The Trouble with the Muscat International Book Fair

Photos courtesy of al-Mutanabbi Books

The Muscat International Book Fair—one of the region’s largest—kicked off earlier this week, and is set to run through March 4.

The upside of the fair is that nearly a million people are expected to stroll the aisles and look for books. As organizing committee member Saeed al-Busaidi said to Gulf News:

Last year, over 800,000 people visited this annual exhibition and we are hoping that this time there will be more than [a] million people coming to the exhibition.

The fair also boasts a modest cultural program that includes two poetry evenings and several book launches. Al Busaidi further told Gulf News that books on education, religion and history were likely to evoke significant interest.

But the fair is not all roses. Censorship and black-listing, although not yet reported at the 2011 fair, is almost certainly in play.

In 2004, then fair-director—and current spokesman of the Ministry of National Heritage and Culture—Muhammad Ali Hassan explained to Qantara why this censorship was necessary:

Our societies have their specialties and traditions that need to be respected. Everything that attacks Arab society or creates turbulence should be forbidden. Our societies still need protection.

Last year, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information obtained a list of some titles banned from circulation in Oman, as well as the names of three writers on the country’s “black list.”

Meanwhile, at the Riyadh book fair, Youm7 reports that any titles that challenge faith or promote sex or magic will be removed from the fair. Some 45 observers will apparently roam the fair in search of titles to yank.

Image courtesy of Al-Mutanabbi Books.

But outright censorship only tells a part of the story: The blogger Fjord Lord conducted a Q&A with Ammar al Mamari, an Omani blogger, about the phenomenon of self-censorship. She also translated a blog post by novelist Hussein Al Abri on the topic of self-censorship in Oman.

Al Abri is also familiar with direct censorship, as his novel The Sting is apparently not available to Omani buyers.

In 2009, the blogger Blue Chi discussed several other problems facing Omani authors, which include “lack of financing, the strictness of the old Publications Law, the lack of decent publication houses, and distributions and marketing difficulties… [as well as] the lack of ‘appreciation, criticism and reward’ for authors in Oman.”

Blue Chi concluded: “The business of writing in Arabic for a living is just not a viable business in Oman.”

Still, Hussein al-Abri is not completely gloomy about the future of novel-writing in Oman. When asked by Beirut39 chronicler Sousan Hammad about the absence of Omani novelists in the Arabic literature scene, he said:

Poetry was the dominating field of literature until not long ago, and then prose was introduced during the early 90s in the form of short stories. As of now, we are facing the renaissance of fiction/ novel writing. There exists a major shift by story writers and poets towards writing novels. The signs are clear and the product is near. One now must wait with legs crossed.

On Words Without Borders:

They have a tag for Oman, but as of yet nothing tagged.

Banipal has featured a few Omani authors:

Mohammad al-Harthi

Ibtihaj Al-Harthi

Jokha Al-Harthi

Zahir al-Ghafri

Abdulaziz Mohammed Majid Al-Farsi

Younis al-Akhzami

Mohammed al-Belushi

Note: I’ve never been to the Muscat Fair: If you have, and particularly if you’ve been this year, I’d love to hear from you.

Other trouble in Oman:

Brian Whitaker writes about the protests.