Riyadh Book Fair ’09

While I sincerely hope that the Ministry of Culture and Information would drop the word ‘International’ from the name of what has become the most important cultural event in the Saudi calendar, I’m glad that the Riyadh Book Fair is back again. Seeing the crowds celebrate books and reading is heartwarming, regardless of whatever gripes I might have about the organizers and their approach. The book fair is taking place for the first time at the new Riyadh International Exhibition Center on King Abdullah Road, which is much nicer and much bigger than the old exhibition center in Morouj.

If you plan to come, you may want to stop by at our table in booth SA-60 where my friends and I are volunteering to sell the books of fellow blogger Hadeel al-Hodaif who passed away last year. The proceeds will go to charity. We are also taking the chance to promote the Hadeel Prize, which will be launched later this year.

I think the book fair this year is better than the previous ones, except, of course, for the usual kerfuffles by the religious police. After making a scene with Abdou Khal, Abdullah Thabit and Halima Mozaffar on Thursday, they made another scene last night when they decided that saleswomen are not allowed to be there on men’s days. All saleswomen were kicked out. I really don’t see the point of having the religious police in the book fair, but it is obviously part of the compromise deal the Ministry of Culture and Information had to make with the conservatives in order for the book fair to go on.

The Riyadh Book Fair is open until Friday, March 13, from 10 AM to 10 PM. Some days or part of them are open to men only, so make sure to check this page before you drive there. Oh, I forgot that women are not allowed to drive. Never mind. Just go, have fun and enjoy the books. And if you have any recommendations, please do share them in the comments. See you there.

Riyadh International Book Fair: Could Be Better

After my past experiences at Riyadh International Book Fair, and considering that I have recently visited Beirut and Cairo, you can expect that I’m not so enthusiastic about our annual cultural bonanza this year.

The truth is, organizing this event for the first time in 2006 was a bold move by the Ministry of Information (MOI) and was groundbreaking on some levels: temporary amnesty on banned books, interesting speakers and heated debates about pressing issues at the other activities accompanying the fair.

Unfortunately, it did not last long. MOI have been obviously intimidated by the aggressive reaction of the conservatives and decided to opt for the path of least resistance: to avoid provoking the anger of conservatives (who are easily provoked by many, many things, btw) they chose to organize an ordinary book fair with conformist speakers discussing noncontroversial topics. Actually, I have read that some people this year were cruising the fair collecting books they don’t like in trolleys!

I am disappointed to see MOI intimidated this way because I thought they were up to something really good. But my lack of enthusiasm should not stop you from paying a visit to the big show. I think it is still a good chance for Saudis to get exposed to this wide spectrum of ideas offered by thousands of books at one place.

Although I wasn’t planning to buy any books, I ended up with a few good ones. As usual, Lebanese publishing houses have many interesting titles to offer, and you may also want to stop at the booth of the National Society for Human Rights and grab a copy of their excellent first report on the state of human rights in the Kingdom.

The Riyadh International Book Fair is open until Friday, March 14, at the Riyadh International Exhibition Center in Morouj Dist. up north the city. Parking spaces of the Center are reserved for VIP’s so I recommend you use the HyperPanda/Azizia Mall parking lot next to the Center. Consult this schedule to before going: the fair is open at different times for professionals and general audience men and families, and believe me you don’t to go at the wrong time.

The Siege of Mecca

Although the uprising of Juhayman Al Otaibi in Mecca in 1979 played a crucial role in shaping politics and culture in modern Saudi Arabia, few details are available to the public about the sorry events that took place in the dawn of the current hijra century. I was born in 1984 and the first time I heard the name of Juhayman was only a few years ago following 9/11 and the terrorist attacks in the Kingdom. That’s why when I visited the US in September I made sure to purchase a copy of The Siege of Mecca, a book that tries to investigate the uprising in Islam’s holies site. The author is Yaroslav Torfimov, a staff foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

Once I started reading the book I was hooked and I could not put it down. The kind of fine details Torfimov provides were thrilling and sometimes even shocking to me. I was expecting this book to be a dry recount of the events based on some declassified documents the author obtained from the American archives but I’m glad I was wrong. The background of Juhayman, the way he led the uprising, and how the government dealt with the assault in addition to the historical context of the events made this book a very interesting and action-packed read.

Since many people who were involved in the uprising are still among us, some of them even serving in the very same positions, the book should give you a better understanding of the forces and ideas that influence the current situation in the country and the ongoing power struggle between them. Also of note is the secrecy that remains one of the most visible aspects of Saudi politics to this day.

The book goes into detail regarding concurrent events such as the attacks on US embassies in Muslim countries. These details may be more interesting to the American audience than readers like me, but these are not any less important because they help to explain the reasoning behind the US foreign policy in the region for years to come. The author also dedicated a chapter to the uprising in Qatif and how the government pulled out some forces from Mecca to crack down on the revolutionaries there.

One the most striking findings for me was the role of the official religious establishment. Believe it or not, most of the rebels were actually arrested a few months before the attack but the government released them based on instructions from the religious establishment. You would think that such thing would make the government lose its faith in the clerics, but surprisingly the horrific events led to a deal that empowered the religious establishment, making way to the rise of extremism and later the birth of Al Qaeda.

Due to the sensitivity of the subject here, I don’t think the book will see the daylight in Saudi Arabia, but I guess you can order it from Amazon or buy it when you go abroad. Highly recommended: 5/5.

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