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Saudi readers finally get to read banned books

As the Kingdom tries to shed its ultraconservative image, the Riyadh book fair displayed a range of taboo book titles this year

A woman views books as she visits a pavilion at the Riyadh International Book Fair. 
A woman views books as she visits a pavilion at the Riyadh International Book Fair.  (AFP)

If you wanted a books on intimacy, secularism or magic in Saudi Arabia, chances are you wouldn't have come back empty handed. Known for its ultraconservative image, such taboo subjects would have drawn the ire of the authorities. However, these long taboo subjects, considered un-Islamic by Saudi authorities, were making their presence felt at this year's Riyadh International Book Fair, Saudi Arabia. The country seems to be trying to modernise its image.

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Mahmoud al-Qadoumi, a long-time Jordanian resident of Riyadh, said the selection at the 10-day book fair, which ended earlier this week, was "bold and unprecedented". "There are books on Sufism and atheism, which is contrary to what has been the case for many years," he said. He pointed to a science book he had purchased on the origins of the universe that made no reference to divine creation.  

Acting media minister Majid al-Qasabi said books lay "at the heart" of the government's reform campaign. "It is no longer possible to withhold books in an electronic era," he said, adding it was all being shared online anyway.

Egyptian publisher Islam Fathi, who exhibits in Riyadh every year, said he had brought in books he had "never thought of even suggesting" before. These included works by Russian novelists Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and English writer George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and "1984".

The kingdom has undergone economic, religious and social reforms since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince in 2017. Changes have included allowing women to drive, the reopening of cinemas and mixed-gender music concerts. However, there remain many conservatives in the kingdom who fear that the abandonment of long-held traditions will stoke "public immorality".

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Saud Kateb, a member of the Saudi Society for Opinion Writers, recalled past years when the religious police would "storm cultural events to stop them and to prevent the participation of women".

In 2014, a local newspaper report stated that organizers of that year's book fair had confiscated more than 10,000 copies of 420 books. Now that the powers of the religious police have been clipped, "the level of freedom is completely different," Kateb said.

Saudi visitor Abdulaziz al-Turki said he found some books at this year's fair "shocking" because they "do not fit into the country's cultural heritage".

There was also some online backlash, with one Saudi tweeting that there was "shameful content" at the fair, an assertion he illustrated with books entitled "My friends are dogs" and "I shaved my beard".

However many other Saudis expressed delight at the range of titles on show.

Inspite of this tiny progress, publishers maintain caution. Some publishers said they continue to practice a form of self-censorship while the new boundaries remain unclear.

A publisher from Lebanon said there was still some self-censorship, as exhibitors worried about going too far. "We are now bringing in more 'open' books but within limits as we self-censor," said the publisher on condition of anonymity. "No one wants to risk a huge financial loss" if a shipment is confiscated.

A publisher from Egypt said that lingering censorship fears had been fuelled by the confiscation of all copies of one title at this year's fair, a work entitled "God's plan for the management of the universe." He said authorities had given no reason for the confiscation. "Some things are not clear, which prompts us to self-censor," he said.

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