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Since the dawn of the written word, governments and leaders across the world have worked both openly and subversively to keep the views and opinions of writers in check. In the Middle East, an incredibly diverse region with a clamor of languages, dialects, and opinions, authors who clash with the prevailing rhetoric often have to work within narrow constraints in order to have their voices heard.
Writing can be a dangerous, even lethal profession in the region. Examples abound: The blind Iraqi-Persian poet Bashar Ibn Bourd—famed for both his ugliness and his number of lovers—was beaten and thrown into the Tigris river for his licentious poetry in 784. British author Salman Rushdie’s bookThe Satanic Verses famously inspired Ayatollah Khomeini to issue a fatwa calling for his murder; the book’s Japanese translator was subsequently stabbed to death. In the political tumult of the Arab uprisings, censorship of the written word has continued; in the Persian Gulf, for example, Bahraini poet and student Ayat al-Qormezi was imprisoned and tortured for reading a poem that she had written mocking the Bahraini regime during the protests in 2011. Some formerly banned books have found their way back to shelves in Tunisia and Egypt, but censorship still persists. In June, an Egyptian court sentenced author Karam Saber to five years in prison for his collection of short stories Where is God? Even in the age of the Internet, it’s clear that the printed word retains the power to titillate and infuriate.
Sex, religion and politics—not necessarily in that order—are the traditional trio of topics that pique the censor’s attention. There’s no formula, however. Censorship is a unique beast, which varies from country to country, and censors often operate in a manner so opaque as to seem nonsensical. Books can be seized on order of Government ministries, confiscated by border police, or removed from the displays at international book fairs; over 400 books were pulled from Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh International Book festival in March, for reasons that are still unclear.
Readers and publishers are fighting back, though. Through online publishing platforms like Neel wa Furat, Kotobi.com and Jamalon, readers can find and download controversial books that may be banned in their country. In honor of Banned Books Week, and the brave authors who continue to challenge censorship, we selected six books from the region that we think you should read.
By Magdy El Shafee
This dark graphic novel delves into the corruption that was part of everyday life for many Egyptians under former President Hosni Mubarak, and the persistent effect of poverty on the common man. The Egyptian government banned the book when it was first released in 2008: government security forces raided the publishing house, seized all copies and forbid the company from publishing more, claiming that the book ‘offended public morals.’ The author and publisher were arrested, charged and fined. In 2013, the book had finally made its way back onto the shelves of at least one bookseller in Cairo.
UAE and Saudi Arabia
By Benyamin & Joseph Koyippally
Bahrain-based author Benyamin’s book, written in Malayalam in 2008, is the fictionalized account of the life of an Indian migrant worker, abused and forced by his employer to work on a goat farm in Saudi Arabia for three years. The novel won the Kerala Sahitya Academy award and made it on the long list for the Man Asian Literary Prize. This year, the Arabic language translation was reportedly banned in both the UAE and Saudi Arabia for unstated reasons. The author was quoted as saying that he didn’t understand the ban, as the novel takes up the universal theme of human suffering.
For Bread Alone
Morocco and all around the Middle East
By Mohammed Choukri
Moroccan author Mohammed Choukri grew up illiterate, and only learned to read and write at the age of 20. He penned his autobiography about growing up poor in Tangier, and included graphic descriptions of abject poverty, drug abuse, and being forced to steal and prostitute himself to survive. The book was first published in translation in 1973, but when it was finally published in Arabic, the Interior Minister of Morocco banned it from 1983-2000. As recently as 2005, Choukri’s text was removed from a syllabus at the American University of Cairo for explicit sex scenes, and censors confiscated the book from the Cairo International book fair in 2008.
Children of Our Alley
Egypt and all around the Middle East
By Naguib Mahfouz
The controversial novel was first published in serialized form in 1959 by the state newspaper Al-Ahram. When it appeared in book form the next year, it was banned because of controversy over its religious content. (Mahfouz was stabbed in the neck by two religious extremists in 1994, but survived.) The book remained banned in Egypt for almost 50 years (Georgetown Professor Elliott Colla likens trying to find the novel in 1989 to searching for porn) and was reprinted in Egypt in 2008. More recently, in 2011, award-winning Egyptian author Ibrahim Farghali’s book Sons of Gebelawi which draws on Mahfouz’s novel, was censored in Egypt and Kuwait
Mornings in Jenin
By Susan Abulhawa
This 2010 novel about a Palestinian family living in a refugee camp post 1948 encompasses several characters: among them, twins separated and raised by an Israeli family and a Palestinian family. While the book is available in Jordan in English, the Arabic translation was banned last year for apparent political reasons. The author conjectured in an interview that the censorship could be related to a line about a meeting between Jordan’s King Abdullah and Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir, but she isn’t sure.
By Abdullah Al Busais
Banned by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information this month, Abdullah Al Busais’ novel takes up the topic of Kuwaiti life before and after the Iraqi invasion in 1990 and includes a character who is a member of the Bedoon, or stateless population of Kuwait. The book was reportedly banned for discussing a "sensitive political time period."