Writing in Asharq Alawsat, Hussein Shabokshi informs us of some of the books he considers highlights from the Riyadh International Book Fair. What’s great about the Fair, he says, is that not only are there amazing books to be found — books that don’t generally make it into Saudi bookstores — but there are good books now being written by Saudis.
In the past, Saudis tended to be more consumers of books than producers. The hidden ‘red lines’ — political, social, religious — beyond which one dare not go were just too fraught with danger. Cross them and you could end up in jail, or perhaps just politically exiled. Strictures have been loosened, if not removed. Now, books that challenge conventional wisdom or the ‘received’ version of history can and are being written.
Shabokshi points to two books in particular. One, The Neighbors of Zamzam, by Mahmoud Traore, tells the story of a family moving from one part of Saudi Arabia to another. It explores the differences, diversity, and difficulties found within a country that many assume to be very homogenous.
The second, “Najd before the Oil, by Badriya al-Bishr, speaks of the culture and society that existed before the wealth of oil turned things upside down. I hope this book gets translated as I’d very much like to compare it to Abdelrahaman Munif’s Cities of Salt quintet. Munif’s work focuses more on the Eastern Province, but moves into the Nejd. It addresses the situation before the discovery of oil, but also the changes that it brings about. Munif wrote in the early 1980s, a period when openness was not welcomed, and was stripped of his Saudi citizenship.
That there are no bellows for al-Bishr to lose her citizenship is a stark marker of how much the Kingdom has changed, how much lighter the hand of the censor.
The Pick of Saudi Arabia’s Literary Offerings
As is customary every year, the Saudis are eagerly awaiting their annual “intellectual Olympics” known as the Riyadh International Book Fair, which is usually a rich source of inspiration for themes, ideas, and discussion. Throughout the years of the fair, the Saudis have wandered through the aisles of displays in awe, perusing book titles and topics that are normally difficult to obtain from Saudi retailers.
However, in recent years the Saudis have not been satisfied with their role as mere readers, following the ideas and affairs of others in the Arab world. They have now strongly taken to the field of publishing and today have become some of the most significant and prolific writers and authors, with their work becoming an important and ever-increasing feature on the publishing scene in general. The Saudi presence on the literary scene has grown in proportion with the Saudis’ increasing self-confidence; they are now diving into various social, political, cultural, religious, and intellectual topics. Of course, they have received mixed reactions for their work, some of which has been welcomed and championed, whilst other writings have been dismissed as nonsense, vanity, westernization, or an attempt to divide society.
But the Saudis, over time, have grown in confidence and have continued to courageously write about difficult and restricted subjects, addressing them with a high standard of respect and professionalism. In this regard, I wish to draw attention to two very important books that I consider to be among the best Saudi and Arab works of recent years. Both books have been printed by Dar Al Jadawel, a Saudi publishing house that, along with Maderek, is considered to be the most significant Saudi publisher of recent times.