Reading in Riyadh

July 31, 2008

saudi9.jpgIt has got slightly easier to get a hold of Saudi novels in Arabic, but they remain suspicious material hard for average Saudis to find.

There are a number of book chains around the country and invariably the religion section has the largest number of Arabic books, alongside educational materials on medicine, business, computers and foreign language books on various subjects. But the Saudi novel remains controversial.

Riyadh has one bookstore known for its focus on modern literature and it’s there that Saudis in the know will head for a particular work. I eventually found the shop the other day, it’s called innocuously al-Kitab (The Book) and an array of novels that many aficionados might never have even heard about by famous Saudi writers were laid out sinfully on neat shelves. The novels of Turki al-Hamad, the liberal probably most despised by Islamists, were there. Another irritant for Islamists, Abdo Khal, had titles there I didn’t know existed.

Tony Calderbank, a noted translator of Arabic novels into English, says most of the quality works that come his way are passed to him personally by the authors themselves — getting a hold of them is too troublesome.

The shop assistant said they often have problems with the religious police who remove certain novels in particular, like Siba al-Harz’s racy, and acclaimed, al-Akharoun (The Others) about lesbian schoolgirls, but they leave the foreign language stuff — which is far more racy — alone.

Normally it’s in Dubai, Beirut or Cairo that you can find Saudi novels; I came across al-Akharoun in Dubai. A colleague dropped a pleasant surprise this week when she revealed she got a copy at the Riyadh Book Fair this year — an event which in itself has enraged many of the religious right.

With the rampant success of the Internet in Saudi Arabia as a means for young people to flout the suffocating morality rules of society through direct online contact, with the anonymity that allows if desired, book-buying has decreased in recent years, the assistant in al-Kitab said.  And yet the number of novels being put out by Saudis is increasing every year.
It seems to me the cracks are slowly appearing in the walls of isolation that have been slammed down left, right and centre in every avenue of Saudi cultural, political and social life. They have been appearing since the Sept. 11 attacks in 2001 — in which 15 Saudis were among the 19 Arabs who carried out the attacks — forced some in government to take a long hard look at what the country had become.

But the Islamists will never give up the fight to maintain their privileges and control they have over society.

No comments so far

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see