Tuesday, March 10, 2009

religous police and censorship cause discontent at riyadh book fair

Three Saudi writers have demanded a public apology from the head of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice (Hai'a), Saudi Gazette reports, after agents of the Hai'a prevented a Saudi woman writer, Haleema Muthaffar, signing copies for them of her new book. The report reflects the growing willingness of Saudi individuals and the media to challenge the often overbearing, and sometimes vicious, behaviour of the Commission's mutaween.

Blogger Saudiwoman also comments on the behaviour of the Hai'a agents at the fair. She writes: "Everywhere you turn, there’s either an official muttawa from the vice cops or police. I wanted to stand in the middle and shout at the top of my lungs IT’S A BOOK FAIR NOT WOODSTOCK!"

The three writers who had a run-in with the Hai'a are Abdul Khal, Abdullah al-Thabet and Me'jeb Al-Zahrani, who say the bad treatment they received from the Hai'a agents put them in an awkward position. Khal said the writers had not even approached Haleema themselves, but had asked security guards at the fair to get her book signed for them. Al-Thabet said: "The fact that we attempted to greet a woman writer from a distance is not justification for accosting us in front of everyone and taking us to the Hai'a center." Al-Zahrani siad that the agents verbally abused Al-Thabet. "We are over 50-years-old, and when we went to the Hai'a center, we met a person who started lecturing us and giving us advice as if we had done something wrong."

Saudi Gazette reports that visitors to the fair complained not only about the treatment of the three writers, but also about the high prices of foreign books and the absence of books by Abdul-Rahman Badawi and Amin Maalouf. The newspaper had earlier reported that 100 books had been banned from the fair. "Some books were banned for religious and moral reasons, and some for not conforming to public taste,” said Yousef Al-Yousef, director of the Ministry of Information and Culture's publications administration.“Twenty-five people representing a range of specialties took part in the identification and removal of books. Some publishers also left out some publications at their own discretion.”

He added, somewhat redundantly: “All the participants in the event recognize that the censorship ceiling is particularly high.”

The pioneering Saudi blogger Saudi Jeans has a useful overview of the fair, which runs until 13th March. And a dispatch from AP puts the fair within the context of a rise in cultural events in Saudi Arabia, and gives further details of the Haleema Muthaffar fuss. "When word spread that Brazil was going to be the guest of honor at the Riyadh International Book Fair, a Saudi official had to reassure the public that the Brazilians wouldn't be dancing the Samba at the 11-day event that opened recently", AP journalist Donna Abu-Nasr writes.

Brazil and Saudi Arabia share a passion for football,and football was a particular focus of Brazil's guesting at the fair.

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