Had I not known several officials at the Ministry of Culture and Information, on top of whom are writer, poet, and minister Abdul Aziz Khoja, Dr. Nasser al-Hujailan, and others who do possess the real vision of an intellectual, I would have said that those who work at the ministry have nothing to do with culture and are “mixing” between the sale of books and other commodities. I would have also said that the ministry is being unjust to itself when it appoints Ph.D. holders, intellectuals, poets, and writers in order to engage in bureaucratic work that in no way promotes or produces culture, but rather creates restrictions. Organization could be the responsibility of the institutional and governmental part of the ministry, yet culture is undermined by restrictions. I am not talking here about the absence of theatres, cinemas, or cultural movements, but about the book permits system.
According to logic, it is impossible for you to be aware of all the books released all over the world no matter how capable or knowledgeable you are. With the same logic, it is crippling to oblige writers to issue permits from the Ministry of Culture and Information in order to be able to sell their books at book stores, especially that ministry staff are always very busy preparing for the international book fair months before its scheduled time. That it is why it is very hard for a writer to get a permit in a short time. What is more striking is that a Saudi writer whose book was issued by a Saudi publishing house is not able to arrive on time to his book signing in the international book fair because he was waiting for the permit. If a Saudi writer is not capable of freely signing his book in this fair, where would he do that? In Cairo or Beirut for example?
‘Do you know anyone in the ministry?’
In the Arab world and the Gulf region, books are normally given permits and if there are any objections to a certain book, a complaint is to be submitted to the ministry, which in turn would investigate the matter and see if the book needs to be banned. But for the ministry to commit to issuing a permit for each book released and sold in Saudi is not humanly feasible or rationally imaginable. I have issued books in Beirut and Dubai and the publishing houses sold those books in both cities with no one asking us for permits. Yet when it comes to my country, I am faced with a long list of complications that starts with permits then moves on to the magical sentence, “Do you know anyone in the ministry?”
Our intellectual colleagues at the Ministry of Culture and Information are fully aware that electronic space knows no boundaries and no sooner do you hear about the release of a book than readers tell you they have obtained it from the internet whether in hard or soft copy. However, the Saudi ministry is still engaged in monitoring and issuing permits and only God knows how much effort, time, and money this process costs and how many books can be banned just because they might cause trouble.
Some might argue that stopping the monitoring process would bring about chaos, but this is not true. It is insisting on this process, which requires tremendous effort that causes chaos. The ministry will end up engaging in a precautionary banning procedure that would eventually provide free publicity for banned books and bestow a “phony” heroism on their writers in a way that would definitely affect the readers’ judgment. Consequently, a mediocre book would become a masterpiece while a real good book will stay away from the limelight.
(Dr. Badria al-Bishr is a multi-award winning Saudi columnist and novelist. A PhD graduate from the American University of Beirut and an aluminus of the U.S. State Department International Visitor program, her columns put emphasis on women and social issues in Saudi Arabia. She currently lectures at King Saud University, Department of Social Studies.)