writer encounters representatives of social classes and professions that are unfamiliar to them, and is so exhilarated by these discoveries that they forget what it was they originally wanted to say. With this kind of writing, it often feels to me as if the writer has filtered out their own personal experience and instead decided to entertain their readers with a cast of characters that are ultimately dramatic, not human—and don’t even get me started on the way political prison writers use the stories of other prisoners.

I couldn’t maintain that kind of barrier between myself and my cellmates. Some became friends. Their stories weren’t theater; their lives weren’t newsworthy. Sometimes they shared secrets and showed me photos of their families and children. Some of them I’ve now lost track of, and I wonder if they’re still in prison. Some of them got out and cut their ties with that world; others send me messages from time to time. But even when the people themselves are lost to memory, I don’t find myself impelled to exploit their stories or make an exhibit of them. If I overcome my reservations and do try to write about someone, a question bobs to the surface of my consciousness like a red egg in a sea of milk: Do I have the right to violate that person’s privacy? Is it a good enough excuse to say that I’m documenting that person’s experience or seeking to understand it?

RHINOCEROS TEARS

More than once, the question “What if?” came up—in my own mind and, clearly, the minds of others too. What if I hadn’t done this or that? What if I hadn’t written, hadn’t published? Lying sleepless in my bunk, I went over it a million times: If somehow it had occurred to me, while awake or asleep, that Using Life would land me in prison, then I would never have written it. Writing wasn’t worth this kind of sacrifice—I should have just kept publishing online under a pseudonym and been satisfied with that.

One night, eight months in, I woke up in the middle of the night needing to pee. I went to use the toilet, and in the corner of the bathroom, I found the Rhinoceros, crying. He raised a hand to hide his tears. No one had ever seen the Rhinoceros cry. He was famously arrogant and unfeeling, his greed and ambition proverbial. We were all familiar with his catchphrase “I’m just being an asshole to make you look good.” So when I found him in tears, I knew I was dealing with a calamity of epic proportions. Out of curiosity more than pity, I went toward him and asked in a whisper if everything was OK.

Choking on his tears, he muttered that he was fine.

“Why are you crying if you’re fine?”

“It’s my feelings, man. They’re too much for me. I need to get them out.”

I was taken aback and tried again. He asked me if I’d ever read Fi Qalbi Untha ‘Ibriyya (In my heart is a Hebrew woman).

“No,” I said, “and I don’t plan to.” (It’s a best-selling novel in a genre you might call Islamic romance.) The Rhinoceros told me he was in the middle of reading it.

“It’s a mind-blowing book. Mind-blowing. So powerful.”

I wasn’t sure what this had to do with why he was crying, but he told me that parts of the book had moved him so much he couldn’t help weeping. Even the sight of the front cover had him in tears. In the end, he’d had to leave the book on his bunk and come in here to fix himself up.

For the next three evenings, I watched as the Rhinoceros talked of nothing else to our cellmates. Several times he tried unsuccessfully to convince me to read the book, although I did flip through it at one point to see if I could figure out why it had made him cry. But there was no secret to the novel; the secret was somewhere else. I saw for the first time that words, books, literature had an inner force, a hidden strength that might be stored inside a sentence or a word or a letter. It was something weightier than simply the pleasure of reading, something superior to moralizing and edifying. As transparent as a drop of water, it was too insubstantial to be grasped in the hand, yet powerful enough to reduce the Rhinoceros’s heart to crumbs.

On the fourth night, I decided to be a writer.

FALTERING

Before I went to prison, I was thinking of writing a historical novel. After Using Life came out, I had gotten interested in the nineteenth century, the era when all the great ideas were born and died. The novel I had in mind was going to be called “Faltering.” Once I was allowed to receive books, I asked my friend Ahmed Wael to bring me everything he could find on the nineteenth century, and especially the history of Saint-Simonianism, a French political, religious, and social movement that influenced the creation of the Suez Canal.

