The government’s assessment of the libraries stemmed largely from the work of their founder, Gamal Eid, a human-rights lawyer with a high, lilting voice. After Egypt’s cataclysmic revolution in 2011, Eid used his own money to open the library and five others like it. The name he gave them, Al-Karama, means “dignity” in Arabic.
On the day of the Dar El Salam raid, Eid and a group of volunteers held incensed children back from hurling rocks at the police. Fearing further retaliation, he decided to close the other three branches. The six locations have been shut down for the past year. Only a portion of the books has been recovered from the police.
Ahmed Naji, a PEN-award-winning novelist ensnared in a Kafkaesque legal limbo, also sees an Egypt mired in a cultural malaise, but from a vastly different perspective. A chapter from his acclaimed novel Using Life, released in November this year in English, was published in August 2014 in a state-affiliated literary journal which he worked for. It was considered salacious enough to land him in prison in 2016, launching a moral panic around his sexually-loaded words.
He spent a year in prison for “offending public modesty” for his dystopian and heavily sexualized vernacular that is at once satirical and exudes an air of non-chalance—much like himself. He has since been released from prison. “Maybe they imprisoned me because I am hot shit,” he told me with a smirk. He is frustrated with not being able to leave Egypt, due to a suspended two-year verdict hanging over his head.
Fahmy is optimistic that the current repressive period is already creating burgeoning subversive spaces of critical resistance. “Within the readership there actually is a more healthy and critical reception of books and engagement with them [than before]. The reading public hasn’t expanded but deepened.”