The worst thing in the world is to leave someone’s fate to a matter of opinions and controversy. Ahmad Naji’s freedom, his future, and his personal safety have now become based on our personal judgment and opinions. We have no control over the widespread corruption, but it is shocking how a chapter from his novel could attract such terrible reactions.

The worst thing in the world is to leave someone’s fate to a matter of opinions and controversy. Ahmad Naji’s freedom, his future, and his personal safety have now become based on our personal judgment and opinions. We have no control over the widespread corruption, but it is shocking how a chapter from his novel could attract such terrible reactions.

I think about how he is going to present himself in prison. What does offending public decency mean? Will he talk about his novel or about another one? Will he tell the other prisoners the reasons behind the drowning of Cairo in his novel?

He will definitely tell them that he will be imprisoned for two years because he offended public decency. They will ask him how and he will say because he wrote a novel. They will ask him whether he cursed an authority figure and he will say no. Naji and the men in prison will end up talking about literature, but they will not understand a word he says.

When the verdict was issued and while Naji was being escorted out of the court, one police officer whispered that this is a chance for any writer to become great. But, this is not the path of greatness we seek; Ahmad does not seek greatness in prison. Great people should not be convicted prisoners. We do not need to revive our old legacy of oppression.

On the other hand, another attitude emerged – some believe Naji deserved his punishment and that he should accept the determined mold; he should not disturb society with a shocking new genre of literature. Here I recall Gamal Abdel Nasser’s reaction when he sent the young contenders of ‘Those with Bold Eye’ competition to war so that they become real men. It is evident that we have a long history of mixing political and patriarchal powers. Authorities have long been guarding ethics and protecting morals as well as public decency among several other relative standards. It is disappointing to see that some still believe that we all should follow the same standards; this is indeed the definition of a limited society and an inexperienced life.

During the trial and while we were waiting for an unexpected verdict, we felt like we were some unexpected guests, as if we did not belong there; as if we talked differently, we had different interests and we had our unique way of expression. However, we did not deserve to be dragged into courts.

We want a better life without disturbing others; we are only different by our means of expressions.

Fragile protection

I do not remember how we became friends. I do not know if it was fate, luck, the coordination office, Mustafa Amin or God Almighty who brought us together in 6th of October City. A friend of mine in Akhbar Al Yawm used to be my colleague, but he failed and repeated his semester. At that time, he met Naji and introduced me to him. Since then we have become inseparable.

Ever since I met him, Naji had two projects in mind – journalism and (creative) writing. I do not want to go into personal details about his life, but he really writes press articles professionally. As for his literary project, he addresses various subjects with unique language and refers to the past in a contemporary style affected by the current violence.

Writing this text was hard for me because I have been following and writing about Naji’s case since it first started in August (2015) until his trial in November. This time, however, it is getting harder and I have nothing but little hope that he would come out for a new trial.

I still cannot believe he was sentenced to prison. Such a verdict revealed the fragility of the protection we thought we had.

Did it ever occur to Naji?

Do not say ‘Abu Qir’ in the Levant

Naji really wanted to reflect this conflict of society against freedom of expression. But did he really want to? I do not know.

I think about those who do not justify anything and complain about the use of certain words in literature. I do not understand their attitude since Naji did not aim to break a record using certain words; he wanted to introduce them in his own way, regardless of their moral and class indications. It is an absolute truth that our existence began from a male and female, but some refuse to address such matters openly. 

I was once in a session that brought together journalists and writers from different Arab countries and we were talking about the different words used to describe the sexual organs in every country. We found out that each country has a huge pool of words to describe these organs and even every city and village has its own set of words. In some villages of the Levant, they use the word ‘Aziz’ for the male genitalia and ‘cat’ for the female one. Thus, a sentence like ‘Aziz is playing with the cat’ might seem shameless to some. If the word ‘Abu Qir’ is pronounced by an Egyptian with a light Q, it would shock the Arab community because by saying that, because we would be referring to a person with the largest male genitals.

The verb ‘Saram’ means cutting an object from its origin, but when it is an adjective, it is pronounced ‘Sorom’ and some might understand it as a popular name for shoes, whereas it means tanned leather – the type used in the past to protect the foot when adding a sole to it. Additionally, ‘Sorom’ also means a piece of everything. However, in southern Tunisia, ‘Sorom’ refers to the female genitals despite all its meanings in other places around the world. Thus, using this word should not carry a significant meaning and should not provoke morality, but in places like Tunisia, some might find it provocative. Nevertheless, an author will not be imprisoned for using it.

People in Libya or Lebanon might not understand this word even if it was marked with diacritical marks. After a while, however, people might become familiar with the meanings of such words, including the judge and the legislator who put the Penal Code. Perhaps those words were used in literature and everyday language, but they were not seen as an outrage of modesty.

Bias to use certain words is an aesthetic means, and it seems historical how a certain word vanishes while another appears, and how the Arab speaking communities develop their use of language in different ways over the years.

The current issue is that if the author used words that are not of an acceptable form, he should be imprisoned. But, where did those words come from? How will you read from another person’s perspective and what does the author mean by using such words?

Relativity also plays an important role. Which defines a word acceptable or offending? Who determines a list of such standards? What is offending public decency and what is decency or public? Is there another private type that can not be offended? What does it mean to be offended and who decides on the issue? What can we do to those being offensive? Shall imprisonment or paying fines suffice? Would imprisonment for two years deter the offender from repeating such offenses?

The issue is not personal. Naji was unfortunately imprisoned despite the former verdict of innocence. Another door has now been open for a new conflict. Despite the Constitution and its articles on the freedom of speech and prohibition of imprisoning journalists, this government did not abide by its Constitution.

This makes us wonder how or when this society will ever be open-minded.