Emboldened by my decision to Be a Writer, I started working on the book in prison—mainly to feel like I wasn’t wasting my time, but also because reading and writing wove themselves into a sort of chrysalis that deflected the gossip, trivial ideas, and pointless conversations that went on around me, and that also seemed to keep out the heat, humidity, moldy smells, and varied and peculiar insect life with which we shared our living quarters.

I earnestly set about reinventing, on paper, the human experience of the nineteenth century. Two pages in, I went over what I’d written and discovered that there were mistakes and lots of things I wanted to change—but I hadn’t left any room for corrections. After that I wrote only on every other line, saving the blank lines for edits and revisions. I wrote in three colors: blue for the first draft; black for corrections, additions, and deletions; and red for comments about the structure of the plot and connections between events.

By this slow and laborious method, I finished the first chapter in a month. I encountered a new problem in chapter two, when I found I wanted to move a paragraph from chapter one. So I came up with a cataloging system that involved numbering every page in the notebook, and then each paragraph on each page. That made it easier to shift sections around: if I wanted, for example, to move paragraph 3 on page 12 to just before paragraph 5 on page 28, I’d put a note before paragraph 5 on page 28, saying, “3 p. 12.” One day, I knew, I’d get out of prison, and when that day came, I would sit with my laptop, at a desk fit for human use, to transcribe and rewrite the whole novel from prison notebook to computer screen.

The novel evolved, and soon it was no longer about the nineteenth century in particular but about the personage of Kamil Ru’ba Laz, the main character in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel The Mirage, a psychological study of a man strangely attached to his mother, which I’d just read  for the first time in prison. Kamil’s character turned out to be modeled on a real person, who was furious with Mahfouz for the liberties he had taken with his identity. In my own book, I imagined Kamil entering a world of sensual pleasure with a woman called ‘Atiyyat, after the death of his mother and betrayal of his wife. In response to Naguib Mahfouz’s character assassination, Kamil decides to write his own life story, but is arrested and imprisoned for offenses against public morals. In prison, he again begins to write, and the novel alternates between his prison diaries and the unfolding story of a group of followers of the Church of Modernity, Science, and Labor, who make their way to Egypt in search of “a mystical union between the body of the West and the spirit of the East.” Their plan is to connect the Red Sea and the Mediterranean and construct a city of the future that will control international trade, reshape the global economy, and direct the course of human life for the better.

With the switch from computer to pen and paper, I discovered new horizons of style and syntax. Deliberately keeping my sentences short and unencumbered by lyricism, since I knew what I was writing was only a rough copy, I finished a full first draft of the novel. When I read my work back to myself, it felt like a new form, a new voice. I was surprised and pleased with the unexpected layers of richness that were now within my reach.

When I got out of prison and sat down to rewrite it all, I felt my sentences stretching out, becoming convoluted, dragging their feet. I lost my grip on the story; the plotlines disintegrated and stopped making sense. Sitting at my laptop, I’d puzzle over the words I was rewriting, my memory faltering—was the sentence so short because I’d intended it to be? Or because my arm muscles had started to hurt, the ache in my knees was getting to be too much, and I’d just wanted to take a break from writing? When is it the mind that thinks and writes, and when is it the body?

BANGING MY HEAD ON THE MIRROR

Like anybody who gives a shit about the public good in Egypt, I’d expected to go to prison at some point. There’s always the possibility you’ll be grabbed off the street at a demonstration—or even not at a demonstration—or be detained for some opinion you’ve expressed or stance you’ve taken. It was a tax I’d tried to evade. 

I ended up going to prison anyway—but for writing literature, not journalism. I was still hesitant to call myself a writer right up till the point I went to prison; I always felt that what I wrote wasn’t good enough, didn’t satisfy my own ambitions enough—I still do. I was embarrassed to talk about literature and my own work. As far as I was concerned, the tiny circle of friends I wrote for was my audience, and without their enthusiasm and insistence, I never would have published or followed this path.

