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Using Life

Using Life

Internationally acclaimed Egyptian author Ahmed Naji won the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award after his imprisonment on charges of “violating public morals” with this dystopian novel of life in modern Cairo.

Series: CMES Emerging Voices from the Middle East

November 2017
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230 pages | 6.5 x 9.5 | 45 b&w photos |

Upon its initial release in Arabic in the fall of 2014, Using Life received acclaim in Egypt and the wider Arab world. But in 2016, Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in prison after a reader complained that an excerpt published in a literary journal harmed public morality. His imprisonment marks the first time in modern Egypt that an author has been jailed for a work of literature. Writers and literary organizations around the world rallied to support Naji, and he was released in December 2016. His original conviction was overturned in May 2017 but, at the time of printing, he is awaiting retrial and banned from leaving Egypt.

Set in modern-day Cairo, Using Life follows a young filmmaker, Bassam Bahgat, after a secret society hires him to create a series of documentary films about the urban planning and architecture of Cairo. The plot in which Bassam finds himself ensnared unfolds in the novel’s unique mix of text and black-and-white illustrations.

The Society of Urbanists, Bassam discovers, is responsible for centuries of world-wide conspiracies that have shaped political regimes, geographical boundaries, reigning ideologies, and religions. It is responsible for today’s Cairo, and for everywhere else, too. Yet its methods are subtle and indirect: it operates primarily through manipulating urban architecture, rather than brute force. As Bassam immerses himself in the Society and its shadowy figures, he finds Cairo on the brink of a planned apocalypse, designed to wipe out the whole city and rebuild anew.


2018 Neukom Institute Literary Arts Awards Shortlist

  • Translator’s Note
  • Chapter One
    • Where Is the Graveyard of Music?
    • The Quartets of Ibn Arus
  • Chapter Two
    • Portrait of an Old Man in 6th of October
  • Chapter Three
    • A Letter from Reem
    • A Portrait of Mona May at Twenty
    • A Flower in Full Bloom
    • Shafi qa of Alexandria
    • A Cocksucker’s Reprimand to His Fellow Cocksuckers
  • Chapter Four
    • The Road of Passion
    • The Animals of Cairo
    • The Nile Meets Paprika
  • Chapter Five
    • Night
    • Revenge Has No Place in Modern Life (1)
  • Chapter Six
    • Revenge Has No Place in Modern Life (2)
    • Hefny Ahmed Hassan
    • Concerning the Influence of the Past on the Future
  • Chapter Seven
    • The Third Flower . . . Where Do I Put the Third Flower, Reem?
    • Muhammad Taha
    • Meeting the Doctor
    • The Graveyard of Music
    • Mind Control and Masturbation
    • One of These Days I Shan’t Awake
  • Chapter Eight
  • Chapter Nine
    • The Tree
  • Chapter Ten
    • Author’s Acknowledgments

Cairo, Egypt

Naji is the author of numerous works of creative nonfiction, including a history of the Arabic blogosphere entitled al-Mudawwinat: Min al-Bust ila al-Twit (Blogs: From Post to Tweet). He is also an editor of and contributor to Akhbar al-Adab, Egypt’s foremost literary magazine. His first novel, Rogers, has been translated into Italian. After his imprisonment, he was granted the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in recognition of his long struggle in support of freedom of expression.

Cairo, Egypt

Al Zorkany is an illustrator and costume designer. In 2009, he left a career in advertising to devote himself to his own work, which has been exhibited at the Egyptian Opera House and the 2012 International Comics Salon in Erlangen, Germany, and featured in several short films and television commercials. The images he designed for Using Life have appeared in special exhibits in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as the 2016 Festival of Mediterranean Literature in Lucera, Italy.

New Brunswick, New Jersey

Koerber is an assistant professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures at Rutgers University.


“Alan Moore meets Nahgib Mafouz in this exuberant, subversive novel by Egyptian writer Naji—who was jailed for his troubles. . . . A fly-on-the-wall view of an Egypt few outsiders know and one that, in its insistence on unveiled expression, offers hope for a more democratic future.”
Kirkus Reviews, starred review

Using Life, which has been vividly translated into English by Benjamin Koerber, is a ribald, streetwise, outrageously inventive speculative fiction that hammers at the chaos and dysfunction of Egyptian life while testifying to the vitality of its counterculture. . . . Even as Egyptian authorities play to the dystopian script by attempting to punish the author for his heterodoxies, his book memorably celebrates the country’s underground seams of freedom and individual expression.”
Wall Street Journal

“[Using Life] is full of intimate familiarity, occasional tender scorn, and a fervent curiousity toward city and man's entwined fates that is also somehow cooly detached.”
Electric Literature

“The book is an experiment, wild and weird, full of non sequiturs and oddball imagery...Perhaps it is subversive precisely for its love of whimsy; in a culture beset with political gloom, it agitates for the freedom to be unserious.”
Harper's Magazine

“[Naji's] story, liberally and whimsically illustrated, follows a 'professional kiss-ass' who ends up stumbling upon a dystopian architectural conspiracy. The real revelation, though, is the cynicism and paralysis afflicting Bassam and his friends, victims of political and religious forces squandering a great city’s creativity.”

“[A] book that infuses new urgency and excitement in the Egyptian, and now international, literary world.”
Words Without Borders

“The craziest and most inventive dystopian routine fails to tilt Using Life toward fantasy. Naji's skill is making such madness read like journalism. This reviewer has never been to Cairo; after reading this book, not only do I want to go, but I also want to take a bath. Imagine William S. Burroughs without the zest for life and underlying humanism.”
Rain Taxi

Using Life is a riotous novel about a failing state, a corrupt city, a hypocritical authority, but it is also about tequila shots and getting laid and smoking weed with your infuriating girlfriend and debating whether rock music died in the Seventies and if Quentin Tarantino is a genius or a fraud. It’s a young man’s book. A young man whose youth is colliding with a dark moment in history.”
Zadie Smith, The New York Review of Books

“The name Ahmed Naji has become a rallying cry for writers around the world to stand with free-thinking Egyptians who are unwilling to surrender their rights without a fight.”
Suzanne Nossel, executive director of PEN America



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