Today I‘m excited to be speaking with Ahmed Naji, a writer who spent two years in prison in Egypt for writing what the authorities judged to be objectionable material.
But while Ahmed Naji was in prison, he discovered literature and through that, himself. It’s an amazing story of a person who finds magic and hope in the unlikely environs of the library of a stereotypical prison—a pestilential and dank hovel, one biscuit short of hell.
But before I talk to him, I thought it might be useful to get some context going here, so, a little bit, about Egyptian literature first. Modern Egyptian literature began to flourish in the early 20th century, or right up to say the 1940s, as writers started to break away from traditional Arabic literary forms such as classical Arabic poetry, with specific meters and rhyming schemes. It was during that time that author Taha Hussein, often called the "Dean of Arabic Literature," challenged classical literary norms, when he introduced a more accessible style of prose.
The next decade saw the birth of a cultural renaissance with the overthrow of the monarchy in 1952 and the beginning of the republic. That’s about when Naguib Mahfouz happened. He went on to win the Nobel in 1988 and brought world attention to Egyptian literature.
As with all cultural forms, one decade tends to build on the previous and the successive decades have seen social realism, pioneering books, like "Woman at Point Zero", about the struggles of women in Egyptian society, and writers explained the challenges of contemporary life. There was the growth of female and feminist voices and of course the influences from the Arab Spring. Importantly, there has been a growth in contribution to literature from the Egyptian diaspora.
I found Ahmed Naji’s writing online and I was fascinated by his story and his work and we tracked him down to his new home in the United States. Ahmed’s latest book Rotten Evidence is a story about his time in prison, about how he discovered literature and found the writer in himself and the reality of protest. These lines capture the essence of the protest against censorship and being jailed for alleged obscenity.
"James Joyce, who swore to express himself with the greatest degree of freedom possible—and never to serve home, fatherland, or church—said a writer had three weapons: silence, exile, and cunning. Well, Joyce, they put me in prison, and all I had left was laughter and rage."
Such is the captivating prose of my guest today. Ahmed Naji joins me from his home in Las Vegas for this delightful conversation.
ABOUT AHMED NAJI
Ahmed Naji is a writer, journalist, documentary filmmaker... and criminal. His novel Using Life made him the only writer in Egyptian history to have been sent to prison for offending public morality. Naji has won several prizes including a Dubai Press Club Award and a PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. He is currently a fellow at the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute.
Buy Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison: https://litcity.in/rotten-evidence
WHAT'S THAT WORD?!
Co-host Pranati "Pea" Madhav joins Ramjee Chandran in "WHAT'S THAT WORD?!", where they discuss the Arabic proverb "BUKRA FI'L MISH MISH".
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