Imprisoned Egyptian Novelist Faces Final Appeal

After being convicted of “violating public modesty” with a work of fiction and sentenced to two years in prison, Egyptian novelist, Amhed Naji, is facing his final appeal. On December 4th a court will decide if Naji is innocent or if he’ll be staying in prison to finish out his sentence.

The legality of the charge, the claim that Naji is culpable of “violating public modesty”, according to one of his readers, has been in question since 2014. Hani Saleh Tawfik, the reader who brought Naji to court, claimed that a passage from Naji’s novel, Istikhdam al-Haya (The Use of Life), lead to sudden heart palpitations, a drop in blood pressure, and serious sickness. The passage in question involved the main character of the novel, a man stunted by emotional frustrations and failure, speaking about sexual and drug-related acts.

From “The Use of Life” (image courtesy of Hyperallergic)

Hearing news of the senseless charge – regarding a handful of sentences about oral sex and hashish that had been approved by the Egyptian Censorship Board – the University of Texas, Austin announced that it would publish the novel in English and provide an unaltered translation of the excerpt. The University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies uploaded the passage as follows:

What are your typical twenty-somethings to do in Cairo? Might they go for pupil licking? Are they into eating pussy? Do they like to suck cock, or lick dirt, or snort hash mixed with sleeping pills? Or one might ask how long it would take for any of these fetishes to lose its thrill. Are they good for life? Everyone here has done lots of drugs, both during and after college. Yet here we all are, little islands unto ourselves, with no greater aspiration than to hang out together. We manage to stay alive by sucking our joy out of one another.

Although Naji was initially only charged for a misdemeanour, Tawfik brought him back to court demanding a more severe sentence. In a higher court, Naji was accused of breaking Article 178, which says that “anyone who makes or intends to publicly share an object or picture that is ‘against public morals’ will be punished.” The prosecutor stated that Naji had used “his mind and pen to violate public decency and good morals, inciting promiscuity.” 

Scores of magazines decried the conviction. 500 plus artists published a statement condemning the egregious legal action. Others raised issues regarding the legality of using Article 178 against Naji, given other articles give license to artistic and literary creation. The sentencing, to say the least, stirred much resentment and retort, but it was only the beginning. Since the 2014 conviction other countries have joined the cause for justice.

PEN America has been particularly vocal about their hopes for his release, awarding Naji the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write award and circulating the hashtag #FreeNaji to buoy support and spread Naji’s story. Egyptians are not alone in their hope that Naji’s case will finally be brought to justice in court later this week.


Spread the word, share his story, and #FreeNaji.


Featured image courtesy of Pen.