“That humanity at large will ever be able to dispense with Artificial Paradises seems very unlikely. Most men and women lead lives at the worst so painful, at the best so monotonous, poor and limited that the urge to escape, the longing to transcend themselves if only for a few moments, is and always has been one of the principal appetites of the soul.”

(Huxley, The Doors of Perception 42)


“Wait until you see the dancing green flame…”

(Towfik, Utopia 23)


Ahmed Khaled Towfik’s Utopia could be crudely summarised as a novella set in a gated community, the inhabitants of which are addicted to the fictional drug “phlogistine”.[1] The plot is spurred on by a pair of lovers who dare to leave this “artificial paradise”,[2] aptly titled “Utopia”, and they venture into “Shubra”, the world of “the Others”, a world with “nothing left but poverty”.[3] In light of this condensation of the plot of Utopia, it is almost impossible not to compare Towfik’s work to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World.[4] It is an all too obvious observation given Bernard Marx and Lenina Crowne’s journey from the metropolis of London to the Savage Reservation, yet the similarities between Towfik’s and Huxley’s novels extend beyond their narrative patterns into their portrayals of drug use: a new angle to Towfik’s Utopia can be found through reading the novel in the light of Huxley’s writings on the psychedelic. “The dancing green flame” of phlogistine in Utopia can be seen to offer both Utopians and the Others “the urge to escape . . . to transcend themselves if only for a few moments” that Huxley talks about in The Doors of Perception.[5] The physiological response to the drug creates “those seductive flames it gets its name from” on the arms of users, which becomes a figurative equivalent to LSD users’ desire to “set fire to themselves”. [6] Conjoining drug consumption with self-immolation underscores wider themes in Towfik’s Utopia, as the practice represents Cairo’s volatility and chemical artificiality. In portraying a city dependent on US-imported “biroil”, whose inhabitants think of Iraq first and foremost as a “far-off, remote countr[y] Americans had rough experiences in”,[7] Towfik’s pharmacology imagines a “Brave New Cairo”, drawing on the city’s contemporary drug culture to depict an Egypt on the verge of collapse as it attempts to reject its history, alongside struggling to satiate capital desire with social responsibility.

Here is a good place to explain my use of the word pharmacology. Straddling the term’s medical definition and critical history, I employ the word primarily in light of Bernard Stiegler’s 2013 work What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology. This is not least because of the poetic connection between the title of Stiegler’s work and the attempts made in Utopia to overcome the meaninglessness of existence, by both Utopians and the Others. Stiegler draws on Jacques Derrida’s dual definition of “pharmakon” from Plato’s Phaedrus as meaning “the drug: the medicine and/or poison”.[8] With recreational drugs being “available all the time” in Utopia, they become “boring and vulgar”,[9] and Stiegler notes how the “ordinary and everyday, and [. . .] ‘mundane’ [. . .] engage not only curative projection processes but poisonous ones [. . .] those dangerous states that result when the feeling that life is worth living has been lost”.[10] For “Alaa”,[11] the nameless narrator of the “Predator” sections in the novella (referred to by this name hereon for ease) acquiring and consuming drugs is viewed as the raison d’être for both Utopians and Others, providing them the only avenue they have to even “pretend to be human”.[12] Drugs are seen to be a ubiquitous pharmakon in Utopia, as Towfik depicts similar drugs taking on medicinal and poisonous roles at different times, sometimes simultaneously. Whilst the erectile dysfunction aid “libidafro” creates men whose “lust for women is eternal”,[13] “gossypol . . . kill[s] off the manhood”[14] of the Others, as the same fraudulent contraceptive did for fifty percent of Chinese users in the 1970s.[15] In Shubra, drug consumption solely “provide[s] you with the benefit of taking something rather than just waiting helplessly for death”.[16] Similarly in Utopia, “looking for a way to pass every minute of your life consumes you”.[17] Across the novel, salvation is only made possible through chemistry, but what is at debate in Utopia is not so much the destructiveness of drugs themselves on the individual, but instead the overall neoliberal capitalist structure of the Egypt within which they are consumed.

