Leading Kuwaiti Writers Saud Alsanousi and Bothayna al-Essa on Pushing Back Against a Season of Censorship

The 2016 Kuwait International Book Fair, closing this November 26, may mark a positive turning point in Kuwaiti censorship policies:

2016 Kuwait International Book Fair. Photo credit: Sherif Joseph Rizk.

Kuwait has been an outlier among Arab book fairs, which are generally free or freer spaces. Despite the country’s vibrant and outspoken literary community, since 1998, censorship has ballooned. A short piece in The Guardian, “‘It’s like they were selling heroin to schoolkids’: censorship hits booksellers at Kuwait book fair,” gives an overview, but two longer interviews with Kuwaiti writers Bothayna al-Essa and Saud Alsanoussi provide more details and context.

Al-Essa, although a best-selling author, is only available in English translation in Banipal’s “Kuwait” issue. She’s also a fiery tweeter and activist, and can be followed at @Bothayna_AlEssa. Alsanoussi, who won the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his Bamboo Stalk (translated to English by Jonathan Wright), is also the author of the popular Mama Hissa’s Micewhich is represented by the Susjin Agency and should also be making its slow way into English.

Also: While censorship seemed to ease at this year’s book fair, that doesn’t mean many titles weren’t held back, including Mona Kareem’s new poetry collection.

Al-Essa and Alsanousi answered a few questions over email.

I was recently at the 2016 Sharjah Book Fair and found that, as in other years, there might be books banned in stores in UAE, but they’re available in the fair—and similarly elsewhere. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that Arab book fairs are a “free” space.

Why not in Kuwait?

Bothayna al-Essa: That’s right, many book fairs in the Gulf are now considered free zones, or nearly free at least. This gives organizers a chance to narrow the margins of censorship, to improve the relationship between books and readers, to revive the literary scene and the intellectual and scientific culture to whatever extent possible. Recently, we’ve seen nearby fairs growing up with a number of participating publishers and titles, in Sharjah and Abu Dhabi (the Emirates), Muscat (Oman), Riyadh and Jeddah (Saudi Arabia), but the situation is different for Kuwait.

Kuwait has the highest margin of political freedom, and the irony is that this has led to a decline in freedom of expression. Democracy can turn on her family, as the ability of militant, fanatical ideas to create political weight cannot be denied. It began in 1998, when Minister of Information Saud Nasser was questioned about four books (by Nasr Hamid Abu Zeid, Ghassan Kanafani, Nawal El Saadawi, and Adonis.) This led to the resignation of the government and a vote of no-confidence.

Since then, the cultural arena has become an ideal place to make political gains and settle political scores.

Kuwait’s Publications Law, issued in 2006, allows the Deputy Minister of Information wide latitude to question books, but this censorship process doesn’t entail any accountability. To contest a banned book one has to go through a painful and almost eternal grievance process, which the Ministry of Information never takes seriously not to mention judges or juries. In the past years, the Ministry of Information has committed a “literary massacre” against books published in Kuwait, and has banned many of the most important names on the literary scene, including Saud Alsanousi, Abdullah al-Busais, Laila al-Othman, Mays al-Othman, Abdulwahab al-Hammadi, Dala Mufti, Sarah Mikemi, Arwa Qaqayan, and many others.

At first, we believed that parliament’s hawkish bloc of deputies were to blame for the prevention of all these books. But it’s unfair to blame them alone, as there is also the Council, which is called the “one-vote council,” which makes rulings that keep the Minister of Information safe from any questioning, withdrawal of confidence, or accountability. The ban came in parallel with other “security” laws such as the laws monitoring the internet, genetic fingerprinting, and others.

2016 Kuwait International Book Fair. Photo credit: Sherif Joseph Rizk.

Saud Alsanousi: It’s not just Sharjah, the same is happening at the Riyadh Fair, where books are available, including those banned in Saudi bookshops. It shows that fairs are considered a free zone, and this is no longer the case at the Kuwait Book Fair for years, a fair that was historically the third Arabic Book Fair after Beirut and Cairo, and despite the history of Kuwait, which was a real platform for freedom in the region in an earlier time. Officials are not really aware of the extent of the damange, which affects the country because of these censorship decisions.

The reasons for the deterioration of the Kuwaiti cultural landscape, because of censorship, are many, and it’s important to recognize the contribution of the power of culture and the arts in shaping public awareness. Thus, what’s happening is a danger to the government’s interests and the management of society.

