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.
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.
“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
“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
“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