Banned Saudi novels thrive abroad - and at home
Outlawed works of fiction, which address topics like sex and politics, still make it into the hands of Saudi readers
JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA
The two latest bestselling novels on Neelwafurat, an online bookstore based in Lebanon, are by Saudi authors. But "Cities of Salt" by the late Abdul-Rahman Munif and "The Insane Asylum" by Ghazi al-Gosaibi - the Saudi Minister of Water and Electricity - are not available in Saudi bookstores.Skip to next paragraph
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These books and other more recent ones by the country's most celebrated novelists, a small avant-garde group who often write in realistic detail about life in Saudi Arabia, are banned here.
"It's amazing that Saudi Arabia has produced some of the finest writers in the Arab world, given the lack of support they get from their society and the government, and the unhealthy environment they are living in," says Youssef al-Dayni, a Saudi researcher who writes for the local press on literature and religious affairs.
The success of Saudi novelists abroad is casting a fresh spotlight on the tension here between conservative Islam and the principles of free speech. It also illuminates a deeper divide: the gap between what is officially sanctioned and what is privately watched, read, or talked about behind closed doors.
For example, there are no movies in the country. But most Saudis can buy the latest films on DVD in stores and watch Arabic language programs showing scantily-clad pop singers and dancers on satellite TV at home. They also can hear Saudi dissidents criticizing the government and clerics talking openly about more moderate strains of Islam not allowed in the country. But what is acceptable when it originates outside the country is still taboo when it comes from inside the kingdom.
Writer Abdo Khal, who has written five novels, says his books are not sold in Saudi Arabia because they "address the sacrosanct trio of taboos in the Arab world: sex, politics, and religion. But these are the things that make up people's lives," he argues.
Typically, novels are banned here because Saudi Arabia is home to Islam's most sacred shrines and the royal Saud family's legitimacy rests on their religious as well as political credentials. The Saudi government is held accountable by conservative factions for upholding strict Islamic values.
"Issues like illicit sex, doubting God's existence, all these things should be treated with an Islamic sensibility," says Saeed Nasser al-Ghamdi, professor of religion at King Khalid University. "My criticism is that these novels make these sins appear normal, desirable, and commonplace. Intellectuals should write novels that serve humanity instead of celebrating immoral behavior and vices."
Dr. Ghamdi, who has written articles condemning several of the new novelists, says the direction they are taking is "dangerous and destructive."
But neither the bans nor the criticism are stopping some Saudi novelists. Mr. Khal, an elementary school teacher, publishes overseas like other novelists. He paid a Lebanese publisher $3,000 in 1995 for 1,000 copies of his first novel and brought back a dozen himself to hand out to friends and newspaper critics.
He now has a contract with an Arab publishing company based in Germany, which distributes his books to online bookstores and bookstores in most Arab countries - except Saudi Arabia.
Novels by Saudi authors are gaining recognition abroad, and, despite the ban, are often widely- circulated in the kingdom. When Saudis return from Egypt or Lebanon, they'll bring in as many books as they can. Others are photocopied and passed around informally.
Mahmoud Trawri, a literary editor at the newspaper al-Watan, won the 2001 Sharjah Award for Arab Creativity for his first novel, "Maimouna." It's a story of several generations of a family of African immigrants to Saudi Arabia, which touches on the racism they encountered and the role of local merchants in the slave trade.