Debate and Dismay over Saudi’s ‘Guest of Honor’ Status at Turin Book Fair

As its 2015 fair closed, Italy’s prominent Turin Book Fair announced Saudi Arabia as its 2016 guest of honor, promising “a 300-square metre space to be dedicated to Saudi literature”:

turin-book-fair-turin-italy-2014-international-exhibition-for-books-and-magazines-logo-whereinfairA year ahead of Saudi’s participation, this decision has already prompted condemnation and debate among Italian readers, particularly Italian Arabists.

On her blog, “Invisible Arabs,” journalist and scholar Paola Caridi, author of Arabi Invisibili, wrote against the selection:

La vera notizia saranno gli scaffali dello stand (presumibilmente imponente) dell’Arabia Saudita, il paese ospite del prossimo Salone del Libro, edizione 2016. E cioè: ci saranno libri, su quegli scaffali? E quali tipi di libri? La domanda non è peregrina, visto che in Arabia Saudita vige la censura, soprattutto sulle opere d’arte.

Caridi also started a discussion on Facebook, where a number of Italians interested in Arabic literature, and the region generally, weighed in on the choice.

This is not the first time for such a controversy: Saudi officials seem to prioritize book-fair involvement, and have spent a good deal of money on impressive-looking book-fair pavilions in London, Abu Dhabi, Cairo, and elsewhere. A similar debate was stirred in 2011, when Book World Prague hosted Saudi Arabia as its guest of honor.

In 2011, UK translator Alice Guthrie wrote a criticism of the kingdom’s participation in The Guardian, in “How can a book fair make Saudi Arabia ‘guest of honour’?“:

At Book World Prague 2011, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia is the “guest of honour”. But guest, in this context, actually means high-paying client: an oppressive regime hoping to buy itself some cultural legitimacy with its petrodollars. And honour? Given the dismal Saudi Arabian record on freedom of speech and other human rights, honour basically means shame.

So did Prague-based American writer Michael Stein, in Publishing Perspectives:

The book fair that truly seemed to come from another world though was that of the Guest of Honor, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has already faced its share of media backlash over the near total lack of literary content in the country’s presence at BWP. No prominent or even known Saudi writers were brought to Prague, and even a cursory look at the books exhibited show a marked leaning toward the neutrality of subjects such as plant life, photographs of desert vistas and an abundance of children’s books, as if they expected, or were merely hoping for, a 50-50 adult child visitor split. The rest of the selection comprised religious texts and other brochure-like material the majority of the visitors did not know what to make of.

But Saudi author Mohammed Hasan Alwan was against banning the kingdom from fair honors, as he wrote in The Guardian, in “Book World Prague was right to honour Saudi Arabia“:

As a Saudi writer and a victim of censorship myself for many years, I was surprised at the criticism of last weekend’s Book World Prague for making the kingdom of Saudi Arabia its 2011 guest of honour. Much as I understand the concerns of freedom of speech campaigners about Saudi Arabia – a country that is not at all “writers friendly” – I found myself disagreeing when they suggested that the invitation was a “travesty”. What should the organisers have done? Should Saudi Arabians be banned from appearing at international book fairs instead?

How the Saudis’ participation in Turin will pan out is yet to be decided, although it seems unlikely that it will be much different from Prague, with a Ministry of Education-led (rather than Ministry of Culture-led) contingent. It’s likely there will be few books or events of real interest to Italian readers, although perhaps Turin will do better than Prague and invite other Saudi writers, beyond the government contingent, to give parallel talks.


From Al-Araby al-Jadeed: A 2014 survey of book-banning in Saudi Arabia