Middle Eastern online bookseller plans to create a banned books section

Ala Alsallal, founder of the website Jamalon, says there will be an entire section on the website devoted to selling banned books. Alsallal hopes to make banning books so pointless that governments stop doing so.

Jamalon is an online bookseller in the Middle East that has a section devoted to banned books.

Politics and prose, we’ve learned, are incredible bedfellows – the Thai reading protest and the CIA “Doctor Zhivago” propaganda campaign are just two fascinating examples. 

How’s this for a third: an online bookseller in the Middle East is attempting to single-handedly stop censorship in the Arab world by launching a section on its site devoted entirely to banned books.

Jamalon, called the “Amazon of the Middle East,” is taking this provocative step “to make banning books so futile that governments have no choice but to cease their attempts at censorship,” according to Quartz, which first reported the story.

“Any book sold in the Middle East normally becomes boosted when a government bans it – it becomes a best-seller,” Jamalon founder Ala Alsallal told the online news site. Censorship is so counter-productive, he told Quartz, that “writers try to publish books that governments will not like so they can make more money.” 

Alsallal is leveraging that same counterintuitive philosophy to affect political change in his corner of the world.

When Arab authorities ask the 28-year-old founder to stop selling certain books to their citizens, he explains that it is logistically impossible.

“We have 10 million titles, and there are 50,000 new English books and 2,000 new Arabic books published every month. We cannot handle the filtering.”

As such, Jamalon hasn’t removed a single book from its site, according to Quartz.

Jamalon’s other advantage is that it is a pan-Arab online site that is not subject to any one country’s individual mandate. So while an individual Arab government may ban a book, shut down a publisher, or seize contraband titles, Jamalon is free to carry any book and find creative means to source them.

Alsallal said he was inspired partly by New York’s Strand Bookstore, which has a table devoted to once-prohibited titles like William S. Burrough’s “Naked Lunch” and Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.”

Compare those titles to “Hadith al-Junud,” or “Soldiers’ Sayings,” by Ayman al-Otoum. The book is about the 1986 Yarmouk University protests in which Islamist activists protested Jordanian authorities; it was published earlier this year and became a bestseller once it was banned in Jordan.

It’s currently a top seller on Jamalon, one small chapter in a very novel mission to counter censorship in the Middle East.   

Husna Haq is a Monitor correspondent.

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