This story was originally published in The Outpost.
“To become a great writer – regardless of which Arab country one is in – one must be truthful; to be truthful, one must be free; and to be free, one must be alive; yet to be alive, one must hold one’s tongue!” – Syrian poet, dramatist and radio journalist Muhammad al-Maghut
In the Arab world, words are used as weapons. First occupied by colonial powers then presided over by authoritarian rulers, in many countries in the region literature has become a battleground between the state and those seeking to voice a perspective that challenges the status quo. Novels, stories and poems have been both exploited by the state as a vessel for spreading propaganda and feared as a means of smuggling subversive messages to the public.
While the overt use of literature as a propaganda tool has lessened since the Arab Spring, it is still manipulated by those in power. In Iraq, Saddam Hussein was widely believed to have written a total of four novels, among them the love story Zabibah and the King, about a powerful ruler of Iraq who rescues a beautiful common girl who has been abused by her husband—an allegory for the Iraqi people. At the same time he feared literature’s revolutionary power, banning books, imprisoning, torturing and killing authors, and driving many more into exile.
Censorship remains an on-going source of tension in the Arab world. Many countries frequently ban titles outright or demand that an author alter their work in order to be granted official approval. Other writers risk imprisonment or even death to share their work with the world. Bahraini poet and author Ali al-Jallawi, born in Manama in 1975, was imprisoned twice during the nineties for his politically charged poetry.
First arrested at the age of seventeen, he wrote about the experience and subsequent torture in his memoir, God After Ten O’Clock. After reciting a poem at the Pearl Roundabout, the center of Bahrain’s 2011 pro-democracy demonstrations, the security forces visited his parents’ home and his photograph was posted on a website denouncing “traitors.” Forced to flee his homeland, the poet now lives in exile in Germany, isolated from his friends, family and culture.
Syrian poet Ibrihim Qashoush suffered an even worse fate. A construction worker from Hama, Qashoush penned a simple poem, Come on Bashar, Leave, which quickly became the rallying cry at anti-government demonstrations. Qashoush’s body was found in the Orontes River in July 2011. In an act of gruesome symbolism, his throat had been cut and his vocal chords torn out.
The existence of state censorship and the risks facing those who speak out causes other forms of censorship to proliferate. The knowledge that work produced will have to undergo scrutiny forces authors to self-censor, avoiding certain topics, themes and even words, or resorting to allegory in the hope of slipping a subversive message past the censors. Publishers and distributors, reluctant to waste money on books that might be banned, and afraid of getting a bad reputation with state censors, often decide not to import or publish a book they think might be controversial.
Yet for some authors, censorship has served as a double-edged sword. Hanan Al-Shaykh, a diminutive woman with a birdlike frame whose soft-spoken voice always has something powerful to say, recalls her third novel, The Story of Zahra, which she wrote in London in the late seventies, after fleeing the violence of Lebanon’s civil war with her four-month-old daughter. “When I sat down to write this novel I just didn’t care,” she says. “I wrote whatever I felt like writing, without censoring myself.”
Amid the on-going violence and sectarian tensions of the war, no one wanted to publish the book, so, with the help of a friend, al-Shaykh did it herself. The novel, which included scenes set in war-torn Beirut and touched on taboos such as abortion, divorce, insanity, sex before marriage and illegitimacy, bought her widespread fame, but it also meant that she became persona non grata to state censors across the Arab world. “Banning is awful, but at the same time the banning of The Story of Zahra made my name. People wanted to read more,” she recalls.
Her 1992 novel, Women of Sand and Myrrh, which is set in Saudi Arabia and includes a lesbian relationship, was subsequently banned all over the Gulf and North Africa. It was also banned in Egypt, where it was being taught at the American University, after a parent complained. “When it was banned in Egypt, I felt really great sadness,” al-Shaykh remembers. “We grew up loving everything Egyptian – the literature, the films, the songs, the art.”
In Lebanon, one of the few countries in the Arab world where books do not have to be submitted for state censorship before publication, it is most often public outcry that results in books being banned. “There is nothing in the law about censoring books, but sometimes it is done,” says Lea Baroudi, the founder of anti-censorship NGO March, whose online Virtual Museum of Censorship lists books, films and plays banned in Lebanon since the forties. “The main reasons for censorship are usually religious or political. It’s fine as long as you don’t draw attention to yourself, but if it happens to be controversial they can stop you afterwards.”
Gender can also play a role in public censure of authors, says writer and prominent feminist Joumana Haddad, former editor-in-chief of controversial magazine Jasad, which explored sex and the body, and culture editor of Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar. “Many women are reluctant to be as free in their writing as a man would be because the reception of writing by women is different. I always said that had Jasad been published by a man it would have had half the angry reactions.”
Despite the government’s attempts to control the public’s access to controversial works of literature, a black market in books thrives in most of the more repressive states and books that have been banned by state censors often circulate in foreign translation. Saudi writer Rajaa al-Sanaa’s Girls of Riyadh is banned in Arabic, but the English translation is widely available in Saudi bookshops, while al-Shaykh recalls coming across a copy of Philip Roth’s highly controversial, sexually explicit work Portnoy’s Complaint during her time in the Kingdom. She speculates that since the cover was simple and the title inoffensive the censors didn’t pick up on the contents.
“When it comes to English the censorship is very, very low,” confirms Emile Tyan, CEO of Beirut-based Hachette-Antoine publishers. “When it comes to English they know that it won’t reach a lot of the population so they don’t care.” The point is illustrated by the experience of Haddad, who was invited to sign copies of her first book, I Killed Scheherazade, at the Emirates Literature Festival, even though the Arabic version is banned in the UAE.
Tyan explains that Saudi Arabia and the Gulf are the hardest countries to export to, in spite of the fact that Saudi Arabia is the biggest market in the Arab world, constituting forty percent of book imports. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kuwait demand that suppliers request a permit for each book, a process that can take weeks. The censorship in these countries is lighter than it used to be, he says, but still the strictest in the Arab world. The UAE meanwhile, recently introduced a permit system and began banning books, something that didn’t happen in the past. In Egypt, Tyan says, matters have improved since the 2011 uprising, while Morocco and Jordan are fairly liberal, though books mentioning the royal families can be sensitive.
Like Lebanon, these countries are mostly concerned with censoring political or religious content. Sex is also taboo, although in Lebanon censors are becoming more tolerant of sexual content, Baroudi says, even as censorship of potentially contentious religious and political material has increased in line with the country’s deteriorating security situation.
In the meantime, authors continue the fight for freedom of expression. “One of the main illnesses that we suffer from is the fear of words in the Arab world,” says the staunchly feminist Haddad, “so it’s very important to challenge yourself first and foremost when you’re writing.”
Al-Shaykh agrees that she is unwilling – and indeed unable – to self-censor, but says that she no longer keeps track of where her books are prohibited. “I stopped asking, because at my age it really hurts me when I know I am banned,” she explains. “Before, it used to be a way of showing my muscles. I thought that every word I write [must be] sacred and that’s why they banned me, but then I discovered that they ban so many writers and so many books. Now I feel like, ‘I don’t want to be banned. I want the young to be able to read me.’ So I don’t ask. I don’t ask.”