My high school graduation results were poor—a nasty shock for my family, who’d planned to offer up their firstborn at the altar of medical school. My nickname since childhood had been “Doctor”: not just because my father, uncle, and cousins were all either doctors or in medical school, but also because my father, a pediatrician, was especially beloved in our town, and it was a given that I’d take over his clinic. I decided, instead, to go to the Daily News Academy, a training college run by one of the country’s biggest newspapers, which offered a degree in journalism. 

I picked journalism because it seemed to be the field closest to what I wanted to do, and that—what a fool!—was writing. I wrote poetry at the time, and later, at university, Ahmed Wael and I became obsessed with open and hybrid texts. We used to spend whole nights and days in hallucinatory literary trances, taking turns working on a single shared text while we smoked and listened to music. The literature we craved was untamable and uncontainable. It celebrated error rather than fetishizing correctness, let you wander and get lost instead of dispensing wisdom.

When I discovered blogging, I found a way to do all of that. Publishing anonymously, I lived a double life for many years after graduating. I had a day job at Akhbar al-Adab as a junior reporter covering arts and culture, writing in a stuffy, formal, and information-packed style that was decidedly unambitious in its message. One day, as we rode the elevator up to the newspaper offices, my colleague at the paper Mansoura Ez Eldin, who is also a novelist, asked me innocently, “Do you have a blog calledShadow Puppet?”

I have no idea how she guessed, or how she even found the blog, but she told me she liked it and complimented my writing. “I don’t see why you don’t just write like that,” she added. A few months later I gave her the manuscript of Rogers, a long text I was thinking of publishing on my blog, accompanied by Pink Floyd songs. It was she who said, “This is a great novel.”

Coincidentally, after posting part of the text to my blog a few days later, I received an offer to publish it as a novel from Muhammad Sharqawi, the founder of a press called Malamih. But even after it was published, I still didn’t engage seriously with the literary world, other than when I was covering it as a journalist.

Writing, for me, has always been a thing of whim, captive to my mood swings and urges. I write under the intense pressure of an internal impulse; I don’t write regularly or with the aim of creating grand structures. I write to reach out to the people I’m closest to. I’m always amazed when I meet someone I don’t know and they tell me they’ve read and enjoyed something of mine, because I just can’t imagine how it could interest anyone other than my friends.

Prison put an end to all those immature ideas. Like every prisoner with a modicum of education and self-regard, I became absorbed in searching for myself. I stood in front of the cellblock’s only mirror, which hung on a nail over the sink, and peered into my own eyes, searching for the Ahmed I wanted, or the Ahmed that wanted me.

The thing is, in prison you don’t find yourself or come to understand yourself. Instead, you beat yourself up for every choice that brought you to where you are today. You get mad and scream at yourself and bash your head against the mirror. Was it really worth it? Is the written word worth so huge a sacrifice? The daily abuse and humiliation, the cockroaches that scuttle over your body while you sleep? And if you decide it’s worth it for you, what about for your family and the people who love you? Do they deserve to be put through this miserable, exhausting ordeal? There were many times I wasn’t sure if being a writer was my vocation or if prison had forced my hand.

Prison was also a wake-up call to the fact that I was past thirty and still hadn’t made up my mind about what I wanted to do. “Enough fucking around, Ahmed,” I said to myself one evening as I stared at the flaking ceiling of the cell. “The literary world is up in arms, and you’re in the middle of it. You’re a writer now. You have to start taking it seriously.”

PROUST’S MEMOIRS

Except, of course, that everyone gets a taste for writing in prison. In my early days on the cellblock, I noticed one elderly inmate who slept with a pile of notebooks stacked next to him. I would regularly pass by his bunk and find him withdrawn, hunched over his writing, in deep concentration. I had no idea what he was writing, but his commitment to the craft felt like a challenge. When I saw him writing, I’d go back to my bunk and stare at a blank sheet of paper for an hour, thinking about the novel I wanted to write, then scribble one line before lying down to light a cigarette and gaze at the shapes the smoke made in the air above me.

One day I summoned up the nerve to engage my notebook-collecting cellmate in conversation.

“Excuse me, would it be OK if I asked you a question?” I ventured.

“Of course, Mr. Naji!” he replied. “Goodness me. Shall I make you a cup of tea?”

