February 24, 2016

Egyptian author jailed over “explicit” content in his novel



Naji, pictured looking down. Image via BBC/AP.

Over the past few years, MobyLives has been reporting on increased government censorship and harassment of writers in Egypt. Now, the situation appears to be worsening, with alarming incidents following each other in succession, including the brutal torturing and murder of Italian journalist Giulio Regeni, and the raid of the Townhouse Gallery in Cairo.

In what would appear to be a broadening crackdown by the government of President Abdel Fatteh el-Sisi, last week it was reported that a Cairo appeals court had sentenced author Ahmed Naji to two years in prison for publishing sexually explicit content from his novel in a leading literary magazine—a charge for which he had originally been acquitted.

The Associated Press reports:

“The trial stems from a complaint filed by a private citizen and taken up by the prosecution after Akhbar al-Adab magazine published an excerpt from Naji’s novel, The Use of Life, in August 2014. The excerpt contains explicit descriptions of sexual acts and hashish use by the characters.

Defense lawyers say the lawsuit was originally filed by a citizen who said his heartbeat fluctuated, his blood pressure dropped and he became severely ill upon reading the excerpt.”

According the AP, Naji had initially been acquitted, “but after the case garnered widespread media coverage” prosecutors appealed the verdict. The prosecution also apparently insisted that the excerpt from The Use of Life—an experimental novel that combines comics and drawings alongside the text—be treated as a work of journalism and not fiction.

While repression of political dissent in Egypt has increased since el-Sisi ousted the Islamist Mohammed Morsi, the government also appears to be targeting writers whose work isn’t explicitly political. Human rights lawyer Gamal Eid told AP that “the current crackdown on expression, especially when it comes to religion and morals, is the worst he’s seen in 30 years.” AP noted that, according to human rights lawyers and experts they consulted, “[a]uthorities may be limiting artistic expression to insulate themselves from criticism by Islamists,” fearing that perceived criticism of religion could “ignite public outrage” in the traditionally conservative country.

As CNN reports, the court that overturned Naji’s verdict in the wake of several similar cases, including those of film producer Rana El-Sobky, who was sentenced to a year in prison for “violating public modesty” in one of his films; poet Fatma Naoot, who received three years in jail for a post he wrote on Facebook; and TV presenter Islam El-Bheiry, who’s been put behind bars for “contempt of religion.”

Naji’s lawyers will be appealing the verdict of the cassation court on the grounds that the law against publishing anything that “violates public modesty” is unconstitutional, as well as that the individual who filed the case—claiming that reading the excerpt made him ill—brought the suit on absurd grounds.

Chillingly absurd, really.

You can read the full, translated excerpt from The Use of Life here.



Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.