Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Banned Books Week: On Translating a Controversial Work

Banned Books Week (Sept. 24-30) is the book world’s annual celebration of our right to choose and have access to the books that we want to read. Run by the American Library Association, libraries, bookstores, and the online book community will use this week to host events, highlight banned books, and spotlight the conversation about the real and pressing issue of book censorship in communities around the world. 

Censorship in modern day Egypt has severely restricted the freedoms of artists and writers. In the fall of 2014, a young writer named Ahmed Naji's novel Istikhdam al-haya was published in Arabic to acclaim in Egypt and the wider Arab world. But in 2016, 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 like Zadie Smith and literary organizations around the world rallied to support Naji; he won the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award after his imprisonment. Naji was released in December 2016, but his original conviction was overturned in May 2017. At this time, he is awaiting retrial and banned from leaving Egypt.

We are proud to partner with the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin to distribute the English translation of Naji's novel Using Life to give the work the international readership it deserves. As Zadie Smith wrote in The New York Review of Books:

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.”

The original Arabic publication Istikhdam al-haya
Our English translation, available for pre-order now

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.

The English translation comes out December 2017. To celebrate, we're excerpting the translator's note by Benjamin Koerber below. You can also read an essay he wrote for The New Inquiry in May of last year: "Using Life: Instructions for Play," and Naji's most "offensive" chapter from Using Life is excerpted on arablit.org


By Benjamin Koerber

Using Life (Istikhdam al-haya in Arabic) has been the victim of some infamous misinterpretations. In late 2015, its author, Ahmed Naji, was referred to a Cairo criminal court after an earlier version of two chapters appeared in the prestigious Egyptian literary journal Akhbar al-Adab. The charge of “harming public morals” was based, ostensibly, on the testimony of a private citizen who suffered a “drop in blood pressure” after encountering the text’s sexually explicit language. There is, in reality, nothing remarkable about the obscenities in Using Life, and language far more explicit has appeared often in both contemporary and classical Arabic literature. Most observers considered the case absurd, all the more so when the prosecution appeared to have mistaken this work of fiction for a personal confession of acts committed by the author. Nonetheless, after an earlier acquittal, a higher court sentenced Ahmed Naji to the maximum of two years in prison. This marks the first time in modern Egypt that an author has been jailed for a work of fiction. After ten months in prison, and an international campaign of solidarity, Naji was released pending an appeal. The original sentence was finally overturned in May, 2017. At the time of writing, his case is awaiting retrial.

Perhaps ironically, such direct and draconian displays of state power are largely peripheral to the novel’s core critical concerns. Instead, Using Life directs the reader’s gaze at the more subtle mechanisms of repression and constraint at work in contemporary Egypt: the perfidy of friends and lovers, the “kitschification” of culture, and, most importantly, conspiracies wrought in the realm of architecture and urban planning. The book is a response, in the first place, to the utterly unlivable state of today’s Cairo—“a miserable, hideous, filthy, rotten, dark, oppressive, be•sieged, lifeless, enervating, polluted, overcrowded, impoverished, angry, smoke-filled, simmering, humid, trashy, shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city,” according to the protagonist, Bassam Bahgat. Let the reader be aware that among the city’s current residents, Bassam’s feelings are far from unusual. Cairo’s decades-old crises in housing, electricity, waste management, and traffic (to name a few) have left the city both physically and psychologically scarred, and have remained unresolved amidst the waves of revolution and counterrevolution unleashed since January 25, 2011. The intervention of the security services into urban planning has disfigured the city even further: unbreachable metal sidewalk fences, forcibly depopulated public spaces, and huge con•crete block walls constructed in the middle of major streets are now familiar sights around the capital.

Yet as parts of Cairo have shut down, new aesthetic practices have emerged over the last decade to open new spaces for expression, as well as to repurpose old ones. Graffiti artists have laid claim to the city’s walls and barriers. Comedians and cartoonists have attracted cult followings through YouTube, and bloggers have emerged from the obscurity of their bedrooms to pioneer new literary genres (see, for example, Ghada Abdel Aal’s I Want to Get Married! [2008; trans. Eltahawy, 2010]). In fashion, advertising, and graphic design, independent artists have made spectacular interventions in fields typically dominated by foreign brands.

