Sunday,17 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)
Sunday,17 December, 2017
Issue 1269, (5 - 11 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly


Censorship is one thing, writes Youssef Rakha, but jailing creative writers?

Al-Ahram Weekly

When the young writer Ahmed Naje was referred to a criminal court over sexually explicit fiction this Saturday, gongs sounded for the literary community. The news was an unpleasant reminder that, while creative writers in Egypt are by and large left to their own devices, this is only because their work is seldom scrutinised outside literary circles.

As a writer in Egypt you can only be torn between frustration over your work remaining obscure and concern with the trouble “success” could bring to your life. If you want to keep writing “against public morality” – this is the message of Naje’s case – then you’d better be quiet about it.

But in whose interest is such a state of affairs except the Wahhabi “terrorists” with whom the regime is at war and the corrupt, fascism-touting sycophants it periodically claims to be purging?

In his 1970 book Happiness Is Not My Profession, the late Syrian poet Mohammed Al-Maghout (1934-2006) compared himself to a prostitute perpetually terrified of a police raid. “I write in darkness,” the poem “Tattoo” says. “With every door knock or curtain flutter/I cover up my papers with my hands…”

The poem goes on to ask what it is that instils such fear in a writer. One imagines that, in this image, the vice police stands in for the Mukhabarat. In a police state, Al-Maghout wants to say, the poet becomes an outlaw, and the business of truth telling is relegated to the criminal realm. But the Mukhabarat is only interested in political transgressions. That was the focus of the Sixties zeitgeist, which Al-Maghout’s work expressed.

The other two historical taboos of modern Arab culture – sex, and religion – were seldom breached. Writers were undermined by political power, not social conservatism.

Fast forward a few decades, relocate the action to “democratic” Egypt and, while extrajudicial measures no longer target writers as such, you find literature has a much scarier scourge.

There are laws against contempt for religion and offending public morality, things no contemporary Arab writer with any interest in the substance of reality can avoid doing in some sense, since it is religion and morality’s attendant hypocrisies that form literature’s social, cultural and psychological subject matter.

Though infrequently and arbitrarily applied – and usually only with a view to banning books published by the state – laws that can be used to restrict what writers are allowed to say also carry prison sentences. And, with mainstream society professing little if any interest in freedom of expression outside the political sphere, no Mukhabarat needs to interfere for a writer to be “legally” and defensibly jailed…

Soap opera-inspired “bestsellers” – the core of the so called Age of the Novel – are written in the safest and dullest schoolbook Arabic. They make no attempt at a critical intervention in Arab life. Their writers are more or less safe. But there are other, so far lesser known books that make up interesting contributions to contemporary world views. It is these books that promise to liberate the minds of readers, bringing the public imagination if not sociopolitical reality up to speed with the contemporary world. If they were to have a wide enough circulation for such laws to be applied to them, however, practically every writer worth her salt – including such acclaimed older figures as Sonallah Ibrahim – would be facing criminal charges.

Naje and the editor in chief of the literary weekly Akhbar Al-Adab, the writer Tarek Al-Taher, are a case in point – and it does not bode well for the future of Arabic literature. Fifty-five years after the publication of Ibrahim’s The Smell of It, they stand accused of publishing obscene sexual material, for which they might face two years in jail. And the reason for this?

Someone unused to contemporary fiction happened to spot the preview chapter of Naje’s novel Istikhdam Al-Hayah (or “Using Life”, published by Dar Al-Tanwir last year) in an August, 2014 issue of the journal. Whatever was driving him – and it’s hard to believe he had no motive beyond sparing fellow non-readers the life-threatening health issues resulting from his fluke encounter with contemporary literature – the honourable citizen who took “the article” to the prosecution claimed that it caused him palpitations and a sharp drop in blood pressure.

In turn the prosecutor, who evidently fancies himself a wordsmith, composed a homily in the style of the 19th-century Arab Renaissance. Among other things, he claimed that “the suspect… rented out his mind and pen to a pernicious orientation carrying a desecration of the sanctity of public morals”. The prosecution’s statement is obviously meant to be an eloquent and persuasive argument detailing how Naje carried out his clearly criminal intent. It actually reads like a Kafkaesque parody of late-style Egyptian judicial rhetoric.

More importantly, perhaps reflecting the elasticity of the relevant law (59-187), the prosecution’s statement is completely ad hoc.

It makes no distinction between “a narrative” and “an article”. It poses no question about literary context, narrative purpose or target audience. It makes no mention of the fact that what verbal obscenities occur in the text are daily heard on the streets of Cairo if not on TV. And it contains no evidence of Naje’s intent to “strew the poisons of his pen… making [readers] as flies seeing only filth… so that chaos prevails, and the fire spreads in the chaff”.

In the absence of pluralistic politics, multiple belief systems and personal freedoms, literature remains one of a handful of discursive channels open to that minority of Arabs who envisage a way out of the current cultural – civilisational – straightjacket, and instead of sectarian civil war and genocide propose a more realistic dialogue with desires and fears.

But it is on literature’s wider circulation – and, needless to say, the safety of its makers – that any positive long-term results depend. And, regardless of this prosecutor’s retrograde tastes, it is the silencing and elimination of the aforementioned minority that should be referred to criminal court.

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