Rotten Evidence: Reading and Writing in an Egyptian Prison

McSweeney’s. Oct. 2023. 280p. tr. from Arabic by Katharine Halls. ISBN 9781952119835. pap. $20. MEMOIR
In this engrossing memoir, Egyptian journalist Naji shares his nearly yearlong experience in a Cairo prison after his conviction for violating public decency through his novel The Use of Life. Though he is housed with other nonviolent offenders, conditions are nevertheless harsh and difficult. Naji tells his story in a nonchronological fashion, and he interweaves descriptions about his time in prison with tales from his childhood, early career, trial, and appeals. While in prison, he passes the time primarily by reading. He has access to the prison library, but he is also allowed to receive books from visitors, although the prison authorities use their power to dole them out to him slowly. Through reading, Naji is able to sustain himself during his prison term, devouring not only classics by Egyptian authors (Naguib Mahfouz, for example) but also a variety of Western literature. Eventually, Naji comes to see himself as a writer, not just a journalist.
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.
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