“Thanks, no need. I just wondered: What is it you write about all day?”

A broad smile spread across his face as he told me he was writing his memoirs. A lot of people assumed he was spying on his cellmates and reporting everything they said to the administration, he explained, but really he was just keeping a journal. He opened up a notebook and held it out for me to read a page. It was a meticulously kept account of his daily life, each section beginning with a date, followed by the time he woke up, and then every single thing he’d done that day.

“Went to the bathroom. Fried egg and milky tea for breakfast today. Spent some time reading Shaykh Sha‘rawi’s Al-Du‘a’ al-Mustajab (The prayer that is answered).” Here he had copied down the paragraphs he’d read, and then it went on: “Talked to —— about his job as an airport engineer, saw in newspaper that there are protests in Venezuela—country on verge of bankruptcy. Played ping-pong in rec hour. Beat ——” The man had six notebooks of this stuff, all written in a small, neat hand. He had diligently recorded everything he’d seen, read, or eaten, and even the times and details of his bowel movements, e.g.: “Water off today so borrowed ——’s bucket to go to bathroom. Passed water and evacuated.”

Keeping a firm grip on myself, I closed the notebook. Life’s a weird one. I asked him if he’d ever heard of a writer called Marcel Proust. He hadn’t but mentioned another French writer he knew of, called Sartre. That was someone else, I told him—“But the point is, Proust used to write like you.”

Although he recorded everything, he confided, not everything he wrote was fit to publish. He recorded so as to remember, because he didn’t want to forget a single day of his life in prison and because he’d seen so much injustice—so many repeated and accumulated injustices, in fact, that he felt it was his duty to reveal those injustices, and he was waiting to get out of prison so he could begin the task of reviewing his notebook-memoirs with a view to choosing which parts should be published.

Sometime later, Marcel received notice of his imminent release. He packed up his belongings, shook everyone’s hands, bequeathed me one of his pens, and left the cellblock. At the prison gate, where he was searched before leaving, the chief of intelligence found the notebooks.

“What are these?”

“My memoirs,” replied Proust.

“No way,” said the major. “That’s against the rules. I can’t let you take these out.”

Proust was dumbfounded, and the major almost as much so. He couldn’t confiscate the notebooks, or Proust would accuse him of theft, but he couldn’t allow them—and the detailed documentation they contained of everything that went on in his prison—to leave the facility. He decided that Proust would have to get rid of them, otherwise he wouldn’t be allowed to leave.

With hot tears streaming down his face, Marcel Proust stood in the prison yard, tore apart his notebooks, and cast the bundled pages into a roaring fire that had been lit inside a battered oil drum. “God will be my sufficiency and the best of all providers,” he repeated as the pages burned. 

By that point, I’d written the first chapter of my new novel, and when I heard what had happened to Proust, I was stricken with panic. I had to keep it a secret that I was writing, I had to hide the manuscript carefully, and I had to make sure I’d manage to smuggle it out; otherwise, I’d lose everything, like Marcel had. They would steal my memories, turn my torment into a blank space that I couldn’t go back and search for.

FOLDING BONES

Three weeks in, I found a buddy. It’s hard to get by alone in prison. For example, we never had enough fresh food, and in an environment as unhealthy as prison, you need your vitamins. I got a visit from my family every two weeks, and they’d bring fruit and vegetables, among other things, but in the heat and humidity, it went bad within days, and I couldn’t keep it in the refrigerator because the refrigerator was reserved for meat. By buddying up with someone else, or a group of people, you could share your food deliveries and, that way, guarantee that everyone in the group would have fresh food throughout the week.

My buddy, HB, occupied the bunk next to mine. The bunks in the cellblock were made of reinforced concrete and cement and separated from one another by a cement block around ten centimeters high. On the divider between our bunks, we kept a cardboard box where we stored packets of sugar, coffee, tea, Nescafé, and sometimes cookies. Next to this box were my books. I kept my papers and the notebooks in which I was writing my novel under the mattress I slept on.

