The remarkable development witnessed by the Riyadh Book Fair, one of the largest exhibitions concerned with the “paper friend” of man in the Arab world.
In this exhibition, for example, the Jordanian doctor, Mahmoud Qaddoumi, has greater freedom to choose “bold” books while shopping at the Riyadh Book Fair, which witnessed unprecedented openness and a decline in censorship coinciding with the campaign of social and religious reforms pursued by Saudi Arabia.
The shelves housed books on secularism, mysticism, Christianity, homosexuality, political novels, witchcraft and other subjects that had been taboo for decades in the conservative kingdom.
Riyadh organized its annual book fair for ten days this month, which saw the participation of about 1,000 publishers from 30 countries, according to the fair’s organizers.
“The exhibition is witnessing a radical change, daring and greater freedom of choice,” Qaddoumi, who has lived in Riyadh for 10 years, told AFP, after witnessing close censorship that excluded topics that were not compatible with Islamic law, according to the assessment of the relevant authorities.
Qaddoumi expressed his “astonishment,” and said, “There are books and novels available on Sufism, which is contrary to what has been prevalent for many decades,” referring to the lifting of censorship on publications.
He continued pushing a cart carrying several books, “It is useful to find different intellectual opinions from me that open horizons to learn new knowledge,” referring to his purchase of a book that tells the story of creation from the point of view of science only, which is unprecedented in the kingdom, which for decades adopted a strict interpretation of Islam .
Since Prince Mohammed bin Salman, son of Saudi King Salman, became crown prince in 2017, the wealthy kingdom has undergone radical economic, social and religious reforms.
It allowed women to drive and organize concerts, and put an end to the prohibition of mixing between men and women. And reduced the powers of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice.
But these changes have also been accompanied by a crackdown on critics, journalists, and opponents, especially human rights activists.
In response to a question by AFP, the Saudi Minister of Information in charge, Majid Al-Qasabi, said, “The kingdom is going through an unprecedented transformation, and the book is undoubtedly at the heart of this transformation…openness has reached culture and the book.”
“It is no longer possible to withhold books in the era of e-books,” the minister stressed, adding that readers transmit them via mobile phones.
According to a member of the Saudi Opinion Writers Committee Saud al-Katib, “the ceiling of freedom is completely different” at this year’s book fair compared to the previous editions, the last of which was in 2019.
In 2014, Agence France-Presse quoted a Saudi newspaper that the organizer of the exhibition confiscated in that year more than ten thousand copies of 420 books.
The writer, who is one of the officials responsible for organizing the book fair in Jeddah in 2015, recalled how the volunteers of the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice “enter cultural events and try to stop them, as well as preventing the participation of women,” which he said has become “a thing of the past.”
In the midst of the recent changes in the kingdom, the religious police have lost much of their influence and their authority has been greatly diminished after they used to roam the roads and commercial centers and force residents to close their businesses during prayer times.
“This year we have brought books that we had not even thought of putting them in Saudi Arabia,” said the director of Dar El Helm El Masry, publisher Islam Fathi, who annually participates in the Riyadh exhibition.
On top, he explained, “the novels of Russian literature, which were banned because of their realism and bias towards the working classes and the poor,” while Dostoevsky’s and Tolstoy’s novels appeared on the white shelves.
The house also presented political novels that talk about the oppression of regimes and the methods of controlling peoples, such as the novels “Animal Farm” and “1984” by the English writer George Orwell.
Where is the oversight?
Three young Saudis at the exhibition stated that the banned books had previously reached them through smuggling, but they are now available.
This openness has met with only limited opposition on social media.
One Twitter user tweeted, “Shameful content,” while another asked, “Where is the awareness? Where is the censorship?”
The Saudi youth, Abdulaziz Al-Turki, who used to go to a cafe in Riyadh, said that “some of the books presented are shocking and do not fit at all with the country’s cultural heritage.”
Four publishers confirmed that the lists of books they sent to the authorities had been approved in full. But despite the apparent openness, some publishers have been cautious.
An official in a Lebanese publishing house, who preferred not to be named, said, “Previously, there was great strictness in the entry of books. They were presented to the Ministry of Information to indicate whether they were in accordance with Sharia or not.”
“Now we are bringing books that are more open, but with limits, as we have self-censorship. No one wants to risk so as not to suffer huge financial losses” if the shipments of books were confiscated, he added.
Another official in an Egyptian publishing house said, “We still have concerns because some things are not clear, which is what prompts us to exercise self-censorship.”
He explained that people confiscated copies of the book “God’s Plan to Run the Universe” without providing reasons.