By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief
The 3rd Arab Publishers Conference, organized by the Arab Publishers Association (APA) and Emirates Publishers Association (EPA), took place at the Al Jawaher Reception and Convention Centre in Sharjah, UAE — just prior to the opening of this year’s Sharjah International Book Fair.
This year’s theme was “Publishing Industry: Prospects and Challenges in the Digital Age,” and brought together a wide variety of international experts to address the gathering.
One of the questions that often arises, at least in the minds of overseas visitors to the Middle East, is what is the reality behind pronouncements of a publisher’s “freedom to publish” in the Arab World? Frequently, there is open acknowledgement of publishers having books adulterated or censored. And often controversial titles are pulled, banned or otherwise dismissed from international book fairs in the region. This, I have seen firsthand. It does happen, whether organizers acknowledge it or not. Sometimes it is handled with grace — other times, less so.
Of course, some conflict is inevitable: religion, politics and freedom of expression often prove uncomfortable bedfellows, especially when so many disparate and diverse voices are mixed together at book fairs (which is the whole point, actually). To wit: the year the Georgian collective stand was situated adjacent to that of Russia at the Frankfurt Book Fair, just weeks after Moscow had sent bombers over Tbilisi. (The Georgians found an ingenious solution, protesting throughout the Fair by “bombing” the Russian stand with paper airplanes). Or the frequent complaints by Israeli publishers of anti-semitic books present at Frankfurt at the stands of Middle Eastern publishers; or the threats made by Chinese officials upon learning Uyghyr representatives would be present at the Fair in 2009 when China was Guest of Honor; or, the discomfit shown by Turkish president Abdullah Gül, in 2008 when Turkey was Guest of Honor, as he was forced to listen as Orhan Pamuk delivered a fiery denunciation of the Turkish government’s oppression of writers and free speech.
This year at Frankfurt, politics and religion once again proved a factor, as the Iranian government pulled support for Iranian publishers attending the fair to protest Frankfurt’s choice of Salman Rushdie to address the opening press conference — and this in a year when Indonesia, the country that is home to the largest population of Muslims in the world, was Guest of Honor.
Two of the most divisive nations featured at European and North American book fairs are, inevitably, China and Saudi Arabia. China routinely draws criticism and protests whenever it appears as the Guest of Honor at a book fair: be it Frankfurt, London, or the most recent BookExpo America. And in 2011, Saudi Arabia drew criticism from the Czech media for near total lack of literary content when the country served as Guest of Honor at the Prague World Book Fair.
Last month, just as the Frankfurt Book Fair was convened, Reuters reported that the Saudi Arabian government called on the Czech ambassador to protest a new translation into Czech of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses. Citing a source in the Saudi foreign ministry, Reuters reports that the ambassador was informed that “the book insulted both Islam and Muslims and asked him to try and halt its publication.” Naturally, the effort came to naught: the Czech’s, if anyone, are likely to ignore such entreaties — just ask the ghost of their late President Václav Havel.
Coincidentally, this year in Frankfurt was also the occasion when the International Publishers Association took a vote on whether or not to admit both China and Saudi Arabia a members. On the day of the vote Publishing Perspectives published an open letter by Lars Grahn (Chair, IPA Freedom to Publish Committee 2002-2006 and MD of Natur och Kultur Publishers 1989-2005). Alexis Krikorian (ex-Director, Freedom to Publish, IPA from 2006-2013) and Ragıp Zarakolu (the 2008 IPA Freedom to Publish Prize Recipient and a Nobel Peace Prize Nominee) urging the IPA members to take great care in casting their votes. The letter argued that due to the record of human rights violations and other constraints of personal freedoms within the two nations, electing China and Saudi Arabia to IPA membership “would undoubtedly betray this long-matured legacy [of supporting the freedom to publish], bringing the IPA in reality one step closer to dropping its human rights mandate.”
After the vote was held, the IPA members saw fit to accept the Publishers Association of China (PAC) and the Saudi Publishers Association (SPA). It was, whether you agree with or not, a vote that extended the two countries the benefit of doubt. Maybe it was a pragmatic business decision. Maybe it was a vote to defy cynicism in the hope that the IPA, by working with these two groups as members, can foment a culture of change in their respective countries. Likely it was some combination of both.
Perhaps as a sign of their new status, the Saudi Publishers Association saw fit to deliver to Publishing Perspectives the following letter that addresses the aforementioned government protest against the Czech edition of The Satanic Verses, reprinted below in full. In it, the SPA emphasizes that the politics of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia are distinct from their role as representatives of the publishing industry and that they are an independent, professional, non-governmental organization.
Subject: Reuters Press Release on Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Czech Ambassador
We, the Saudi Publishers Association are extremely happy about our recent accession to full membership in the International Publishers Association (IPA), which was voted on during the Frankfurt Book Fair 2015 week. As a result, it is important for the Saudi Publishers Association to highlight the role of The Saudi Publishers Association as an independent publishers association which works very hard to ensure the rights and freedoms of its publishers are preserved. As president of this association, it is my responsibility to clarify that the Saudi Publishers Association is an independent organization which does not involve itself in the political views of the Saudi Government.
With regards to Reuters’ press release in relation to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s comments to the Czech ambassador regarding Salman Rushdie’s translated books as stated herein http://mobile.reuters.com/article/idUSKCN0S31WF20151009; let it be acknowledged that the Saudi Publishers Association is working incessantly and continuously to ensure that as an independent association, its main prerogative remains to be ensuring the wellbeing of Saudi publishers and the preservation of their freedom of expression and freedom to publish and does not in any way interfere in the politics of the Saudi government.
We, The Saudi Publishers Association are a professional, non-governmental body and as an association we are continuously working to ensure that our publishers are well looked after. However, the press release by Reuters in relation the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Czech ambassador with regards to Salman Rushdie’s books is a matter of politics. As such, if it is the Kingdom’s view that books which criticize any religion are not to be published in Saudi, then that is a political view and not our view as a publishers association.
President of the Saudi Publishers Association
Vice President of the Arab Publishers Association
Ahmed Fahd Al-Hamdan
Speaking for myself, and I hope for the entire global Publishing Perspectives community, defending the freedom of expression is tantamount to the very mission of publishing. After all, what is publishing if not a literal expression of freedom?
Keeping politics and publishing independent from each other in Saudi Arabia is likely to be a daunting challenge. If the Saudi Publishers Association succeeds, that in itself will be a triumph.
We wish them success in their mission.