Thursday, March 17, 2005

For Arabs, New Lines in the Sand

From the Washington Post:

Each day she sits alone, scribbling thoughts on scraps of paper. She stuffs them in a bottle given to her years earlier by her grandmother, who said it should serve as a place for private feelings that Arab society would not tolerate from a woman if uttered aloud.

The bottle fills, the woman ages. The life it holds on a million pieces of paper remains undiscovered, stifled and secret.

The story is the work of Yousef Mohaimeed, a Saudi author, who, like many in a new generation of rising fiction writers here, is taking on some of the most divisive subjects in the Arab world.

The work is drawing attention, here and abroad.

Two months ago, a group of men entered a bookstore on one of the capital's broad avenues, lined with designer boutiques and glass-and-steel shopping malls. They seized copies of "The Bottle," which includes an unflattering portrayal of an Islamic militant, after it had sold 500 copies in just three days, a feverish pace in the kingdom. Although the government had approved the book for sale, the men warned the shop not to carry it again.

"It's not only political pressure that can hurt you but also pressure that comes from within this society," said Mohaimeed, 40, the culture editor of Yamama, a literary magazine published here.
"The difference between the new Saudi novelists and the old ones are the places they pick to write about. The old ones wrote about the outside, but I feel I should be writing about my place, my people, our suffering."

Pioneered two decades ago by men whose work is banned here, a genre of politically charged fiction in Saudi Arabia is now being produced by more writers and in greater quantity than ever before, according to academics and publishers increasingly interested in the work. It marks an artistic advance in a society in which writers have long confronted the deadening effect of state censorship and a milestone in a desert kingdom whose people were mostly illiterate a generation ago.

The writing reflects the rising discontent in the kingdom and across the Middle East, where young populations increasingly exposed to Western ideas are demanding more social and political freedom. By taking on the powerlessness of women, the tyranny of tribal society and the role of religion in the birthplace of Islam, the writing is slowly undermining the cultural conventions that have kept provocative fiction off book shelves here for years.

Much of the work, ranging from lyrical allegory to sparse realism, is prohibited from publication inside the kingdom as the ruling Saud family weighs the competing demands of a fledgling democratic-reform movement against those of a far larger population of conservative Muslims fearful of change. Banned books arrive smuggled in suitcases or from foreign publishing houses with the permission of capricious Saudi censors, whose red lines remain unwritten.

"They have to confront the system in an indirect way, yet still they can't get their work published here," said Salih Altoma, professor emeritus of Arabic and comparative literature at Indiana University, whose anthology "Modern Arabic Literature in Translation" is scheduled for publication in May. "But lately they have become more open, perhaps you could say more critical and candid, in reflecting on some very controversial issues."

A Muted Voice

The Arab world traditionally has been a wellspring of poetry, the literary form in which everything from social rules to history was recorded. Its prose, however, had never drawn much attention until the Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988. As if overnight, hundreds of other Arab writers came into international focus as a result.

But state censorship and small markets have hampered fiction publishing in the Arab world, where a book that sells 5,000 copies is considered a bestseller. The 2003 United Nations Arab Human Development report noted that although Arabs constitute 5 percent of the world's population, Arab countries produce just 1.1 percent of its books. In the past 50 years, fewer than 350 Arabic novels and short stories have been translated into English, meaning the enormous Western book market is largely unavailable to Arab writers.

In Saudi Arabia, where noted Arab fiction writers such as Abdelrahman Munif and Ghazi bin Abdelrahman Qusaybi emerged in the 1980s, the Ministry of Culture and Information is a strict censor on work submitted for publication. The process works this way: A Saudi publishing house presents a manuscript to the ministry, which assigns censors to review the work. The work is either approved, returned with passages or pages that must be removed before publication or rejected in its entirety.

There are no written rules on what censors will accept or reject. But writers and academics here say most work that criticizes monarchies, even fictional ones, is refused because it could be read as a critique of the Saud royal family. Altoma, the professor, had a nonfiction book published in Saudi Arabia after censors required him to edit quoted passages of fiction, written by other authors, that made reference to incompetent government by kings.

So most serious Saudi fiction writers turn to foreign publishers with their work, especially ones in Beirut and London. The Saudi government has no influence over books published abroad, except when it comes time to decide whether to allow them to be imported for sale inside the kingdom. Writers and academics here say the government is far more liberal in allowing books rejected for publication inside the kingdom to be sold here. The only reprisals against work that arrives that way come from freelancing conservative Islamists, like those who yanked Mohaimeed's "The Bottle" off the shelves, not from the government.

The reason is that the royal family, traditionally under intense pressure from the kingdom's conservative Sunni clergy, is most concerned about appearing to give its imprimatur to potentially controversial fiction by allowing its publication. But it is not necessarily averse to some of its more liberal content, academics say, as long as the books arrive from abroad. At the same time, customs agents mostly turn a blind eye to even those books banned from sale in the kingdom when they are brought in by the handful in suitcases, as many are.

Through the compromise, the Saud royal family is making a concession to a smaller but also influential segment of society: A highly educated, Westernized elite now demanding more freedoms. The contradiction is most apparent in the case of Qusaybi, a longtime Saudi ambassador to Great Britain who now serves as the minister of labor. His novels, including the celebrated "An Apartment Called Freedom," which relates an Arab student's coming-of-age in the West, are banned in the kingdom.

