November 16, 2018

As more books are banned in Kuwait, activists rise up


Another Kuwait International Book Fair, another controversy. Now in its 43rd year, it is one of the most important book fairs in the Middle East. This year, running until 24th November, 505 publishers from 26 countries and regions are participating and more than 87,000 publications will be displayed.

Some books, however, are markedly absent. Search and search, yet you will not find a copy of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, for example, at the fair or on sale in the country. It is one of nearly 1,000 books which have recently been banned by the Kuwaiti authorities in advance of the fair. They are abiding by the 2006 law on press and publications, which blacklists literature, on threat of punishment, which insults Islam or Kuwait’s judiciary, threatens national security, “inciting unrest” and committing “immoral” acts.

Back in 2010, 25 of 25,000 books planned to be exhibited at the fair were banned. The National’s James Calderwood reported at the time that about 150 Kuwaitis protested over the decision. Fast forward to 2018 and the total number of banned books exceeds over 4,000, including enduring classics such as Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.

Many people used social media to express their dismay at the censorship and activists took to the streets on 1st September and again two weeks later, to protest ahead of the book fair. The Kuwait Times interviewed some of these protesters, including Adnan Al-Abaar, Zahra Al-Qattan and Eman Al-Salam, asking them ‘what does this ban symbolize?’ They responded:

Abaar: In the simplest sense, it symbolizes tyranny. If someone bans any book without providing sufficient evidence to justify it, and at least without a discussion through which we can argue against these reasons, then they are basically telling us that the bans are arbitrary and capricious.
Qattan: For me, it symbolizes totalitarianism. Kuwait is a democratic country according to the constitution.
Salam: Restriction of ideas and freedoms. I am advocating age restrictions when buying books.”

This is coming from one of the most liberal countries in the Middle East: one which is semi-democratic with part of its parliament elected. However, just as right-wing political ideals are being embraced by discontented citizens around the globe, so Kuwait has seen religious conservatives and tribal leaders gaining ground in parliament. This hasn’t stopped the organisation of an online petition which is close to reaching its goal of 7,500 signatures. Under the title ‘No to Banning Books in Kuwait’ it poignantly declares:

“Literature is not something we just enjoy reading, it is essential to propagate our ideas for future generations. And without it, the next generations will suffer heavily. We want to stop the people responsible from further encroaching on our freedoms, and we want them to lift the suppression on the books banned now, and forever after.”

Let’s hope the voices of the people are heard.




Nikki Griffiths is the managing director of Melville House UK.