It is no surprise that writer Karam Saber’s prison sentence was upheld by the Court of Appeal; the last few months have seen similar judicial support for the harsh judgments meted out against poet Omar Haziq, sentenced to two years in prison, and the activist All Abdel Fattah and his colleagues, all given fifteen years apiece in absentia.

‘Where is God?’ by Karam Saber

It is no surprise that writer Karam Saber’s prison sentence was upheld by the Court of Appeal; the last few months have seen similar judicial support for the harsh judgments meted out against poet Omar Haziq, sentenced to two years in prison, and the activist All Abdel Fattah and his colleagues, all given fifteen years apiece in absentia.

‘Where is God?’ by Karam Saber

This time, though, the sentence—a product of public politics—was turned against the world of creativity and imagination, and the court upheld its previous decision to commit Karam Saber to five years behind bars, plus a fine of fifty thousand Egyptian pounds, convicted with the notorious charge of “denigrating religion”.

The sentence was first handed out in the accused’s absence back in 2012 and upheld by a court in Beba, located in the governorate of Beni Suef, last April. The short story collection ‘Ayna Allah?’ or ‘Where is God?’ was adjudged to contain imputations and phrases that disparaged the Divine.

 Return of hisba?

 Dear Reader, don’t bother looking for the logic behind these events, or raising your voice in disgust (“Aren’t we finished with the craze for hisba trials— (a principle formally upheld in Egyptian law, whereby any Muslim was able to file a case against a fellow Muslim citizen on charges of apostasy. The law was amended), to which so many of our thinkers and columnists fell victim?”)

Don’t imagine that anything’s changed in the wake of our universal popular revolution that called for freedom and dignity. Arbitrary arrests, preventive detention and prison sentences have reached their highest levels ever in the last three years: instead of the emergency laws we have the Terrorism Bill and instead of hisba there is “denigrating religion” law, another accusation of proven efficacy.

When this law was promulgated in our fair land, its purpose was not to rummage through the very hearts and souls of its citizens to gauge their piety, but rather to criminalize all those who sought to excite sectarian tension in the body politic by denigrating the religions of others and inciting against them.

But it quickly became a political tool used by the authorities to keep their opponents in line. After the revolution, and particularly after fundamentalist Islam rose to power, a religious-secular polarization took place in which the scales were tipped in favour of the then authorities (the Islamists); it was in this context that someone came forward to accuse Saber of denigrating religion through his story collection and to demand that it be removed from shelves due to its transgression against the Divine and its disregard for Islamic Law.

But then, even after the religious state was removed from power on July 30, 2013, religious terror remained behind, ready to pop up at any moment to excommunicate as it saw fit, to demonize as it desired, and to rally people against artists in the name of denigrating religion.

How else to explain Reham Saeed’s television show in which the famous presenter contravened all principles and ethics, and in particular, the professional code governing the media. And inviting a young female atheist only to condemn her before her viewers, denounce her and make a spectacle of her, all in the name of her own desire to safeguard religion and morals.

Religious sentiment has become the weapon du jour, sufficient to turn society against the writer that someone accused of disparaging the Divine, claiming that he himself had handed out his book (the source of the sin) to rural neighbours—this is what happened with Karam Saber, for his crime to be complete. Saber is now an outcast, from family, neighbours, even the clients he has defended over the years.

For twenty years Saber worked as a lawyer and the head of the Al-Ard Centre for Land Rights, championing the cause of peasant farmers in a number of cases against influential landholders or the power of the state itself, as represented by the Ministry of Religious Endowments. It should come as no surprise, then, that one of those pressing charges against him is an employee of the ministry and that another works for the police.

Instead of taking advice from specialists in the fields of literature and literary criticism (as happens in cases involving medicine, engineering and other areas of specialist expertise) the prosecutor turned to Al Azhar and the church to pass judgment on the short story collection. Al Azhar stated: “The contents of the book are destructive to the intellectual values of Egyptian society and tear apart the close-knit fabric of Egyptian unity,” while the church opined that, “the writer disrespects sacred taboos and concocts tales that are far removed from tasteful and divine literature.”

