What’s the Real Nature of Ahmed Naji’s Novel ‘The Use of Life’?

Arabic Literature (in English)

Ahmed Naji’s court date has been set for November 14, at which time he and his attorneys will have to defend his novel-excerpt published in Akhbar al-Adab, which has been accused of defaming Egypt’s “public morals.” What kind of book is Naji’s The Use of Life, which now finds itself at the center of such a court battle? 

Elisabetta Rossi, who translated the novel Arabic into Italian, answers:

By Elisabetta Rossi

Naje's book. Naje’s book.

If we were to attempt to classify Ahmed Naji’s work within a well-defined genre, we would face no small issue: The young author, born in Mansura in September 1985, has distinguished himself on the Egyptian literary scene for his unique experimental writing, where genres and artistic elements converge to shape a hybrid literary product.

Naji started blogging in 2005 at Wassia’ khayalak (Widen your imagination), a free space where he writes about cinema, art, literature, sociology, and human rights. It…

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Dilemma (Review by Hilary Hawkes)

5star-flat-web

Dilemma by Baheya Zeitoun is a short work of fiction that explores the dilemmas and emotional struggles of a young woman stuck in a love triangle and unable, at first, to determine the right way forward for herself. This contemporary story is told from first person perspective, the heroine telling her own story in journal style. No names of the characters are given – they are referred to as “I”, “she” or “he”. The heroine experiences confusion, hopes, disappointments and finally resolves to leave her unsatisfactory relationship behind her and begin to develop herself and a life of her own. This has interesting and unexpected consequences for her.

Baheya Zeitoun has an attractive and appealing writing style. Her unusual decision not to give names to her characters has an interesting effect in that it doesn’t detract from the story at all. “We are all the same in being different” states the book’s main character at the start – names can give rise to false expectations or prejudices. I love the way the heroine finds her way through her relationship dilemmas and works to resolve her financial difficulties, so she can develop her talents as a writer.

The book has a message about not settling for pleasing others when this has a detrimental effect on ourselves. It’s when the young woman lets go of unfulfilling situations and people, and concentrates on developing herself, friendships, and her abilities that life starts to unfold in a natural, exciting and good way. Dilemma is a very readable, carefully plotted, entertaining story with believable characters and dilemmas with which many readers may identify.

Hilary Hawkes

Reader’s Favorite

Anna Karenina (Book vs. Movie)

Having just finished reading Anna Karenina (over 900 pages long), which took me forever to read, I can honestly say that the movie didn’t do the book any justice. I had watched previous adaptations of books by the same director (Joe Wright) and found them both much better. Even though critics say that his adaptation of Anna Karenina was superior to those of Atonement and Pride & Prejudice (both starring Keira Knightley), because it was more innovative and creative, I would have to disagree. The manner in which it was made is border-line comical. It reminds me of Greek melodramas, which are overly dramatic that it’s funny.

The book is by no means a light read. It discusses Russian society as it is during that era, while keeping the reader intrigued. I will have to admit that it does get overly detailed at times that it becomes boring; however it doesn’t lose its intensity. It is a very deep and complex tale of adultery, passion and journey of finding one’s self intertwined with the rigid rules of late 19th century Russian society. Tolstoy goes overboard when talking about laws and comparing philosophers and stuff of that sort, which is exhausting sometimes.

But when you look at the fraying character of Anna and her tragic affair in comparison to the more virtuous and idealistic Levin, you see they are both on opposite sides of the spectrum. One is destroyed by societal constraints both before and during her affair. Her name is slandered and her reputation tarnished, because she dared to follow her own rules and not bow down to social pressures, which ultimately become the end of her. While the other inwardly questions the society, the culture and his faith, but still remains a part of them; he is thus accepted as a member in the society rather than an outcast. Tolstoy allows the reader to follow the characters’ thoughts, inner doubts and desires, as well as their actions; thus creating complete realistic characters. As a whole the book, even though overwhelming, was incredible.

