No Egyptians Allowed
Mohammad Shoair wonders why so many books are being banned
With Arab regimes disagreeing over the books their respective peoples should read, censorship is no longer a surprising phenomenon. Last week the administration of the 35th Kuwait International Book Fair (13-23 October) sent Egyptian publishers a list of some 120 books refused entry into the fair. Covering the broadest range of writers without the least sign of an underlying principle or logic, the list was nonetheless less surprising than the reaction of publishers, who seemed unconcerned with the decision. They had various reasons for such nonchalance about their books being banned. One publisher said the phenomenon was hardly new, "every year the same thing happens"; he was surprised that the issue is being raised by the media with such force this year. Another publisher pointed out that the Cairo Book Fair yearly bans books too: "It is the right of every fair to specify what books it wants." A relatively "large market" for Egyptian publishers, Kuwait has not been subject to censure on their part. No one is willing to object publically to the decision, let alone attack it.
The list of banned books is reasonably representative of Egyptian literature, covering the entire spectrum from most of the work of the veteran political analyst Mohammad Hassanin Heikal, through novels by Gamal El-Ghitani, Khairy Shalaby, the late Abdel-Hakim Qassim, Ibrahim Aslan, Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, Youssef El-Qa'id, Mohammad El-Mansi Qandil, Ahdaf Soweif, everything by Alaa El-Aswany (one bookshop was shut down last year after displaying his novel Chicago ) as well as Galal Amin's autobiography, Fahmy Howeidi and Mohammad Emara: all are Dar El-Shorouk publications. According to Fadi Awad, the publications manager at El-Shorouk, the decision to ban these books is surprising and regrettable. "Few of any of the titles refused do not express a political position in opposition to the Kuwaiti regime," he explains. "Even if we assume that it is the Islamists' influence that lies behind such decisions, we could understand the banning of Sons of El-Gabalawi by Naguib Mahfouz, but why should Mohammad Emara be banned?" Will Dar El-Shorouk boycott the fair after the decision, however? "We are keen on the unity of Arab cultural relations, and we have no desire to escalate the issue. Besides, many of our titles were accepted; and in the end we should contribute to their fair according to their conditions."
Fatma El-Boudi, owner of Dar Al-Ain, six of whose books were banned this year, was surprised that the issue should be raised in the first place. "What happened is not new," she said. "Every year, Egyptian publishers send lists of participating books. The books are reviewed, and then we are informed of what will not be allowed in." With a total of eight books refused entry in previous years, 14 of Dar Al-Ain's titles are now banned in Kuwait. What El-Boudi stresses in this context is that there are no clear criteria for censorship. Farouk El-Qadi's book Secularism is the Answer, for example, was allowed in, while Hussein Ahmad Amin's Characters I Knew was banned. This year several novels were also banned: Allal Bourqaya's Pure Eternity, Ibrahim Farghali's Sons of Gabalawi, Ezzat El-Qamhawi's City of Pleasure, Mohammad Alaaeddin's The Foot, and many others. According to El-Boudi, however, censorship contributes to the popularity of books: "There are salesmen within Kuwait able, through their connections, to bring in what books they want. Many of our books that were banned not only entered the country but were even discussed in seminars there. Sons of Gabalawi, for example, was the subject of more than one seminar."
Mohammad Hashim, on the other hand, the owner and director of Merit, will not participate in the fair: "The one time I participated they banned 22 of my titles, and since that day I have not participated and have no intention of doing so. Sales at the fair are limited, and the prohibitions are many. The costs of participating far exceed the profit." For Mohammad Rashad, the head of the Egyptian Publisher's Union, "Each country has its own policy. In every Arab country the Arabic book confronts over 20 censors, and they are different in each. What you consider perfectly inoffensive turns out to be offensive once you move from one country to another. Each country has its own specific sensitivities and book fairs in particular tend to be very aware of these." Such, in a nutshell, is the attitude of publishers.
Writers, on the other hand, are not so diplomatic. Galal Amin, for one, feels that the banning of his autobiography may be understandable in the light of its content: "In my book I spoke of the years I spent in Kuwait, and perhaps they are sensitive about this." Yet there is never any justification for banning a book, he insists. "Such custody over the minds of the people is unacceptable." Yet the novelist Khairy Shalaby is even more incensed: "What is there in my book that could offend the censor? What is there in Ibrahim Aslan's book Two Rooms and a Hall ? It is about the relation between two spouses: the wife dies and the husband remains alone." For Shalaby a book fair that bans this many books gives up its credibility as a book fair. Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid, while equally opposed to the decision, is less concerned: "Every one of my novels has been banned before in one or another Arab country. Censorship no longer surprises me." Will the cultural establishment attempt to play a role against censorship, however? "The union is in the process of determining the best ways to deal with this issue," the playwright Mohammad Salmawy, head of the Egyptian Writers Union, replies, "with a view to enabling books to reach every Arab country and be part of more than one Arab cultural sphere." Still, no steps have been taken yet.
More significantly, perhaps, no steps have been taken in response to Algeria's decision to ban Egypt as a whole from participating in the Algeria Book Fair - the result of a popular scuffle followed by an official showdown initially over a football match! El-Boudi refuses to compare the two instances of censorship, however: "There are political reasons behind preventing Egypt from participating in the fair in Algeria, unlike in Kuwait." For Khalid Azab, media consultant at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, "The Algeria crisis could have been easily resolved. We received an invitation to participate in the Algeria Book Fair, making the Bibliotheca the only party participating from Egypt. Cultural officials could have contacted the Algerian minister of culture which would have cleared the air." The Algerian Association for the Defence of the Arabic Language has since issued a sharp statement in which the banning of Egypt from the fair is described as "a blow to international democratic and cultural values and a strike to the image of our country on the Arab and the international arena... as has already been evident in responses". The statement held the minister responsible, considering the decision a blow to the future of the Arabic language in Algeria.