(Don’t) Boycott the Riyadh International Book Fair

@HamadMansour1 tweeted out a photo of readers greeting International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning author Abdo Khal.

The Riyadh International Book Fair continues to be a cultural clash point in the KSA. It’s one of the few times and places where Saudis and foreigners, men and women and books can mix (sort of) freely.

This has made it an easy target for cultural conservatives, who this year are calling for a boycott of the fair.

Rulers have come out on the side of the (limited, censored) fair: Saudi Prince Khaled Al-Faisal, emir of the Makkah region, visited the fair earlier this week and called those demanding a boycott “malicious and envious” or “hateful and ignorant.” He suggested that those who are interested in the good of the KSA will support the nation’s biggest cultural event.

The attacks against this year’s fair are more sophisticated than they were in 2011. This year, they’re bundled up in a viral Facebook/Youtube campaign. The campaign shows the faces of writers Yahia al-Amir and Hamza Kashgary, who are accused of “insulting religion and the Prophet.” Today, the Arab News states that, contrary to earlier reports, a court has not accepted Kashgary’s “repentance”; it had not yet reached their jurisdiction.

Mariam Abdallah, reporting for Al Akhbar, describes the 2012 Riyadh fair as “surrounded by a wall of censorship from both the state” and from cultural conservatives. The former have limited societal participation and have censored books, for instance, about civil rights. The latter have attacked the book fair as “Westernized” and threaten to derail it entirely.

@an7a_com tweeted a photo of women lining up to enter the fair.

The state has found itself in the position of both limiting and defending the existence of the fair. Author and Saudi Culture Minister Abdulaziz Khoja said at the fair’s opening on Tuesday, “Anyone who wants to boycott it can do so, but should not impose their opinions on others wanting to visit it. The state does not impose its will on the people to come to the gallery. However, this cultural event has been organized for all those who are interested in it.”

There was also a promise from Deputy Culture Minister Abdullah al-Jasser that religious police would not harass women who don’t cover their faces at the fair.

Abdallah reported, in Al Akhbar, that Syrian publishing houses have been banned from the fair. Meanwhile, Arab News ran the incredible headline “Absence of Syrians at fair helps regional publishers.” Arab News suggested that the Syrians had not been banned, but were were instead absent “in light of the civil unrest in Syria.”

Book-fair organizers were taking conservatives’ demands seriously. Dr. Nasser Al-Hejailan, an official supervising the event, told The Saudi Gazette: “The Ministry has set up a phone number and email to receive complaints and remarks regarding the fair. Committees will study the remarks and take them into consideration.”

Al-Hejailan noted that, this year, fair organizers are coordinating with “official Hai’a members” to make sure censorship is properly practiced.

@Ana3rabeya has been tweeting about government censorship and cultural conservatives’ opposition to the fair. She says she hasn’t been to the 2012 fair. But “Father’s been regularly tho & reporting back to me lol. From what can tell, it’s Wonderful :)”. She also tweeted:

.@AboOmar_Sakran warns dont buy Books on Philosophical Doubt at #RiyadhBookFair cuz when u die, some may find it, read, & lose Faith. #Saudi

#Saudi Lawyer @walmajid book on Individual’s Civil Rights was pulled from #RiyadhBookFair by Ministry of Info. No reason given. (via @ImaQh)

The Riyadh fair has had several rocky moments in recent years. In 2009, International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning author Abdo Khal and fellow author Abdullah Thabet were arrested for approaching author Halima Muzfar. Last year, a religious group stormed the fair, accusing those within of “immoral practices,” harassing women, and stopping journalists from taking photos. They were ushered out by police.

The fair is set to continue through the 16th.

More from the fair:

The official @RyBookFair account has been tweeting out photos and inspirational quotes

Hashtags have been various: ‎#riyadhbookfair2012‏ ‎#RiyadhBookFair‏ ‎#RUHBF2012‏ ‎#معرض_الكتاب2012‏

More on Saudi author Abdo Khal (pictured above):

Last May, The Guardian ran an “In Praise of…Abdo Khal”

His International Prize for Arabic Fiction-winning Throwing Sparks should be out from Bloomsbury-Qatar Foundation Publishing, trans. Maia Tabet and Michael K. Scott, this summer.