Anna Karenina

The movie however strips the book to the bone. It focuses on the main events in the book, which is understandable considering how dense it is. That however isn’t what bothered me. I was bothered by the fact that it was done as if it was play in a movie, with a stage and props and all that. I found the setting as well as the speed of both the scenes and the dialogue, quite distracting. I understand that the director wanted to portray how the character’s lives and society in general at that time was all “staged” (pun intended), but having it so literal was unappealing to me. The beauty of period pieces is also in the décor, the costumes and how they help the actors embody these characters. The costumes were fabulous; however the viewer was robbed of the exquisite décor which is vital in all period pieces, especially those revolving around the aristocracy. The 19th century also happens to be one of my favorite eras portrayed in movies. The movie lost all the depth and the intensity which are characteristic of the book. Turning a tragic masterpiece into what felt more like a satirical adaptation, was insulting and unfair to the high esteem of the work.

PS: I did enjoy Keira Knightely’s acting in it (even though she has done better roles), the rest could have also been better.

*I would recommend reading the book, if you’re up for it.

Hopelessness (Revolutionary Road) & Living Life to the Fullest (Last Holiday)

Hopelessness: a feeling that you have a stagnant life that won’t change; a life that is too expected, a life with no meaning, no adventure and no change. In Revolutionary Road Frank (Leonardo Dicaprio) and April (Kate Wislet) Wheeler’s life is a still life portrait of what they think other people expect life to be like in the suburbs. Frank Wheeler works as a salesman in a computer company, a job he detests but has to endure in order to support his family. April Wheeler, who dreamt of one day becoming an actress settle for being nothing more than a housewife whose entire life, revolves around housework and maintaining their perfect image in the community. One night a wild and crazy idea comes to her mind: their family should move to Paris. Her husband had once told her that it was the only place worth living in and that being there made him feel alive.  After running by him and explaining the reasons behind this notion he agrees and for a while they prepare themselves for this extraordinary move. Their friends, neighbors and co-workers find the idea juvenile and irrational especially that April will be the one working while Frank takes the time to decide what it is he wants to do with his life. They however abandon their idea after an ironic twist of fate.
Frank is offered a promotion at work and April gets pregnant.

The feeling hopelessness returns after this turn of events, because up until that moment the viewer clings to the idea that this couple will have the courage to escape their empty lives in pursuit of happiness and change. However when we realize that these events will lead to them staying; only to continue living the lie of the perfect happy suburban family that have absolutely no real problems and are content with their simple lives, it becomes very disappointing and frustrating even.

‘Everyone sees the emptiness, but only a few people see the hopelessness.’ A statement said to Frank by his landlord’s (Kathy Bates) son after Frank declares that they are moving to Paris to escape the emptiness and the hopelessness of their lives. This statement is what struck me the most in this entire movie (which I frankly thought was un-entertaining whatsoever. I honestly have no idea how such a cast can produce such a horrible piece of art).  It reminded me of my life and how I feel about my life. It’s not the emptiness, because my life isn’t empty, it’s the hopelessness, the idea that if I continue to live where I’m living today for
the rest of my life then I will miss out on a lot of opportunities in life. Or to be more exact of living an adventure: trying new things, visiting new places, being free to do whatever you want and live however you choose without holding back to consider what people might think.

This brings  me to the exact opposite of Revolutionary Road: Last Holiday. Queen Latifa plays Georgia Byrd a sales clerk in a department store that discovers that she only has three to four weeks to live. She has a very conservative lifestyle and is afraid of taking any risks until the moment she realizes how short her life really is. She withdraws all her money from the bank and starts spending it like she’s a millionaire at a ski and spa resort in Europe. Presidential suite, gourmet dinners, private helicopter, snowboarding she lives her life to the fullest and ‘makes each day count’ (Titanic). In her life changing vacation she appreciates the value of life and she finds herself by taking risks and not holding back. This movie inspires me and makes me feel alive just by watching it. It is what I want from life: an adventure.

