Kuwait under fire for banning books at book fair

Publishers planning to sell at country's largest book fair are prohibited from promoting works by many leading Arab intellectuals.

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KUWAIT CITY // Kuwait's government has drawn sharp criticism for its decision to ban a number of books, most of them written by Egyptians, from the country's largest annual book fair. "We are in the 21st century, there is no way you can deal with human beings in this way," said Salah al Mudhaf, a board member of the Kuwait Society for Human Rights. "With technology and the internet you can read anything you want."

The society plans to discuss the issue with the minister of information and complain to parliament before the 35th Kuwait Book Fair begins next month. It believes the list of banned books is being overseen by the information ministry. "We didn't get a reason why they have done it," but some of the authors may have written about sensitive subjects such as Iraq's 1990 invasion of Kuwait or about Iran, Mr al Mudhaf suggested. Most of the banned books were by Egyptians, he said.

Members of parliament have also questioned why some books have been barred. The National Council for Culture, Arts and Letters, the official organisation that sponsors the fair, declined to comment on the reasons for the ban. Sadi Awad, the editor at Dar el Shorouk, an Egyptian publishing house, said his company sent a list of books they planned to sell at the fair to Kuwaiti officials. The government replied with a fax listing 33 of the publisher's titles that should not be sold there.

"It was really strange" because the list included works by some of the Arab world's most prominent writers, such as Gamal el Ghitani, Muhammad Haykal, Ibrahim Aslan, Fahmi Huwaida and Alaa al Aswany, Mr Awad said. "They are read all over the Arab countries, so Kuwaiti readers will lose out on Arab literature," he said. The only book not written by an Egyptian on the list of prohibited books that was sent to Dar el Shorouk is a graphic novel based on Franz Kafka's novel The Trial, he said. Most of the books are works of fiction and others are based on political or religious topics.

"I think they banned them on the basis of their titles because they didn't ask for example copies to read," he said. Dar el Shorouk still plans to have a stall at the event without the forbidden books. Dozens of other publishers attend every year. Galal Amin, an Egyptian author, said he had heard that two of his books were banned: his autobiography, What Has Life Taught Me? and The Arab Intellectuals and Israel.

"I can very well guess the reason," Mr Amin said, saying that his autobiography had a chapter about the four years he lived in Kuwait and his other volume had a chapter about the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait." Mr Amin said he was "not going to repeat" exactly what he wrote in the books. "This is really rather silly, even if you don't like the book you shouldn't ban it. Let the people read and make up their own minds. Kuwait won't be harmed by critical remarks."

"Many Kuwaitis might wonder why they're banned and try to find them. It's not difficult, they could find them in Bahrain or Qatar, or one of their friends visiting Cairo could pick them up," he said. Abdo Khal, the Saudi winner of the latest International Prize for Arabic Fiction, announced this week he will boycott the fair because of the ban. "Kuwait is a milestone in Arab culture and for it to digress from this role is sad, very sad," Mr Khal said in an email.

"They give themselves sovereignty over people's minds by approving some books and rejecting others. This practice has no place in this age of media and cultural openness, therefore boycotting any authority that bans books is the ideal answer," he said. Mr Khal said the number of books to be prohibited from the fair that have come to light so far is "the tip of the iceberg". "Authorities that censor in our countries don't care about our cultural growth; we are being treated like children," Mr Khal said. "For once, we must take a stand."