Caroline Rooney describes Utopia’s Cairo as a “scathing portrayal of a society that is uncohesive [sic], untrustworthy and uncaring”.[18] She places Towfik within a cohort of twenty-first century Egyptian writers prior to the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, alongside Alaa Al Aswany’s The Yacoubian Building in 2002 and Ahmed Alaidy’s Being Abbas El Abd in 2006. As part of this group condemning contemporary Cairo, Towfik’s aesthetic of the city’s drug scene resembles something more akin to the Edinburgh of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting rather than Naguib Mahfouz’ 1966 Adrift on the Nile, perhaps the most well known portrayal of Cairo’s relationship with drugs.[19] Samia Mehrez notes how the literary representation of Cairo’s drug scene prior to Essam Youssef’s A 1/4 Gram in 2008 had been largely “rather laid-back”, often focusing on the “positive impact” drugs have “on creative energy and the imagination”[20] instead of their destructive potential. With the emphasis in Utopia on the inadequacy of drugs to overcome what Huxley would describe as “lives so painful” or “so monotonous”,[21] Towfik chooses not to write out Cairo’s pre-existing drugs scene. Instead, he places the new drugs phlogistine and libidafro in a city already full of “hashish, heroin, cocaine, cannabis, prescription drugs, glue and so on”[22].

By choosing the title Utopia, in both transliterated Arabic (يوتوبيا) as well as in Chip Rossetti’s 2011 translation, Towfik submits his novella into a lineage of literary utopias. From “l’ouvrage éponyme de Thomas More”[23] to Brave New World and beyond; it is impossible to separate Utopia from this tradition. Towfik even makes this connection explicit as he directly compares Gaber, his other narrator, to Huxley himself through the refrain of lament: “my beloved cornea – and a dream of something beyond sex”,[24] invoking an image of Huxley as seen in the preface to the latter’s The Art of Seeing. Here, Huxley recalls how his “inability to see was mainly due to the presence of opacities in the cornea”.[25] Across his career, Huxley often revisited the theme of the potential of drugs to influence the human psyche. In The Doors of Perception, he argued hallucinogens made it possible to transcend the limits of sense perception, allowing one to experience the world through the “Mind at Large”.[26] In Brave New World he invented “soma”: a drug with “all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects”[27]. This is used to fortify and limit opposition to the novel’s rigid caste system: the chemically-constructed social hierarchy of Brave New World. Phlogistine may have “become the name of the game” in Utopia (10), but it is not the same as soma; it is just one drug among many on the streets of Cairo, whereas soma has a complete monopoly over the denizens of Huxley’s Brave New World.  It is this, Towfik’s depiction of imaginary drugs co-existing with the pre-existing drug scene that needs to be evaluated.

“Egyptians have always consumed drugs”, as Mehrez puts it.[28] This would appear to be a very obvious point, but it is worth considering in light of the pharmacological role of drugs in Utopia as both medicinal and poisonous. In 1998, the Egyptian Ministry of Health noted that “the per capita use of prescription drugs in Egypt” was “amongst the highest in the world”.[29] It is important to distinguish between what Robert Rubinstein calls “the drugging of the Third World”[30] by international pharmaceutical companies, and the tradition of Egypt’s recreational drug culture. However, in Utopia both types of drugs, medicinal and recreational, possess the same role: escaping from one’s current existence. In Mahfouz’ Adrift on the Nile, kief causes Anis Zaki to “forget completely what he is escaping from”: the monotonous life of a government official. [31] Approximately ten percent of Cairo’s population are believed to be regular drug users, with the drug scene dominated by cannabinoids, particularly hashish.[32] Gabriel G. Nahas observes that bar a few short-lived attempts at restriction and prohibition, such as from Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798 and the Grand Mufti of Cairo during the Second World War, hashish consumption has remained largely constant since the nineteenth century to the present day.[33] Turning attention back to Utopia, upon entering Shubra, Alaa is greeted by “a strange mix of smells, sights and sounds”.[34] Through his depiction of this olfactory landscape, Towfik illustrates just how embedded hashish is within Egyptian society, with “puffs of hashish” being smelled amongst “the intoxicating smell of grilled meat in the ruined buildings”.[35] Alaa denigrates hashish as “foul-smelling”,[36] and earlier describes it as “that vile drug they used to take at the turn of the century”.[37] Differing access to different drugs in Utopia and Shubra furthers the impression of the former as supposedly more civilised, more refined, more “dépendante de l’Occident”[38], than the latter – the Cairo of the past.


