The Troubles, the Joys of Writing in Saudi Arabia: With Work by 12 Authors

Yesterday in Qantara, International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF)-winning novelist Raja Alem spoke about her experience of writing in and about the KSA. Last month, at the Jaipur Literary Festival, Kerala-born novelist Benyamin Daniel spoke about writing about the Indian diaspora in Saudi Arabia.  And Palestinian poet Ashraf Fayadh, who was raised in the KSA, hasn’t said much lately about writing, as he’s been in prison in the Kingdom since January 1, allegedly for spreading atheism and having long hair:

Saudi Artist Ahmed Mater shared this photograph on Twitter.
Saudi Artist Ahmed Mater shared this photograph on Twitter. Via Global Voices.

Certainly, writing in Saudi Arabia has many faces. Although Abdul Rahman Munif was born in Jordan, and Saudi Arabia stripped him of his citizenship, the country can claim one of world literature’s most important novelists, author of the Cities of Salt quintet.

It also can claim two winners of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction: Abdo Khal (for She Throws Sparks) and Raja Alem (for The Doves’ Necklace). Khal has been harrassed for his work, and his books are officially available in the KSA. But Alem said:

I’ve never been interrogated about my work as a writer, which is really controversial, questions everything and expresses deep sensuality. That doesn’t mean there is no censorship. But the boundaries are broad. Of course we aren’t allowed to insult religion or people’s values. But I pay no heed to censorship when I’m writing.

Meanwhile, it was only a few months ago that Saudi’s top-selling science fiction novel, HWJN, was yanked from stores on the authority of the country’s Hayaa (the committee for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue).  Soon after, it was banned in Kuwait and Qatar, although now the book seems to be available again at stores in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi novelist Badriya al-Bishr, who is on this year’s IPAF longlist for her Love Stories on al-Asha Street, said that there were many angry reactions to her first novel, Hind and the Soldiers:

Maybe if another woman was in my place she would feel cornered or in danger, but I consider this risk part of the profession of writing and bringing about change. So I accept that many people reject what I am writing, because quite simply I look at the side that agrees with me. As far as I’m concerned, it’s enough if half or less of the people accept what I write and agree with it. I think that’s good, that’s quite an achievement.

Saudi writer Mohammed Hassan Alwan, who was shortlisted for last year’s IPAF for his novel The Beaver, spoke about censorship with ArabLit:

Censorship’s worst side is that it makes writers overly self-conscious during the process of writing. However, it is a permanent fact in writing that is not likely to go away. If you are not being censored by the state, you are going to be censored by either social sensitivities or the audience’s expectations. I therefore learned not to waste my time complaining about censorship and rather look at it as the playing boundaries of the field. No player wants to be out of bounds, and such is also the case for writers.

And in an interview with AUCP, Youssef al-Mohaimeed said that censors were the least of his worries:

 “To be honest, the censors understand more than the society,” noted the 46-year-old author from Riyadh. “The censors are actually receiving requests from members of the community, especially religious fanatics, to have books banned,” he added. “Some extremists stormed a bookshop in Riyadh and took all copies of Munira’s Bottle.”

Twitter also has been a mixed bag in Saudi Arabia; while writer Hamza Kashgari was imprisoned from February 2012 – October 2013 for tweets, Saudis remain among the world’s heaviest twitter users, and in the hashtag “ماذا_نجح_التويتر_في_السعودية#” noted that the medium does offer a greater space for speaking one’s mind.

In Qantara, Alem also spoke about the joys of writing:

The moment of writing is so special, so sanctified; I’m in a place where I’m not touched by what is allowed and what isn’t. In that moment of trance, censorship doesn’t exist for me. When I write I am free, like flying in my dreams.

Meanwhile, no joy for Fayadh, who was arrested five months ago when a reader submitted a complaint saying his poetry contained “atheist ideas.” The poet was released soon after, but then he was arrested again on New Year’s Day.

A number of Saudi writers, arists, and bloggers have expressed their solidarity with the poet, but he is apparently in jail with no details of a coming trial. According to Global Voices Online, “Some of his friends wrote online that the real reason behind his arrest might be due to the video he filmed five months ago of Abha’s religious police lashing a young man in public.”


Also, there’s this informal survey on whether Saudi should allow erotica. Certainly, there are a good number of sexy narratives coming out of and going into the KSA, but what do Saudis think? A Saudi professor interviewed  311 people from across the country: 53% agreed that erotica should be banned; 14% think it should not be banned; 24% felt there should be some age restrictions; 8% said they didn’t know. More on the reasons they gave here.


Reading Saudi Writers:

Abdelrahman Munif (1933-2004)

WWB: Abdelrahman Munif and the Uses of Oil (Peter Theroux)

Excerpt from the Cities of Salt quintet, trans. Peter Theroux

Ghazi al-Gosaibi (1940-2010)

Poetry and prose on Jehat, including “Octopus,” “When I Am With You,” and “Oh Desert,” trans. Sharif Elmusa and Charles Dona

Turki al-Hamad (1953-present)

A chapter from al-Hamad’s Al-Karadib, trans. Pascal Menoret

Part II of the chapter, trans. Pascal Menoret

Fawzia Abu Khaled (1959 – present)

Poetry by Abu Khaled in Mothers and Daughters in Arab Women’s Literature and in Gathering the Tide

Abdo Khal (1962-present)

A very short excerpt from She Throws Sparks

Yousef Al-Mohaimeed (1965-present)

Short story: “Don’t leave your shoes wrong way up, even in Norwich,” trans. Anthony Calderbank

The first three chapters of Munira’s Bottle, trans. Anthony Calderbank

Badriyah al-Bisher (1967-present)

One of her short stories is in Voices of Change: Short Stories by Saudi Arabian Women Writers, but nothing seems available online.

Leila Al-Johani (1969-present)

An excerpt from her novel Jahiliyatrans. Piers Amodia

Rajaa Alem (1970-present)

Preview her novel Fatima on Google Books, with Tom McDonough

Preview of her novel My Thousand and One Nightswith Tom McDonough

Abdullah Thabit (1973 – present)

Extract from his novel The Twentieth Terrorist

Mohammad Hassan Alwan (1979-present)

Statistics and Blonde Grass, trans. Ali Azeriah

Mukhtar, trans. William Hutchins

Oil Field, trans. Peter Clark

An excerpt from The Beaver on Banipal.

Rajaa Al-Sanea (1981-present)

No excerpt from Girls of Riyadh immediately apparent online, just a few quotes on Goodreads


  1. We take so much for granted in certain parts of the world (the right to express our feelings without restriction) that we don’t value it until we hear of situations where people are fighting for the very thing we have but don’t appreciate. Thanks for all these recommendations – I’m hoping I can get my hands on some of the works without too much difficulty

    1. Start with Abdulrahman Munif, at the top of the list. He should be easily available & will reward you amply. 🙂

  2. Great article-it seems that some things just cannot be suppressed no matter how hard authorities try. Happy to see that KSA literary scene is thriving despite all the threats and risks.

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