Frankly, I am not equipped to explain the thinking behind the KSA’s (many) laws. But I can say that the English-language term “book club” is not sufficient to express what Saudi authorities mean to control and repress with a new set of culture-strangling bylaws.
A description of Dr. Samer M. Ali’s Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages highlights what authorities want to limit:
Arabic literary salons emerged in ninth-century Iraq and, by the tenth, were flourishing in Baghdad and other urban centers. In an age before broadcast media and classroom education, salons were the primary source of entertainment and escape for middle and upper ranking members of society, serving also as a space and means for educating the young.
Although literary salons have withered in other places, Saudi lit clubs still fill important social and cultural functions. And apparently they were getting a little too unruly, as, under the new rules, clubs must now have a license and meet a number of other requirements.
Fawzia Al-Bakr, a professor at Riyadh’s King Saud University in Riyadh, told The Media Line that the government need not panic: the risk of political opposition spreading from these literary diwans is relatively small. The clubs, she said, are attended mostly by small crowds of intellectual elites. She added that the government already closely monitors the diwans’ activities.
Al-Bakr told The Media Line:
These meetings are usually allowed to go ahead because authorities are given the program in advance and know exactly what is going to be said. Everything here is dependent on the government. It’s the government which finances the activities, so we need to obey the rules.
But, despite this, lit clubs have been important: Important enough that one was firebombed last year. And with strong censorship rules making for boring bookstores and “virtually abandoned” public libraries, KSA’s book fairs and literary clubs have been one of the few ways for Saudis to pass around great books.
Book clubs are also one of the few places men and women are allowed to discuss ideas. Don’t tell the PVPV about this, but from Dr. Samer M. Ali:
In Andalusia, we have some indications that they [book clubs] were mixed, since many a love story begins in the salon when the lovers’ eyes meet.
How sad is that that this initiative to read, reflect, and discuss is closely monitored and quashed?
I teach at college level with a large number of Saudi students, hundreds of men and the very occasional woman, and for the most part, the absence of exposure to ideas, reflection, reading, and open debate results in a big dark void between their ears, not all but the vast majority. What a shame. Truly.
There is quite a bit of censorship here, but that is definitely not the reason for public libraries being “virtually abandoned.”
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