Saudi Arabia: New bylaws for literary clubs

The new bylaws stipulate that a literary club should be licensed by the ministry and should have the primary goal of promoting Arabic literary and cultural activities with a stress on highlighting cultural and literary production and history in the region where the club is working in particular and of the Kingdom in general.

The literary salon is a centuries old phenomenon in Arab culture. The Arab literary salon has gotten less media attention than the ”Golden Age” of  Arab science.

During the twentieth century literary clubs flourished throughout the Arab world. In Saudi Arabia literary clubs are still popular, maybe so popular that the government has decided they need to exercise some means of control over this social phenomenon as well as websites, forums and blogs. So now there are new bylaws to help the government to exert this control. Amongst other rules they have to be licensed by the Ministry of Culture. Amongst the other requirements is the stated goal of promoting Arabic literary and cultural activities, membership has to be governed, leaders have to be voted for, and differentiating requirements for ”residency” and ”professional” members. Also a membership fee has to be paid, this is set at 300 riyals. ($80,-)

But, (as written by David E Miller in The Media Line),

If the muse isn’t free in Saudi Arabia, it is paid for. Already heavily financed by the government, King Abdullah bin Abdulaziz in February allocated an additional 160 million riyals ($43 million) for the clubs as part of a package of handouts he announced after returning from extended hospitalization in the US.
Human rights advocates say that the money and the rules are two sides of the same coin –a policy of ensuring that no dissident arises in the kingdom and that no group is ever far from the watchful eye or deep pockets. While Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf kingdoms have largely avoided the wave of democratic protests gripping the Middle East, they have ensured quiet with generous subsidies and job creation programs while imposing new restrictions.

In late April, Saudi Arabia introduced new amendments to its media law. The amendments criminalize publishing materials that harm the Grand Mufti, members of the religious establishment and government officials. The fine for offenders was raised 10-fold from 50.000 riyals to 500.000.

Fawzia Al Bakr, an education professor at King Saud University in Riyadh, told Media Line:

The risk of political opposition spreading was small since the clubs are attended mostly by small crowds of intellectual elites and the government closely monitors their activities.
These meetings are usually allowed to go ahead because authorities are given the program in advance and know exactly what is going to be said.
Everything here is dependent on the government, Its the government which finances the activities, so we need to obey the rules.
Fawzia Al Bakr said that clubs weren’t limited to literature, but discussed such different topics as philosophy and poetry.

Poetry reading in Jasur Bookstore in Jeddah

Book clubs are one of the very few social ventures where men and women can discuss in a ”mingled” group. Since last year women are officially allowed to join literary clubs, and Culture Minister Abdul Aziz Khoja told Okaz daily that he didn’t object to women heading the clubs.

This is of course highly controversial in Saudi Arabia. Not only did the Religious police harass the visitors and started a huge row at this year’s Riyadh Book fair, but Al-Jouf literary club was actually firebombed last year! It was already damaged the year before, also by fire, after Saudi poetess Halima Muzafar spoke there.

A statement on the club’s website said that the head of the club Ibrahim Al-Humaid had received a threatening text message that read: “Do you know that killing you is Halal? God willing, in a few hours you will be killed just like your neighbor Hamoud and his friends.”
The text was thought to refer to Col. Hamoud Ali Al-Rabeea, director of Aziziya police station in Sakaka, Al-Jouf province, who was shot dead by an unidentified gunman eight years ago while he was returning home from work.

According to Christoph Wilcke, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, who specializes in Saudi Arabia, in the past Saudi religious police also harassed clubs which opened their doors to women in other cities, such as Taif.
According to Wilcke the Culture Ministry is the ”main censor” of the government. ”When literary clubs host controversial writers, for instance, the police clamps down on them.”
Wilcke told Media Line: ”Saudi Arabia has no form of civil society, everything is government controlled. There’s no law that governs NGO’s (non-government organizations), and each entity functions under a law created uniquely for it.”


Further reading:

Asharq Alawsat Newspaper (English): Literary salons

Arab News: Bylaws for literary clubs approved

The Media Line: Saudi Literary Clubs Told to Do Business by the Book

Samer M Ali: Arabic literary salons in the middle ages

Arabic literature blog with very interesting posts: Arabic Literature (in English)

Arab News: Attack on literary club sparks fears over cultural freedom


7 Responses

  1. Leave it to Saudi to such all the fun out of reading!

  2. The more you learn about saudi Arabia, the more it seems somebody is trying to recreate literary fantasies from Kafka or ”1984” for real….

  3. This is so depressing. It’s almost like they are deliberately setting the stage to insure there is an uprising in a few years.

  4. men and women canmingle in bookclubs !!!
    I’m suprised young men are not flooding these clubs 🙂 what’s stopping them?

  5. They would also have to read books….

  6. Good one, Aafke-Art!

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