Exclusive: Riyadh International Book Fair

Last Wednesday, Riyadh International Book Fair was opened. I was looking forward to this event for two reasons: a) because I will get the chance to buy some books that are not usually available here due to censorship and other factors, and b) because the organizers of the book show, the Ministry of Higher Education, have been talking for months about making this fair an exceptional event.

I went there on Thursday morning, and the place was crowded. As usual, a large number of visitors were flocking at the small spaces of a few publishers, while most of the rest publishers were doing nothing but removing the dust off their untouched books. The locations of the famous publishing houses such as Dar Al Saqi, The Arabic Cultural Center, Dar Al Jamal, the Arab Establishment of Research and Publishing, and Dar Al Mada, were the main spots of attraction to readers. Meanwhile, most of other publishers’ locations, especially Saudi book publishers, were almost empty.

I purchased 8 books; four of them were novels while the other four were non-fiction. It was surprising for me that Dar Al Saqi did not provide any of the Saudi writer Turki Al-Hamad’s novels; not even his latest book Reeh Al-Jannah, a novel about the 9/11 suicide bombers. Al-Hamad’s books are usually banned in Saudi. The best-seller Banat Al-Riyadh by Raja Al-Sanea was not available too, which leaves me wondering if it was banned.

Other activities of the book fair include a gallery for Saudi artists, lectures, panels, and workshops on several topics and cultural issues.

Last night I went to a panel on cultural diversity, and I have enjoyed a very good discussion. The panel was done the Saudi style, with the only female speaker Dr. Khairia Al-Saggaf talking from another room, where we could not see her but only listen to her voice. This made Dr. Warner Dawm, the German speaker, says he wishes Dr. Al-Saggaf was sitting with them on the same podium. She did not comment on that, but one of the audience later told the German guy to respect our culture and traditions. I did not think he was being disrespectful, and I’m glad that he did not apologize.

There was a lot of extremists in the audience, who insisted that anyone different from us is an infidel, and that we have to deal with him on this principle. I liked it when Dr. Faisal Al-Muammar, the moderator of the panel, stopped the same man from talking in an offending manner about Shiites, describing them as rafidha. Shiites were the subject of a hot debate at the end of the panel, when Dr. Khaled Al-Dakheel said that Shiites are part of us. This was the point where the panel went out of control. Before Al-Dakheel was able to complete that sentence, a Sheikh from the first row interrupted and told Dr. Al-Dakheel that Shiites are not Muslims, and that he has to say this.

Al-Dakheel was surprised by the rudeness of the man and refused to say that. Here, tens of extremists sitting on the left side of the hall started shouting, and told Al-Dakheel to shut up. To bring that chaos to an end, the moderator had to announce the finishing of the panel. As soon as the panel ended, a large group of the long-bearded-short-thobed guys gathered around Al-Dakheel. I could not hear what they were telling him, but I saw him later leaving with one of the organizers from a side door.

Few minutes after the beginning of the panel, Dr. Mohammed Al-Zulfa, member of Shoura Council who called for the right of women’s driving, came and sat next to me. I could not talk to him, even though I really wanted to do that. But after the panel was ended, the same people who were gathered around Al-Dakheel came and stood around Dr. Al-Zulfa and started talking to him. They were telling him to stop calling for women’s rights, and that he has no right to talk about such issues because they should be only tackled by Sheikhs and scholars. Al-Zulfa refused to obey, and asked what’s the difference between him and these sheikhs. “Is it something with my clothes? I can change my clothes, you know,” he told them.

The organizers were telling the people that they have to leave because they are closing the gates now, but the extremists kept on shouting. “Do you want to face God on judgment day with women’s driving next to your name?” one of the sheikhs asked Dr. Al-Zulfa who did not reply (I have recorded a short .3jp video of the incident. I will try to upload it soon).

Anyways, I will be attending a lecture on the development of Saudi novel today’s afternoon, a panel on the effect of censorship on media on Sunday, some poetic readings and panel on cultural identity on Wednesday, and some more readings and a panel on education and its form in reform on Thursday (you’ll be there and you’d like to meet me? Just drop me a line: saudijeans at gmail dot com). The Riyadh International Book Fair will last for more seven days, and if you are in town I advice you not to miss this event. Probably it is not as exceptional as the organizers promised, but it is still worth a visit.

