Boyd Tonkin: Stories from the shifting sands

The Week In Books

What do you call a monarchy in which a popular reformist politician-writer can enjoy the warm support of the ruling dynasty but still find some of his books banned from sale at home? There can be only one answer: the unpredictable Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The author in question, novelist and minister of labour Ghazi al-Gosaibi, is living proof that the gnarly contradictions that encumber questions of free expression in the Gulf may stretch right to the topmost branches of the tree of power. Not long ago, I heard about a minister in one Gulf state who told a publisher abroad that his wife, a serious researcher, had written a fine objective history of his country. It deserved to be published but, sadly, would have to be censored on home ground. Who would do the banning? Why, the uxorious minister himself, of course.

Last week, I took part in a debate on literary prizes at the Abu Dhabi book fair, just as the two chief contests hosted by the emirate - the International Prize for Arab Fiction (the "Arabic Booker") and the Sheikh Zayed Book Awards (the panel's organisers) – announced their winners for the year. A shrewd questioner asked me whether the overseas promotion of Arab writers rested too much on the recycling of exotic stereotypes: a good point in many cases, even if our venue - Abu Dhabi's hulking hangar of a national exhibition centre - feels marginally less exotic than a big-shed warehouse for flatpack furniture in Swindon.

In general, more and better translations of Arabic books – a process often kick-started by such prizes - will help to make their themes and people more familiar to readers in the wider world, and less dependent for their impact on predigested clichés. (A Jordanian novelist once told me what a struggle it had been to get doe-eyed veiled ladies off her jackets in the West.) So I'm delighted that the long-list for this year's Independent Foreign Fiction Prize showcases a broader band of Arab authors than ever before.

All the same, writers in several Arab territories still live amid shifting sands of surveillance and control. They work in a treacherous limbo of semi-freedom that unavoidably looks "exotic" to outside eyes. Take last week's intriguing "Arabic Booker" victor, Abdo Khal from the Kingdom itself. He won for his outspoken novel about the Saudi plutocracy and its ruinous effect on poor communities in Jeddah, Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles (a Koranic allusion to hell). Is Khal, who writes for the Saudi press but publishes his fiction in Beirut, banned in his homeland? He certainly thinks that his books are "unavailable" (to use that great Gulf euphemism), and said as much in Abu Dhabi. However, Saudi culture minister Abdul Aziz Khoja has now stepped up to express his nation's pride in Khal as "an ambassador for creativity".

In the big-spending Gulf states, as in more traditional Arab artistic hubs, the liberty of literature may or may not be a mirage. Local rules can change by the day; by the hour. High-profile prizes, a booming business for Arab arts, may also veer between bold picks and safety-first. In 2008 and 2009, the literature section in the Sheikh Zayed Awards (named for the late, iconic founder of the UAE) went to Libya's Ibrahim-al-Koni and Egypt's Gamal al-Ghitani: both big, and brave, beasts in Arabic fiction, and banner-carriers for quality and integrity. This time, an inoffensive critic took the cheque.

So it goes: the paths to cultural change here will never run as bullet-straight as a highway through the desert. But still they lead down twistily fascinating routes. For the Arab world's ever-stoical authors, fitful state interference and capricious patronage join rampant piracy, patchy distribution and scattered readerships among the literary plagues of Egypt – and of its neighbours too. Meanwhile, as Minister al-Gosaibi proves, the authorship of books good enough to ban might even turn out to be a smart career move.

P.S.Among the literary skills deployed by the late Michael Foot was an epoch-making talent for polemic. Written with Frank Owen and Peter Howard in a few brief days as Britain faced invasion in spring 1940, his Guilty Men – the classic indictment of Nazi Germany's appeasers – changed the terms of political discourse. Given what we now know of Cabinet wobbles about seeking a truce with Hitler after Dunkirk, perhaps it helped to change the course of the war too. But emerging leaders often used to make an early splash in print. While editor of L'Aurore in 1898, the future French premier Georges Clemenceau chose perhaps the most influential headline in press history when his contributor Emile Zola denounced the persecution of Captain Dreyfus: J'Accuse. Somehow, for all the hype, I can't yet see Twitter posts turning the tides of fate.

b.tonkin@independent.co.uk

Suggested Topics
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Arctic Monkeys headline this year's Reading and Leeds festivals, but there's a whole host of other bands to check out too
music
Arts and Entertainment
Blue singer Simon Webbe will be confirmed for Strictly Come Dancing

tv
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Robert Fisk: All this talk of an ‘apocalyptic’ threat is simply childish

    Chuck Hagel and Martin Dempsey were pure Hollywood. They only needed Tom Cruise
    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    Mafia Dons: is the Camorra in control of the Granite City?

    So claims an EU report which points to the Italian Mob’s alleged grip on everything from public works to property
    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Emmys look set to overhaul the Oscars as Hollywood’s prize draw

    Once the poor relation, the awards show now has the top stars and boasts the best drama
    What happens to African migrants once they land in Italy during the summer?

    What happens to migrants once they land in Italy?

    Memphis Barker follows their trail through southern Europe
    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    French connection: After 1,300 years, there’s a bridge to Mont Saint-Michel

    The ugly causeway is being dismantled, an elegant connection erected in its place. So everyone’s happy, right?
    Frank Mugisha: Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked

    Frank Mugisha: 'Coming out was a gradual process '

    Uganda's most outspoken gay rights activist on changing people's attitudes, coming out, and the threat of being attacked
    Radio 1 to hire 'YouTube-famous' vloggers to broadcast online

    Radio 1’s new top ten

    The ‘vloggers’ signed up to find twentysomething audience
    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    David Abraham: Big ideas for the small screen

    A blistering attack on US influence on British television has lifted the savvy head of Channel 4 out of the shadows
    Florence Knight's perfect picnic: Make the most of summer's last Bank Holiday weekend

    Florence Knight's perfect picnic

    Polpetto's head chef shares her favourite recipes from Iced Earl Grey tea to baked peaches, mascarpone & brown sugar meringues...
    Horst P Horst: The fashion photography genius who inspired Madonna comes to the V&A

    Horst P Horst comes to the V&A

    The London's museum has delved into its archives to stage a far-reaching retrospective celebrating the photographer's six decades of creativity
    Mark Hix recipes: Try our chef's summery soups for a real seasonal refresher

    Mark Hix's summery soups

    Soup isn’t just about comforting broths and steaming hot bowls...
    Tim Sherwood column: 'It started as a three-horse race but turned into the Grand National'

    Tim Sherwood column

    I would have taken the Crystal Palace job if I’d been offered it soon after my interview... but the whole process dragged on so I had to pull out
    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard: Young, gifted... not yet perfect

    Eden Hazard admits he is still below the level of Ronaldo and Messi but, after a breakthrough season, is ready to thrill Chelsea’s fans
    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    Tim Howard: I’m an old dog. I don’t get too excited

    The Everton and US goalkeeper was such a star at the World Cup that the President phoned to congratulate him... not that he knows what the fuss is all about
    Match of the Day at 50: Show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition

    Tom Peck on Match of the Day at 50

    The show reminds us that even the most revered BBC institution may have a finite lifespan – thanks to the opposition