By the light of the same jerry-rigged bulb, I would read the Arabic translation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children while my buddy wrote long multipage letters in blue ink on foolscap, now and then taking out a corrector pen, which he rattled habitually before erasing a mistake or a line he had thought better of. His letter-writing habit was obsessive, and I envied his physical ability to write for hours on end. I’ve always struggled to hold a pen and write for long periods, and in school exams I often wrote short summary answers instead of putting down everything I knew, just because my hand got tired. As a teenager I started writing short stories and journals on the computer, and after graduating from university I abandoned pen and paper completely. In prison, I had to learn all over again how to grip a pen and write by hand on lined paper.

This was how it worked. First, HB and I managed to buy an old copy of Zahrat al-Khalij (Gulf flower), an upscale, well-produced Emirati society magazine that was perfect for leaning on as we wrote. We used to keep it on the concrete divider between the bunks, and he also stored the many pages of his letters inside it; being shorter than I, he could write leaning on the divider, but when I tried, every bone and muscle in my back shrieked in pain within minutes. By experimenting, I found it easiest to sit with my back to the wall, my knees bent, and Zahrat al-Khalij resting on my thighs. This was how I wrote.

I divided up my writing sessions so as not to tire myself out too quickly. After one paragraph, I’d stretch and shake myself out so my body wouldn’t suddenly seize up on me. In the night, I was sometimes awoken by pain caused by the cold and the damp and the uncomfortable bed. Whenever I tried to stretch out, my legs hit the end of the bunk. I would stay awake talking to the aches in my body, hoping they would go away so I could fall back asleep. In the mornings, every movement would hurt. My knees began to click. As I sat down again with my ballpoint pen and my notebook, I gritted my teeth in pain.

Every word I wrote in that awkward, tiring position carries the ache and the effort it cost me. This is what it is to be a writer, I thought. Practice it. This is your life—be prepared to use it.

BLANKET

I lit a cigarette and leaned against the metal fence of the walkway that looked out over the yard and the first-floor cellblocks. It was recreation hour, and the heat and humidity were suffocating. A strange, somber mood enveloped the cellblock.

Thinking to myself that things seemed different from usual, I noticed that none of the cell doors were open and none of the inmates had come out for recreation.

A plainclothes officer emerged from one of the cells below, followed by four prisoners, each gripping one corner of a dirty standard-issue blanket. Lying in the blanket was the unmoving body of a prisoner. Naked from the waist up, the body was pale and grayish; a sheet of newspaper lay over its face. I followed the cortege from above as it transported the new corpse out into the world.

It wasn’t the first time I’d seen a dead body, but it was the first time I’d seen one treated with such contempt and indifference. There was no screaming or weeping, and I heard no one reciting the two shahadas. The guard was pissed and cursing foully because the death was going to mean paperwork, which he hated.

“Your life is worth twenty pounds here” was a threat I’d often heard repeated by lieutenants and guards. Twenty pounds was the cost of the blanket in which they would wrap your dead body and send you back to your family.

HUMILIATION

One morning we were woken up early and told to put on our uniforms and leave the cellblock. I opened my eyes. It was barely 6:00 a.m. All I could make out from the mutters of my cellmates was that there was a Prisons Authority inspection. Movement and muffled voices filtered in from outside, as well as the unfamiliar sound of dogs barking.

I headed to the lavatory to wash my face and was standing in line for the sink when two plainclothes officers I’d never seen before burst in. They yelled at us to get out as they yanked open the curtains of each stall, kicked the trash cans over, and dumped the pots and pans we used for cooking onto the ground.

I followed the others out, trying to avoid being seen by either of the crazed officers. On my way to the door, I suddenly remembered the manuscript of my novel. Pretending to take a long slug from the plastic water bottle on my bed, I pulled the notebook out from under the mattress and slid it into my bag of clothes. I don’t know why that seemed like a better hiding place. I guess I just thought a notebook in a bag would arouse less suspicion than a notebook under a mattress.

