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

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.

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.

'Celebrating immoral behavior'

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.

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.

"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.

A more realistic style

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.

'We should be supporting our writers'

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.

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