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2nd Saudi Book Fair: Will Religious Police Heckle Women Writers? January 16, 2007

Posted by publicpolitics in Censorship, Middle East.
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“The second Riyadh International Book Fair has been scheduled to take place from Feb. 27 to March 9, with organizers expecting about 500 publishing houses from the Arab world to attend.

Arab News

Book fairs in the United States and Europe seldom attract the kind of attention and controversy expected at the Riyadh International Book Fair. This year’s far i will be organized not by the private firms themselves, but by the Ministry of Culture and Information, which must approve all the books being presented. And last year’s fair was the first time women writers were allowed to attend book signing ceremonies, albeit in hijab and for an all female audience. Nonetheless, a group of men showed up to shout at the women for not covering their faces. The men, as the Arab News delicately puts it, “identified themselves as members of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the the Prevention of Vice.

In a different cultural world, the journalists at the news might have sought confirmation of the government affliation of the men. Given the way the news puts the matter, the choice is left open to the reader’s imagination. One possibility is that the men were just hecklers. Another, more interesting one is that the Ministry of Education and the religious police were in actual disagreement about who should be doing what at the conference.

The fault lines at such Saudi cultural events , while barely appearing in this article, are deep and pose familiar challenges for those who wish to make changes in this closed and theocratic society. The Kingdom wishes to participate in some aspects of cultural modernity, but must do so in a context where nearly every change is subject to harsh criticism by a fundamentalist Islam that must always be, if not placated, contained. The article goes on to say last year’s fair wa in fact one of the first opportunities for Saudi readers to buy books previously unavailable in the Kingdom “In the past, they (readers) would have had to causually carry books, or even smuggle them, into the country.”

The Deputy Minister of Cultural Affairs, Abdul Aziz Al-Subayyil, hopes that conservative vs. intellectual and book fan verbal exchanges will not take place this year. We can share his hope, and appreciate that the Ministry is perhaps an unwilling participant in a modern Saudi dilemma. Having encouraged an enthusiatic group of cultural monitors, whether simply religious conservatives or members of another, and hostile, branch of the Saudi bureaucracy, the Ministry of Culture may find itself in the postiion of not being able to silence the hecklers for fear of one problem (domestic and some international disapproval) and simultaneously not being able to continue the undue restrictions on women writers and Fair content ,without earning the opprobrium of other nations and their own slighted writers, something a kind of notice no government wants.

Tags: Schedule | Publishing | ORGANIZED | houses | expecting | announce | RIYADH | MINISTRY | march | Culture | companies | Arab

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