Yemen’s Book-fair Problems About More than Just Censorship

When I read from Susannah Tarbush that Yemeni intellectuals were boycotting the Sana’a book fair,  I thought it an echo of the book-fair fracas in Kuwait.

But the problems in Yemen—unsurprisingly, I suppose—are bigger than just book bannings, although apparently the Ministry of Culture is not allowing (any?) fiction by Yemenis or Arabs to be exhibited at the fair. (Apparently, book-fair visitors can read a great deal about the cultural heritage of Oman.)

I have mostly followed Yemen’s social and political upheavals via Brian Whitaker’s Al-Bab; his most recent post being about further restrictions in Yemeni press freedom.

But the group of Yemeni intellectuals boycotting the fair said, in a statement, that this was about more than the bannings. They also saw the fair as being oriented to books that called for extremism.

From the statement (translated by the Yemen Observer):

We demand an investigation into the situation and particularly the prohibited enlightened thought books, as well as the intention by organizers to transform the Sana’a Book Fair to an exhibition of extremism and terrorism. These books being exhibited have proven harmful to Yemen

The government also apparently hasn’t paid what it owed publishing houses from previous book fairs.

Nonetheless, the fair is going on: Saba news shows the Yemeni VP cutting a ribbon to open the 27th annual fair. And an earlier piece by the Yemen Observer said that book-fair activities will include poetry during the day and a book signing ceremony in the evening (although who will sign books is unclear).

Reportedly: “400 book titles are featured in the book fair spanning all fields of knowledge and science.”

However, the book fair hasn’t always been like this. According to Sana’a book-fair aficionado and blogger Josh Berer, last year’s fair yielded a number of literary treasures (at discount prices).

More about Yemeni literature:

Dammaj’s The Hostage was listed at 45. The novel was very ably team-translated by May Jayyusi and C. Tingley and published by Interlink. I found it enjoyable, vivid, and moving.

Wali’s Sana’a: An Open City was listed at 58, and is not available in English translation. However, his  They Die Strangers was translated by Abubaker Bagader and Deborah Akers and published by the University of Texas Press.

  • For a more contemporary flavor, Banipal 36 was dedicated to Yemeni literature. The issue, I’m afraid, was not as compelling—for instance—as Banipal 37, which was dedicated to Iraqi lit. Banipal 36 featured the prose of Habib Abdulrab Sarori, Ali al-Muqri, Nadia AlKowkabani, and Wajdi Al-Ahdal. Al-Ahdal’s, I thought, was the most successful of the group.

The poetry was more intriguing (by Shawqi Shafiq, Abdel Aziz al-Maqalih, others), but I’m not sure I walked away holding onto any of it.

  • For yet more on Yemeni lit, read an interview with Yemeni academic Fatima al-Ashby from earlier in the year. She says, among other things: “Yemeni literature’s status is no less shaken than the political, economical, social and security status in the country.”