Celebrating Banned Books Week in Egypt and Beyond

This is the start of the U.S.-based “Banned Books Week,” a week that highlights the benefits of free access to books and the harm that comes from censorship. Although “Banned Books Week” doesn’t have much traction outside the U.S., it’s as good a time as any to re-examine book censorship in Egypt and around the Arabic-reading region.

Many wildly optimistic headlines greeted the initial uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, such as “Banned books return to shelves in Egypt and Tunisia” and “Literary Victory: Banned Books Returning to Egypt and Tunisia!” It’s true that a few books, namely Abdel Halim Qandli’s Red Card for the President, suddenly appeared on shelves to much delight. But this has not meant a change in essential censorship policies.

Initially, there was some hope that current Minister of Culture Emad Abou-Ghazi would cancel the censorship office. Although Abou-Ghazi spoke out against censorship before he was appointed minister—saying that it should be “scrapped”—upon being appointed, he said that repealing censorship was a job for the People’s Assembly.

The AUC Press’s Trevor Naylor put it succinctly in a recent interview when he said that “censorship is still an open question.”

Egyptian authors can, as before, publish anything that isn’t censored by the publisher, editor, or printer. If there are “public” complaints, a book can be yanked from shelves, which is what happened to Magdy al-Shafee’s Metro,which will be published in English translation next year but is not available in Arabic. After the yanking, the case then goes to court. Al-Shafee and his publisher were fined 5,000LE for offending public morals.

Attorneys can also launch their own hesba cases against authors and publishers for “offensive” material. Brian Whitaker explains hesba—and the failed case against 1,001 Nightsin The Guardian.

None of these involve the censorship office. Their main literary work is, as before, in the policing  of imported books. This not only goes for foreign titles, but also for books that were shipped abroad for a book fair, such as Ibrahim Farghali’s Sons of Gebelawi, and then returned to Egypt. This both limits what’s available to readers and makes planning very difficult for book buyers and bookstores.

As in the U.S., interest groups (usually religious) also make it their business to try to ban books. Khaled al-Berry’s very interesting and readable Life is More Beautiful than Paradise was banned by Al-Azhar’s Islamic Research Council, although it’s widely available.

Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone was pulled from the syllabus of a literature course at the AUC in 2005 after pressure from students and parents. The celebrated classic has also faced censorship in Morocco, where it only became available in 2000.

Works by exceptionally talented Lebanese authors Hanan al-Sheikh and Elias Khoury were recently pulled from the Cairo International Book Fair, as was the Nubian author Idris Ali’s The Leader is Getting a Hair Cut. Other books banned from the fair include A Banquet for Seaweed by the Syrian writer Haidar Haidar, works by the Czech author Milan Kundera, Choukri’s For Bread Alone, and Saudi writer Ibrahim Badi.

Taha Hussein’s beautiful The Days also has faced censorship attempts from Al-Azhar.

Some, like Dar al-Ain publisher Fatima al-Boudi, remain optimistic that Egyptians won’t allow censorship to gain ground. However, head of the board of censors Sayed Khattab continues to believe his job has value.

Other Arabic-reading nations also have their struggles with censorship. Anecdotally:


An anonymous publisher told the Kuwait Times that “Kuwaiti censorship is not only worse than all other Gulf Cooperative Council book fairs but also the worst censorship in the world.” This was after Kuwait banned numerous titles, notably (at least) 35 Egyptian works, from its 2010 book fair. These included novels by Ahdaf Soueif, Ibrahim Aslan, Alaa al-Aswany, Gamal al-Ghitani, Khairy Shalaby, Galal Amin, and Ibrahim Farghali.


The author of a June 2010 report in Qatar Living was told “‘off the record’ [that] the Virgin Megastore [was] ‘pressured’ to remove [books] from public display, most of its stock and had great restrictions in importing books.”


The literary magazine Qadita. It’s now accessible in the UAE.


I didn’t see anything I was dying to read on the list of books “banned or seized” at the recent Omani book fair. But Salwa al-Neimi’s Proof of Honey is quite popular.


Censorship remains a problem, stifling thought and creativity. And book censorship is, unfortunately, just the tip of beasts’s nose.