In Using Life, Naji, together with illustrator Ayman Al Zorkany, has managed to synthesize many elements of this resurgent urban culture into something that is more than just a novel. Its publication in November 2014 was followed by the sale of t-shirts, coffee mugs, and a variety of accessories featuring Al Zorkany’s illustrations, which the artist has also developed into a short film entitled “The Last Dance of the Blue Anus-Fly.” As a book, Using Life follows a number of recent experiments in graphic fiction in Egypt and the wider Arab world, such as Metro (El-Shafee, 2008; trans. Rossetti, 2012) and Fi Shaqqat Bab al-Luq (The apartment in Bab al-Louq) (Maher, Ganzeer, and Nady, 2014); as a literary-graphic hybrid, it resembles most closely Hilal Chouman’s Limbo Beirut (2013; trans. Stanton, 2016). In spite of these affinities, it remains a highly idiosyncratic work, whose style and content can best be understood as the product of its author’s and illustrator’s aesthetic sensibilities and professional backgrounds. Naji, whose former digital avatar “Bisu” was a renowned trickster and collector of oddities in the early years of Egypt’s blogosphere (2004– 2009), has since become known for his assorted creative and critical works, including his novel Rogers (2007), his “history” of Egypt’s blogger subculture (2010), and his contributions as editor of the prestigious literary review Akhbar al-Adab. Ayman Al Zorkany’s background in illustration, costume design, and adver•tising places him outside the jealously guarded borders of Egypt’s literary establishment, and thus pushes Using Life well beyond reigning definitions of the Arabic novel.

Portions of Using Life are indeed “graphic” in both senses of the word, and this presents the reader and the translator with special challenges. While it is hoped that the English reader will approach the depictions of sexuality, drug use, and urban rot with greater forbearance than the Cairene prosecutor, it is inevitable that certain images or expressions may not fit comfortably with everyone’s tastes. In this respect, the reader is urged to bear in mind that certain words in the novel’s vocabulary—e.g., “balls” (bidan), “ass-kissing” (taʿris), and “cocksuckery” (khawlana)— have a different sort of currency, and inhabit a somewhat different web of associations, in the Arabic original. Moreover, while such words are certainly marks of an “attitude,” their transposition into a foreign idiom will make it difficult to draw wholly accurate assumptions about a speaker’s social status, intelligence, or political leanings. These qualifications apply equally to the novel’s illustrations. Sometimes, an image’s local significance will be grasped easily enough: to paraphrase William S. Burroughs, a rat is a rat is a rat is a rat, is a police officer. At other times, one will have to be thoroughly immersed in Egyptian popular culture to know that a scientific description of cockroaches, for example, is a jab at the mercurial public intellectual Mustafa Mahmoud.

. . . 

I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to those many who have assisted in the present translation. Special thanks are due to Wendy Moore, publications editor for the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas, for her tireless efforts and support at all hours and stages of the project. Dena Afrasiabi, publications editor for CMES, performed extraordinary and brilliant work in guiding the book through the intense final stretch. Series editor Tarek El-Ariss was, long ago, the first to recommend this book to me and recognize the importance of its translation; he has been a constant source of inspiration, insight, magic, and mirth at all levels of its development. I thank Marcia Lynx Qualey (ArabLit.org) for providing many helpful comments and suggestions on the offending Chapter Six, generously promoting Using Life and the work of Ahmed Naji on a truly global scale, and facilitating my public debut in the Arabic translation community. For his brilliant insights into the finer points of Arabic-English translation, many illuminating conversations on the worlds summoned in this novel, and support and sustenance along the way, I offer my utmost gratitude, thanks, and cat memes to Ehab Elshazly. I owe an unpayable debt to the anonymous reviewer who went above and beyond the ordinary duties of that role to offer very helpful and much needed guidance on nearly every aspect of this translation; while any remaining faults are my own, this reviewer’s insights and suggestions have had a significant impact on the final product.

Most of all, I would like to thank Ahmed Naji and Ayman Al Zorkany for welcoming me into the worlds they have created, help•ing me adapt, and not minding when I run off to play on my own.


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