Common among authoritarian regimes, censorship is used in order to control the masses and prevent unrest in society and ethics corruption. Censorship in the Arab world is structural and can be seen in all aspects of freedom of expression. Starting with controversial constitutions and laws which fail to protect freedom of expression, censorship can also be found in the form of self-censorship.
Each country’s international book fair, attracts millions of visitors per year, those events are symbols of power in the region as well as in the rest of the world. However, key taboo issues, such as homosexuality, female sexuality, drugs, controversial Islamic scholars and the status of women, are some of the reasons for which a book, a writer or even a publishing house can be censored or expelled from international book fairs in some Middle Eastern countries.
The Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF), founded by the General Egyptian Book Organization (GEBO), is the largest and oldest book fair in the Arab world, already counting 53 years of existence. The organization has an annual budget of $5.8 million, which comes directly from the government. Over the years, many allegations have been made by publishers, as well as writers and reporters, about missing and banned books. Lebanese publisher Dar al-Adab discovered that boxes containing works by Milan Kundera, Nikos Kazantzakis, Edward al-Kharrat and feminist writer Nawal al-Saadawi were missing from his stand in 2007 CIBF. Two years earlier, in 2005, the Egyptian police arrested book sellers and activists at the book fair on the grounds of "anti-government propaganda”.
Censorship’s long history in Egypt can be partly followed through the evolution of constitutions and laws. As such, Egypt’s constitution is getting more religious throughout the years. While the 1958 constitution stated that “Sharia law was one of the sources of legislation,” in the subsequent 1971 and 2014 constitutions, their second article states that “the principles of Islamic Sharia are the main source of legislation.” This religious orientation during the past years was accompanied by a number of laws and ministerial decrees in order to control and filter artistic expression.
The government controls the publishing of books via a number of governmental organizations, such as the Department of Censorship of the Ministry of Culture, the Departments of State Security and Artistic Products of the Ministry of Interior, and al-Azhar University’s influential Islamic Research Council (IRC). The latter has the authority to recommend to the government which books should be banned. Even though the role of the IRC is limited by a 1994 law to the supervision of books related to the Qur’an and the Sunna, the IRC constantly bypasses this red line recommending books on non-religious matters to the censors. For instance, between 2004-2007, it has recommended the ban of 42 books citing a variety of religious and non-religious matters.
Still, after the Arab Spring and the constitutional guarantees of articles 65, 67, 70 and 71 of the current constitution, which protect freedom of speech, artistic and literary creativity, as well as freedom of the press, state censorship marches on. As Salmawy – from the Egyptian Dar El Shorouk publishing house – explains, a common secret among the people involved in the publishing industry is that the red lines for a book to make the censored list are mainly pornography, religious blasphemy, and revealed state secrets 50 years before their official unveiling. Human Rights Watch documented how this evidential repression has effectively led to self-censorship. By internalizing the societal messages of the governmental censor, combined with the fear with regards to the consequences in their personal life, and coupled with the difficulties related to distribution, publishers are not willing to publish anything that crosses these red lines (i.e. politics, religion, and sex). This conundrum has sometimes led writers to self-publish their books, keeping all publication rights or even searching for Lebanese publishing houses, since Beirut maintains a reputation of having a freer publishing environment. This follows the publishing houses’ refusal to undertake the risk of carrying a manuscript that will lead them to trouble with the government.
However, this was not the case for the book Curly from activist Ahmed Douma. During the 52nd Cairo International Book Fair of 2021, security personnel prevented the sale of the above poetry book. An active member in a number of social movements in Egypt – such as the workers strike of April 6th, 2008 in Mahalla al-Kubra – Douma was one of the first activists to arrive at Tahrir square on January, 25th, 2011. He has been a vocal supporter for freedom of speech, even after his 2013 sentence to life imprisonment, which was eventually reduced to 15 years of incarceration in 2019. The Curly book is his second poetry anthology, published in 2021. During the 52nd Cairo International Book Fair, his publishing house Cairene reported that the police took all of the copies of Curly and that it could not continue to sell the confiscated book until the process was completed. Although it is illegal to confiscate a book or a work of art without a court order, the Department for the Investigation of Artistic Products and Intellectual Property Rights maintains the right to inspect and review books without one. As a result of this technicality, the government can directly control book sales and distribution.
In recent years, the CIBF has become a very large and well-publicized event which gathers two million visitors a year. Its new venue in the outskirts of Cairo transformed it more into a tourist attraction than the spot-to-be for promoting or acquiring new and used books. Moreover, CIBF is not the only example of a fast-growing book fair in the Arab world. Fairs in the Gulf countries seem to be getting larger and larger each subsequent year. While Cairo’s International Fair is a prime instance of governmental restrictions in the literary world, book censorship is even greater in the Gulf countries.