Popular piety

Imagination has fallen under the purview of the law. Linguistic devices such as metaphor and simile are evaluated on their most basic and superficial level, despite the fact that the literary arts have always been recognized as multifaceted, as open to multiple levels of interpretation, in addition to the immediate content of the language itself.

If we take examples from ‘Where is God?’ we find that phrases which are spoken by one of the fictional characters are removed from their context within the world of the story and directly interpreted—or transmuted—into slander of the Divine, or mockery of the religious injunction to fast (these instances are taken from the report by Al Azhar’s Islamic Research Academy).

There are other phrases in the same story that strongly suggest a deep-seated faith, a faith that speaks through unvarnished dialogue and behaviour. There is the character of the mother, who interrupts her prayers to let her husband in or rebuke her son, a practice she justifies with the highly significant phrase, “Brother, Your Lord is a Lord of hearts,” a Sufi expression common in popular speech.

The report of the Supreme Cultural Council’s Story Committee—an official body of the Ministry of Culture, whose judgments were unfortunately not heard in court—described the contents of the book as follows: “A reflection of the religious practices of the stories’ protagonists, which are the Egyptian form of piety that believes in simplicity over extremism, and that religion should be a comfort not a compulsion and permits the believer to enter into a dialogue with God and even rebuke Him, particularly in regards to injustice, the repressive actions of the authorities and poverty, circumstances that prevail in all Egyptian towns and villages.”

Even the introduction to the text, which is entitled ‘A Prayer’, cannot be subjected to a literal interpretation, because quite simply it, too, is a creative work, a product of the imagination, and not a political article or philosophical tract.

This section opens with the words, O Lord Gambler, but the word ‘lord” is placed between quotation marks: clearly God is not intended, but rather a reference to arbitrary injustice and the way the Fates toy with the lives of the poor; in short it stands for the burden of the authorities and their oppression of the peasants. In the same section we read this supplication to “the Lord”: “Beautiful, full of mercy, we await You by the train stations and on street corners that with Your hands You might destroy all evildoers.” An exemplary formulation of the poverty-stricken peasant’s prayer for a deliverance however paltry.

Re-examining the unquestioned

This is just one of the many examples that the Islamic Research Academy’s report cites as condemnatory, failing to consider the nature of creative writing and the fact that what a character says does not necessarily reflect the view of the author.

“Just because the protagonist is a thief or a murderer does not mean that the author is a killer: the author is not responsible for his characters and their actions…” a truth that Karam Saber is compelled to remind us of, even now, in the twenty-first century.

In recent months an activist group of intellectuals including Taha Abdel Moneim, Baheiga Hussein and Robert Fares have begun organizing protest vigils demanding that the case be dropped, on the grounds that Article 68 of the Constitution forbids the imprisonment of artists for expressing their views.

They have set up seminars and discussion groups with prominent authors who support Saber and freedom of expression, like Ammar Ali Hassan and Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, who expressed sorrow over a state of affairs that forced him to re-examine what he had taken for granted and mourned that no one was capable of distinguishing between opinions voiced by characters undergoing crisis within a literary work and those of the author.

Ibrahim attributes this erroneous conflation, a the resultant attacks on artists that have taken place over the last forty year: “To the elevation of those who call themselves Islamists; attacking authors has become a profession and a way for people to draw attention to themselves in parliament.”

What will the Court of Cassation do? Will it implement the harshest sentence handed out to a writer in the last twenty years? Or will that writer share the fate of Abdullah Al Shami, the Al Jazeera presenter whose release was ordered by the Attorney General even as we await a presidential pardon for the deposed president on grounds—it is rumoured—of old age and ill health? We wait for the judges to announce their verdict. We wait for authors to form pressure groups, because their turn will come and only the unimaginative will be spared.


June 5, 2014: Court of Appeal upholds sentence of five years imprisonment issued against Karam Saber.

June 3, 2014: Appeal to declare the sentence against Karam Saber invalid as Penal Code 98 contravenes articles 67 and 71 of the new Egyptian constitution, which guarantee the right to freedom of expression in writing.

March 13, 2014: The Summary Court of Beba, Beni Suef, upholds the sentence of imprisonment issued against Karam Saber.

June 12, 2013: A Misdemeanours Court in Beni Suef sentences Karam Saber to five years in prison and a fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds  (US $7,000) in absentia.