Honestly have you ever thought about it living life as if it was a movie? As if you were a character in movie, but still be yourself. Jump out of plane one day and attend a ball the next. Travel the world, try exotic foods and maybe swim with sharks and manta rays. I’ve always wanted to do all those things. Have a lot of money to blow on traveling and clothes. I’d like to use part of it for good obviously, because there are so many people on this Earth who are far less fortunate than I am, but I won’t be discussing this right now.  An adventure is best gift life can give me, because without taking risks and discovering your full potential while having
fun and living the moment your life becomes mundane. My last thoughts on this topic is that life is an adventure worth trying and if you miss out on life you can never get a do over so you owe to yourself to do it right because you can only do it once. 🙂

The Last Song

Yesterday I decided to watch The Last Song starring Miley Cyrus, Greg Kinnear & Liam Hemsworth, mostly because I had nothing better to do with my day. Even though the decision was quite an embarrassing one, since it is Miley Cyrus after all, I don’t regret it. It was a mediocre movie about a girl and her brother from New York who are shipped Georgia to stay with their father for the summer. Ronnie (Cyrus) is a rebellious teenager who pushed people away, especially her father whom she is very angry with because she feels he’d abandoned her after her parent’s divorce. She then befriends a dark and troubled girl, much like herself, who has an abusive boyfriend. Ronnie also gets a boyfriend out of her stay in Georgia and returns to her true passion in life, playing the piano.

The storyline is average, but overall the movie was not bad. What bothered me though wasn’t the story or the acting which was ok; it was Miley Cyrus’s accent. As an actress she’s good, I’m not saying she’ll be the next Audrey Hepburn or anything but for a teen actress playing the lead in a light movie she did well. However her accent drove me crazy; she has a very heavy southern accent that is just annoying. I would like you to imagine a farmer from Texas, no offence, but that’s exactly how she sounds; like nails screeching on a chalkboard.

However, what interested me the most, in this movie were two parts that I don’t think many people would take any notice of: the part where she was protecting the sea-turtle eggs from the raccoons and the part when she & her boyfriend were diving in the aquarium. The first I found to be very touching, but maybe that’s just me, I’m an animal lover so I find any act of compassion towards an animal quite touching.  I personally would love to learn how to dive, I think it would be thrilling and exhilarating, that’s why I thought the diving scene was entertaining.

I like the idea of exploring the deep sea and uncovering its wonders. Or just swimming around with the fish, it’s very liberating and adventurous and quite dangerous if you’re not careful I’m aware. But still it is on my list of things have to try or just really want to do in general; this list also includes going to Barcelona and admiring the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel; actually go there and look up at Michelangelo’s extraordinary creation. Back to the topic at hand, diving, seeing fish in their natural habitat not through glass in a boat or an aquarium. Exploring the sea even if I’m still relatively close to the surface is more rewarding for me than just watching the fish while I swim at the surface; it would make me feel like I’m a part of the sea, a part of nature.

Chocolat

Two nights ago I was watching Chocolat starring Juliette Binoche, Judi Dench, Alfred Molina & Johnny Depp. It’s set in a little French town in the 1950s. Without getting into too many details it’s an amazing movie that you must watch. The movie’s greatest appeal is the CHOCOLATE and Johnny Depp, obviously, but I am more concerned with the chocolate right now.

The movie’s focal point is chocolate, the character’s lives are tailored around it and so is the plot. To each character chocolate represents something different whether it’s passion, hope, love, life, change or even something forbidden. The satisfaction that the characters receive through eating chocolate is inexplicable and unattainable in any other way. That was how chocolate was represented in Chocolat. Let me tell you what chocolate represents for me.

