English PEN Modern Literature Festival

It was a great honour to have been invited to write and to perform in solidarity with the persecuted Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji, for the English PEN Modern Literature Festival, at Rich Mix, London, on 1 April.

On 21 February 2016, Egyptian novelist Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for ‘violating public modesty’, following the publication of an excerpt from his novel Using Life in Cairo’s weekly literary magazine Akhbar al-Adab. On 22 December 2016, Egypt’s highest appeals court temporarily suspended Naji’s sentence, and he was released. A further hearing due to be held in Cairo on 2 April 2017 has now been adjourned until 7 May. This hearing will determine whether Naji will face another trial or be sent back to prison.

I conducted an interview with Ahmed Naji over Skype and email during the past couple of weeks, and presented an edited transcript of the interview at the Festival.

So here we are. First I’d like to thank Cat [Lucas of English PEN] and Steven [the poet SJ Fowler] and everyone, for organising this event. I know that such an activity can feel disappointing, especially for the organisers. It is not an easy world that we live in, and these are not easy times, so you’re doing all this work and supporting writers, for the love of literature and writing, and freedom of expression, but sometimes this offer, this support, goes unheard. Or that may be how it seems. But actually it does reach the ears of those writers around the world who are facing a critical time, and even if this offer doesn’t affect their legal situation, it can have a huge effect on their mood.

I mean in my case for example, when I was in prison, when my family came to visit with messages like this from outside, and they told me well this person has written about you, or we have received a letter from that person, this news affects your mood very well. Because in prison you are not allowed to be in touch with anything, and sometimes you feel that you have been forgotten. So to receive the news that someone has remembered you, this helps very much. And then, after you get out, to find such love and solidarity? It really helps you to recover from the traumas that you have experienced.

To coincide with the Festival and the court date, an extract of my interview was run on the Guardian newspaper’s books blog, Sunday 2 April.

A longer version of the interview, ‘Ahmed Naji’s Championship Breakfast’, is published on English PEN’s website.

Here — with thanks to English PEN Modern Literature Festival curator Steven J. Fowler — is a video of my reading at Rich Mix on 1 April 2017.

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