Kuwaiti Censorship: The Worst in the World?

From the 2008 Kuwait Book Fair, about which you can read a sad blog post here: http://www.forzaq8.net/2008/11/22/kuwait-book-fair-2008/

Arguments and counter-arguments have been ongoing in Kuwait since the country’s Information Ministry banned “25” (or 35? or at least 100? more than 200?) titles from this year’s book fair, which started this past Wednesday.

Most Western articles about the bannings claim that “Kuwait has some of the most vibrant political debate and press freedoms in the Gulf” or even “in the Middle Eastern region.” Presumably, these statements are based on conservative “Freedom House” rankings, which has somehow crowned Kuwait the “freest” place in the “Arab World.”

On the other hand, a look at past articles in the Kuwait Times, or a brief search on Twitter, turns up lots of this:

@fajera I get my books either from Beirut or Cairo, half of what I read is banned in Kuwait (everything is banned here)

@mkdubai …Almost everything is banned in Kuwait!

And from yesterday’s Kuwait Times:

“In Kuwait censorship is so severe that we do a self censorship before the Kuwait book fair,” the [anonymous, of course] publisher continued. “We only submit a list of books that we believe might pass censors here and every time something new is banned.” According to him, Kuwaiti censorship is not only worse than all other Gulf Cooperative Council book fairs but also the worst censorship in the world. “I don’t think most of the censors read the books they ban. [Bold is mine.]

Another anonymous and indignant publisher:

I would like to understand the criteria under which books are banned because sometimes it appears as if it is a random procedure,” he said. “In this book fair, a book of ours was banned, and I simply cannot see any reasonable justification for it to be banned at all! I just want to meet the person who banned it and ask him to tell me on what basis he made that decision. I bet he didn’t even read it.

Lest you think this, oh, is just literature (who cares?), whereas the Freedom House was talking about the press (serious business), you can read: Self-censorship the norm for media in Kuwait.

The (toothless, apparently) Kuwait Writers Association (KWA) even approved the banning. According to the Kuwait Times, the KWA said “the reasons are not ‘personal hostility against certain authors’ but rather ‘cautiousness towards causing a stir in the community due to the current political tension in the country.’ That’s from a statement made by KWA chairperson Dr Khaled Al-Shayji.

And back to our anonymous publisher:

“Other GCC book fairs are far more open than here,” he said. “In Saudi Arabia they make an exception during book fairs and no books are censored. It’s the same in the United Arab Emirates as well.”

For more: Meedan has a review of English and Arabic press on the topic.

I have been trying to find evidence of a thriving literary community in Kuwait (after all, they do have Laila al-Othman) although a search on al-Othman reveals that she (and publisher Yahya Rubay’an and poet Dr. Alia Shuaib) recently had to pay fines for “breaching public decency and using profane and impious language” in their writings.

According to an Amnesty International release:

The accusations against Laila al-Othman were based on single words and very short passages of her novel ”al-Raheel’‘ (The Immigrant), first published in Beirut in 1979 and later in Kuwait in 1984, while Dr Alia Shuaib’s were based on lines of poetry in her book ”Anakeb Tarthi Jerhan” (Spiders Lament a Wound). Yahya Rubay’an, who published both works, was charged under the Press and Penal Code.

There is novelist Taleb Alrefai, author of a number of works, including The Shade of the Sun, Petty Thefts and The Dress. In 2002, he won the Kuwaiti State Prize for Literature for his novel Scent of the Sea. He has been published in Banipal and was one of the “Arabic Booker” judges.

There’s also Ismail Fahad Ismail, who made the Arab Writers Union’s “top 105” books of the last century for his الخماسية.

As for younger Kuwaiti authors…I don’t think I know any. You?

Oh, and not to throw stones from glass houses…obviously we here in Egypt can win the “worst pollution in the world” prize any day, hands down. And who can write novels when they can’t breathe?