ROTTEN EVIDENCE: READING AND WRITING IN AN EGYPTIAN PRISON
In February 2016, Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in prison for “violating public decency,” after an excerpt of his novel Using Life reportedly caused a reader to experience heart palpitations. Naji ultimately served ten months of that sentence, in a group cellblock in Cairo’s Tora Prison.
Rotten Evidence is a chronicle of those months. Through Naji’s writing, the world of Egyptian prison comes into vivid focus, with its cigarette-based economy, homemade chess sets, and well-groomed fixers. Naji’s storytelling is lively and uncompromising, filled with rare insights into both the mundane and grand questions he confronts.
How does one secure a steady supply of fresh vegetables without refrigeration? How does one write and revise a novel in a single notebook? Fight boredom? Build a clothes hanger? Negotiate with the chief of intelligence? And, most crucially, how does one make sense of a senseless oppression: finding oneself in prison for the act of writing fiction? Genuine and defiant, this book stands as a testament to the power of the creative mind, in the face of authoritarian censorship.
Praise for Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison
“A top-tier work of prison literature.”
—Foreword Reviews, starred review
“In lucid prose undergirded by righteous anger, [Naji] delivers a moving testament to the power of free expression. It’s tough to forget.”
“When Naji quotes at length from the judgment against him—a florid, self-important, flagrantly wrongheaded argument for censoring books on behalf of public morality—it doesn’t sound much different from a Moms 4 Liberty press conference. […] If Rotten Evidence offers an abiding takeaway image, it’s of the writer in his prison bunk, hunched over a notebook cradled on his ‘makeshift desk of leg bones,’ attempting to transmute his squalor into art. Entering prison, Naji wasn’t sure he was a real writer. Question answered.”
“VERDICT A well-written and thoroughly absorbing memoir. Naji gives readers an understanding of the Egyptian justice system and the risks taken by anyone who might challenge it, even inadvertently.”
“Ahmed Naji confronts what happens when one’s fundamentally unserious, oversexed youth dovetails with an authoritarian, utterly self-serious regime.”
—Zadie Smith, author of The Fraud
“A powerful account of an artist plunged into a Kafkaesque encounter with state censorship, Rotten Evidence is a vivid, biting, witty account of Naji’s time in prison for his novel, paying an incredible price for an art form to which he hadn’t even yet fully devoted himself. It is the story of the birth of a writer in the truest sense. Naji’s imprisonment for writing led him to ask: What is writing worth? What is the written word capable of? Rotten Evidence is the triumphant answer to those enormous, essential questions.”
—Jordan Kisner, author of Thin Places: Essays from In Between
“There’s a quality to Egyptian bureaucracy that is so senseless, it’s difficult to translate to the page. But this memoir does just that. Rotten Evidence describes in a cool, clipped tone, utterly devoid of self-pride or self-pity, what happens to the psyche when it is caught in the machinery of the Egyptian justice system. A tragicomedy stripped down to its last nerve.”
—Noor Naga, author of If an Egyptian Cannot Speak English
“If excerpts from Ahmed Naji’s extraordinary novel, Using Life, were used as evidence to convict and imprison him, how could he continue to practice writing inside his Egyptian prison? This new book presents a remarkable deviation from conventional prison narratives and themes. Here, a small prison library is the hero, a place where readers—convicts and jailers alike—love fiction and discuss imagination, amid systematic violence. Rotten Evidence navigates multiple genres to tell us about history, books, talismans of power, social classes, multiplicity of desires, wicked destinies, and bonds of friendship that develop in a prison.”
—Iman Mersal, author of The Threshold