Thursday, February 07, 2008

Books Unbanned in Cairo

There was a small but welcome victory for intellectual freedom at this year's Cairo International Book Fair. As I noted earlier, Egyptian authorities had banned a number of secular and Western books from being displayed at the event. However, according to a January 30 dispatch from Agence France Presse, this decision was reversed and the books were permitted to be shown:

Nabil Nofal from the Lebanese publishing house Dar al-Adab said that "we have received all of our books that were confiscated," including four works by renowned Czech author Milan Kundera.

Germany's Al-Jamal publishers said the authorities had returned copies of Moroccan author Mohamed Choukri's "For Bread Alone," which contains references to teenage sex and drug use and is banned in several Arab countries.

Other publishers also said their books had been released from customs at Cairo airport.

As with the seizure of the books on Monday, no explanation was given as to why the authorities had now allowed the books to be put on display.

Unfortunately, the Arab publishing industry faces problems that transcend individual instances of censorship. Israeli writer Zvi Barel, in a piece for Haaretz, argues that the (temporary) book bannings are merely a symptom of the broader malaise afflicting intellectual life in Egypt:

A UNESCO report on the state of development in the Middle East found that while 600 titles are published for every million citizens in Europe, and 215 titles are published for every million American citizens, only 28 titles are published in the Arab Middle East.

But it's not only a matter of quantity, but also of quality. To judge by what sells best, it turns out that religious literature, and primarily radical religious literature, is in first place. At this book fair, for example, the top seller was a book by Saudi cleric Aaidh al-Qarni, who recently left a radical stream for the center. Al-Qarni's book "Don't Be Sad" has sold 2 million copies, about half a million of them in Egypt alone. This is a readable book that explains to the reader that he should not worry or fear the future. He must improve his ways now, because life is what happens to us on a day-to-day basis, and not only in eternity. The path to happiness, Al-Qarni says, is of course to pray to God and follow his commandments, but with a contemporary viewpoint.

When this is the type of book that sells well, while the Egyptian censor takes on such Western classics as "Zorba the Greek" and Milan Kundera's "The Unbearable Lightness of Being," as well as new Arabic books such as Ibrahim Badi's "Love in Saudi Arabia," which was banned from display at the fair, it is hard to see how such an event will attract young people.

Finally, the famous British journalist and author Robert Fisk writes in The Independent about a rather different problem that beleaguers the Egyptian publishing industry. Fisk recently discovered that his new biography of Saddam Hussein was selling quite briskly in Cairo. The only problem is that Fisk has never written a book about Saddam:

Needless to say, I noticed one or two problems with this book. It took a very lenient view of the brutality of Saddam, it didn't seem to care much about the gassed civilians of Halabja – and it was full of the kind of purple passages which I loathe. "After the American rejection of the Iraqi weapons report to the UN," 'Robert Fisk' wrote, "the beating of war drums turned into a cacophony..."

Dare I suggest to readers that this kind of cliche doesn't sound like Robert Fisk? The only war drums I could hear were those of my own astonishment. For I never wrote this book. It wasn't plagiarism – a common practice in Cairo, which is why I ensure that all my real books are legally published in Arabic in Lebanon. No, this wasn't plagiarism. This was forgery.


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