Censorship within the GCC is a completely different story. Gulf international book fairs follow a deeper censorship policy. Hence, book fairs are getting more and more popular. Gulf countries spend millions in infrastructure expansion for their venues, making them a part of their annual tourist attractions. The international book fairs in Abu Dhabi, Doha, Manama, Riyadh, and the Sharjah book fair, are becoming more influential and powerful, attracting major publishers from all over the world. Paradoxically, the increase in book fair visitors follows the numbers of censored. In the Emirates, for example, when the Muslim Brotherhood won the elections in Egypt, the books on this particular subject were banned. The UAE’s aim to export cultural and political influence has also reached Cairo’s International Book Fair, where, in 2000, free Holy Qur’an copies were given to visitors. The same tactic was repeated in the 35th Tunis International Book Fair in 2019 where thousands of copies were handed out to visitors flocking to the Kingdom’s pavilion.
Saudi laws on press and media request from all books published in the country to receive prior state approval before they can be released. Furthermore, Saudi officials require from publishers to follow Sharia law guidelines, in addition to critical works maintaining an “objective and constructive criticism.” The books that make it to the fair should meet some requirements: staying away from politics, sex, religion critics, national secrets, drugs, the LGBTQIA+ community, anti-police sentiment, and more. Insulting Islam or committing “immoral” acts are some of the reasons why a book will not be able to enter the market.
This particular cultural filter is established in the “golden period” for arts and culture in the GCC. The Gulf countries’ willingness to promote cultural soft power in the region comes in complete contradiction to the preferences of writers and publication houses. Nevertheless, the Gulf book market is directly affecting the wider regional one, even though the Gulf hosts merely 10% of the total Arab population. Arab publishing houses seem to be more and more hesitant now when they are publishing political or religious books, as the Beirut-based Dar Al Saqi publishing house reports. Thus, the GCC countries’ ultimate goal is to promote the image of a culturally harmonious society, an ethic regional hegemon, which prioritizes the archetypes of family, and religious ethics above all.
This situation in the Gulf has caused multiple acts of protest. In Kuwait the performer Mohammed Sharaf designed a cemetery with more than 200 headstones featuring some of the censored books of the past years. His performance, "A Cemetery of Banned Books" presents some of the writers that have been banned in Kuwait, such as Marquez, Mahfouz, Faulkner, and Orwell. An estimate of 4,400 books were banned in Kuwait from 2013 to 2018. Using the hashtag #Banned_In_Kuwait, writers shared their stories of censorship. The refusal of self-censorship is also an act of protest; the author Mohamed Ghazi whose book titled Blue was banned in Kuwait, refused to accept the changes that the committee requested in order for his book to be distributed in the country.
It is quite difficult to track the exact number of books that have been banned in book fairs, as well as in bookstores in the Gulf. Certain organizations, such as the Index on Censorship, Amnesty International, Freedom of Expression, Reporters without Borders and Pen.org, work on making lists of the banned books. What is more, the Arab Publishers Association held a Conference in 2018 about the impact of Censorship in the Arab world. Writers and activists actively work against the censors, which has led to a win for the movement against censorship in Kuwait. In 2020, the government relaxed the laws on book publishing, while activists report that this may be the first step towards the promotion of freedom of artistic creativity in the Golf.
In general, the role of the international book fairs is one of vital importance for the whole region, as well as the host country. The former can be a great opportunity for cultural and political power games. As a reflection of governments and societies, they represent the impact of conservatism both within host countries and the participating publishing houses.
All links accessed on 30/01/2022.
Aljazeera, “Cairo book fair sets religious tone,” February 2, 2007, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2007/2/2/cairo-book-fair-sets-religious-tone
Nehad Selaiha, “The Fire and the frying Pan, Censorship and Performance in Egypt,” TDR 57, no. 3 (Fall 2013): 25, https://bit.ly/3r7EmO2, also in Adly Mansour, “Constitution of The Arab Republic of Egypt 2014, ” January 14-15, 2014, https://www.sis.gov.eg/Newvr/Dustor-en001.pdf
Report / Joint Committee Print. 104th Congress 2d Session, “Egypt,” in Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 1995: Report Submitted to the Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives and the Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S. Senate, Volumes 8-15, U.S. (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1996), 1145, https://bit.ly/3rbDMPk
Mlynxqualey, “Let Us Spell Out Life: Prison Writing by Ahmed Douma” Arablit & Arablit Quarterly, January 25, 2022, https://arablit.org/2022/01/25/let-us-spell-out-life-prison-writing-by-ahmed-douma/t
The Economist, “The red ink and the black, The unlikely rise of book fairs in the Gulf,” July 6, 2019, https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2019/07/06/the-unlikely-rise-of-book-fairs-in-the-gulf
Olivia Snaije, “Publishers in the Middle East Hustle to Cope with Instability,” May 15, 2015, https://publishingperspectives.com/2015/05/publishers-in-the-middle-east-hustle-to-cope-with-instability/
Alison Flood, “Kuwait relaxes book censorship laws after banning thousands of titles,” The Guardian, August 25, 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2020/aug/25/kuwait-relaxes-book-censorship-laws-after-banning-thousands-of-titles