By Craig Hawes
From the moment the biggest book shop in the United Arab Emirates told me they planned to stock my short story collection, The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim, I knew it would serve as a litmus test of this country’s literary tolerance. The book comprises thirteen stories set in the emirate of Dubai, where I live with my wife and baby, told from a variety of expatriate perspectives. The whole gamut of Dubai society is represented – from abused Filipina maids to decadent European party-goers to a young gay couple living as normal a life as possible in a country where homosexuality is strictly illegal.
These are undoubtedly controversial subjects in the UAE, as they are anywhere else in the Middle East, but I had reason to hope the National Media Council (i.e. the censorship department) had adopted a more lenient approach since I first arrived here in 2003. Back then you would buy, for example, expensive coffee-table art books on the Renaissance period only to find that the authorities had scribbled over the nipples of Botticelli’s angels with a black magic marker. Also, the low volume of books coming into the country at the time probably meant it was easier to monitor them, and so novelists like Henry Miller and Anais Nin stood no chance of making it to the shelves.
Things are a little more enlightened these days and it would require a gargantuan team of readers to check every title that gets sold. I was pleasantly surprised, for instance, to see Fifty Shades of Grey on the shelves when it was released a couple of years ago. It gave me a glimmer of hope that The Witch Doctor would get a pass, or at least sneak past the censors without any fuss.
Sadly, it hasn’t. A couple of months ago I was told by the book shop who had placed a large order for my book — the Dubai branch of Japanese bookseller Kinokuniya — that every copy had been confiscated from their stock room by the NMC. A few weeks later, the books were returned to the shop, which has in turn repatriated them to the wholesaler in the UK. They won’t be returning to the UAE any time soon, although anyone who wants to read it can still download the Kindle version.
There has been no comment from the NMC on why the book has been banned and I’ve been told its better not to ask too many questions. Even if I did, things like this are dealt with in such an opaque way here that I doubt I’d get very far.
I’m guessing that the reason for the ban is “obscene” content. The title itself (which I’d probably change if I could go back in time) is controversial. Witchcraft is a tetchy subject in this Islamic state, with several practitioners of “black magic” prosecuted every year. These usually involve people selling to gullible victims potions that promise everything from help with fertility to great wealth. There are also, as mentioned above, stories in the collection about homosexuality, abused maids and a British soldier’s encounter with a prostitute. Although the newspapers here regularly report on all of these things, works of fiction seemingly have to play by a different set of rules, representing Dubai as some kind of futuristic utopia where nothing bad ever happens.
It’s obviously a frustrating situation. I live in Dubai and have done, apart from a three-year gap, for almost eleven years. I wrote the book partly because nothing of its kind existed. The precious few works of fiction set in Dubai so far have either been children’s books or ones written by local Arab authors. Joseph O’Neill’s new novel The Dog is set in Dubai, but among the rich elite. And O’Neill himself has said he only spent two weeks here doing research.
I don’t think there’s anything disrespectful in The Witch Doctor of Umm Suqeim. The few Emirati protagonists in the collection, especially, have been portrayed in a very positive and sympathetic way. There are certainly no slights on any religion, or criticism of any of the UAE’s ruling families, which is a definite no-no here. To any reader familiar with, say, Bukowski and Burroughs it would seem very tame indeed.
I suppose the ban doesn’t bode well for the short-term future of local literature – not the kind which is written by expatriates anyway – but I’m certain things will change eventually. Over the past four or five years the Emirates Literature festival, held annually in Dubai, has turned into the year’s biggest cultural event, hosting authors from around the world – some of them quite divisive, controversial figures. I’m seeing book clubs and author talks regularly cropping up across the city. A reading culture is definitely being incubated and people are going to get increasingly adventurous in their tastes
Still, my next book definitely isn’t going to be set in Dubai.