Chocolate is my cure for pretty much everything from cramps to mood swings to depression to heartache. It is probably the only kind of food that can bring true joy to a person’s life. The almost erotic sensation that you get as it melts in your mouth is worth killing for. Or the marvelous magical feeling you get as it slowly slides down your throat; leaving you wanting more. Or just the way it looks sitting in the window of a ‘chocolaterie’ as you pass by; calling for you, drawing you in.  In Chocloat you can witness the magic of making this heavenly dessert from nothing more than a plant, the coco bean (god bless it). After grinding the beans, adding milk and mixing them (there are probably a few other steps in between but I don’t really care for them at the moment) you get the extraordinary miracle known as: chocolate.

I consider chocolate a solution to all problems, a very small simple dessert that can end wars and cheer up the most bitter of people (I am aware that I went a little too far with this hyperbole, but if the exaggeration helps prove my point I make it). It exists in different forms: white, dark, milk, flavored, incorporated in drinks and baked goods and more. It is life. However I would not advise diabetics to go anywhere near it. Even though there is such a thing as too much chocolate, there is no such thing as enough chocolate, I mean how can one calculate when the amount of pleasure they have received is enough? As for me if the world was coming to an end and it was that last day ever I would spend that day eating endless amounts of chocolate & shopping, but that’s a whole other story…

Desire (Old Times)

I finished one of the seven books I’m planning to read over my summer vacation. It was a play by Harold Pinter called Old Times. I’m generally more fond of novels however I decided to read something different for a change. It was a two act play – quite short – with only three characters and quite an unusual storyline.

A man and his wife are visited by an old friend. She was the wife’s former roommate whom she hadn’t seen in twenty years. In the opening scene the husband (Deeley) asks his wife (Kate) about her friend (Anna), she gives him short and vague answers without the slightest bit of emotion in her voice. During the first act and the first part of the second act Kate remains almost completely silent, while Deeley and Anna converse with one another. A tension starts to build up between the two parties as they both desire the affection of Kate. They both start talking to one another about her personality and her habits as if she is not
with them in the room.

As their conversation escalates Deeley realizes that they had met twenty years before and got intimate. Anna denies that claim for a long time until she is able to use it in her favor towards the end of the play. Kate is no longer silent, in the second act, where she tells her friend that she remembers her being dead in their room with a dirty face while she, Kate, was with a man. A man whose face she throws dirt at when he tries to approach her. It closes with Kate on one divan with Deeley resting his head on her lap while Anna lies on the other divan (backless sofa with pillows on the wall).

After reading the analysis of the play (because I honestly had nothing better to do) I came up with my own interpretation. While some say that it is all Deeley’s dream and that the two women are fictional since he is a filmmaker and one of them sometimes seems not to exist even though she is in the room. Others say it is Kate’s imagination, her own fantasy that she has after killing both Anna and Deeley; a fantasy where they both love her and not each other. Or that Kate and Anna are two sides of the same person; Kate being the cold emotionless side while Anna is the passionate one. I find this last one plausible however I have my own theory:

That none of the characters are fantasies for starters but that after finding out about Anna and Deeley’s encounter Kate considered Anna to be dead to her. The dirt on Anna’s face represents how Kate felt about their act. As for the visit itself I believe it was Anna’s way to reach out to Kate. The final scene portrays the lack of passion between Kate and Deeley by placing Deeley’s head on her lap he is seen as her son rather than her husband which makes her a figure of authority. Anna on the other hand is shunned; therefore she lies on the opposite side of the couple, because she represents the gap between them.

I realize I wrote a mini literature paper just here but the play touched upon something that I thought I should share with all of you, a universal theme: desire. How such a feeling when given to the wrong person can destroy a person and how the lack of it can destroy a relationship. Everyone at some point in their lives has desired something or someone and was not able get their heart’s desire. There is also always that person who wants to ruin another’s life for their own personal benefit.

Desire is a theme found in many pieces of literature and works of art. It is feeling that has been felt by everyone at some point in their lives. It is personal and private and relatable to. As I end this entry I would like whoever is reading this to ponder about the desires in his/her life.