For Towfik, hallucinogens sell the prospect of a utopia but yield that of a dystopia. In Huxley’s theory from The Doors of Perception, the Mind at Large should be able to perceive beyond the physical limitations of the body, yet for Alaa, this expansion of the mind through psychedelic experiences gives rise to an ever-escalating need to continue expanding his perception. Mind at Large is not sufficient to satisfy this lust, simply, for more:

When you’ve crossed the farthest boundary of consciousness, you realise that consciousness expands to include within itself other boundaries, ruled by habit, boredom and monotony. Even pissing in the kitchen sink seems reasonable and boring.[39]

Alaa’s constant quest to overcome this “boredom and monotony” leads to him desiring “the greatest experience of them all”.[40] He chooses to go “hunting” in Shubra for a limb of one of the residents. When an expansion of Mind at Large ad infinitum is not possible, Alaa can be argued, in Huxleyan terms, to “make contact” with an “other world” in which the “other selves” present are “enormously irrelevant” to him.[41] Alaa is in a permanent state of Huxleian “Not-self”, possessing neither awareness of his behaviour nor that of those around him, whether under the influence of hallucinogens or not.[42] The result of this lifestyle is Alaa’s rape of Safiya, “a woman who is sick with tuberculosis”, justified to himself as an “event [that] would go down in history”, one he would “tell sometimes to [his] friends in phlogistine sessions”.[43] Towfik depicts the psychedelic mind as dangerous in a Stieglerian sense, and as a response to the monotony of everyday life through extremes.

Similar to the soma of Brave New World that blurs the line “between the actual universe and [one’s] mind”, phlogistine offers a chance to transcend the user’s mind.[44] Conversely, Towfik’s second imaginary drug offers the ability to transcend the limitations of their body and the effects of time. Libidafro allows “the men of Utopia never [to] give up sex: they don’t grow old and don’t get feeble”. It is described as a “drug that could work miracles”, a much more powerful cure for erectile dysfunction than Viagra.[45] More than simply a cure for erectile dysfunction, libidafro functions in Utopia’s Cairo as a justification of biological differences between social classes. The prioritisation of bodies that can access such drugs over those that cannot is made explicit, with Alaa describing the Others as “creatures as far removed as possible from humans”.[46] Utopians themselves are seen to have transcended humanity through libidafro, “shipped fresh every day from France”.[47] What are essentially bodies that have become more than human by defeating the aging process are placed in direct opposition to the Others who “have sunk lower than animals”[48] as Alaa and Germinal enter Shubra.

The brand name libidafro is derived from “libido” meaning “psychic drive or energy, particularly that associated with the sexual instinct”[49], with “afro”, meaning simply “of or relating to Africa”.[50] This branding markets sexual enhancement specifically to an African market.  Linguistically, “afro” is used universally as a prefix. In “libidafro”, the term is relegated to the position of suffix, with the very structure of the word giving direct implication that sex is being sold to control Egypt. The results are shocking, with Alaa stating “boredom makes your sexual behaviour aggressive and sadistic”: boredom is seen to justify all drug-taking and subsequent actions under the psychedelic state.[51] By enhancing the bodies of those who can access libidafro, and thus separating them from those who cannot, the drug creates hypermasculine, essentially neo-colonial bodies. The owners of these bodies have solely violent sex with the Saidian “Other”, a feature of the novel explicitly highlighted as such by Towfik in calling the inferior race “the Others”. Gaber has to remind himself that Alaa isn’t “Napoleon”.[52] With libidafro being a French drug, the images of the former coloniser of Egypt and the modern-day rapist are aligned. Alaa is conditioned from his libidafro-infused society to view the female body as a drug to be consumed. This is demonstrated in his confusion that Safiya did not “melt at the mere thought that I desired her”, likening sex to the dissolving of a pill.[53] To employ a neologism, Utopia pharmacises, or makes drugs of, anything and everything.

