July 9, 2012

Erotica and the state of publishing in Yemen


It’s not just Fifty Shades of Grey: it seems that erotic literature is having a moment in Yemen, too. The Yemen Observer reports that street-side booksellers in Tahrir Square are doing a roaring trade in books on three topics: religion, sorcery, and sex. Adel Al-Sharjabi, a university professor, gave a revealing quote:

People are willing to read books related to sex because they are tired of reading about politics. It is like they’re trying to escape their sad and dull reality by reading these subjects. The Yemeni culture institutions don’t perform their duty promoting a responsible and respectful culture. People are left to read “dumb” books instead of reading about complicated political issues. This led to low scientific and cultural levels in the Yemeni people and therefore to negative effects in the society.

‘Responsible and respectful’ is a reminder that this is a country with a history of book banning. And Al-Sharjabi has a point about the lack of appealing reading matter: back in 2007 the same newspaper reported on a symposium held at the Sana’a International Book Fair about illiteracy, low reading rates, and the lack of a real publishing industry:

The rate of reading in the Arab world is up to a quarter of a page per person per year, according to the Arab Human Development Report, issued by UN four  years ago. This is compared with 12 books read by every person annually in the United States and seven books in Israel, stated the Report.

The shortage of reading, and subsequently the shortage of publishing, is damaging the Middle East’s development.

Faris al-Saqqaf, head of General Authority for Books addressed scientific research saying that there is no comparison between what developed countries and the Arab countries, especially Yemen, spend on scientific research in this vital field. “Developed countries allocate very high budgets to such fields, while in Yemen they are very low,” he said.

With the country in its current turmoil, investment in culture is far from the top of anyone’s agenda, but evidently the country is already feeling the effects of this continued under-investment, and that’s only going to get worse. The saddest thing about the article on erotica appears almost as an aside:

The books that abound in the sidewalks of al-Tahrir Square in Sana’a are the remnants of libraries, which were forced to sell due to difficult times in business, said Basam Mohammed Ali, a book seller.


Ellie Robins is an editor at Melville House. Previously, she was managing editor of Hesperus Press.