39 thoughts on “Exclusive: Riyadh International Book Fair

  1. What amazes me and this holds true for Muslims all over the world. Is that those who tend to represent a more ‘conservative’ or more bluntly an oppressive view of things are the loudest and rudest of all. They tend to think that shouting and bullying is the way to keep fear in people and get where they want to. Not only is this the most unislamic practice (and oh so ironic considering their claim of being the only ones to represent true Islam) but it is also tolerated by Muslims. Where were the supporters of the men who were bullied? Even if some didn’t agree with them why didnt they speak against those that bullied them? And this happens in among all Muslims communties not just Saudi I used to see it all the time in the US. More need to stand up against these idiots and their tactics and stop allowing it on any level.

  2. LoooL..having read the word “rafida” reminded me of my days back in shargyya. I’m totally not surprised by “long-breaded, short-thobed” approach. Having studied in KFUPM, I can’t recall how many argument I have had with the same people about Shiites. I was also criticized by the same group for having Shiites best friends. Bottom line, I’m not so optimistic that these so called “open dialogue conferences” taking place every now and then here will serve their purpose as long as the majority mindset about the “others” is still as rigid as it has always been. Sad but true.

  3. Hey,
    Since you mentioned this book fair, i wanted to ask you about that bestseller book from Riyadh, The Girls of Riyadh, or something like that, written by a Saudi girl from Riyadh. Would you have any idea if that book will be translated into English or not? I checked that book out here in Dubai, but the shop salesmen did not know anything about its translation. Would you?

  4. I agree with Abdulla. I think these so-called “dialogues” aren’t dialogues at all. They’re just a way to shut-up those demanding more rights/freedoms. And they call themselves Muslims! Nzingha is right. Why didn’t anyone stand up and defend those men? If this is how they’re going to play it, then give ’em a taste of their own damn medicine!
    I really don’t understand what is wrong with these people! Don’t they know that whether they like it or not things will change eventually. Either “we” grow up and make the changes ourselves or Bush and his neo-con goons are comin’ over!

  5. Wow! This was an interesting read. It made me think about an older German professor I knew who lived in communist East Germany and was arrested for reading Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea.” It makes me wonder how does literature flourish in such an environment. Also, do you have any recommendations of good Saudi fiction authors. I am always looking for something new and good to read.

  6. Fascinating stuff and so well observed. Don’t know whether one should be depressed that the extremists seem to have come along with the sole purpose of “nobbling” some well known liberals and reformers and trying to intimidate them, or whether it’s healthy that they are at least engaging in public discussion even if it tends to be of the shouted variety.

  7. I tried to go to the event yesterday but could not be able to get inside. It was restricted to “families only” .. oh gosh how much I hate this phrase!

    I will try to go during this week.

    Thanks for the breafing.

  8. By the way Ahmed, as long as the extremists are hijacking the schools , the tolerance of Saudi youths for “the other” will be as low as it is now

  9. I disagree with those who think those dialouges are useless!
    I don’t think they will change much in real life… but at least they will make some people who are not used to listen to other opinions expcet the ones they listened to since ever .. those people might open up .. it won’t create miracles .. but it might do some little stuff here and there!.

    I think each one of us has the right to express his own thoughts and ideas .. the real bad thing is showing disrespect and rudness .. whic his not acceptable by anyone !
    Those who claim they are the ones who know Islam better than others .. shall be representing the Islamic values of respecting others specially if they are older.

    I think the whole situation in the country is depressing .. but some light is coming out ..

    I want to express my high respect to Dr. AlDakheel and AlZulfa.

    Btw, good post Ahmed.
    Keep us posted on new stuff taking place there!.

  10. FOR GOD SAKE ,don’t ever say whabi or shiites ,or whatever, coz we all are muslims and that’s what’s matter,
    we all are in same boat, and we are going to be drowned one day if we keep fighting on this rubbish . why don’t people look around them, and see what’s going on.

  11. Jolie, I don’t make these things up. This is what happened, and trying to hide it and to ignore it as if nothing happened is no good.

  12. Ahmed, why you always thro words like (wahabi) or (extremist) at anyone you don’t like?
    How about the 150 sunni killed in Iraq last week by Shia?
    I think any extermist who want to only kill other people not same as them should go to jail, even if they are shia.
    But you call any sunni that is not same brain wavelength (extremist) right away.

  13. The best-seller Banat Al-Riyadh by Raja Al-Sanea was not available too, which leaves me wondering if it was banned.

    ware avalable until (I forget the name of the dar) buy all the copies.