Kuwait witnessed great developments until the mid-1980s: in the press, theatre, and parliament. But more recently, the creativity of the collective consciousness evidently threatens power, and power has even allied itself with militant religious movements to limit these freedoms, such that parliamentary authority has contributed legislation to suppress freedoms. Today, we shouldn’t be surprised that the censorship and prosecution of creatives come from members of parliament who have sworn to defend the liberties of the people.

Censorship is very comfortable for the authorities, who are protected from the accountability of parliament. Banning books and concerts and art exhibitions ensures that an official stays a little longer on his throne in the ministry instead of being questioned by members of parliament about the reasons for allowing the circulation of books or the establishment of art exhibitions or concerts.

There have been several notorious incidents, most notably the resignation of the entire government after four books were allowed to circulate at the fair in 1998. It resulted in the questioning of the Minister of Information and the dismissal of the Secretary-General of the National Council for Culture, Arts, and Letters, and the resignation of the government to avoid accountability and pressure from members of parliament.

Censorship is the easiest way for a minister to maintain his position away from any threat

What books are banned in the fair? Why your book?

2016 Kuwait International Book Fair. Photo credit: Sherif Joseph Rizk.
2016 Kuwait International Book Fair. Photo credit: Sherif Joseph Rizk.

Bothayna al-Essa: It’s hard to answer this question clearly, because of the Ministry of Information’s secrecy around banned books and the reasons for banning them. One study about Kuwaiti book bannings was conducted in 2010, and it reported that in 25 percent of the cases, novels were banned; 11 percent poetry; 10 percent for academic studies and research; 6 percent to criticism, memoirs, and biographies; 5 percent heritage and history; 5 percent political. Twenty-nine percent of banned books aren’t identified, but since the founding of my bookshop and my work in the books sector, I can assure you that these works were literary and intellectual.

In the past six months, nearly 500 books have been submitted to the Ministry of Information. Within three months, the Committee met once and considered eleven books, with one being allowed. That tells us the extent to which this has become a ridiculous situation in Kuwait, where basics like permitting a book are the exception.

Why ban books? There are several reasons mentioned in Article 21 of the Publications Act of 2006. The most important are the “maintenance of public order,” the “protection of sanctities” (God and the Emir) and the “preservation of public morals.” There are others who can decide reasons to ban books in addition to the Ministry of Information, such as the Ministry of Awqaf and Islamic Affairs (for religious books), and the Emir’s Council (for political books).

But the problem is not in the presence of books that fail to preserve public morals or criticize the sanctities. The problem is the broad interpretive powers of the censorsing bodies. A book that addresses Babylonian mythology, for example, is prohibited. A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking is forbidden.

This is not to mention writers like Nasr Hamed Abu Zeid and Mohamed Arkoun, most of the books about the renewal of religious discourse are suppressed, and at the same time their are fatwas passed legalizing harm to these authors and their expulsion from the religion.

As to the ban on my novel, Wandering Maps, it violated the “preservation of public morals” because of a scene that depicts child molestation. But other books were banned for more absurd reasons, such as the novel The Taste of the Wolf by Abdulallah al-Busais, which was prevented because of words like “thighs” and “pee” and words that you can find in classical Islamic works. Not to mention the ban on the comic novel Mama Hissa’s Mice, by Saud Alsanousi, which was accused of violating public order because of his predicitng a sectarian war between Sunni and Shi’a in the near future. The recent novel by Abdulwahab al-Hammadi, which was banned, from the standpoint of the government undermines the opposition!

Saud Alsanousi: It might be easier to count the books that are available rather than to count the banned ones. This might seem an exaggeration, but the number of banned books is longer than the space for this Q&A. Even classic books and novels that were available for many years have been re-examined by the censors’ office and are prevented today.

As for my novel Mama Hissa’s Mice, there are no clear reasons for the ban. The censors’ office satisfied themselves by noting the law, and an article number, which has dozens of [caveats], without a clear indication of the reasons for the ban or the paragraphs of my book that were in violation.

After the release of the novel, it was pulled from the shelves without a ban. I tried to get a response about this for about five months.

One of the members of parliament directed a question to the Minister of Information about the reason for the novel’s banning, and it happens in parliament that there are writers who have the attention of some members, but the minister replied with regret that the novel is not banned but is also not certified, and the Ministry of Information continued this evasion of responsibility for five months before announcing the ban.

Why is it important to have free access to books at the fair? Can readers buy your book in Kuwaiti shops?

2016 Kuwait International Book Fair. Photo credit: Sherif Joseph Rizk.
2016 Kuwait International Book Fair. Photo credit: Sherif Joseph Rizk.

