Yes, I do think the furor (here, here, here, and here) over Saudi Arabia’s “guest of honor” booth at the 2011 Prague book fair is justified. No country should be “guest of honor” at a book fair if they’re not willing to meet the minimum standard of sharing a few…books.
All right, there are copies of King Abdullah’s Counter Terrorism and Obstetrics in Farm Animals on display (reportedly) but apparently not any modern novels by Saudi IPAF winners Raja Alem and Abdo Khal, by best-seller Raja Alsanea, by celebrated poet Fawzia Abo Khaled, by Pushcart-winner Yousef al-Mohaimeed, by Beirut39 winner Mohammed Hasan Alwan or even, it seems, by world-renowned Saudi novelist Abdulrahman Munif.
Neither were any of the aforementioned authors present in Prague. One wouldn’t expect Munif, of course, seeing as he passed away in 2004. But any of the others could potentially have been asked to pop by the fair. But, according to Alice Guthrie, the Saudis had only one creative writer in their delegation, Abdullah bin Muhammad al-Nasser (above right).
Al-Nasser has written at least one novel, من أحاديث القرى is listed on GoodReads, although his Prague talk was apparently about The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, who he reportedly claimed had won the Nobel Prize for Literature. (?)
Novelist and critic Robin Yassin-Kassab told The Guardian it was “terrible that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was guest of honour, this year of all years,” and accused Prague fair organizers of dirtying their hands with money from a “book-banning state.”
And yes, Prague Book World festival director Dana Kalinová’s defense is weak; she told The Guardian that having the Saudi regime as guest-of-honor in Prague creates some sort of real dialogue.
However, despite all this justified rage, there also seems to be a bit of titillating nudge-nudge-aren’t-those-Arabs-daffy in some of the European coverage. And Beirut39 laureate Mohamed Hassan Alwan notes that this was (oddly) organized by the Saudi Ministry of Higher Education vs. the Ministry of Culture, which may be a reason it was done so spectacularly badly. He also writes on Facebook:
أعتقد شخصياً أن إقصاء الدول التي لا تستوفي معايير الحرية لا يجدي نفعاً، وسيتضرر منه الكتّاب (الذين هم متضررون أصلاً) وليس الحكومات. لم أسمع بحكومة عربية غيّرت استراتيجيتها الرقابية بسبب منعها من حضور معرض كتاب أجنبي!ـ
Roughly, he doesn’t think that governments should have to meet criteria for book-fair inclusion, and doesn’t believe any Arab governments have changed their policies based on exclusion from foreign book fairs.