"The sensitivity of society has now been changed," said Abdulaziz Alsebail, a professor of modern literature at King Saud University who mentors many of the young writers. "A book that would not have been published 10 years ago is now being sold here without any problem."

Moving the Mountain

There was a tribe that lived on a mountain of ice, a place its leaders called the warmest in the world. Each evening tribal elders warned the people that those who left the mountain froze to death on the plains below. Yet each night some slipped away. Times changed. The ice began to melt, and soon a flood engulfed those afraid to leave. Years later a group of explorers discovered the remains of the civilization. Among the archaeologists were some of those who had managed to escape the mountain long ago.

"This is what's happening right now in this country," said Abdullah Saad Wesali, 36, a writer in the eastern city of Dammam, who wrote the short story summarized above."We are constantly told we are better than others, that we are special, and not only by our government," he says, drawing the comparison to the the tribe on the ice. "This will not last forever."

Wesali's father was an illiterate mechanic who learned how to fix American cars at the state oil company headquarters near Dammam. He died when Wesali was a boy, leaving him to choose which of the many strict rules governing Saudi society he would follow. In picking a wife, for example, he ignored conventions that require young Saudis to marry within tribes in conservative regions such as his. Instead, he chose his wife for the simple reason that he fell in love with her.

"I've never regretted a moment," said Wesali, a slight man with a thin mustache, careful and formal in his speech.

Wesali grew up reading Tolstoy, Turgenev and Hugo from his uncle's library. Although he began writing in high school, he works as an administrator in a public hospital, a typical job for authors in a society where writing rarely pays a living wage.

He frequently travels across a causeway that joins the Saudi mainland to the kingdom of Bahrain, where he sees Western movies and buys Qusaybi's novels, the closest place he can do so.

His 2003 collection of short stories titled "Sparks in the Time of Mud" survived Saudi censors and was published here. A second collection, called "Conception," is pending publication, but one story he is most proud of was rejected by state censors, most likely because it alludes to the travails of an authoritarian system. The story focuses on a tribe that makes a statue out of dates, which it plans to eat in times of need. But the more they worship the statue, the more alms the statue demands. One day, as the tribe begins to starve, the statue begins eating them.

Wesali continues to read the story at gatherings of the Dammam Literary Club, a state-funded association where writers read and review each other's work. In evening workshops, older writers tutor younger ones such as Wesali on ways to convey their often angry messages and still receive the approval of Saudi censors or permission for sale in the kingdom if published abroad.

"We are always told not to be direct," Wesali says, but at the same time not to be superficial.

"Don't think people are stupid. They will understand."

Literary culture here revolves around the clubs in each city, originally created as a way for the state to monitor and potentially guide the writing being produced. But the clubs have emerged as more freewheeling forums than that, and the government pays little attention to most of the seminars and workshops that take place in them. The clubs are also beginning to admit women, who, Altoma said, are among the "more assertive" writers now emerging in the kingdom.

Female Voices

The woman is waiting for her husband. She is alone, restless with worry, and "the cold marble floor sends chills through her" as she distracts herself with a thousand tasks. It is Wednesday night, the start of the Saudi weekend. She knows how the evening will end: Her husband drunk in a country where it is a flogging offense. She confronts him as he stumbles through the door. A slap cracks across her face. He is gone.

The relationship between the sexes has dominated Badrya Bisher's writing since high school. The theme of her story "Wednesday Night" is summarized above. She has always found material close at hand. Her mother, Hyaa, was wed to her father at the age of 13 in the southern village of Aflaj, where marriages are arranged and tribal custom rules. Hyaa twice tried to escape before she moved to Riyadh with her husband, who found work as a government driver.

"I never heard a word my whole life from my mother that she loved him or that she was satisfied," said Bisher, whose story is included in an English-language anthology of Saudi female writers called "Voices of Change," generally available outside of Saudi Arabia.

Influenced by Virginia Woolf, the Syrian-born Ghadah Samman and Hanan Sheikh of Lebanon, Bisher, 37, has published one slightly censored collection of short stories here and two others abroad. One critic called her Saudi Arabia's George Sand, after the French woman writer who often dressed in men's clothes. She does not veil her large dark eyes and subversive smile but does wear the cloaking black abaya. Her mother won't read her daughter's work.

"I always ask why women of my mother's generation didn't ask why there were these rules," Bisher said. "We're always fighting about this. They think if you think too much the devil is trying to confuse you."

Behind the Fiction

There was a woman who lived in Riyadh, married to a man who wanted a son. The first child she delivered was a daughter. So was the second, the third and the fourth. By then, the man had taken a second wife, then a third, and a fourth. The woman finally gave birth to a boy, whom she named Yousef. The man, however, had already left.

The son is Mohaimeed and the story is a true chapter of his life. His father lives with another woman now in his native village of Qassim, north of Riyadh. His mother lives with him.

Featured last summer in Banipal, the London-based magazine of modern Arab literature, Mohaimeed writes in a lush style that evokes a writer he cites as an influence, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. His fiction is populated with foundlings and eunuchs, slaves and thieves -- the outcasts of Arab society. The endings are rarely happy.

"Maybe outsiders can find magic in these novels because our society is strange to you," Mohaimeed said. "But Saudis do not find them that way. They know this is the truth."