In recent years, the Gulf States have made a real effort to attract major Western cultural institutions–the Louvre, NYU, the Sorbonne– and become a player on the world cultural stage. With a rich written tradition of their own, many Arab countries are focusing on book fairs as a way to attract the literati and rival the flagship Eurocentric book fairs of London, Frankfurt and Jerusalem. But even in the relatively liberal Gulf States, there have been some problems. This year’s inaugural Dubai fair hit a roadblock when the conference organizer–Isobel Abuhoul, an independent bookseller in Dubai–disinvited British author Geraldine Bedell because her novel The Gulf Between Us has homosexual characters. Harpyness hero Margaret Atwood withdrew from the fair in protest.
But the plot thickens this week in Saudi Arabia, where this week two male novelists were detained for approaching a female novelist to ask for her autograph at the Riyadh Book Fair. They were accused of violating Saudi law prohibit social mingling of unmarried males and females:
According to the Saudi daily newspaper Al-Watan, Abdu Khal and Abdullah Thabet approached female writer Halima Muzfar when they were stopped by police.
Both novelists, who were held for questioning but not charged with a crime, are demanding an apology from the conservative Muslim kingdom’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice.
Really, Saudi Arabia? Seriously? I mean, we know you’re misogynist as hell, and you’re busy patting yourself on the back for allowing women writers at all, so we know not to hope for too much. We don’t expect you to be like freewheeling Abu Dhabi, where they’ve been running a perfectly civil and ethnically integrated book fair for 19 years now. But if you’re serious about joining the rest of us in eighteenth nineteenth twentieth twenty-first century culture, you need to cut this shit out.