Bothayna Al-Essa: Why is it important to have access to books? Because the Arab world is living in extreme times, and we are either amidst civil wars or factions or at the verge. Kuwait is not far from what’s happening in Yemen or Iraq, and it hasn’t been long since the recent bombing of a Shiite shrine in Kuwait. We need books to refuge extremeism and create dialogue, and we need to disagree without risking our futures and the future of our children. We need books because we need to see the world with our own eyes and not the eyes of the censor, because we must step away from being beneath the wing of the “guardian” and seek for ourselves.

Readers can’t buy my novel from bookstores in Kuwait; it’s sold under the table and exposes the seller to danger, as though he were selling hash and heroin to schoolkids.

Saud Alsanousi: I’m not demanding a fair without any oversight, but I do demand that bookshops are generally without oversight, as the individual should be free to choose what they want. Kuwaiti generations that have preceded us won the freedoms that are experienced by our generation today. Perhaps this freedom reflected positively on the Kuwaiti parliament and its decisions until the mid-eighties, when there was a real parliament defending the liberties of the people, because the members were aware of the benefits of openness. The muzzle on books means a muzzle on people’s minds. What we’ve written that’s prohibited is available in Kuwait but not in bookstores: It’s sold as drugs are sold.

What can writers do to change this situation of censorship?

Bothayna al-Essa: The writer cannot be subject to the censor’s logic. What they want is to toss out the essential meaning of literature, which is to needle and create concern, and to put questions to the silence. Real literary work reveals a new aspect of existence, as Milan Kundera says, and this can only be achieved by making incursions into “the untold story”: politically, religiously, and socially. The role of art is to break taboos, and to submit to the censor’s logic means the domestication of art and giving up our role.

On a personal level, I find that the best novels are published in Lebanon and prevented in Kuwait, and I would not remove the paragraphs and lines that caused the prevention of my book. I’d prefer to be a source of embarrassment to the Ministry of Information than be subject to a censor’s scalpel.

Saud Alsanoussi: We have been working through “The Voice of Kuwait” / “Sout al-Kuwait” to lobby the parliament and the press, to pressure the government to enact laws to protect the author and the reader, and to protect the freedoms enshrined in the Kuwaiti constitution since 1962. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as some writers thought. But we will not stop trying and writing.

You recently gave a speech in parliament about the banning of books. Can parliament change the situation of books? Who can change it?

Bothayna al-Essa: That’s right. I delivered a speech in parliament that was a call for the Council and the government to settle their political accounts outside the cultural arena.

We need a political bloc defending our freedoms. Until now, liberal and secular groups have been unable to organize and present a clear narrative. The solution is to amend the Publications Law of 2006, and this can only happen through the parliament, and the parliament, as we already know, has been kidnapped by the religious.

Hope now lies in the efforts of Sout al Kuwait (Voice of Kuwait), a civil society currently lobbying with the Ministry of Information with hopes in working with them to improve the efficiency of their current book approval system. They have submitted a report including research and a list of 10 suggestions that would revamp and reform the current system.

There are some very strong established novelists in Kuwait … Will censorship hurt young, new writers?

2016 Kuwait International Book Fair. Photo credit: Sherif Joseph Rizk.
2016 Kuwait International Book Fair. Photo credit: Sherif Joseph Rizk.

Bothayna al-Essa: Yes, the bans hurt — they hurt the writer and the publisher and the bookshop owner and also the reader. For the writer, this causes both physical and moral harm. But no matter how they increase censorship in size or ferocity, I don’t think that even one of use will stop writing. You cannot be a writer and not write. Let the writing, here, stand as a form of resistance.

Saud Alsanousi: There is some damage to the writer and the reader and the publisher and the bookseller, but books are available, and finding them is not impossible, despite all attempts at censorship and suppression, preventing and confiscating. But it’s annoying psychologically, primarily when you feel there are those who want to exercise a parent’s role and deal with you are a though you are a child unaware of what you read or write, and this is shameful and embarrassing for Kuwait, as well as the threat of freedoms and the material losses that affect the publishers and booksellers and authors.

There was a time when we’d hoped that the state might sponsor and encourage young writers, because there are quite a number of young people at work writing novels. But today I’m not asking for any support from the state; all we ask is that they leave us in peace, and that we write without interference or guidance or censorship.


Saoud al-Sanousi on What ‘Bamboo Stalk’ Is Really About and Why Some Kuwaitis Disapprove 

Kuwaiti Novelist Saoud al-Sanousi on Why José Rezal Inspired Him and Hopes for the Future

Any infelicities in the wording or typos in the text are the fault of the translator and not the authors.