I do not specifically know the number of statements that I signed related to freedom of speech nor the number of seminars and conferences I attended listening to eloquent words defending a writer’s right to creativity, nor the amount of topics and press statements that we used to collect on the limited freedom that we have. But although I do not have an exact number, I am sure that we live in a country that opposes culture and creativity and even adulate it through the Constitution and the creation of organizations as well as ministries of culture.
I do not specifically know the number of statements that I signed related to freedom of speech nor the number of seminars and conferences I attended listening to eloquent words defending a writer’s right to creativity, nor the amount of topics and press statements that we used to collect on the limited freedom that we have. But although I do not have an exact number, I am sure that we live in a country that opposes culture and creativity and even adulate it through the Constitution and the creation of organizations as well as ministries of culture. The truth is all of that is nothing more than an allegation that we praise in civilizations based on knowledge and creativity.
Some may get angry and might interpret my words as emotional towards the current events. They have the right to keep acting, but I just want to remind them that the play has become very boring and the prices paid are enormous. There are people imprisoned and others might lose their lives, so why do not they just clearly announce it and avoid all that. Why does the Constitution not state that creativity in the Egyptian state is prohibited and that everyone who exercises it is subject to verdicts and penalties established by the Penal Code and that their place will be among murderers, thieves and smugglers? Would not this be better than misleading a bunch of citizens, giving them an unmet right of writing and after they swallow the bait, we bring them to trial on charges previously approved by the Constitution?
Last week, the court sentenced Ahmad Naji, a young novelist and journalist, to two years in prison and fined Tarek Taher, editor in chief of ‘Akhbar Al-Adab’ 10,000 EGP. This harsh judgment of the judicial court proves what Egypt has been trying to cajole for years, namely that it does not know what creativity means and that every time the government saw something different, they called their deputies, police officers and judges to have a meeting because the country is in danger.
The government tries to codify creativity and determine rules and regulations to it so that they can easily classify novels, poetry and art. The employee sits in his office and reads what creators write, he flips in his decree number X of the year X about organizing creative work that explains and sets what art is and what it is not, and according to the decree, the employee gives his stamp on the text with a distinctive eagle logo; ‘Go, you are creative according to the Egyptian government.’ Otherwise, they will find something to punish you for. If the text contains obscene language, they will charge you with scratching public decency and punish you with two years in prison. If your text features fundamentals of religion, they will charge you with disrespect of religion and punish you with three years in prison. If you talk about politics and make wrong predictions, they will charge you with harming public interest and punish you with four years in prison.
In the case of Ahmad Naji, it was clear that the prosecution had already defined what creativity is and the dispute between them and Naji was on the definitions of literature and creativity.
The prosecutor did not fully read Naji’s novel ‘Using Life’, but rather read the chapter published in ‘Akhbar Al-Adab’. If he read it, I cannot imagine how he would react. The novel features a collapsing world with characters whose goals are way different than the prosecutor’s while the city of Cairo disappears and turns into ruins. He might have not liked Naji’s work, but he would not have called his words obscene and would probably know that every text imposes its language and that the age of unified language is gone. Today and around the world, there is an uprising of the so-called alternative languages similar to the informal ones, which abandoned the dry uses of language and reached the level of literary texts.
The prosecutor only considered the language in Naji’s chapter and did not grasp the meaning. This way, he confused the functions of two different professions: a prosecutor and an Arabic language inspector who offers his students several expression topics to choose from and write what is seemingly their ideas. However, the only way to get high grades is to follow his language and emphasize his ideas as well as those of the ministry and the state.
The state should allocate the language form that is allowed to be used and the ideas that the government thinks are better than others. They should send a note to the committee of story, novel and poetry at the supreme council that annually determines a range of topics for writers to pick from, especially those related to national goals and social fields that infuse the spirit of harmony and serenity among society members. They should send that alongside a note identifying the allowed words.
The truth is that we are in a miserable situation not because we prosecute writers and creators and put them behind bars next to outlaws and criminals, but because the state considers itself a critic that reads texts and judges them. The disaster is that this critic is old fashioned and a fanatic; one who does not read and lashes out at anyone who contradicts his beliefs; one who has judges, police officers and prisons which he uses when offended by some literary schools.
During the first part of the trial, the judge listened to the testimonies of Jaber Asfour, Mohammad Salmawi and Sanalla Ibrahim who profoundly explained what creativity means and why the language that appeared obscene to the prosecutor was normal in the text. According to those testimonies, the court issued a verdict of acquittal. We were happy and we thought that the Egyptian court finally turned to specialists in literature before issuing its verdict. That was a step forward and meant that our state reached adulthood and that it can read creativity like grownups do and, thus, they will finally acknowledge that literature cannot be prosecuted but only criticized. Unfortunately, we were delusional.
The prosecution maliciously decided to resume the verdict. On the second level of litigation and by sentencing Naji to prison and fining Taher, the prosecution announced that it is the only one that can criticize in Egypt.
Both the prosecution and the judiciary did not try to find out who Ahmad Naji is, even though the writer is one of the tools to study a literary text in the environment and the circumstances through which the text emerged. Perhaps if the prosecutor or the judge tried to develop their criticizing tools, they would have known Naji like we do, and they would have understood the reason why he used the language and words which put him in prison. They would have also known that, as a writer, he was trying to find different ways to write his text, that he is willing to go to the extreme and that he would not succumb to fear like any creator honest to himself and his work. He is not looking for popularity; he only hopes that his story would be read in its literature habitat. This is why he was so disappointed when the case was opened because of what it would do to his novel as it was going to be read using the wrong tools.
The prosecutor and the judge did not understand Naji’s methodology; they only perceived him to be a felon rather than a creator. They would not listen to him nor read his book and they did not want anyone to tell them what literature is. They believe they know what creativity means and they do not need discussions, books and translations. For them, literature is the way that grants people morality and virtue and makes them wander in truth, beauty and goodness. Is not that what literature is?
They know nothing about creativity. Their selected texts, although filled with old- fashioned alliterations, puns and counterpoints are accepted. Indeed, we are aware of the development of the creative process and its true meaning; it is a rebellion against ordinary language, ideas and forms.
All I ask is that the Egyptian state would be clear and honest with themselves as well as with us to release Ahmad Naji and everyone who dared to create or think differently, and to open a new page with everyone by warning them that creativity is prohibited around the country. As for us, we will not object to the law.