On PEN's Day of the Imprisoned Writer, acclaimed Lebanese writer, Hanan Al-Shaykh writes to imprisoned Egyptian writer Ahmed Naji.
My Dear Ahmed Naji,
I greet you with the warmest wishes.
What a horrifying age that is falling backwards instead of progressing forwards! I am sure you remember the Andalusian thinker and writer Ibn Hazm who authored a treatise of 80 thousand pages in which he wrote about literature, philosophy, religion, history, politics and literary criticism. He allotted hundreds of pages for love and sex; a volume which is called today as The Ring of the Dove. The volume of which the critics of ancient times and those of modern times agreed upon as a masterpiece of the 11th century, yet The Ring of the Dove is submitted to the scalpel of Egyptian censorship, in these days, in the 21st century.
What about One Thousand and One Night! A book that has almost became firewood in this century, particularly in Egypt, right after it was confiscated from book stores and piled up like modern day pyramids on the pretence of raising libido with its dissoluteness, I am grateful to the lawyers who stood in its defence, in defence of heritage, history, language, traditions, and dreams.
What about the Egyptian writer Ihsan Abdel Quddous, who was known for his candour and boldness as he wrote about love and sex, in addition to his criticism of the society and its traditions. Years after his passing, it was left to publishers to delete paragraphs of love and sex from his books, and to replace his fictional characters with other ones, just to satisfy the radicals.
Shall we forget about the Lebanese writer Layla Balabakki who was taken to the offices of the ‘virtue police’ for daring to write about what takes place between lovers, and the Kuwaiti writer Laila al-Othman who was dragged to prison just for writing about the same subject.
And there are others, many others who had their lines, as well as their wings, cut by the censor, their books were forbidden from spreading, circulating or reading, but to be imprisoned my dear Ahmed for two years, for 720 days just because you followed the path of your creativity that you were born with, like the colour of your eyes and the beats of your heart, just because you united with yourself and you wrote!
Wondering what is sex? Isn’t it the continuation of life, the gift of the world to humankind? Isn’t sex an act of freedom in the face of tyranny and incapability?
I am thankful, my dear Ahmed, for your book. I am thankful for your honesty. And I assure you, that we Arab writers, artists, and people who are fond of literature wherever we are, here or there, in the east or in the west, are thinking about you. We are nodding our heads in disappointment and anger, but we smile at you too, reaching out to hold your hand firmly, and ask you to be patient. We promise that we are all going to try to highlight your case, and remind the Egyptian authorities that your case is still alive and central in public debate, and that each second you spend in prison is lashing the dignity, the pride of our ancestors, the dignity that the enemies of freedom could only boast about in this age.
Day of the Imprisoned Writer