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“I am selling them from the trunk of my car, like a bootlegger,” said Kuwaiti writer Nejoud al-Yagout about copies of her latest book, Motorbikes and Camels. The book, which was published in September 2018, touches upon sensitive subjects such as homosexuality, sex before marriage and drinking. These things are no longer uncommon in Kuwait but are not discussed, let alone written about.
Al-Yagout’s book is not banned; it is simply not available, at least not in bookshops. The author did not even try to get a license, a requirement to market a book publicly. “I knew that just the first few pages would put me on the black list,” she said. So now she is selling it from the boot of her car. “I feel like a drug dealer sometimes.”
Over the past five years, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information has banned more than 4,300 books. Although censorship is public knowledge, the criteria have remained a mystery. That was until Khaled al-Shatti, a member of the National Assembly, asked the ministry to provide him with information. After going through the extensive materials, he found that censorship was applied arbitrarily and often mistakenly.
Sex, certain religions and politics are a no-go: that much is clear. What falls within these categories is not. Novels containing characters who believe in magic are on the list (Harry Potter), as are books using the words ‘angels’, ‘Adam’, ‘Eve’ or ‘Satan’. Disney’s The Little Mermaid is on the list because the mermaid is wearing a bikini top, which perhaps says more about the censor than the mermaid.
The issue was picked up by the international media, where Kuwaiti liberals could freely vent their outrage. It also caused a Twitter storm: hundreds of pictures were posted of people showing forbidden books on their bookshelves at home, books in chains and excerpts of some of the ministry’s documents. Writer Layla al-Ammar called the censorship a sign of “fear and ignorance” and the ministry’s actions “intellectual fascism”. Small demonstrations took place in front of the National Assembly building.
Inside the building, the demonstrators can count on support from (liberal) members of parliament like Ahmed al-Fadhl, who expressed his opinion on the National Assembly’s YouTube channel and Twitter: “What is this frivolous manner of violating the Constitution, which guarantees respect for religions?”
But even those who support the censors could ask themselves: does censorship actually work in Kuwait in 2018? The fact that al-Yagout is able to sell her book from the boot of her car suggests not. What is unavailable in bookshops can also be ordered from Amazon.com. This is how al-Yagout got her own book – which was printed in the United States – into the country. Customs does not seem to be overzealous about confiscating books. Even if it were, a Kindle version can be downloaded from the internet.
In fact, censorship may actually work in favour of censored books. “Some friends encouraged me to make sure that my book was on the list, because my sales would rocket,” said al-Yagout. She noted that people love banned books, and writers sometimes capitalize on it. She chose not to take that road because, to her, it felt like it would no longer be about the book but about the forbidden-fruit aspect of it.
It should be pointed out that it is not always the censor who actively looks for material to ban. There is a fair amount of self-censorship around and some – religiously oriented – schools sent titles to the censor, with the request to ban them countrywide. This, however, did not gain much traction after more liberal schools challenged the request.
In addition, despite the rather random – and in the eyes of many, ridiculous – list of banned books, there will be no book burnings, nor will anyone be prosecuted for reading The Little Mermaid to their children. It is equally unlikely that those found with a copy of Harry Potter in their suitcase will be arrested at the airport. Laws in Kuwait are often intended to appease the Islamic segment of society, which feels that not enough is being done to support its conservative agendas.
However, the principle of a government deciding what its citizens can and cannot read remains firm. It is a thorn in the side of intellectuals and liberals, not least because Kuwait used to be a regional haven, where exiled writers and artists were welcomed and thrived. The country still hosts a yearly book fair, the third largest in the Arab world after Beirut and Cairo.
It remains to be seen how many scantily dressed cartoon characters will end up in the booths of that book fair, due to be held in November. More generally, it remains to be seen where Kuwait is going with its censorship, and how strong the influence of religious circles will remain on the country’s cultural life. Al-Yagout is optimistic that things will soon change for the better. “Their time is up. Nothing should be censored anymore, but if they want to censor something, let them censor terrorist booklets by some crazy clerics.”