I am in the Middle East for some research, and specifically in Qatar, where I lived a few years ago. With some time this morning because of a cancelled appointment, I walked over to the country’s major annual book fair. Despite taking place in a massive space and including approximately 100,000 book titles, Doha’s fair is hardly the largest international book exhibition in the Arab world, which takes place in Cairo each February. Yet, the Doha fair represents some problems and prospects for book culture in Arab societies today.
This was the first major book fair I attended that was sponsored by a Middle Eastern government, and I was impressed with both its organization and attendance. Even though it was a work day morning, many Qatari men and women roamed the vast space of Qatar’s Exhibition Center; busloads of school children were present as well. Given that Qataris generally do not lack for financial means, consumption was vigorous, with most people carrying large bags of books. The US, French and Japanese Embassies all sponsored booths with prominent books from their countries, and I was amused to see a booth from US-based Scholastic Publishers, full of some of the same early reader and kids’ pop culture titles that I’ve seen at my daughter’s elementary school book fair in Amherst, MA.
However, the vast majority of booths had Arabic books only; the exhibition was most certainly meant to be patronized by natives and other resident Arabic-speakers. This is actually a little unusual among public events in Qatar’s highly global society, where natives form a mere 5-10% of total residents. The booths displaying Arabic materials were divided roughly as follows — ¼ kids’ books and toys, ½ books on Islam, including many Qur’an’s and classic or modern works of Islamic interpretation, and ¼ more secular books, mostly on topics of practical education, like business, computers, medicine and foreign language. Only a few stalls were devoted to Arab fiction, and only one or two covered politics or history.
In short, the major book fair action and glossiest titles were religious, while non-religious works were by and large meant to teach something to children or adults that was useful, rather than intellectually stimulating. I saw a few biographies, general works on Gulf countries, and translations of interesting Western social science, as well as deliberately provocative work about the US, Israel and Jews, including both contemporary diatribes and translated “classics” like Hitler’s Mein Kampf. For an interdisciplinary scholar like me, there was very little original work that I wanted to pick up and read.
What does my morning stroll suggest about literary culture in the contemporary Arab Middle East and North Africa?
First, events like the steady growth of the Doha Book Fair are another indicator of the increasing reality of Gulf countries’ intent to use their oil-based economic might to become the intellectual center of the Arab world. Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi also have major book fairs, with the latter aspiring to supplant Cairo as the most significant annual event centered around books in Arabic.
Second, Islamic values and ideas remain central in contemporary Arab life. Books on Islam were the core of the Doha book fair, and were the center of most of the purchases, as well as free literature distribution, in some cases.
Third, directly following from the above, and most important, as others suggest, it is difficult to publish Arabic books on original and controversial topics, particularly well-crafted or well-documented arguments on contemporary problems. Such books exist, and I have seen them in bookstores in diverse Arab societies. However, what we would think of as interesting scholarly and general-interest humanities and social science books are few and far between in Arabic, even at a large national fair.
The reasons for the above are numerous, and I want to be clear that they do not particularly stem from broad cultural characteristics or people’s preferences. Rather, a variety of structural issues make sense of the dearth of contemporary vibrant secular works in one of the most elegant and historically-significant literary languages. To be sure, some of the explanation lies in socioeconomic factors such as illiteracy, particularly among women, and the relative poverty of some of the Arab societies most associated historically with cultural development, such as Egypt and Morocco.
Yet most of the issue is political, as in the reluctance of government officials in some countries, such as Egypt, to allow secular books in Arabic that might be deemed critical. As a result, books in Arabic with a contemporary message that is potentially controversial frequently don’t get exhibited, making it very hard for them to find a public audience. Of course, this provides massive disincentives for intellectuals to work on such studies. This is true for Arab fiction that takes on controversial themes, although there is also evidence that such work can beat the odds and not only get published, but achieve good sales also.
Indeed, with the explosion in recent years of regional media and blogs that provide more consistent and critical scrutiny of contemporary governments in the Arab world, the road may be paved for reduced obstacles and, possibly, greater readership for more interesting, innovative books. Certainly one of the things that keeps me coming back to Qatar, and the Gulf more generally, is the recent proliferation and growth of native and satellite American university programs based on an explicitly critical, liberal arts model. In the past few years of involvement in some of these programs, it’s been wonderful for me to see Arab students in Doha, Dubai and elsewhere take their own deep questions seriously and demand suitable reading material that responds to these questions. Despite financial crises in my own society’s publishing industry, it’s easy for me to find lots of good books in English to nurture my students’ intellectual needs, even on my new compact electronic book reader. As I witness the proliferation of events celebrating diverse media, both new and old, throughout the Arab world, I have reason to hope that emerging young book consumers whom I know will push future versions of the book fair I attended today to represent a much more historically authentic view of the contentious and stimulating nature of Arabic literary culture.