What Sold at the 2011 Riyadh International Book Fair, and Why?

The Saudi Gazette reported this week that sales of nonfiction (or “works of an intellectual bent”) beat out fiction at this year’s Riyadh book fair, which ran March 1-11.

There were around three million visitors to this year’s fair, and sales exceeded 35 million Saudi riyals (56 million LE, 6.7 million euros).

According to the Gazette, works by Iraqi sociologist Ali al-Wardi and Saudi literary critic Abdullah al-Ghadhami were in particularly high demand. The best-selling novelists included the great Saudi author Abdul Rahman Munif, as well as Algerians Waciny Laredj and the powerhouse Ahlam Mosteghanemi. The Syrian novelist Ghada al-Samman, whose Beirut Nightmares was voted one of the top 100 novels by the Arab writers union, also was at the top of the list, as was Malika Awfiqir.

Works by Abdul Rahman Munif (Cities of Salt quintet), Ahlam Mosteghanemi (Chaos of the Senses) and Ghada al-Samman (Beirut Nightmares) are available in English translation.

Works of Tunisian poet Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi also sold briskly, according to the Gazette.

The Riyadh fair is among the biggest selling in the Arabic-reading world, and also one of the more controvery-rocked. In 2009, International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning author Abdo Khal and Abdullah Thabet were arrested for approaching author Halima Muzfar. The 2010 fair was more pacific, according to Saudi blogger Eman al-Nafjan, while the 2011 fair was disrupted by conservative protesters.

Still, fair-goers managed to buy a large number of books. The daily Al-Hayat asked readers and critics: Do Saudis really love books, or are books just another thing to buy? (Translations by the Saudi Gazette.)

Shatyawi Al-Ghaithi:

There are three reasons for the high sales figures. One, a consumerist mentally in society; two, the difficult access to those books because of bans on books despite the widening of the margins of freedom, and three, the Riyadh Book Fair has become something of a cultural festival[.]

Al-Ghaithi further said that sensationalist titles sold best, and added:

That includes novels that fall in the category of the ‘banned trilogy’ of subjects: sex, religion and politics, as well as books bought simply because the author is famous.

Siham al-Qahtani felt the large book sales could not be attributed to a love of reading:

Everyone knows that public libraries sit virtually abandoned, and you can find Saudi cities without any libraries at all. We have no development plan for reading.

Critic Muhammad Al-Abbas was most disparaging:

They are nothing but numbers and don’t mean anything on a cultural level.

He added:

The culture of reading does not exist as is claimed. What we see is merely an auction, a marketing and purchasing-fest, a competition for the title of ‘reader’ or ‘person of culture.’

He told the paper that books should “shake your world, if not change your whole life completely” and said, “That’s something we don’t see in this society or on the cultural scene in the slightest.”

When interviewed by Sousan Hammad a year ago, Saudi author Mohammed Hasan Alwan, one of the “Beirut39” winners, had a slightly more optimistic view:

Writing is like any other pursuit in life, it needs incentives in order to flourish. Recognition is a good incentive. Literary events serve as a mean to reposition writing in the list of priorities. Laying a platform for writing and the arts, in general, is direly needed in order for these forms to resume their role in nurturing the spiritual growth of civilization.

More about Saudi lit:

A Primer on Saudi Lit, Abdulrahman Munif to Present

PRI: Saudi literature pushing the envelope

The National: Hissa Hilal: You will see a lot of great things coming from Saudi women, in which she says: “There are hundreds of writers and poets in Saudi Arabia that are coming. But the golden period has not yet come. We are only at the beginning. You will see a lot of great things coming from Saudi women.”

And again, video of conservative protesters being kicked out of the 2011 fair: