On the eve of Eid al-Fitr in 1995, a university student on his way to spend the holiday with his family was stopped on a bridge outside the city of Mansoura. He was asked for his ID and held in a police car for a few hours while they continued checking other passersby. Finally at daybreak, when they freed him, the officer voiced his disapproval of the young man’s long hair. “Why didn’t you cut your hair for Eid, are you a khawal (fag) or something?” he asked.
On the same night in Cairo, a police officer stopped a 24-year-old painter, asked for his ID, took it, and without looking at it said, “What do you think of yourself, you son of a bitch, shaved hair and a pink shirt?”
Egyptian law contains no articles requiring young men to trim their hair to a particular length. Yet the police, the state’s tools of enforcement, often use their own discretion in such cases, with a degree of impunity.
I must have told Ahmad Naji this story and the deep impact it had on me as a young writer in the 1990s. It terrified me more than the many incidents of banning books, films, and newspapers during that time. It was more frightening than the saga of Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid — the prominent Egyptian scholar whose critique of Islamic discourse upset fundamentalists. In 1995, an Egyptian court nullified Abu Zeid’s marriage in a hisba trial after it declared him an apostate.
In my understanding, Abu Zeid’s case indicated the persistence of certain medieval laws, convenient for a government pretending to uphold modern democracy but in reality exhibiting a complex mix of attributes: military, religious, moralizing, tribal, bureaucratic. The government used such laws in a hypocritical game, even against its own loyal individuals and groups. The random act of scrutinizing haircuts in the street was scary. How can a person be targeted for choosing a hairstyle? I was more terrified as a citizen than as an intellectual.
As the Italian Marxist theoretician and politician Antonio Gramsci noted long ago, intellectuals are not an autonomous or independent social class; rather they represent different types and categories, each tied to his or her class origins, education, ideology, and interests. To this list we can add individuality, sexual orientation, and even linguistic and artistic choices. Furthermore, we have encountered a crisis over the self-image of the Arab intellectual and its ramifications. There is an established belief in the superiority of the 20th Century Arab intellectual as the manufacturer of ideas for an illiterate society, as leaders opposing colonialism and dictatorship, and as individuals who take a position on class struggles and ideas of modernity. In addition to this, intellectuals often express their interests and opinions from within the same establishment they oppose.
Throughout the 20th Century there were Arab intellectuals who did not accept this image: writers, filmmakers and others. For various reasons, however, the image of the intellectual as a representative of a larger group, the conscience of his or her nation and class, remained unchallenged until the 1990s, when a new generation of Arab intellectuals came of age; they had neither been involved in the grand national projects nor the grand intellectual projects that supported them.
In the 1990s, we saw a new generation of writers in their twenties who were disconcerted by the prominent nationalist intellectuals. These intellectuals desperately defended freedom of expression in the case against Youssef Chahine’s film The Immigrant in the mid 1990s, and the novel Banquet for Seaweed, by Syrian writer Haider Haider, as well as what became known as the controversy of “the three novels,” published by the Ministry of Culture in 2001 and later pulled off the shelves due to accusations they were pornographic. Yet, at the same time, these same intellectuals defended Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi, and demanded the maximum punishment for Islamists facing Egypt’s kangaroo courts and for playwright Ali Salem, accused of normalization with Israel.
In fact, every time I encounter a call for solidarity against attacks on freedom of speech, my initial feeling of support is often clouded by tension, and a sense of irony and despair. As in the case of younger writers, such as Ahmed Naji, who was sentenced to two years in prison on February 20, 2016, on charges of public indecency in relation to the publishing of a chapter of his novel Istikhdam al-Hayah (The Use of Life), I can’t help but think that most of our intellectuals do not show the same enthusiastic support for the wider abuse of human rights. It is as if support for freedom of intellectual expression is an easier and safer path. I imagine that Naji himself is laughing in prison at some of those defending his creative rights, while justifying the murder and imprisonment of political opponents and permitting police brutality, or denying cases of forced disappearance by President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s government.
There is great support for Naji’s freedom to write, to imagine and use language. This is at least one assertion upon which we all agree: “Words should not be taken to court.” I do not write this article in order to confirm or deny this, as I know that Naji would not do so if he were in my place. I am deeply saddened to have to think of him in prison as I write this.
At the same time, there have been many who have undermined solidarity for Naji. We have read things like, “rallying for this cause is fruitless because intellectuals are isolated and without influence,” or, “The Use of Life is not a good novel and lacks the creativity deserving support,” or, “Akhbar Al-Adab [the literary newspaper that published the chapter prompting the trial] is published with taxpayers money, yet did not respect society’s linguistic or moral codes, only the views of its editors,” as well as claims “the novel contains obscenity, a kind of violence that cannot foster dialogue with society.”
