Charged with possession of a book in Saudi Arabia

Charged with possession of a book in Saudi Arabia
Despite heavy censorship in the kingdom, many banned works are being sold at book fairs where regulations are less strict.
5 min read
11 December, 2014
The 2013 Riyadh International Book Fair attracted visitors from across the kingdom and beyond [AFP]
Abduh Khal, winner of the 2010 International Prize for Arabic Fiction does not care whether or not his books are published in his home country, Saudi Arabia. Khal, like other Saudi authors, labours under harsh censorship laws that often restrict sale of their books for no announced reason, while their writing fills the shelves of bookstores in neighbouring countries.

Two years ago, Abdullah Mofleh had his novel
A Wahhabi Tale banned because censors objected to the title. Even heavyweights in the Saudi literary world suffer from censorship. Dr Ghazi al-Gosaibi, the former Saudi minister of culture, was only granted permission to publish his work by a ministerial decree shortly before his death. Other writers are still waiting for similar decrees to be passed regarding their books.

Khal explains that books are not subject to set guidelines, and are judged by the whim of the censor, who can allow or ban a book without, Khal says, any logical basis. "The censor drew red lines on every page of one of the novels I sent to the ministry of information," he said. "He asked me to rewrite it, and I refused. Now I do not care if they are approved for publication or not. They are distributed in the Gulf and the rest of the Arab World, but not in my country."

During Khal's 20-year career, eight of his novels have been banned, and only two have made it to the Saudi market,
Fusooq ["immorality"] and Rawat al-hayat ["the splendour of life"].

"I don't know why they were banned," he said. "However, the rise of social media and the internet has made this ban meaningless, because anyone can get any book they want simply by pressing a button on their mobile phone. It is shameful that there is a list of banned books."

Bans on some books have been relaxed, with some formerly prohibited works now allowed in the country, and even displayed at the Riyadh book fair.

The Saudi author believes the ban has not worked, and has even been counterproductive. Society is deteriorating, with young people denouncing rational thought, hating and killing, he said. If, however, they had been exposed to books from an early age it might have broadened their horizons and taught them about different perspectives on life.

"I believe the impact of the ban on books is seen today in the mindset of the Islamic State group, which is so narrow-minded it sees killing as a way of survival," he said. 

Banning without standards

Al-Araby al-Jadeed
has found more than 247 books have been banned
[AR]. Of these, 148 were banned because they had political titles, while 63 were novels banned for "various reasons". The others included 19 religious books, six social studies books, six political studies books, two economics books and a book of history. In many cases, the authorities do not ban the books outright, instead they leave them languishing in the archives without approval, and tell the author their work is undesirable.
     [The censor] asked me to rewrite it, and I refused. Now I do not care if they are approved for publication or not.
- Abduh Khal, Saudi novelist

Jamal Khashoggi, general manager of Al Arab News Channel and a prominent Arab author was not aware his book,
Alakat harijah: Al-saudiah bad 11 sebtember ["Awkward Relations: Saudi After 11 September"], had been banned because it was an old book and he had seen it displayed at the Riyadh book fair.

He complained about delays in getting books approved.

"Two of my books,
Rabie al-arab zaman al-ikhwan ["The Arab Spring: The Era of the Muslim Brotherhood"] and Ihtilal al-souq al-saudi ["The Occupation of the Saudi Market"], were not banned," he said. "But their publication was delayed by over six months."

Censorship from multiple authorities

According to Saudi law, the ministry of culture and information is responsible for censoring publications. However, other institutions such as the religious police have also confiscated books they believe violate religious norms, even if they have previously been approved by the ministry. Every year, there are arguments at the Riyadh book fair between organisers and the religious police trying to confiscate certain titles. 

Many books previously allowed at the Riyadh book fair have now been banned. They include Mansour al-Naqaidan's
al-Mulook al-muhtasiboun ["The Religious Police Monarchs"], a study of the religious police itself.

Director of the Arab Network for Research and Publication Nawwaf al-Qadaimi confirmed that books were banned and restricted in most Arab countries, especially the Gulf, where the authorities have to approve the publication of any book. However, book fairs are less regulated and works are usually only checked after they have been displayed.

"Bans are usually given for political issues, then religious and moral reasons," Qadaimi said. He added that they had not tried to get approval from the Saudi ministry of culture for many books because it takes too long, instead they just try and sell them at book fairs which are less heavily regulated.

Last year, the Arab Network for Research and Publication's stand at the Riyadh book fair was closed down for displaying unapproved books. The Network was also banned from taking part in future book fairs, Qadaimi said.

"The Saudi market is the largest Arab market for books. For many Arab publishers it makes up 50 percent of their annual income. Therefore, banning the Arab Network from taking part in the Riyadh book fair is a huge financial loss," he said.

The internet replaces paper

Many Saudis download banned books from the internet, allowing them to read the books away from the prying eyes of censors. Many specialist bookstores also sell books by delivering them to Bahrain or Qatar, though many are confiscated at the border.

Sakina al-Mashkhas, a student, believes that there is no longer a need for official approval of books because they are available on the internet.

"In the age of open information nothing can be banned," she told al-Araby. "And with the numerous books available no one can police thought in this age."

This article is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.