Egypt – Using Life

Cairo is a hell hole, but not the good kind that attracts demons and vampire slayers. It’s an actual hot spot of human misery that most people if they are in their right mind try to escape from the first opportunity they get. At least that’s what many of the younger residents think. There are very few prospects for employment or a career of any kind, over 20 million residents living in crowded conditions, and really not that much hope for a better future, or any kind of future. Except living in Cairo is prohibitively expensive for the locals so escape isn’t really an option for most residents. Just survival.

For decades the poorly designed city has had to deal with crises in housing, electricity, waste management, and traffic. These issues were further exacerbated by the revolutions and counter revolutions that took place since the Arab Spring, and once the military intervened in the urban planning things got even worse: unbreachable metal sidewalk fences forcibly depopulated public areas, and huge concrete barriers have been constructed in the middle of several major streets. As I said a hellhole, but also one where artists can potentially thrive.

Concrete walls are the perfect canvas for graffiti artists, and the various revolutions gave them lots of opportunities to express themselves. There are now also lots of Egyptian bloggers and Youtubers who have managed to gain cult followings. Also in fashion, advertising, and graphic design independent artists have begun to break ground into markets that were previously dominated by foreign brands, but for Ahmed Naji that just isn’t enough. In Using Life he destroys the city as thoroughly as possible, and then has a character, who absolutely loathes the city, narrate the events that led to this most fortunate of outcomes.

(Information taken from Benjamin Koerber’s translator’s note)

Cairo is Miserable

“I agree, of course, that Cairo’s a miserable, hideous, filthy, rotten, dark, oppressive, besieged, lifeless, enervating, polluted, overcrowded, impoverished, angry, smoke-filled, simmering, humid, trashy, shitty, choleric, anemic mess of a city. But isn’t it the architect’s job to work within this mess?”

This book tells the story of the destruction of Cairo (chapter one), and the events leading up to it from the first-person perspective of Bassam, a young disillusioned Egyptian filmmaker. Bassam is intimately familiar with the city that he loathes so well, which is probably how he managed to attract the attention of the Society of Urbanists who hire him to produce a series of documentaries about Egypt’s Capital.

Bassam narrates the story of these movies, the society and how they lead to the destruction of Cairo from a wide variety of angles and perspectives. Casually jumping back and forth between past and present, and sometimes combining the two using footnotes and cartoon sequences, which enable the reader to experience the story from both textual and visual angles. These provided me with a very thorough education of Cairo, and everything that makes the city what it is today, and why it really doesn’t work – explained in very graphic language.

Ahmed Naji was imprisoned for 300 days because of the explicit sexual language in the book, along with the frequent mentions of alcohol and drugs. The charge was “harming the public morals”. Ostensibly a private citizen suffered a drop in blood pressure after reading parts of chapter six. I strongly suspect the actual reason was because the book was a very detailed hate story of Cairo, but I also fully agree that the book has VERY graphic language and images. For example, the chapter that landed Naji in trouble discusses “a kind of sexual fetish called ‘licking the pupil’”, and these explicitly graphic scenes also extend to some of the cartoon sequences. Does this mean I think that Naji should have been imprisoned? Absolutely not! Jailing writers is horrible! The book should still only be read by mature audiences though.

Fascinating and Repelling

“The secret societies of Cairenes include religious fanatics who move about in cohorts of brothers and sisters; homosexuals who organize cocktail parties and meet and greets in homes out in Dokki and Mohandeseen; young artists drowning in rivers of beer stretching from Zamalek to downtown; wife-swapping groups in Imbaba; street children overdosing on soda in the shadows of slums and abandoned railroad yards; hashish dealers making the rounds of Dar al-Salam; a church that’s maintained its control and influence over its flock for centuries; bodybuilding fanatics; boxers obsessed with their fists; mendicant musicians and worn-out belly dancers in the backstreets of Faisal and the Pyramids district; gluttonous businessmen organizing hunting trips to begin after midnight; junkyard dogs; foreigners who ride motorcycles in Maadi; youth committed to charity and public service in Agouza; folk singers in Shobra; S&M fans in apartments that overlook the Nile in Maadi; families begot of incest with a biological map stretching from the corniche at Rod El Farag over to Ahmed Helmi street; fornicators with donkeys in Ezbat Antar; the men in black; defenders of security and stability; dog catchers and dog dealers roaming about in bands in the desert; private security firms in the fifth settlement; killers-for-hire hiding out in al-Ataba… All of these secret societies grow up and mature in close proximity to each other. They greet one another by sniffing each other with the tips of their noses, or by licking each other’s necks, or by looking each other in the eye: each one’s secret is safe with the other.”