Does a person’s social role determine whether or not he deserves our support? Is agreeing with what someone says — or how he or she says it — necessary to defending their right to say it? Do we need to eliminate publicly funded cultural venues to match our perception of taxpayer ethics? Aren’t Naji and his readers taxpayers too? What is this society in which a novel’s success or failure is dependent on how obscene it is?
Let us remember that the intellectual community is not an army whose mobilization for a kind of “war effort” can be demanded. Let us also recognize that we, as individuals, do not feel the same degree of anger over an assault on the freedoms of a member of the community, perhaps due to differences in our value systems, ideologies, or simply for personal reasons, and that this is not necessarily a moral issue as long as we neither justify nor accept the assault on others for the same reasons.
I ask myself if I’m angry about Naji’s imprisonment because of my interest in his work, and my understanding of his world. And the answer is yes.
Among others, Naji’s blog “Peso,” which he started in 2005 opened up new doors to vivid language outside conventional literary genres and printed newspapers, and beyond the domain of censorship. Naji did not present himself as an “enlightened” writer, or an intellectual trying to break societal taboos; his writing does not really address society directly. I have often been amazed by Naji’s absorption in projects tied to his mood and questions, such as articles about Mahraganat — Egypt’s trending underground electro-rap music — or about Saudi Arabia, Cairo, or his important study on graffiti art in 2011, which he titled Long live the expendable art.
For me, Naji — along with novelists Nael Eltoukhy, Mohamad Rabie, and Ahmad Shafie, among other younger authors — are making the most significant contributions to Egyptian writing today. Beyond my admiration for their writing, I am grateful for the presence of such individuals in our lives, with their lively conversation and fresh language, and how they inspire us as readers and as writers.
They may well be the first generation that has exercised such freedom to play with language and fictional narratives, without the pretentious desire for heroism, without fear or concern for the intellectual’s image — one that has suffocated so many before them.
With rage, we reject any assault on freedom of expression, but we also have to reconcile ourselves with the fact that we are more outraged when the assault is on our cause, to one of our own.
If a text is ever capable of shocking, it is only to its reader: a lonely reader sitting at the margins of the text and a society that never reads. The reader’s shock often results from the semantics of the text, and not the language exchanged within society. Spoken language, it seems, enjoys more freedom than what is sanctioned to be written. Kuss (Cunt) is a word that you hear every day on the streets of Cairo, yet, it continues to be shocking when you read it in Naji’s The Use of Life. Why?
The influential French literary critic and theorist Michel Riffaterre thought about the same subject, albeit for different reasons. He says that the shock caused by a reader’s encounter with a text results from neither the disruption of social norms and traditions, nor their imitation. Rather, Riffatterre argues that such a shock arises from the satirical disruption of the literary convention within the text: irony, amplification and expansion, or narrative disruption, in a way that turns the most ordinary terminology into bumpy innuendos that implicate the reader in a game of verbal exchange.
What Riffaterre calls a “linguistic scandal” is shocking even in the most liberal societies, because it emanates from the text and not from common sense. His views on this are clear: if the linguistic scandal in a given text were the result of inconsistency with the social morals of its time, the text would have lost its ability to shock once these morals have changed, which did not happen with hundreds of texts from Song of Songs to Lautréamont’s Les Chants de Maldoror. This brings me to think that those who claim that the linguistic scandal is the result of language profanity, because it contradicts social norms and is therefore shocking to the reader, are precisely those who believe that the author should guard his or her image forever, or strive to establish a dialogue with an imaginary society that only exists in their own thoughts.
I would completely understand a reader whose heart beat faster reading the fifth chapter of The Use of Life in Akhbar Al-Adab, I can similarly describe my reaction as I read Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell as a high school student, and how I felt reading Georges Bataille some years afterwards. The shock is one of the main attributes of productive reading. The catastrophe starts when the reader thinks that what offends him would necessarily offend a society that did not read and has no intention of reading the novel. The catastrophe starts when that reader appoints him or herself as a representative of this society, filing a lawsuit, in which a judge reads the novel on behalf of society and decides to punish the author.
In other words, there is no problem in a policeman, as a citizen, having an opinion about the appropriate length of a man’s hair. But it becomes catastrophic when that policeman punishes fellow citizens based on this, thus exploiting power and the absence of law regarding the matter. We are not in a state of dialogue either with the person who filed the lawsuit against Naji, the judge who “protected” society from him, or the police officer. We are in a dialogue, whether we like it or not, with those who read and write, then talk about some alleged conditions for supporting freedom of expression.
This essay is published in cooperation with Za2ed18, Qul, and Za7ma websites, part of a joint campaign in solidarity with Ahmed Naji.