Locked Up in Prison, I Found Solace in the Library

From a Washington Post story by Ahmed Naji headlined “Locked up in an Egyptian prison, I found solace in the library”:

In 2016, Ahmed Naji served 10 months of a two-year prison sentence in Egypt for “violating public decency” in his novel “Using Life.” He reflects on his time in prison in his new memoir, “Rotten Evidence,” describing the everyday experience of oppression and confinement. In this adapted excerpt from “Rotten Evidence,” Naji describes how books and reading helped bring him into the crosshairs of the law — and the role they played in his subsequent imprisonment.

As far as I was concerned, the library of Taha Hussein Public Secondary School for Boys — a squat building in Sandub, in the city of al-Mansura — was in large part responsible for the trouble I was in. It was the first state school I’d attended after a roundabout excursion through the private schools of Egypt and Kuwait, where I spent my childhood.

Its buildings, lavatories and administrative procedures resembled less those of a school than of a low-security prison, and in fact my abiding image of all public and governmental institutions belonging to the Egyptian state was profoundly shaped by my time at Taha Hussein Secondary. My only escape from the ambient ignorance and filth was the library.

Since the school’s establishment in the 1960s, the library had accumulated the complete works of Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Mustafa Mahmoud and Anis Mansur, as well as the translated plays of Shakespeare, alongside shelves full of psychology and philosophy books. It was there that I first read the works of Freud and Nietzsche and the many other books that shaped my knowledge and understanding of myself and of life. A few were books it would have been impossible to read at any other age: I can hardly see myself picking up Mahfouz’s long and slightly fusty Cairo trilogy, for example, as an adult.

In the more literal prison that I found myself in as an adult, we weren’t allowed out into the courtyard downstairs; we spent recreation in the walkways that ran between the cells on our floor. The second floor had four cellblocks, which were opened in turn for one hour each. Next to the stairs was a ping-pong table; the stairs themselves led down to the next floor or up to a single room that served as the library.

The moment I stepped across the threshold, I felt like I’d returned to my high school library, the only difference being that the readers seated there were old men in white or blue uniforms. The wooden tables and chairs were exactly the same type we’d had at school; even the walls were painted the same color. The shelves were lined with the titles I’d read as a teenager.

The books were mainly Ministry of Culture editions of various vintages, many from the ’60s, but there were also titles published in the ’70s by the Armed Forces Morale Affairs Department, including numerous collections of poetry by unheard-of female poets. These were all about their love for the nation and a handsome dark-skinned soldier, whom they implored to rescue them from some obscure pain and to win back their land and their honor. And in the far corner was the religion section, which held three shelves of Christian books and an entire wall of Islamic literature.

The man in charge of the library was a civilian employee who left promptly at two in the afternoon. He did little actual work, and instead two elderly inmates took care of the borrowing register (books could be borrowed for one day at a time) and inventoried the collection once every three months.

My family has a record when it comes to getting rid of books. When I was very young and we lived in Egypt, we had a ritual that took place at regular intervals. My father would throw open the cupboards and drawers and make an inventory of all the books, magazines and notebooks stored inside, a task that could take hours. The most important items were the journals containing his notes on the books he’d read; next came his collection of books by Islamist leaders such as Sayyid Qutb and Hassan al-Banna.

First my father would sort the books into groups, then distribute them among a number of hiding places. Some would be stored in cardboard boxes on the roof next to the chicken coop; others would be left for safekeeping with neighbors who weren’t involved in any political activism. Finally, he would decide that some books were too dangerous to keep — dangerous for him and for us. He could always get hold of another copy of them if he really needed to, and so he would burn them and painstakingly dispose of their ashes.

I didn’t pay much attention to this habit of his as a child; I thought everybody burned the books they didn’t want. My mom struggled to explain the delicate political situation to her young child, so instead she would say, “Those books contain writings from the Qur’an — God’s words — so it’s not right to put them out with the trash.”

My grandfather, who worked as a guard at a factory, had an enormous library. At one point, according to my father, he was so poor he couldn’t even afford a bed, so he stacked up his volumes of astronomy and the collected poetry of Ahmad Shawqi (which, in any case, he knew by heart) for his children to sleep on. He fell into a deep depression in the early ’80s and burned off almost his entire collection; after that, he made do with reading the newspaper — al-Akhbar, to be precise — or dipping into the poetry of al-Ma‘arri.

He also held on to some of his beloved astronomy books. He loved astronomy so much that he named his first son Galileo, and when people protested that Galileo wasn’t a Muslim name, he changed it reluctantly to Naji, but had the front of the house emblazoned with the name Naji Galileo in large calligraphic script.

