|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
1 - 7 February 2001
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Off the shelf -- and then where?Despite repeated denials on the part of Cairo International Book Fair (CIBF) officials, within days of the book fair opening publishers were complaining about the removal of exhibited titles from the shelves, writes Omayma Abdel-Latif. The victims include Moroccan novelist Mohamed Shoukri's Al-Khayma (The Tent); Joseph Harb's Al-Sayeda Al-Baydaa dhat Al-Shahwa Al-Kuhliya (The White Woman of the Dark Blue Lust); Egyptian writer Yehia Ibrahim's Hikayat Majnouna (Mad Stories) and, hardest-hit with three confiscated titles each, Moroccan feminist Fatma Al-Mernissi's Al-Harim Al-Siyassi (The Political Harem), Hal Antum Muhassanoun Did Al-Harim? (Are You Fortified against the Harem?) and Al-Khawf min Al-Hadatha (Fear of Modernity) and Egyptian feminist Nawal El-Saadawi's Awraq min Hayati (Pages from my Life), the second part of her autobiography, Al-Hub fi Zaman Al-Naft (Love in the Age of Petrol) and Suqout Al-Imam (The Fall of the Imam).
Rana Idris of Dar Al-Adab, Lebanon's leading literary publisher, told Al-Ahram Weekly that men claiming to be from the Censorship Department had insisted that novels containing explicit sexual passages could not be displayed. "They took all the copies of the novels from the shelves," said Idris, "under the pretext that they would review them and without setting any date for their return."
Idris, though fully aware of the latest censorship controversy, had not expected that the book fair would be affected by the current climate.
"We have participated at CIBF since its inception 33 years ago and have never had to deal with censorship. None of our books was ever confiscated before."
Dar Al-Adab, Idris revealed, had initially intended to boycott CIBF in solidarity with Egyptian intellectuals and in defence of freedom of expression but "when we found out that the Egyptian intellectuals themselves did not actually go through with their planned boycott we decided not to be more royal than the king."
CIBF officials, however, have denied the confiscation claims.
"No books have been confiscated," Samir Sarhan told reporters earlier this week. Joseph Harb's diwan, he added, is on display, and the Lebanese poet is himself attending CIBF activities. "We do not have the authority to confiscate books," Sarhan insisted.
Representatives of several other Lebanese publishers, however, confirm Rana Idris's reports of confiscation. An official from Rayid Al-Rayis, who asked to remain anonymous, complained about the confiscation of books which, he was told, "should never have entered the country in the first place"
"We were asked to submit a list of the books we were going to display and did so only to have customs' officials keep some titles [including that by Joseph Harb] on the basis that they were originally banned in Egypt."
Other works by a number of the authors whose titles have been confiscated remain on the shelves. Novels by Mohamed Shoukri, the first part of Nawal El-Saadawi's autobiography and Fatima Al-Mernissi's The Forgotten Princesses and Women on the Wings of Dreams. -- are still on display, alongside any number of literary texts containing passages that would probably be considered indecent by the criteria that has apparently been adopted by the censor.
Khaled Al-Malee, an Iraqi poet living in Germany and the proprietor of the publisher Dar Al-Gamal, is more than a little confused. "Some of the confiscated books are already available in the Egyptian market. It is beyond my comprehension why they are confiscating books the display of which CIBF authorities had already accepted even before they were shipped from Germany," says the publisher whose booth has been raided on a daily basis.
Unlike Rana Idris, Al-Malee, who has been participating in the CIBF for three years, never considered boycotting the fair: "This is the most important book fair in the Arab world and participation is essential for publishers. We do not publish cheap novels but the works of the most prominent Arab writers. The idea of boycotting the fair did not even cross our minds." Al-Malee went on to deny newspaper reports that German writer Angela Gernut's book Women in the First Palestinian Parliament had been confiscated.
While the logic behind the confiscations at the book fair has eluded many -- some of the confiscated books, one disgruntled publisher points out, were on display at last year's fair -- most commentators agree that the moves represent an attempt by the government to pre-empt the stirring of controversies. Which just might explain the ludicrous position of the canonical medieval poet Abu Nuwas whose collected poems are on display at the fair but not for sale.
Such are the inconsistencies of the event. Nothing, though, looks likely to top the experience of Iranian publishers, conspicuous mainly through their absence at the event. While the Iranian embassy in Cairo has dismissed news reports claiming that Iranian publishers have withdrawn from the Cairo International Book Fair CIBF, embassy spokesperson Hussein Dost revealed to the Weekly that the publishers' visa applications had been refused by the Egyptian authorities in Tehran.
"It was quite a surprise for us to learn that they been refused visas after being officially invited by the CIBF authorities to participate in the fair," Dost said.
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