Removal of books by revered Palestinian poet from Riyadh publishing event is condemned by PEN as censorship
The removal of works by the esteemed Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish from a major book fair in Saudi Arabia for reportedly containing "blasphemous passages" has drawn widespread condemnation, with English PEN calling the ban an attempt "to censor one of the Islamic world's most important modern poets".
The Riyadh international book fair, which closes tomorrow, has already come under fire for destroying the stall of the Arab Network for Research and Publishing, a press which focuses on books about Saudi Arabia and political Islam. "The site appeared like it was hit by a rocket," co-founder Nawaf Al Qudaimi – who tweeted a picture of the destruction– told the Wall Street Journal.
According to the daily Makkah newspaper, the event's organiser the Ministry of Culture and Information said the books "violated the kingdom's laws".
Now a range of books by Darwish, the late Palestinian poet whose poems are taught in schools throughout the Arab world and who is seen as one of the most important poets in the Arabic language, have been pulled from the fair, one of his publishers confirmed to the Guardian. The removal was "amid allegations that they contain blasphemous passages", according to Gulf News, and followed complaints from the "religious police" about the contents of the books. The local paper said that "a verbal confrontation broke out between youths and a stall owner, leading large crowds to gather around" and that security officials then "took control of the situation, dispersed the crowds and referred all those who had gathered to the fair's security committee". Saudi journalist Ahmed Al Omran tweeted a link to a video "said to show conservatives protesting against Darwish's books in Riyadh book fair".
Publishers were unwilling to speak on the record about the books' ban from the fair, because "if you antagonise the authorities you will be banned from selling books in the country", one told the Guardian.
But the writers' group English PEN issued a stinging rebuttal to the move. "It is bizarre and disappointing that the government of Saudi Arabia has allowed a small group of people to censor one of the Islamic world's most important modern poets. The Riyadh international book fair is supposed to promote culture and commerce in Saudi Arabia, but this incident has had precisely the opposite effect," its said head of campaigns, Robert Sharp. He also pointed to the case of newspaper columnist Hamza Kashgari, who was imprisoned without trial in Saudi Arabia for two years after he posted a short series of tweets in which he imagined a dialogue with the Prophet Muhammad.
"Blasphemy laws stunt cultural development," said Sharp. "If the government truly wishes Islamic art and culture to flourish in the Kingdom, it must urgently repeal these outdated laws."
Darwish's award-winning translator Fady Joudah also opposed the move, adding: "Darwish's vision and treatment of religious texts, Jewish, Christian and Muslim, are of a celebratory character that dissolves all three into one, and links them to other myths. No one has done this before anywhere in the world, regarding these three religions at once."
Joudah said: "A genius of his work is that it suspends literary criticism in these matters and moves past it. In other words, it exposes also the theocracy in literary criticism. I am not sure Darwish's books were ever that readily available in Saudi Arabia in the first place."
Blogger Margot Lynx Qualey said: "Certainly withdrawing works by Mahmoud Darwish hits a level of outrage – or scoffing – beyond past moves by the PVPV [the kingdom's Committee for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue] and the Ministry of Culture. Although the fair is purportedly a zone of free access to literature, there is an expectation of some level of censorship. There's also an expectation of some difficulties at the fair (men not being able to get books signed by women authors, men being told their hair is too long to enter, protests, books being contested and removed). But Mahmoud Darwish has a singular literary status: he was not just a poet of global renown, but a poet whose work – at least some of it – resonates with a tremendously wide range of people. Of course, as people note on Twitter, you can get most of Mahmoud Darwish's ouevre somewhere online."
Darwish, who died in 2008, is known for poems including the celebrated Identity Card, told in the voice of an Arab man giving his identity number:
"Write down at the top of the first page:
I do not hate people.
I steal from no one.
If I am hungry
I will eat the flesh of my usurper.
Beware beware of my hunger
And of my anger."