Returning now to phlogistine, we should note its unique route of administration in that it is “dropped on the forearm”.[54] It is contained within ampoules, “small sealed (glass) vessels used for storing sterilized materials prepared for injection”,[55]  and Towfik clarifies this as a “small dropper that you fill” before you “squeeze three or four drops on your arm”.[56] A similar method is seen in William S. Burroughs’ 1953 novel Junky, using a safety pin with the dropper, but there is no such piercing of the skin in Utopia.[57] By providing a non-penetrative mode of administration, Towfik grants phlogistine a clean and innocent feeling. Though you can “die from it in seconds”, it is a recreational drug with the image of a medical pharmaceutical.[58] In Shubra, Gaber tells us that “if a revolution ever happened, it wouldn’t be for equality, but to answer the demands of those who had been deprived of their natural right to phlogistine”.[59] Access to phlogistine is seen in the same light as proper medical care, and the pharmaceutical companies holding monopolies over Shubra ensure that only “herbs and popular remedies” like hashish are available for consumption in Shubra.[60] This denial of proper health care, symbolised by the recreational drugs that different classes are permitted to use, is fundamental in igniting the revolution at Utopia’s climax.

Phlogistine derives its name from phlogiston theory, a seventeenth century conception of combustible matter. Prior to the discovery of oxygen, “substances that burned in air were said to be rich in phlogiston”.[61] Stretching Towfik’s choice in naming his drug after this theory, we can read the Others’ insatiable desire for phlogistine as providing not, as Alaa seeks, the possibility to transcend Mind at Large, but in fact a demonstration of their desire for air itself. Alaa observes how “suddenly we no longer existed” (72) as Gaber’s associates fight over the phlogistine, “pounc[ing], biting . . . eye-poking” each other, “foaming and frothing at the mouth” for “Flog! Flog!”.[62] Phlogistine provides the prospect of clean air, rid of the smells of local, traditional drugs. In Rossetti’s English translation, the Others’ shortening of phlogistine to “flog” gains new bodily connotations that are not present in the original Arabic. Taking “flog” as suggestive of lashing or whipping, the Others’ desperation for phlogistine comes across as an act of self-harm, and the drug is itself rooted in ideas self-immolation, as explored above, due to its association with fire. Both lack of phlogistine and possession of it are a punishment for the “poverty [. . .] foolishness [. . .] stupidity and [. . .] submissiveness” of the Others.[63] The poor are kept poor as they cannot afford a substance depicted to them as essential, but is in actuality recreational. This percieved ubiquitousness can be seen most clearly in Gaber’s description of Utopia:

In Utopia, rivers of phlogistine flowed. They ate and drank it. They sweated it. Women had phlogistine periods and men urinated it. Water didn’t pour out of taps – phlogistine did. They washed their feet in phlogistine. They put phlogistine in their dogs’ water bowls.[64]

Upon returning to Utopia, Alaa “smelled the night mixed with perfume, human flesh, and phlogistine”[65]. This triplet of smells sandwiches Gaber’s putrid arm that Alaa returns with, effectively masking the scent of the horrific act he has committed, and masking the agony of life in the gated community. Just prior to his return Alaa screams to himself: “Oh my God! Phlogistine! I’m burning with lust for it!”.[66] It is this “burning” inherent in the image of phlogistine that warms the pre-existing cracks of Utopia’s Cairo, expressed in the “fear” (155) Alaa has of his father as the “mass of humanity advances on the horizon” (156). Aged sixteen and naive to the extreme, this final clash between Alaa’s “anger” (155) and his father’s fear highlights the former’s inability to understand the realities of the deep divisions of Egypt. These divisions become material when, having tasted phlogistine, the cause for revolution is ignited within the Others. This social narrative certainly has power given the events that occurred in Tahrir Square in January 2011, but Towfik’s imagining of the intermingled culture of recreational drugs and pharmaceuticals prior to the Revolution, and the use of these drugs to contribute to the picture of Egypt’s social divisions, is the true brilliance of Utopia.


[1] Ahmed Khaled Towfik, Utopia, (Trans.) Chip Rossetti. (Doha: Bloomsbury, 2011), 10.

[2] Ibid, 9.

[3] Ibid, 37.

[4] As has been done by Dinar Rafisovich Khayrutdinov in the 2014 essay “Ahmad Khaled Tawfik’s Novel Utopia as an Important Example of the New Wave of Science Fiction in Arabic Literature.” (World Applied Sciences Journal 31.2). 190-192.

