The recent thaw in relations seems to be a positive step for these former regional adversaries toward deepening ties, but unresolved political conflicts may continue to fester.
Book fairs are generally occasions to promote new titles and track literary and cultural trends. However, in Saudi Arabia, a book fair is a unique occasion to get a sense of the current political air. This year, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen dominated the fair, alongside hints of a social opening. Together they deliver a political memorandum from the state’s new leadership.
Guests browsing publishers’ stalls passed through “barracks row” honoring the Saudi troops camped on the border with Yemen. At the opening ceremony, official speeches celebrated the patron of this year’s book fair, King Salman, as “decisive,” “intellectual,” and “enlightened.” The speeches were followed by a performance by the children of soldiers who have been killed in combat, chanting similar battle-fueled odes to patriotism. In the background, pictures of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Nayef embracing the children of fallen soldiers and observing military parades were displayed, interspersed with photographs of the king or his son, Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. “The decisive feather” and “the decisive optic” were the titles given to art and photography exhibitions, inspired by the Saudi-led military campaign in Yemen, Operation Decisive Storm.
https://www.youtube.com/embed/W6LBVaapQrwAfter a number of official speeches, children of Saudi soldiers killed in Yemen perform a patriotic tribute at the 2016 Riyadh Book Fair.
This year, the Ministry of Information and Culture selected Riyadh’s historic architectural designs as decor for the fair to revive the narrative of the state’s foundation. The slogan for the book fair, “The book is an ageless memory,” complements the portrait of a memorable martial monarchy with Riyadh at its center.
The state-sanctioned women’s presence in the opening ceremony showed an interesting progressive trend. The Ministry of Information and Culture selected a woman television presenter, whose hair was only half covered, to introduce the opening ceremony. Small numbers of invited women appeared in the same seating area as men, many dressed in colorful clothing. The television coverage showed a foreign woman in Western dress accompanying the minister of information and culture’s team while touring the fair. Surprisingly, the ministry honored Saudi stage actors and actresses and in the minister’s speech at the fair, he referred to theater as the beacon of artistic expression – a gesture that is indicative of some political leniency on socioreligious taboos in the kingdom like acting, gender mixing, and women not adhering to dress codes.
However, the tolerance apparent during the opening ceremony day, which included affluent local and international guests, was missing from the other days of the fair dedicated to locals. As in prior years, authors’ signing corners and panels of speakers had separate spaces for women and men. Novelists and poets were invited to read their work but without discussion afterward with the audience. The state religious police presence has been less notable in the last two years, however religious surveillance has been conducted by unofficial, though sanctioned, religious groups.
While there has always been a degree of state control of information, restrictions have been increasing due to intensified political conflicts. Saad Al-Muhareb, the manager of the Riyadh Book Fair, announced that “all publishing agents who formed an illegitimate relationship with terrorist-classified organizations were denied registration to the book fair this year” in reference to the Muslim Brotherhood and any title or author affiliated with the organization or its views. The attraction of the Muslim Brotherhood as a competing model of political Islam is viewed by the state as a threat equal to that posed by violent Islamist groups. In fact, Major Mansour Al-Turki, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Interior, appeared on this year’s speakers’ list addressing the topics of terrorism and national unity. The literary works of Islamist groups are added to a host of censored titles, and publishers, commonly banned in the Riyadh Book Fair. Publications of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies were confiscated during the 2014 book fair after the organization received official permission to participate. Nawwaf Algodaimi, the center’s publisher, is a Saudi national who thoughtfully selects credible academic or in-depth analytic work of relevance to readers in the region. These publications have focused extensively on the recent Arab uprisings. Even the literary work of Mahmoud Darwish, a late revolutionary Palestinian poet, was confiscated that year. The shifting nature of book bans can appear arbitrary due to the swift and subtle change in political trends and players. The case of the book “On the meaning of Arab Nationalism,” authored by several Saudis, is a classic example. The book was banned in Saudi Arabia and was not released at the 2014 book fair. Yet the publisher was allowed to sell copies at the 2015 book fair even though the book was banned outside the fair.
Publishers have managed to sneak in and sell certain banned titles during previous fairs, so the Saudi authorities decided to provide publishers with electronic devices to track their sales and at the same time indicate the most wanted titles. The state’s influence is also apparent in the titles of the winning lists, announced at the book fair each year. Traditionally, the Ministry of Information has formed a committee to select the winning titles, but this year the task was assigned to professors from King Saud University to ensure credibility. Not surprisingly, this year’s winning titles were more academic with selections fit for a university library’s collection more than for a creative writing list. Nevertheless, the 100,000 Saudi Arabian riyals (around $26,000) handed to each of the winning authors and their publishers maintains the prize’s glow despite the restrictions. The funds awarded are formally supposed to be for the purchase and distribution of the books, however there is often no evidence that the books have actually been purchased, promoted, or distributed.
It is somewhat misleading to consider the fair a popular literary festival by judging from the crowds. The fair is the prime selling point for many publishers that tend to focus on academic or technical titles that avoid critical subjects of religious, political, or sexual nature. And the popularity of the fair is mainly due to the rarity of public gatherings and the fair’s family-oriented side activities.
This year’s attendees received a political message of martial nationalism and enjoyed a relative easing of social restriction on arts and gender mixing – a message reinforced in other state-sponsored festivals. The easing of restrictions may be reflective of a political desire to distance the Saudi state from the ideology of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), as comparisons increasingly appear in Western media. For the Saudi people and Saudi public culture, that comparison may well present a blessing in disguise.
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