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
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The Sharjah award, established in 1998 by the Emirate of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates to promote literature and the arts in the region, also published 500 copies of the novel. Mr. Trawri posted several chapters on literary websites and handed copies out to friends, who reviewed it in the local press. He also provided the Jeddah Literary Society with a copy, which was then photocopied, handed out to about 20 members, and discussed in their book club last year. When he received dozens of e-mails and phone calls from people wanting copies of Maimouna, he didn't have any.Skip to next paragraph
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"I had nothing left to hand out. A writer here has to be a writer, publisher, and distributor," says Trawri, who carried crates of his second collection of short stories to local bookstores to sell. He says the main reason his novel hasn't been published in Saudi Arabia is because local publishing houses don't promote fiction and steer clear of sensitive issues like racism and slavery.
The main reason these novelists are facing resistance is because "they're pioneers, writing openly and in a more realistic style about real life," says Abubaker Bagader, a sociology professor.
Saudi Arabia's religious conservatives say fiction should address only issues of brotherhood, unity, and high moral and religious values, says Mr. Bagader, who teaches at King Abdul-Aziz University and is an administrator at the Jeddah Literary Society.
"The reason our writing style is developing this way is because we're living in a changing world and being affected by it," says Mr. Trawri.
Nonfiction books about Islam, and Minister Gosaibi's autobiography about his career as a diplomat, are easily found in local bookstores. His more politically and sexually risqué novels are not. Yet Saudis can watch one of Gosaibi's banned novels, "Freedom's Apartment," on television. It was serialized and broadcast several years ago by Saudi-owned satellite channel MBC, based in London.
Leila al-Jihani's award-winning novel "Lost Heaven," tells in gritty, realistic detail the story of a Saudi village girl who gets pregnant out of wedlock in the big city of Jeddah, is abandoned by her lover, and gets an abortion. Several articles questioning the author's morals and intentions in writing about illicit sex and abortion appeared in the local press following the novel's publication outside of Saudi Arabia. Ms. Jihani, a teacher living in the holy city of Medina, has kept a low profile since.
Professor Ghamdi criticizes Turki al-Hamad's "Abandoned Alleys" for passages about Islam that are unacceptable. In Mr. Hamad's novel, a young Saudi who discovers sex, dabbles in political opposition, and during a stint in prison questions his faith in God.
"In Munif's novel he likens God's presence to uncomfortable underwear, saying they're both stifling when too tight. And in Hamad's novel, he says God and the devil are two faces of the same coin. That kind of language is incredibly offensive to anyone," says Ghamdi.
He says the books should not be sold in Saudi Arabia because this kind of literature incapacitates the mind, the way alcohol does the body.
But fans of the Saudi novelists say that creativity should not be stifled for any reason.
"We should be supporting our writers, teaching their books in our universities, and publishing and distributing their novels, not attacking them," says Mr. Dayni, who is writing a book on Saudi literature.
Despite the unwelcoming atmosphere and hardships, the authors say they will continue to write.
"We're more than just writers. We're also activists fighting for change," says Khal, who has not made any money and continues to struggle to get his novels published. "I will keep writing for as long as I have things to say because this is the only way I have of expressing myself," he says.