Upon its initial release in Arabic in the fall of 2014, Using Life received acclaim in Egypt and the wider Arab world. But in 2016, Ahmed 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 and literary organizations around the world rallied to support Naji, and he was released in December 2016. His original conviction was overturned in May 2017 but, at the time of printing, he is awaiting retrial and banned from leaving Egypt.
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.
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.
Ayman Al Zorkany is an illustrator and costume designer. In 2009, he left a career in advertising to devote himself to his own work, which has been exhibited at the Egyptian Opera House and the 2012 International Comics Salon in Erlangen, Germany, and featured in several short 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.