  14. wow.. i’m surprised such panels are open to the general public. I commend you for going to them. And I agree with you..we might not change everyone’s views but just the fact that there are people expressing views from a different angle may have an impact eventually on someone. Just the fact that there is diversity in opinion may bring about some change..who knows in the future inshAllah.

    I hear you.. why can’t people just agree to disagree and respect other opinions for once without resorting to labeling everyone else kafir?

  15. This kind of behavior should NOT be tolerated anymore in Saudi. We, moderate Muslims, should be as loud and as rude as the extremists.
    BTW, great report Ahmed

  16. You have just presented the very reason I am in the place I am right now. These people do not represent Saudis in any way. They are simply remnants of bigger body of retards that hopefully will be diminishing in the near future.

  17. Good report!
    Ahmed, Claire alredy asked for the same but… can you recommend some good books by Saudi authors in English?

  18. “I think any extermist who want to only kill other people not same as them should go to jail, even if they are shia.” I totally agree. Shiites are no angels, they have extremists too.

  19. One day Saudi Arabia will be free and its people will join the rest of the Free Countries and live in a Western-like FREE SOCIETY where diversity is celebrated, not killed.
    You cannot syop history and progress and both that cult and it poinonous effect will be a sad memory.
    Women will be free AND EQUAL, young people will want LIFE and not SUICIDE and the men with the beard will not run things anymore.
    One day you will join us.

  20. I got to this spot by chance. I must say that the people who are for women’s right to drive are (at least quite a few) just as ignorant as the opposing side. This now has become a fight of who is right and who should be listened to. It will not end in a satisfactory way since the price is going to be much higher than the reward. I’m for giving the people the right to decide on such matters and not giving anyone else the right to tell others whether they should allow their women to do it or not. Pepole should at least be allowed to hire female drivers for their women. I don’t want to sound so synical, but some people talk about this matter just to get more publicity and more connections with the eves.. ;)

  21. Christians have extremists, Jews have extremists, Muslims have extremists, all in the name of our one and only God. What a horrible pervision of His love.

  22. When I first came to the Kingdom I was intrigued by the stories of school buses carrying female students being stoned – now the rights of women in the workplace is being openly discussed. Hopefully in the not too distant future we will see jobs given to people based on ability and not on gender. This is progress.

    When Saudi TV Channel 2 was introduced – even cartoons such as Tom & Jerry were censored. Now in almost every home we see the ubiquitous satellite dish. Considering the ‘television wars’ – this too is progress.

    Driving for women is now on the agenda – when this happens (and it will) – this too will be progress.

    People in malls will no longer we herded into eating places by the ‘long beards and short dresses’ – people sit with their families and friends where they choose – more progress.

    Its is up to Saudi nationals (young and old) to keep ‘chipping away’ — the is how progress is made – I wish you well in the continued progress of the Kingdom.

  23. I am surprised than Saudis want a free western society and we prove that Western society are tryin to go back to the conservative laws that Islam recommend. I am talkin abt mixity , women’s place etc…I have a lot of friends, muslim women include myself educated who are happy with their lives and understand that Allah is ordering the best for them, they are just submitting as they don’t know the benefit behind it but I can understand that for a Saudi Youth looking for fun it is very difficult for them to live in this country. My comment was about the blog not only for this article. Sometimes they should be more flexible especially with young men. I love Saudi anyway

  24. Hey well i live in K.S.A (Riyadh)and typed a book ….well i want it to have nice cover and someone to help me publish and distribute it…If anyone can help please email me..i would be greatfull..thx


  25. I have to agree with “A Saudi”, you are victim to the same mentality that you deplore you so much. Your post screams ignorant stereotyping.

    Sorry, this was the first time I visited your blog and is probably the last.

  26. I just wanted to say I love your blog. I came across it while searching for Saudi blogs and I am still in the process of reading all your posts. This gives me a glimpse into the Saudi world that I might not otherwise have. Thank You for taking the time to write these posts! They are very interesting and insiteful.

  27. Saudi Jeans:
    What would the penalty be for non-approved books showing up at the affair? This blog is awesome. I was wondering, if you had control over the ministry of education, which genre or specific books, if allowed in, do you think would most benefit the people of the Saudi Kingdom?

    • Non-approved books would probably be confiscated. Different books appeal to different people, so I don’t believe a certain genre would be more beneficial than another.

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