Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison
Mcsweeney's Literary Arts Fund
In February 2016, Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in prison for “violating public modesty,” after an excerpt of his novel Using Life reportedly caused a reader to experience heart palpitations. Naji ultimately served ten months of that sentence, in a group cell block in Cairo’s Tora Prison.
Rotten Evidence is a chronicle of those months. Through Naji’s writing, the world of Egyptian prison comes into vivid focus, with its cigarette-based economy, home-made chess sets, and well-groomed fixers. Naji’s storytelling is lively and uncompromising, filled with rare insights into both the mundane and grand questions he confronts.
How does one secure a steady supply of fresh vegetables without refrigeration? How does one write and revise a novel in a single notebook? Fight boredom? Build a clothes hanger? Negotiate with the chief of intelligence? And, most crucially, how does one make sense of a senseless oppression: finding oneself in prison for the act of writing fiction. Genuine and defiant, this book stands as a testament to the power of the creative mind, in the face of authoritarian censorship.
Ahmed Naji is a writer, journalist, documentary filmmaker, and criminal. His novel Using Life (2014) made him the only writer in Egyptian history to have been sent to prison for offending public morality. Other published novels in Arabic are Tigers, uninvited (2020) and The happy end (2022). Naji has won several prizes, including a Dubai Press Club Award, and PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award. For more about his work, visit ahmednaji.net
Katharine Halls is an Arabic-to-English translator from Cardiff, Wales. Her translation, with Adam Talib, of Raja Alem’s The Dove’s Necklace won the 2017 Sheikh Hamad Award for Translation, and she was awarded a 2021 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Haytham El-Wardany’s Things That Can’t Be Fixed. Her translations for the stage have been performed at the Royal Court and the Edinburgh Festival, and shorter texts have appeared in numerous anthologies and literary journals. She is also an agent at teneleven, a translator-led agency for contemporary Arabic literature.