The 2015 Riyadh International Book Fair: A Mixed Bag

The giant Riyadh International Book Fair wrapped up on March 14 with strong sales, a crackdown on a “tolerance” event, and a warning to publishers: No one may distribute or sell printed materials, books and videos to visitors without prior approval from management.

riyadhThe crackdown came early on in the fair, on March 8, when the local Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice (PVPV) shut down a seminar titled “Youth and Arts .. A Call for Coexistence.”

According to the Arab Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), one of the speakers at the event denounced the destruction of monuments by ISIS, a denunciation that the Saudi PVPV considered “to be a defense of idols renounced in Islam.”

ANHRI writes:

The members of the Saudi religious police CPVPV attacked Dr. Mojab al-Zahrani during the conference, as he expressed his condemnation of the destruction of monuments of civilization in Iraq by ISIS, and went up to the podium and called for prayer in order to stop the seminar.

This came just a few days before Saudi news sources “confirmed” that selling any books without prior authorization would lead to questioning by security authorities. Arab News reported that “that the Committee on Publications received complaints about materials during the book fair last year, and regulatory measures have therefore been taken accordingly.”

Last year, more than 10,000 copies of 420 different books were seized during the fair.

Un-approved books are no small thing.

On March 5, Saudi human-rights activist Mohammed Saleh al-Bejadi was sentenced to 10 years, in part for “possessing restricted books and publishing writings that may threaten public peace,” according to ANHRI.

Still, as Saudi novelist Youssef al-Mohaimeed pointed out in the Saudi Gazette“Our city with a population of 6 million people does not have many moments of happiness or joy. …  It does not have museums, theaters, cinema houses, art galleries or music concerts.” But it does, he writes, have the Riyadh International Book Fair.

Although the fair has its problems — including “long bureaucratic procedures,” the lack of international publishers and deal-making, and the difficulties in conducting even signing ceremonies — al-Mohaimeed still celebrated it.

There was also a photo essay on the Riyadh International Book Fair that ran in Publishing Perspectives.