KUWAIT — No book, it seems, is too substantive or too insignificant to be banned in Kuwait. Recent targets of the government’s literary censors include an encyclopedia with a picture of Michelangelo’s David and a Disney version of “The Little Mermaid.”
David had no fig leaf, and the mermaid, alas, wore half a bikini.
“There are no hijab-wearing mermaids,” said Shamayel al-Sharikh, a Kuwaiti women’s activist. “The powers that be thought her dress was promiscuous. It’s humiliating.”
Kuwaitis like to think of their country as an enclave of intellectual freedom in the conservative Persian Gulf, a haven that once welcomed exiled Arab writers. But that self-image is becoming harder to sustain.
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Responding to the demands of a growing conservative bloc in Parliament, the government is increasingly banning books.
In August, the government acknowledged that it had banned 4,390 books since 2014, hundreds of them this year, including many works of literature that had once been considered untouchable, setting off street demonstrations and online protests.
Sometimes the 12-member censors committee (six Arabic readers, six English readers) that rules on books for the Ministry of Information gives a reason: The anthology “Why We Write” was banned because its editor, Meredith Maran, had falsely accused her father of molestation.
In other cases, the justification is obscure, such as with “The Art of Reading,” by Damon Young. Maya Angelou is honored with a postage stamp in America, but her memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is forbidden in Kuwait.
Prize winners are not immune — in fact they seem to be frequent victims. “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, is banned because of a scene in which a wife sees her husband naked, as is “Children of Gebelawi,” by Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, the first Arabic-language writer to win the Nobel in literature.
If all that seems rather Orwellian, George Orwell’s “1984” is also banned, in at least one Arabic translation, though it is allowed in another.
Kuwaiti readers have struck back with a mix of brio and scornful mirth. Some posted photographs on Twitter and Facebook of piles of banned books they have in their home libraries.
Authors suggested that online delivery services from abroad could evade the ban, which applies mostly to bookstores and local publishers. “Now books are becoming like drugs,” said Hind Francis, an activist with a Kuwait anti-censorship group called Meem3. “You have to have your banned-book dealer.”
Activists and writers gathered to protest the book ban three times in September, most recently on Saturday, the last day of the international Banned Books Week. Kuwait is one of the few Gulf countries that allow public protests, although they are strictly controlled. The protests have been lightly attended, but any outdoor crowd has to brave temperatures that still reach 100 degrees.
“It’s a challenge, but we tell them we’ll keep it to only an hour,” said Fatima Matar, a law professor and a founder of the protest effort.
With the country’s book fair — the third largest in the Arab world, after Cairo and Beirut — scheduled in November, officials have pushed back. “There is no book banning in Kuwait,” read a recent statement by the Ministry of Information. “There is a book censorship committee that reviews all books.”
An assistant minister of information, Muhammad Abdul Mohsen al-Awash, elaborated. “In Kuwait, over the past five years only 4,300 books were banned out of 208,000 books — that means only 2 percent are banned and 98 percent are approved,” he said. “Some books are being banned in the U.S., Europe, Beirut and other countries, too.”
In the past 11 months, he said, 3,600 books were approved by censors, while 700 were banned.
Yet, he insisted, “since its inception, Kuwait has always been known for its sponsorship of literature and culture.”
It is a particularly sensitive issue because Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, has pushed to make his country a regional cultural hub. While theater, dance and music are under royal patronage and exempt from censorship, books are not.
“That cultural hub just cannot happen when you have a book massacre like this, all these books being banned,” said Bothyana Al-Essa, a Kuwaiti author whose book “Maps of Wandering” was banned. Kuwaiti censors banned the book over a child abuse scene set in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, she said, but the Saudis never banned the book in their country, where it was a best seller.
Bans have for the first time extended to many international books and reference books already on Kuwaiti shelves, at least in part because of parliamentary pressure, critics say.
“This year they’ve gone into the ridiculous,” said Sharikh. “Children’s stories and books by Kuwaiti authors.” Even works produced by the government’s own publishing house in the Public Council for Culture, Arts and Literature have been banned, such as a scientific study of hymens, according to Francis.
Kuwait’s history of literary freedom is, activists say, the reason book banning is so distressing to the intelligentsia. “Kuwait has had a significant amount of progress when it comes to civil liberties,” Sharikh said. “We are the trendsetters in the Gulf region and have been for many decades.”
The Kuwaiti Parliament is the most independent in the Gulf, but that has also become the problem, bibliophiles complain. In effect, “democracy has become the enemy of democracy,” Matar said. “They believe we should all think alike.”
Because Kuwait’s Parliament has the authority to call a vote of confidence on individual ministers, and has forced resignations, the ministers tread carefully, especially on explosive social issues.
Authors and their supporters say the Ministry of Information has responded to parliamentary pressure by giving the censors sweeping powers to ban books, even though the Kuwaiti constitution guarantees intellectual freedom.
Arwa Alwagayan, a Kuwaiti author, said her book “Be Well” was banned because of a passage that said the Islamic State was attracting teenagers “in the mosques.” The censors demanded she change that to “in some mosques,” and she refused.
For some local authors, having their books banned has created a sales opportunity. After Mohamed Ghazi’s book “Blue” was banned over a passage on Page 56, Ghazi, an Iraqi who writes in English and lives in Kuwait, used Twitter to invite readers to buy it to find out why. His sales more than doubled, he said.
Such defiance is rife. Many banned books are still on sale in bookstores in Kuwait; recently, at the country’s largest, the Jarir Bookstore in Shamiya, there were books on display by Márquez and Orwell, along with one not-very-risqué copy of Hans Christian Anderson’s bikini-clad mermaid.
But other outlets, mindful of heavy fines, are removing offending titles.
“It’s happening gradually, but slowly and surely books are disappearing,” Matar said. New books by Kuwaiti authors are especially vulnerable, because if banned they cannot be printed and distributed. Matar’s book of poetry was banned from sale when she refused to delete an offending line, she said.
“We don’t want to get to that stage where we go to our bookshops and only find cookbooks and books about Shariah law,” she said.
Underground banned-book dealers are already doing a brisk business serving literary scofflaws. Many use Instagram’s disappearing photo feature to display their wares, take orders and stay a step ahead of the law, according to one young author who said he supplements his income that way.
At a bookstore in Kuwait City, the proprietor showed off a secret cupboard full of contraband books behind the cash register and a basement storeroom with even more. “It’s a cliché that book banning helps book sales,” she said. “As a bookseller, I can tell you I would much rather have the books out on display.”
The bookseller did have a banned copy of “Zorba the Greek” on display, discretely, since it could result in a minimum fine of about $1,650 if Ministry of Information inspectors saw it. She said she was not too worried. “You can always spot them when they come in,” she said. “You can tell they’re not readers.”