Controversy Even Months Before Opening of 2013 Riyadh International Book Fair

This past Sunday, the general assembly of the Arab Publishers Association met Sunday at the Cairo International Book Fair to elect a new president (Essam Shalaby) and address other issues:

c0c595c7ebb02f9b7ebb271dcf015378Among these came a unanimous decision to boycott the Riyadh International Book Fair, according to Ahram Online and Moheet The boycott vote was in protest of the expensive kiosk space and additional fees for installing a new “barcode” system, and (at least in theory) also because of Riyadh’s decision to exclude Syrian publishers from the fair.

However, the barcode system, however, was abandoned on Sunday. People will also be free to visit the fair without registering, as in previous years. Now, as publisher Sherif Bakr notes below, “publishers are happy” and “they forgot the Syrian publishers.”

“It’s now a logistical problem,” Bakr added.

The fair is indeed a big one: I didn’t see numbers from the 2012 fair, but in 2011, there were around three million visitors and sales exceeded 35 million Saudi riyals (56 million LE, 6.7 million euros).

Last year, it was cultural conservatives who called for a boycott of the Riyadh Book Fair. Mariam Abdallah, reporting for Al Akhbar, described the 2012 Riyadh fair as “surrounded by a wall of censorship from both the state” and from cultural conservatives, although certainly there are other forces pressing outward as well, readers who are interested in greater access to books.

Abdallah also reported last year that Syrian publishing houses had been banned from the fair while Arab News ran with the angle that the “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.”

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 (female) author Halima Muzfar. In 2011, 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.

You can follow official Riyadh book-fair news at @RyBookFair.