‘Literary Massacre in Kuwait’: The State of Book Banning

This month, there has been a fresh push from Kuwaiti citizens who are fed up with official censorship, both outside the Ministry of Information and online, with Kuwaitis posting photos of the banned books in their personal libraries at . Kuwaiti MA student Abrar Alshammari has been researching about censorship in Kuwait:

By Abrar Alshammari

Kuwait is currently experiencing a serious crisis of censorship. To the sorrow of many, it depicts almost literally the nightmare that Ray Bradbury portrayed in Fahrenheit 451.

In 2016, at the annual cultural conference of Nuqat in Kuwait City, award-winning Kuwaiti novelist Saud Al-Sanousi announced the horrific discovery that the Ministry of Information was burning banned books en masse, thousands of copies of his own novel Mama Hessa’s Mice included. The audience gasped in horror at the unimaginable atrocity of the state-sanctioned burning of literature, a blatant disrespect to books and their value to humankind. The Kuwaiti Ministry of Information (@MOInformation) had adopted a hybrid of Bradbury’s ‘firemen’ and Orwell’s ‘thought police,’ where they believe that their role is to monitor people’s thoughts and censor what they may and cannot read, in turn also affecting what writers can and cannot write.

Writers in Kuwait now have to think twice during the writing process, asking themselves whether a particular line might be interpreted to be dangerous, thus risking the possibility of it being banned in their own home country. Al-Sanousi and Buthayna Al-Essa are examples of Kuwaiti authors whose works have been subject to censorship in Kuwait, yet sold widely and applauded abroad; they have been warmly welcomed and celebrated across the region. Both al-Essa’s Maps of Wandering and al-Sanoussi’s Mama Hessa’s Mice have been best-sellers, and Al-Sanoussi won the 2013 International Prize for Arabic Fiction for his The Bamboo Stalk. Al-Sanousi’s The Bamboo Stalk has also been translated into English and is read world-wide. An abridged Arabic learner’s version was also published by Georgetown University Press. Both al-Essa and al-Sanoussi have said that knowing that your writing is desired and distributed abroad, and seen as a threat in your own country, is disheartening and frustrating for these young, immensely talented Kuwaiti writers.

Examples of censorship can be traced back from as early as the 1990s, when Islamist members of Parliament interpolated then-Minister of Information Saud Al Nasser for permitting the sale of Ghassan Kanafani’s love letters to Ghada Samman, considering his line, “My dear Ghada…damn your religion” to be blasphemous and insulting to Islam.

Photo courtesy of Fatima Al Matar.

In the mid-2000s, I remember that some books would not outright be banned, but the ‘censor’s scissor’ would be printed, and the censor would cross out the lines that were seen to be romantically suggestive or politically provocative. This was the case with books, but music CDs were not shown such mercy. By February 2012, Virgin Megastore, a major go-to for many readers and music fans, announced shutting down its store in Kuwait due to 60% of its products being banned by the Ministry of Information, including music albums by Lady Gaga, Britney Spears, and Eminem. Naturally, such a high percentage of its products being censored prevented Virgin Megastore from being able to maintain profit margins and effectively removed a major provider from the market.

While such examples recur, there has certainly been an unprecedented and exceptionally irrational surge in censorship in the last few years, arguably since late 2013 or early 2014. This is unfortunate, because at the same time we saw a rise of promising, talented young Kuwaiti authors, including Saud Al-Sanousi, Bothayna Al-Essa, Abdullah Al Busais, and many others. Many of their works came in reaction to heightened political tensions, and a clamp down of political advocacy. Al-Sanousi’s Mama Hessa’s Mice, for example, is a dystopian novel depicting Kuwait in 2020, torn apart with sectarian strife. It was banned and seen to be a threat to national unity, rather than a call for soul-searching and to reflect upon our identity. Ironically, Al-Sanousi’s novel is sold in both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain. Al-Essa wrote Maps of Wandering, a novel about a Kuwaiti child who is kidnapped in Mecca while on Hajj with his parents for illegal organ trade, and is raped; the sections in which she describes the rape scene were deemed to be sexually provocative, and it was seen to be offensive to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Al-Essa’s novel is also distributed freely in Saudi Arabia. Al Busais’ novel depicts the lives of two children in the 1980s, a Kuwaiti boy who is friends with a Bidoon, or stateless boy, and how differently their lives turn out as adults; the Kuwaiti is a sadist who works for the intelligence unit under the Ministry of Interior, and the Bidoon is a conman. Al Busais’ novel was deemed to be tarnishing the image of the Ministry of Interior.

