Kuwait activists combat rise in banning of books

Kuwait City (AFP) –


In 2014, the Kuwaiti press hailed Gabriel Garcia Marquez as a literary "giant". But since his death, the Colombian writer and a slew of others have been banned as censorship takes root in the Gulf state.

More than 4,000 books have been blacklisted by Kuwait's information ministry over the past five years, according to local media reports, including Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" and Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame".

Dozens of writers and activists have taken to the streets -- on September 1 and again two weeks later -- to protest ahead of Kuwait's annual book fair in mid-November.

Kuwaiti novelist Mays al-Othman is among the blacklisted writers, following the 2015 publication of her novel "The Wart," the story of a woman raped during the 1990-1991 Iraqi occupation of the emirate.

"Censoring a book reflects a profound ignorance... and cruelty," Othman told AFP. "And unfortunately it's happening more and more."

- Literary 'immorality' -

All titles on show at Kuwait's international book fair will be screened in advance by a censorship committee.

The committee works under a 2006 law on "press and publications", which outlines a string of punishable offences for publishers of both literature and journalism.

On the list: insulting Islam or Kuwait's judiciary, threatening national security, "inciting unrest" and committing "immoral" acts.

Mohammed al-Awash, a senior information ministry official, defended the censorship committee, which includes academics not affiliated with the ministry.

"Prohibition is an exception. Permission is the rule," Awash told AFP.

But activists fear censorship floodgates are opening in a country once known for a relatively free press and that ranks as the only Gulf state with elected legislators.

Conservatives and tribal leaders have become dominant in parliament, reflecting the changing mood in society.

"The idea of content that could contradict good or moral behaviour is grounds for a ban -- and it's an extremely vague phrase," said Talal al-Ramidhi, secretary general of the Kuwaiti Writers' Union.

- 'Drugs in my house' -

Kuwait was a publishing hub in the 1970s and 1980s, home to the high-brow, pan-Arab cultural journal "Al-Arabi" and a string of popular scientific and literary books.

While no one has yet been prosecuted for selling banned books, according to Ramidhi, activists are turning to social media to combat what one termed the "ridiculous" increase in the banning of books.

"Ignorance is the only reason for censorship," writer Bouthaina al-Issa tweeted this month.

"I have drugs in my house," another activist tweeted alongside a picture of a pile of forbidden books.

Writer Aquil Yussef Aidan, two of whose books are banned, points to the "influence of religious circles on cultural institutions".

"Books are sometimes banned over a single word, a single image, and that only harms Kuwait's image," Aidan said.