A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Ahmad Naji Case: The Offending Text

Amid the many unpleasant things happening to the arts in Egypt, a recent one is the decision a few days ago by the Bulaq criminal court in Cairo to sentence novelist Ahmad Naji to two years in prison for "publishing obscene sexual content" in the publication Akhbar al-Adab.

Now, in a country attempting to sentence  a four-year-old child to life in prison (though they now say that was a mistake), this may seem mild, but the article in question was an excerpt from a previously published novel, by an "experimental" modem novelist. The novel itself was neither banned nor prosecuted. But the state censors seem to feel that novels have more leeway since no one reads them; a periodical available on newsstands might actually be read by someone. The publisher was also fined.

As a publisher, I despise censorship, and this sort of hypocrisy (the words are fine in a book but deserve a jail term in a literary paper) is even more senseless than most.

The best way to deal with censored material is to publish it. Last month the Arabic Literature (in English) blog published the excerpt translated by Ben Koerber, and I link it here so you can read it yourself.

The article notes that
Specifically, the original accuser complained that his “heartbeat fluctuated and blood pressure dropped” while reading the chapter.
The excerpt won't seem strange to anyone familiar with modern literature: the alienated youth of every novel for the last 60 years since Catcher in the Rye, a Sartrean ennui and world weariness, and the sex and drugs of 60s lit. But in today's Cairo.

Again, the book was published; the excerpt produced the problem. Is this so offensive in a
modern novel?:
In this city, you’ll be lucky if you can get over your sexual tension, and appreciate sex as just one of the many facets of a friendship.  Otherwise, your horniness will make you a testy bitch.  Kiko rubs my back, and I feel a heat between my legs.
This is admittedly much more explicit (potentially NSFW):
I gave her knee a parting kiss, and continued my tongue’s journey up her thigh.  I planted a kiss, soft as a butterfly, on her thinly lined underwear and pulled it away with my hands.  I plunged my tongue into her pussy.  I drank a lot that night.  I drank until I felt thirsty.  I gave her a full ride with my tongue before she took me into her room, where we had slow and leisurely sex.  She turned over, and I put my fingers in her mouth.  Wet with her saliva, I stuck them in her pussy.  Slipping and sliding.  I stuck them in from behind.  I grabbed her short hair and pulled it towards me.  I humped her violently and then lay on top of her for a few seconds.  I got out of bed and threw the condom into the trash.  As I gave her a smile, the phone rang.
OK, strong stuff for a Muslim country, but then why was it OK in a book? If you don't like this sort of thing, don't read it, don't buy it, or even ban the book, but why jail the author?

It seems to me the proper response to censorship is to make the censors work harder: so go read the excerpt and oh yes, Fuck Censorship.

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