Upon its initial release in Arabic in the fall of 2014, Using Life received acclaim in Egypt and the wider Arabic world. But in 2016, comic book writer Ahmed Naji was sentenced to two years in Egyptian prison after a reader complained that an excerpt published in a literary journal harmed public morality.
His imprisonment marked the first time in modern Egypt that an author had 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, though he faced trial again in April 2017 for charges stemming from the original accusation.
Now the work that so offended the nation has been translated into English by Benjamin Koeber and will published by the University Of Texas in November, which will give it a chance to affect the wider world as well.
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 worldwide 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.
And he didn't even need a Howard Chaykin cover. But the one by the book's artist Ayman Al Zorkany will have to do.