Writing Sex in Arabic Literature: Ahmed Naji Narrates His Own Obscenity Trial
"I’m ignorant and confused, even more so than Kafka’s man from the country"
Sometime in the early twentieth century, a large subgroup of Arabic words and expressions referring to sex and sexual organs began to disappear from printed books, as if the educated classes had signed a code of honor agreeing never to set them down on paper. This was why, when they found me guilty, the court of appeal would not record the turns of phrase I had used that they claimed to find so scandalizing. These words haven’t vanished because speakers of Arabic have stopped using them, by the way; if anything, they’re probably being used even more than before. It’s only the immortality of being written down that is denied them.
Shunned by contemporary literature, the words gradually disappeared from new books. They were proscribed altogether from the lexicon of the newly coalescing Modern Standard Arabic that filled the airwaves and the pages of newspapers and magazines. They could be found in reprints and editions from the historical canon.
But soon bowdlerized versions of those works, which omitted the offending words entirely, started turning up on the market. The words were chased not only out of literature but out of the entire realm of the written word, to be replaced by utilitarian terms like penis instead of dick or cock, and vulva in place of cunt. If the machine defined the modern period, then the genitalia, too, were to be reduced to mere functions.
To be clear, this repudiation wasn’t because these words were too vernacular or low-class: I’m talking about words possessed of a fine classical pedigree, words that can be found in historical dictionaries and encyclopedias of the Arabic language. And at the same time, they’re some of the most commonly used words for the sexual organs in a whole slew of contemporary Arabic dialects. Personally, I’ve never heard anyone use the Arabic equivalents of penis or vagina, and yet they’re regularly bandied about in the written language.
Part of the reason for this is colonization. After being subjected to decades of brutal rule by the Ottomans, the French, and the British, institutions of authority in Arab nations have attempted to erase indigenous terms and replace them with their European counterparts, declaring that the Arabic word for “cunt”—kuss—is obscene and pornographic, while vagina is perfectly acceptable.
Erotica and the various forms of writing that deal with sex never went away; they just had to make do without the correct, dictionary-sanctioned vocabulary that described the matters at hand in terms that people actually knew and used. Educated Arabs of the twentieth century created their own peculiar kind of language around sex, which used functional, instrumental terms, and was ornamented with rose garden metaphors that involved women revealing their “blossoms” and men savoring the juice of their “fruit.” These were the kinds of descriptions of love that filled the Arabic novels of the period. But sex as pleasure, lust, motive, desire—once so common in Arabic literature—was confined to dusty books of the past.While the West was masturbating furiously over the erotic tales of the Nights and the writings of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, Arabs themselves were burying those stories.
While the West was masturbating furiously over the erotic tales of the Nights and the writings of Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, Arabs themselves were burying those stories. What use did they have for tales of genies and flying carpets when they were attempting to liberate themselves from European occupation and colonization, armed with a national self-conception created in the image of European modernity and buttressed by essentially Victorian values?
These stories were forgotten and erased in favor of a more seemly version of the canon, and merely saying some of the words they used came to equal profanity and insult. These words have become freighted with all sorts of other negative implications, too, prime among them class connotations. Since the educated classes of the modern period have abandoned Arabic sex terms for English and French alternatives, these terms connote a speaker’s proletarian vulgarity. No cultured, well-mannered person who’s been brought up properly would ever use that sort of language!
Despite all this, written usage of these words exploded with increased access to the internet, first in the form of insults and expletives, and then in the erotica and pornographic writing that became so popular online. The genre was a crucible in which multiple dialects fused and readers encountered the rich variety of sexual language that each local version of Arabic had produced. The internet also saw morality campaigns that aimed to ban that same language, but they were no match for the frenzied outpouring of sexual self-expression by Arabic-speaking internet users who were damn well going to use their own words after being deprived of them for so long by respectable, educated elites.
These words are slowly returning to the world of literature too. They’re peering out from behind the layers of shame imposed upon them by the Arab projects of enlightenment and modernity. For some commentators, this is tantamount to apostasy, and columns and think pieces fulminate on the moral backslide represented by internet obscenity, but what’s happened is the opposite: people are liberating and reclaiming their language.
