Muscat International Book Fair
In late February every year the Omani capital, Muscat, hosts an international book fair. According to the Minister of Information, Dr Abdul Moneim al-Hassani, “no book will be banned in the era of the information revolution”. Yet every year the Muscat Book Fair does ban certain books, either because of their content or because of who wrote them.
In 2017, the book fair’s management team banned several books from being exhibited or sold, including:
– Awar al-Lahb (The Burning Flame), a collection of political articles by the writer Zahran al-Saremi;
– Lak La Walaa’ (For You No Loyalty), a collection of poetry by Ahmed al-Araimi, an Omani writer living in the UK; and
– Oman: Tahaddiyat al-Hader wa Ma’alat al-Mustaqbal (Oman: Present Challenges and Future Outcomes), political articles and interviews by the online journal Mowatin, whose website was also blocked by the Omani authorities in 2017.
Unfortunately there was no public condemnation of this act of censorship in Oman, either from individual intellectuals or from the Writers and Literary Association; and the book fair’s organisers refused to comment or give any reasons for banning the books. With the new Omani Penal Code now in place, the Omani Centre for Human Rights expects even more books to be banned, and especially any that discuss Islamic history or the history of Islamic sects.
The banning of certain titles, or books by certain authors, has led some publishing houses to stop publishing work by those authors. They have received threats suggesting that they would be unlikely to be allowed to take part in any future book fairs or to distribute any of their books.
There is a long list of books that have been banned from previous editions of the Muscat International Book Fair, including:
– Al-Wakhz (The Prick), a novel by Hussein al-Abri;
– Mowsu’at Oman: Al-Watha’iq as-Sirriya (The Encyclopaedia of Oman: The Secret Documents), by researcher Mohammed bin Abdullah bin Hamad al-Harthi;
– Qira’a Manhajiya lil-Islam (A Systematic Reading of Islam), by Kamel al-Najjar;
– Al-Islam wad-Dawla (Islam and the Stat)e, by Kamel al-Najjar;
– Burhan al-‘Asl (The Proof of the Honey), a novel by Salwa al-Naimi;
– Al-Nusus al-Muharrama (The Forbidden Texts), the classic poetry of Abu Nawas;
– Lil-Rashidin Faqat (For Adults Only), by Lebanese poet Yehia Jaber;
– Hadd al-Shouf (The Extent of Vision), a book of short stories by Omani writer Salim Al Towaih;
– Ab’ad Min Zanjabar (Beyond Zanzibar), an anthology of poems by Omani poet Mohammed al-Harthi;
– Hamlat al-Tansir fi Oman wal-Alaqat al-Mu’asira bayn al-Nasraniya wal-Islam (Christianisation Campaigns in Oman and the Contemporary Relationship Between Christianity and Islam), by historian Suleiman al-Hussaini;
– Mufakharat al-Jawari wal-Ghalman (The Boasting Match of the Serving Girls and Boys), by the mediaeval scholar Al-Jahiz;
– Ahwal al-Qaba’il Eshyat al-Inqilab al-Inglizi fi Salalah (The Tribal Situation on the Eve of the English Coup in Salalah), by Omani writer Ahmed al-Zubaidi;
– Al-Athar al-Shi’riya li-Abi Muslim al-Bahlani (The Poetic Legacy of Abu Muslim al-Bahlani), a study by Omani poet Mohammed al-Harthi;
– Youm Nafadhat Khazina al-Ghubar min Manamatiha (When Khazina Shook the Dust from Her Nightgown) and Tuyur Baida, Tuyur Sawda (White Birds, Black Birds), two collections of short stories by Omani writer and broadcaster Mohammed al-Yahyai;
– Mahzalat al-Aql al-Bashari (The Farce of the Human Mind), by Ali al-Wardi; and
– Muhammad, the Personality, a study by Iraqi poet Ma’ruf al-Rusafi.
The approach taken by official bodies dealing with culture and books in Oman is to enter into contracts with publishing houses as a way of putting pressure on them not to publish books by opponents of the government. This has led to virtual silence on the part of publishers, and a tacit agreement not to publish books by some writers (claiming, by way of excuse, to have busy publishing schedules for long periods ahead), or even to distribute books by authors they have published in previous years.
Meanwhile, the total absence of any kind of public condemnation of this censorship has sown fear in the hearts of many writers and led them to abandon plans to publish books they were intending to publish. The security services have been harassing not only publishing houses but also authors themselves. The academic writer Mansour bin Nasser al-Mahrazi, for example, was jailed in May 2017 for three years. In 2014 the security services seized his book Al-Dawla wal-Mujtama fi Oman (State and Society in Oman), and in 2016 they seized his book Oman fi Murabba al-Fasad was-Siyassa wat-Tanmiya wat-Takhalluf: Al-Kashf ‘an al-Waqa’i wa Naqd al-Musallamat (Oman in the Square of Corruption and Politics, Development and Underdevelopment: Disclosure of Facts and Criticism of Axioms).
The Omani Centre for Human Rights does not believe that the continued absence of any collective condemnation by Omani writers of the government’s repressive practices will protect them for very long from being interrogated and thrown in prison. The government is continuing its campaign of harassment, and the absence of any vocal opposition simply enables it to carry on and pursue every independent-minded writer, every piece of free creative work, and every scholar who wants to speak the truth with integrity, using soundly based critical methods.
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