The aforementioned works were banned between 2015 and 2016. It’s worth noting that there have been several times, as with Al Sanousi’s novel and Dalaa Moufti’s Ra’ehat el Tango among them, when authors challenged the Ministry’s decision in court and the court ruled in their favor, overturning the Ministry’s decisions. If the judicial system itself does not find these books to be a threat, this is indicative of a deeply misguided Ministry of Information. The MOI has undergone numerous changes in the past few years due to shuffles in the cabinet. In none of the appointments has there been a Minister who is familiar with the creative cultural sphere of Kuwait, but the current Minister of Information may be the least qualified of all. A previous Member of Parliament, Mohammed el Jabri (@Mohd_n_aljabri) kicked up a fuss in 2014 upon learning that one of the local hotels was hosting a Sufi celebration of Jelal el Din Al Rumi’s poetry, and he called upon the Minister of Interior to ban Jelal el Din Al Rumi’s entrance into the country. This, of course, was not possible, for Jelal el Din Al Rumi has been dead for over 700 years, and yet el Jabri could not be bothered to at least do a quick Google search before making such an embarrassing statement.

How can someone with these kinds of impulsive judgments be trusted to oversee the ministry that is meant to sponsor and encourage, not censor and repress, arts and culture in Kuwait? This is particularly disheartening for young Kuwaitis who are passionate about literature, art, music, and other forms of expression. After undergoing a period of significant regression of political liberties, people turned to cultural platforms to convey their frustrations, hopes, and desires. These new alternative spaces of expression promise to offer dialogue, growth, and present new talents. Fighting them and building barriers rather than bridges is counterproductive. It is only through being exposed to a variety of different opinions, cultures, lifestyles, histories and perspectives that we are able to grow as individuals and evolve collectively as a community. Books allow us to do so.

Both the Ministry of Information and the National Assembly are complicit in this crisis. Civil society groups have tried lobbying MPs in the past two years to push for legislative reform that would protect intellectual liberties and put a halt to this repressive censorship of creativity, and MPs have nothing to show for it. Bothayna Al-Essa gave a powerful speech at the National Assembly in 2016 where she addressed the obstacles that constrain Kuwaiti writers’ freedoms, and no concrete actions were taken on the part of legislators. In fact, some of the Ministry’s actions could be interpreted to be preemptive behavior. MPs can and do question the Ministry of Information over books that, to Islamist MPs at least, have the ability to shake society’s values, or even over a dance that took place in a public space or a theatric performance of which they disapproved. Islamist MPs do this to appeal to their own voter base. And so a vicious cycle continues.

In the past five years alone, 4390 book titles have been banned by the Ministry, ranging from works by local authors to other Arab writers such as Abdulrahman Munif, Ghassan Kanafani, Mourid Barghouti, and Ali Al Wardi, as well as translated works, such as Dante’s Divine Comedy, Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, Zorba the Greek and the latest victim being Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude. Some are outright silly, the Little Mermaid being the silliest of all, where her mermaid bikini top was seen to be too provocative. Even the metaphorical use of the word ‘angel’ is seen to be a transgression of sacred beliefs.

On what basis are these decisions made? Is there even clear criteria, or is it completely random and carried out on personal judgment? Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida investigated what they are calling the “literary massacre in Kuwait”. A committee is formed under the MOI, comprised of individuals whose own educational and intellectual backgrounds are completely irrelevant to the humanities or social sciences, such as engineering, business administration, shari’a, etc. Lines are taken out of context and seen to be romantically suggestive, politically provocative, or religiously offensive. If one of the committee members is offended by a line or even a word, without bothering to read the whole book and to understand the context and why this word or line is necessary for the overall harmony of the book, they feel the need to extend their reaction to the book to everyone else in the country, and choose to ban it.