[5] Aldous Huxley, The Doors of Perception; And, Heaven and Hell, (Ed.) J. G. Ballard. (London: Flamingo, 1994). 42.

[6] Towfik, Utopia. 8.

[7] Ibid. 21.

[8] Jacques Derrida, ‘Plato’s Pharmacy.’ Dissemination, (Trans.) Barbara Johnson. (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004). 67-186. 75

[9] Towfik, Utopia. 8.

[10] Bernard Stiegler, What Makes Life Worth Living: On Pharmacology. Trans. Daniel Ross.

(Cambridge: Polity, 2013). 2.

[11] Towfik, Utopia. 75.

[12] Ibid. 37.

[13] Ibid. 23.

[14] Ibid. 131.

[15] Elsimar Metzker Coutinho, ‘Gossypol: a contraceptive for men.’ Contraception 65.4

(2002). 259-63. 260.

[16] Towfik, Utopia. 92.

[17] Ibid. 10.

[18] Caroline Rooney, ‘From Cairo to Tottenham: Big Societies, Neoliberal States, Colonial

Utopias.’ Journal for Cultural Research 17.2 (2013). 144-63. 147.

[19] Samia Mehrez, ed. ‘Cairo’s Drug Culture’. The Literary Life of Cairo: One Hundred Years in

the Heart of the City. (New York and Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2011). 363-412. 364.

[20] Ibid. 365.

[21] Huxley, The Doors of Perception. 42.

[22] Mehrez, 363.

[23] Delphine Pagès-El Karoui. ‘Utopia ou l’anti-Tahrir: le pire des mondes dans le roman de A.K. Towfik.’ EchoGéo 25 (2013). 2-7. 3.

[24] Towfik, Utopia. 47.

[25] Aldous Huxley, The Art of Seeing, (London: Chatto & Windus, 1943). vi.

[26] Huxley, The Doors of Perception. 12.

[27] Aldous Huxley, Brave New World. (London: Vintage, 2007). 54.

[28] Mehrez. 363.

[29] Robert A. Rubinstein, ‘“Breaking the Bureaucracy”: Drug Registration and Neocolonial

Relations in Egypt.’ Social Science & Medicine 46.11 (1998). 1487-494. 1487.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Naguib Mahfouz, Adrift on the Nile, (Trans.) Frances Liardet. (New York: Doubleday, 1993).


[32] Emad Hamdi, Tarek Gawad, Aref Khoweiled, Albert Edward Sidrak, Dalal Amer, Rania

Mamdouh, Heba Fathi, and Nasser Loza. “Lifetime Prevalence of Alcohol and Substance Use in Egypt: A Community Survey.” Substance Abuse 34.2 (2013): 97-104. 100.

[33] Gabriel G. Nahas, “Hashish and Drug Abuse in Egypt during the 19th and 20th Centuries.”

The Escape of the Genie: A History of Hashish Throughout the Ages. (New York: Raven, 1984). 428-44.

[34] Towfik, Utopia. 36.

[35] Ibid. 53.

[36] Ibid. 42.

[37] Ibid. 10.

[38] Pagès-El Karoui. 4.

[39] Towfik, Utopia. 13.

[40] Ibid. 16.

[41] Huxley, The Doors of Perception. 12, 21.

[42] Ibid. 21.

[43] Towfik, Utopia. 131.

[44] Huxley, Brave New World. 67.

[45] Towfik, Utopia. 32.

[46] Ibid. 95.

[47] Ibid. 32.

[48] Ibid. 154.

[49] “Libido”, OED definition 1

[50] “Afro”, OED definition 1

[51] Ibid. 9.

[52] Ibid. 118.

[53] Ibid. 131.

[54] Ibid. 23.

[55] “Ampoules”, OED definition 1

[56] Towfik, Utopia. 23.

[57] William S. Burroughs, Junky, (New York: Penguin, 1977). 148.

[58] Towfik, Utopia. 72.

[59] Ibid. 50.

[60] Ibid. 38.

[61] James Bryant Conant. The Overthrow of the Phlogiston Theory: The Chemical Revolution of

1775-1789, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1950). 13.

[62] Towfik, Utopia. 72, 73.

[63] Ibid. 132.

[64] Ibid. 50.

[65] Ibid. 145.

[66] Ibid. 137.