Unlike my grandfather’s book burning, my father’s wasn’t the result of a sudden depression, or even a decline in his ability to read. Instead, it was the possibility that his books could be used as evidence against him if the house was raided or he was arrested. My father was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the orders to burn books in fact came from senior figures in the organization, who were keen to keep their members out of trouble. A single copy of Hassan al-Banna’s “Letters” or “A Movement Approach to the Prophetic Biography” was enough to indict a person for membership in a banned organization.

The Muslim Brotherhood existed as a sort of public secret, and their events and activities were held more discreetly than they had been in Kuwait, where we had lived for a while. I got a lot of attention in our village because my father occupied a prominent position within the organization. I was always reminded of how much people respected him when I met a brother for the first time. “You’re Naji Higazi’s son!” they’d exclaim. “Praise the Lord, that’s wonderful.”

In prison, books would appear and disappear. The library lent out books daily to prisoners spread across nine cellblocks, and sometimes they’d be gone for weeks at a time before reappearing — on their own shelf or somewhere else entirely. I used to scan the shelves repeatedly, making a mental note of which books had vanished or resurfaced overnight.

One day my gaze fell on a slim book of no more than 150 pages. It was black, with a title in a splashy red font: “That Smell and Other Stories” by Sonallah Ibrahim. I laughed out loud when I saw it, disturbing the elderly men who spent their time in the quiet library. Still surprised and amused at the coincidence (Ibrahim wrote the novella after spending years in the Oases Prison, located deep in the western desert), I got a grip on myself, borrowed the book and went back downstairs to my cell.

I waited till lights-out to turn on the homemade lamp I’d bought off another prisoner for two packs of Cleopatra cigarettes and lay back on my bunk to start the book. The inside cover bore the official stamp of the Ministry of the Interior. This was a book that had been banned in the 1960s, yet now, in the 2010s, was not only permitted but was being distributed by the Prisons Authority itself, in its own libraries.

Within the first few pages, I discovered that the edition of the book I’d read previously was an abridged version. The copy I held in my hands had been released in 1983 by Mustaqbal, a publisher based in Cairo and Alexandria, and surprisingly carried no Egyptian National Library deposit number. It included a long introduction by Ibrahim himself, a foreword by Yusuf Idris that had been written in the ’60s but never published, and the much older writer Yahya Haqqi’s infamous article denouncing the book for its explicit language and depictions of vulgar physicality.

Imprisoned originally for his political activities, he came out with a strengthened conviction about the necessity of literature and art. The publishing industry was run by the state at the time, and all printed matter was subject to censorship; and the censors refused to allow the book to be published.

This caused such an uproar in intellectual circles that the minister of culture, a former military man named ‘Abd al-Qadir Hatim — who, in President Nasser’s military state, had final authority over literary matters — became personally involved.

Ibrahim was summoned to the minister’s office, where Hatim and his assistants immediately began to banter and joke among themselves, ridiculing the novella and its author. Hatim questioned Ibrahim about one scene that had caught his attention, in which the protagonist tries unsuccessfully to have sex with a prostitute his friends have picked up for him.

“What’s the problem?” asked the concerned minister. “Can’t he get it up?” He and his assistants exploded in laughter all over again in appreciation of His Excellency’s clever sense of humor.

So the novella didn’t make it past the censors in Cairo, and the edition I’d read long before I went to prison was printed in Beirut, where, as Ibrahim explains in his introduction, the interfering publisher had censored offending words and phrases. The first unabridged edition was the one I was holding in my hands.

Commenting on the charge of violating public decency that Hatim’s spies had pinned on him, Ibrahim asks: “Why is it demanded of us … that we write about creatures whose orifices are virtually nonexistent so as not to offend the fabricated decency of readers who know more about sex than the author himself does?”

I also found a copy of Mahfouz’s “Adrift on the Nile” in the library. I can’t have been older than 13 when I read it for the first time; back then, I’d found it in the school library. Rereading it today, I thought it was excellent. Every sentence has its own meaning; the book’s depth comes from its scatteredness and absurdity. And unlike the first time I read it, I wasn’t annoyed by its theatricality.

The only thing that annoyed me was finding a page missing from the middle of the book, and another six torn out later. That’s the lowest of the low. You can burn books, put their authors in prison, ban them or confiscate them. But tearing pages out is a punishment so nasty no one’s thought of it yet. Then, on the last page, I found a handwritten note: “This book is good but contains blasphemous and obscene material. The reader should pray for God’s forgiveness after reading.” I’m guessing that the author of that observation was the person who tore out the offending pages, in the hope of saving his fellow prisoners from sin.

Ahmed Naji is an Egyptian novelist and journalist.

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