May 11, 2016
Writers join PEN America in protesting imprisonment of Egyptian novelist
by Kait Howard
Since we last wrote about Ahmed Naji, the Egyptian writer sentenced to two years in prison for explicit content in his novel The Use of Life, there has been an outpouring of support for his cause from Western activists and organizations.
PEN America has helped lead the movement with their decision to grant Naji the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in March. Now, the organization has enlisted 120 writers and artists to sign a letter to Egypt’s president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi protesting Naji’s imprisonment.
The New York Times’s Rick Gladstone reports that the letter, which “amplifies international pressure on the Egyptian president…over his increasingly harsh repression of writers and journalists” was signed by major figures including Woody Allen, Margaret Atwood, J.M. Coetzee, Jessica Hagedorn, David Henry Hwang, and Orhan Pamuk.
PEN’s decision to bestow the Freedom to Write Award on Naji seems to have been strategic. According to Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America, the award has been an effective tool for helping free foreign writers who have been imprisoned by their governments for their work— “thirty-five of forty recipients who were incarcerated at the time they won were subsequently released,” she told Gladstone.
Nossel also explained that the decision to write the letter was complicated by the fact that Naji—whose lawyer and family were consulted—didn’t settle for “a pardon that would have let his conviction stand.” In what seems an echo of comments made by the Egyptian poet Fatma Naoot about her own imprisonment for blasphemy, Naji is brave enough to demand “an amendment to the law under which he [has] been convicted.”
As many have pointed out, Naji’s plight is indicative of a situation that is troubling and unpredictable—after all, The Use of Life made it past the censors before an excerpt in a literary magazine caught the attention of the authorities.
It has yet to be seen whether international pressure will have an effect. The latest protests by the Egyptian journalists’ union in Cairo, responding to the arrests of two journalists, have been receiving attention—and have expanded into protests against government censorship more broadly. In an interesting essay published by the Middle East Research and Information Project, Joshua Stacher went so far as to hypothesize that Sisi’s regime, struggling even to control their own terrifying security forces, may be “running on empty.”
Kait Howard was a publicist at Melville House.