The Ministry of Information believes that it has to take on an Orwellian sort of role where they uphold and control society’s morals and thoughts, and where the act of banning a book is going to prevent individuals en masse from engaging in perverse behavior as a result of reading something that may be romantically suggestive or politically controversial. This draconian policing of grown adults and what they choose to read is incredibly offensive. What the Ministry must understand is that reading a book cannot taint people’s morals, it can only help them grow and evolve for the better, by reflecting on our ideas and experiences and thinking about them critically.

While Kuwaiti law does criminalize the spread of hate speech and any speech which violates sacred values, the Ministry of Information seems to have adopted an overarching, broadly vague interpretation of what can be constituted as ‘sacred’; Ahmad Al Khatib’s memoirs were banned on the basis of them describing historical incidents which had occurred and he had witnessed, but which the government preferred to erase. Should we then assume that the government-sanctioned version of Kuwaiti history is sacred, untouchable and unquestionable?

Under the guise of ‘protecting national unity’, the Ministry is censoring any and all works that have an ideological orientation to them, not recognizing that intellectual diversity ought to be celebrated and protected, not censored, and that the richness of intellectual diversity and ideological, religious and philosophical pluralism is what can protect national unity, rather than this attempt to purify ideologies into what they believe is acceptable and “safe.” Only through exposing our minds to different modes of thinking can we grow more tolerant, more accepting, more respectful about our inquiries, and kinder in our interactions with what is different from what we believe.

It’s important to also recognize that in today’s day and age, censorship’s aim is rendered null. Readers in Kuwait have several options when it comes to purchasing banned books. Some publishers and bookstores choose a riskier path, where banned books are kept behind closed doors or under the table, and slipped in a paper bag to familiar, trustworthy faces. Of course, the discovery of such an act could lead to the bookstore losing its license and being shut down completely by the Ministry of Information, whose officials regularly inspect bookshelves. Devout readers have a “book dealer,” someone who smuggles banned books into the country and sells them for a higher price; thus, a black market for banned books has emerged with the rise of censorship. With the proliferation of the Internet and social media, others still rely on PDF versions, readily available online. However, there is an ethical concern with the circulation of pirated books, which censorship is enabling. One high-ranking official, in response to accusations of the government being complicit in the censorship of books and trying to implement an agenda of “dumbing down the general public,” said that censorship was no excuse and that PDF versions were always accessible online. To have reached a point where government officials refuse to recognize the moral issue with the subject of censorship and instead publicly promote pirated books is quite telling.

A Twitter account has surfaced in recent weeks documenting a wide array of banned books along with official documents from the Ministry of Information citing the passages they found to be grounds for censorship. In response, a hashtag began trending on Twitter, with Kuwaitis posting photos of books in their library that are banned by the Ministry of Information. The reactions beyond Kuwait ranged from solidarity to surprise at this kind of repression taking place in Kuwait.

Kuwait was once hailed as the “pearl of the Gulf,” renowned in the 1970s and early 1980s for its relatively liberal political system, room for freedom of political and personal expression, and a vibrant arts and culture scene. Kuwaiti theatre and TV in particular boldly raised political subjects that others in the region did not have the freedom to discuss. It was also a safe haven for many political exiles, such as the Iraqi poet Ahmad Matar in the 1970s, Egyptian satirist Mahmoud Al Saadani, Palestinian cartoonist Naji Ali, and many others. Their experiences and the works they produced in Kuwait were evidence of a thriving press and liberal cultural scene. While Kuwait has experienced setbacks in the arts and culture, primarily after the Iraqi invasion in 1990, recent years have been marked with a push and shove from citizens and the state. On one hand, a revived flourishing of culture and the arts led by grassroots and private sector efforts is both visible and sensed. On the other, an ignorant, strict censorship and restriction of these works is simultaneously taking place. It must come to an end now, before we allow those who are incompetent and unqualified to permanently damage Kuwait’s arts and culture.

Read an excerpt of Buthayna al-Essa’s Maps of Wandering if you dare.

Abrar Alshammari is a second-year MA candidate in Arab Studies at Georgetown University’s Centre for Contemporary Arab Studies, where she is completing her concentration area in politics and writing her masters thesis about citizen-state contestation in Kuwait’s creative cultural sphere. Her research interests include social movements, creative tools of expression in the Gulf, the ongoing struggle and oppression of the stateless/Bidoon population in Kuwait, and women’s issues.