This book both fascinated and repelled me, and the above paragraph is an excellent example of why. I loved the book because of how it provided me with a very detailed guide through Cairo; a city I have never visited, and now have no desire to visit. I learned about the Ring Road, and it’s adjacent slums; the frequent sandstorms that terrorize the city; the 6th of October city named after the date Egypt launched an attack against Israel in 1973; the spying neighbors and all-powerful doormen, and of course all of the groups mentioned above. This is not the kind of information you’ll ever get from a tour guide, which makes sense, as this book is probably not intended for tourists.

I’m guessing that the target audience of this book is Egypt’s the disillusioned youth of Egypt who lived through the Arab Spring and the subsequent event. This book has an insane number of references that only a native could ever really get, which makes it really awesome if you were born and bred and Cairo, but also fun for people like me who love learning new things, and I experienced a thrill of exhilaration each time I spotted something interesting, and then paused to go to Wikipedia and look it up. At the same time, it’s still a very disillusioned perspective, and the sexual parts of it were not fun to read.

As mentioned above, Cairo is also a city of wife-swappers, donkey fornicators and families begot of incest, and during their interactions they may sniff each other or lick each other’s necks. And yes, of course I get that this is a metaphor. However, the book is full of these types of metaphors, as well as very literal descriptions. This is not the type of content I enjoy reading so I was also very much repelled by this book.

A Work of Art

At the end of the day, I view this book as a kind of work of art, which means that there is no one right way to approach it. The perspective is constantly shifting, like the sand that Cairo rests on, and like the city itself, the plot is very much a jumble, jumping in several directions at once. I had to read the book slowly in order to fully immerse myself in a reading experience that was very different from anything I had ever encountered before, which is why at the end of the day, I think I can strongly recommend this book (to those who don’t mind explicit sexual language).

The Omer today is courage in splendour, which for these review I’m interpreting as beauty. As far as Naji is concerned, Cairo was never beautiful (as a whole), and can never be beautiful. I think that’s why he destroyed it in the best way possible (but also very thoroughly). In doing so he basically gave up on his hometown, and admitted defeat, which took quite a bit of courage. Does this mean that Cairo has no hope for a better future? I honestly don’t know. 

I don’t live in Cairo. Therefore, I can’t really speak for the city, but I’d like to hope that things aren’t really that bad. However, I also get where Naji is coming from. Cairo the paradise is a dream that never existed for its residents. It’s Cairo the ugly that they get to wake up to each morning, which is why they want to have fun. Fortunately, they have Garden City. The best parties are always in Garden City.

#bebeautiful even if your surroundings are not.

About the Creators

Ahmed Naji is the author of numerous works of creative nonfiction, including a history of the Arabic blogosphere entitled al-Mudawwinat: Min al-Bust ila al-Twit (Blogs: From post to Tweet). He is also an editor of and contributor to Akhbar al-Adab, Egypt’s foremost literary magazine. His first novel, Rogers, has been translated into Italian. After his imprisonment, he was granted the PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award in recognition of his long struggle in support of freedom of expression. He lives in Cairo.

Ayman Al Zorkany is an illustrator and costume designer in Cairo. In 2009, he left a career in advertising to devote himself to his own work, which has been exhibited in the Egyptian Opera House and the 2012 International Comics Salon in Erlangen, Germany, and featured in several shot films  and television commercials. The images he designed for Using Life have appeared in special exhibits in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as the 2016 Festival of Mediterranean Literature in Lucera, Italy.

Benjamin Koerber is an assistant professor in the Department of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Using Life

Author: Ahmed Naji

Illustrator: Ayman Al Zorkany

Translator: Benjamin Koerber

Publisher: The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at The University of Texas

Published: 2017

Pages: 198

Format reviewed: Physical