The Power of the Pen
In Rotten Evidence, the author breaks bonds both literary and political
I can’t think of any literary genre that lies as habitually about its subject, or is as artistically lazy while claiming authenticity, as prison literature.” This critique of Egyptian prison memoirs is the bar Ahmed Naji sets for himself — and clears — in Rotten Evidence, his own memoir of Egyptian prison.
Now living in exile as a fellow at UNLV’s Black Mountain Institute, Naji became the first writer in Egyptian history imprisoned for “offending public morality.” That is, for literary rather than political reasons, as passages in his 2014 novel Using Life were deemed too sexually provocative. Sentenced to two years, he was imprisoned for 10 months in 2016.
Rotten Evidence is anything but artistically lazy. Its timeline toggles adroitly between the ritual humiliations of captivity — petty bureaucratic sadisms, vulgar cellblock banter, revolting smells — and scenes from Naji’s life leading up to incarceration. In these, he offers brief, penetrating glimpses into Egypt’s often-surreal political, religious, intellectual, and judicial strata. Frequent excerpts from his journal add a real-time texture, and a kind of psychological shadow narrative gels as Naji recounts his sad, frightening, and hopeless dream life.
Don’t be put off by the book’s Cairo setting or cameos by unfamiliar Arabic writers; an American reader will find plenty of handholds. After all, people everywhere abuse their tiny slivers of power. And when Naji quotes at length from the judgment against him — a florid, self-important, flagrantly wrongheaded argument for censoring books on behalf of public morality — it doesn’t sound much different from a Moms 4 Liberty press conference.
If Rotten Evidence offers an abiding takeaway image, it’s of the writer in his prison bunk, hunched over a notebook cradled on his “makeshift desk of leg bones,” attempting to transmute his squalor into art. Entering prison, Naji wasn’t sure he was a real writer. Question answered.
By Ahmed Naji (Katharine Halls translator)
280 pages, $20