Of course, it’s hardly surprising that under the Sisi presidency, the establishment has reacted so cagily. Straining to regain control of the country after it nearly slipped from their grasp altogether, they’re coming down harder than ever before on any sign of social or cultural rebellion.
The state avoids prosecuting solidly “political” cases, because those kinds of actions are readily perceived as state oppression, and run the risk of rallying the opposition. But the powers that be see social and cultural cases as a golden opportunity to flex their moral muscles and show society that they’re defending family values.
Like the public prosecution lawyer who was so obsessed with the sex scenes in my book, and the judge that found me guilty, they view these cases as a chance to paint themselves as defenders of morality, society, and the family—all of which are gravely threatened by writing. The powers that be think that when they blow the whistle of religion and morality, the masses will rush to fall in behind them. And they think that the unlucky victim who stands accused will simply keep their mouth shut, because how could such a filthy pervert dare to open their mouth once they’ve been shown for what they are?
The judge in my first trial was taken aback to find out we were going to call witnesses; they’d all been expecting us to be embarrassed and apologize. That’s why their reaction was so hysterical when we went on the offensive and attacked them for overstepping their legal and constitutional role. In my second trial, the public prosecution lawyer screamed as he brandished a stack of my writings that had nothing to do with the case. Having tracked down everything I’d ever written online, he alleged that I had defended the use of the objectionable terms in question, and had even published an article in which I frankly announced that I was opposed to societal mores and values that constrained freedom of opinion and of expression.
He was so obsessed that at one point in his oral pleading, he turned to the bench and told them that on my website he’d found a short story called “La Señora,” which he’d arbitrarily decided formed part of my novel Using Life, and then spent a tedious four minutes narrating the story. It centered on the same protagonist as the novel—when he said this, he pointed his finger at me—who has sex with a female drug dealer and helps her grow and sell hashish.
I stared at the floor for the whole hearing, trying to hide behind my lawyers—Nasir Amin, Mahmoud Othman, and Yasmine—and hold in my laughter. The lawyer’s performance reached its dramatic climax as he bellowed his demand that the harshest punishment possible be brought to bear upon me in order to avenge the families I’d destroyed, the children I’d corrupted, and the youths I’d cast into a pit of drug use and depravity. I had my hand clamped over my mouth, and I was so desperately stifling the urge to laugh that I ended up letting out a deafening fart instead.
Day 284: Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Extremely anxious. Trying to get over my fantasies of a presidential pardon. The date of our challenge at the court of cassation is approaching. I don’t even know if I’m going to appear in court for the hearing or not. The guys here are saying no one gets sent to their appeal hearings. But if I don’t, how will I know what the verdict is?
Day 290: Tuesday, December 6, 2016
The hearing’s been postponed from December 4 to December 18 because the public prosecution hasn’t submitted their brief. Apparently the judge called my lawyers “you human rights lot.” As far as I can understand, the cassation prosecution has accepted the paperwork for the appeal but hasn’t submitted its opinion on the merits.The lawyer’s performance reached its dramatic climax as he bellowed his demand that the harshest punishment possible be brought to bear upon me in order to avenge the families I’d destroyed, the children I’d corrupted, and the youths I’d cast into a pit of drug use and depravity.
The judge told them he wanted to hear oral statements and rule on the merits himself, so my lawyers requested a postponement that will give them time to see the public prosecutor’s brief, once it’s submitted, and prepare a detailed response. I’m ignorant and confused, even more so than Kafka’s man from the country, who spends his lifetime sitting before a gateway in the desert in the hope that it will open so he can seek the law.
Day 300: Friday, December 16, 2016
I dream a lot. I’m visited by friends and distant acquaintances, but Yasmine hasn’t come to me in my dreams for a long time. I miss dreaming about her.
Day 303: Monday, December 19, 2016
Finally, by asking multiple sources, I’ve been able to find out that the court of cassation ruled that I should be released. It’s confirmed—one of our cellmates even heard it on the radio—but the prison administration denies knowing anything. “We’ve heard nothing,” they say.
“Using the Right Words,” an excerpt from Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison by Ahmed Naji, now available from McSweeney’s.