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.