The Prisons Authority carried out surprise inspections every three months or so. The prison administration never knew when it would be. A squad from the Prisons Authority, reporting directly to the Ministry of Interior, would descend without warning and take control from the warden and his lieutenants. They reviewed the registers and paperwork, took all the keys, and went through every single cell. For the duration of the inspection, the prison was under the control of jailers we didn’t know.

An officer in civilian clothes and a young lieutenant who held the inmate ID cards stood waiting as we filed out of our cells and into the second floor yard, ready for the roll call. They checked that each card matched each prisoner by “half calling”: the officer would shout out the first part of your full name, and you had to reply with the second part.

“Ahmed Higazi!” yelled an officer.

“Saleh Naji!” I shouted back. But the lieutenant stopped me, glancing down at the card in his hand.

“What are you in for?”

“For writing, sir.”

“What? Fighting?”

“No, sir, writing. I’m a journalist and I wrote something.”

“It says here ‘gross violation of decency.’ That means you raped or assaulted someone.”

“No, sir. It was gross violation of public decency.”

“Not a woman?”

“No, sir. Just the public.”

I was shoved into a corner of the yard, and we were ordered to squat or sit on the ground. One man remained standing, and the young lieutenant bellowed at him to get down. He protested weakly that he had a problem with his knees, but before he could even finish the sentence the lieutenant whacked him in the face and he crumpled to the floor. They brought sniffer dogs, who inspected us thoroughly before being taken through the cellblock.

On the first floor, where they kept the guys who were in for drugs and violent offenses, it was much more vicious. All we could hear was shouting and cursing, and the sound of mattresses and blankets being slashed apart with knives. Looking down from the second floor, I caught glimpses of prisoners being forced to strip and stand facing the wall.

We were kept there for about four hours. I spent the whole time willing myself to disappear. Violence like that had no reason or justification; it was a show of force, an unabashed delight in the pleasure of humiliating others. They really were dogs, rabid dogs, who tore up everything in their path as they hunted for contraband. Contraband could be pills, but it could also be a metal teaspoon, or a glass, or an electric kettle, or an iPad or PlayStation.

The regime’s guards fed on humiliation. If their eyes fell upon you for some reason and they took a dislike to a movement you made or the way you looked, they could make an example of you in front of everyone, and when that happened, you had to submit, because any hint of resistance was a provocation. Your resistance signaled there was something inside you that wasn’t broken yet, and their job was to break it. 

The terror hasn’t gone away. It’s still with me.

I learned a lesson that day, but I would forget it, later, in the Khalifa precinct, where I was transferred shortly before my release. A lieutenant and one of the crazy-fucker types of officers came in and ordered us to stand facing the wall with our hands up. For some reason I just couldn’t stop myself from glancing out of the corner of my eye at the lieutenant as he made his way to the cell. The smack to my face came out of nowhere. He dragged me backward, away from the wall, then pushed me forward so I smashed into it. He did this twice more, cursing the whole time. I made myself still and didn’t resist at all, didn’t let my face show any reaction, didn’t even reach up to gently finger my raw and swollen forehead. That was the humiliation. And it worked. The officer moved on and slapped another prisoner who was standing with his weight on one leg.

It happened again when a lieutenant—another fresh graduate—caught me smoking. He opened the wire mesh door and whacked me on the face, then dragged me, shaking and apologizing, out of the cell. I remember thinking at the time: I’m not going to write about this. I’m not going to tell anyone. If I do, I’ll make it a black comedy. I’ll add preposterous hyperbole for extra laughs, and shoehorn in some dramatic conflict between the social classes who are imprisoned cheek by jowl in cramped cells. How do you even write about being humiliated without making yourself the heroic underdog? The sense of abasement I feel is too bitter to become melodrama, I thought. When you’re humiliated and broken, writing won’t fix it.

When they finally let us go back to the cellblock, the entire contents of our cell were scattered on the ground. I found my clothes under a bag of tomatoes and cucumbers, and they’d confiscated our metal coffee pot and our improvised tuna-can ashtray. But they hadn’t touched the books—or my manuscript.

—Translated by Katharine Halls

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