RIYADH: Charms, tokens, enigmatic drawings and other items seized by the vice cops were displayed prominently in one of the largest booths at this year’s Riyadh International Book Fair. Instead of books, a television displayed how the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice reverses magical spells.
“What was in the commission’s booth showed clearly what they thought of the book fair and what they think of books,” one Saudi writer and intellectual told Arab News yesterday.
The book fair, which ends on Friday, has been marked with controversy once again — with liberal and literary minded people complaining of harassment by the commission. For their part, religious authorities have complained, not just about the mingling of men and women at the fair or how women are dressed, but also about how they claim their voices are being quelled by the visitors. Like last year, it was also often difficult to differentiate between official members of the commission and men who simply dress like them.
At one event featuring Saudi writer Abdu Khal, a man dressed in conservative Saudi attire (but with no identifying badge or other indication of legitimate authority) demanded that he be given the microphone.
“After 10 minutes of argument, we gave him the microphone whereupon he started an angry speech in which he accused the fair’s organizing committee of not giving equal opportunity to all,” said Abdu Khal.
An event dedicated to the literary work of Sudan’s Tayeb Salih descended into a debate over morals, interactions between men and women, and the relationship between Islam and literature in general.
The man asked Khal — a vocal critic of the commission — why prominent Saudi poets and literary people attacked conservative society by doing un-Islamic things: “Why can’t they be Muslim and literary at same time?” he asked the audience.
Many of those attending the event who had come to discuss literature and poetry confirmed the incident. Many expressed disapproval and narrated unpleasant incidents that took place at the fair.
“What happened will destroy the image of tolerance we have tried to maintain,” said Saudi writer and journalist Ruqaiyah Yaqub. “The fair respects all viewpoints and Islamic schools. However, some extremists took advantage of that and they took revenge as well.”
Yaqub, who wears a full veil, said that conservatives at the fair (it was impossible to tell if they were actual commission members or just conservatives) attacked her verbally for her tight-fitting abaya, demanding that she “thickly cover everything and wear decent clothes,” she added.
“It’s so ridiculous,” she scoffed. “I’m covering everything with my plain black Abaya and — I don’t know what they consider ‘decent’ — but I believe their main issue is the presence of women at the fair.”
Najet Mield, a representative of a French publishing house, said she was verbally harassed, too, for speaking to men who came to her booth to discuss the books her company sells.
“They questioned my respect for my religion by doing so, which is something they should be punished for doing,” she said angrily. “Women have sold products to men and vice versa since the time of the Prophet (pbuh). If these people knew history, they would know that.”
Mield said she’s a Dai’aa in France, which means she works to spread Islam. “I came a long the way to show my work and I came with an invitation from the Ministry (of Culture and Information),” she said.
After complaining to ministry officials at the fair, the government assigned Mield a minder by the name of Hassan Al-Ansary to accompany her to avoid future harassment.
In one of the more highly publicized incidents at the fair, Saudi writer Halemah Mozaffar was verbally accosted by men who identified themselves as commission members and accused her of immorality for not having her face covered and for signing books given to her by men — she had signed the books as the men had asked her to do so out of admiration for her work.
Halemah published the first academic book about Saudi theater this year. As the tradition of signing a book by the author was not unknown at previous book fairs in Riyadh, she arrived as arranged by the organizing committee. When she was preparing for her signing session, commission members and others were advising her to cover her face “even though it’s an issue where Islamic scholars have difference of opinion.”
“Still,” she added, “I thanked them for the advice and went on about my business, setting up the place where I would sign books.”
When men and women started to approach the stand, Halemah was stunned by the commission members sending away men and forming a human wall to prevent her from signing books for men or even talking to them.
“It was my surprise to find them waiting for me with a pre-intention to stop me from signing my book and even from talking to the crowd, among whom were my fellow writers and theater-specialist colleagues,” she said.
Even the women who wished to have a signed book, according to Halemah, were frightened away by the scene, as there were two commission members, five security guards and six soldiers present.
“The scene was humiliating, especially when some male writers who came to buy the book tried to get my signature on their copies, and were rudely pushed away.”
Halemah then signed the books she already had and tried to give them to some of her colleagues, but the commission members stood between them and ordered her to pass the book to the security guard, who would pass it on.
“His behavior with me was even more rude when I asked: ‘Isn’t the guard a man? Why is it acceptable for me to hand the book to a guard but not to the man who bought the book?’”
The worst happened, according to Halemah, when another prominent writer ‘thanked her after she signed his copy. “The commission member took him aside, scolding him for thanking me considering it an offense to address a woman even with a simple phrase such as ‘thank you,’” she added.
The two hours of continuous annoyance did not go unnoticed by the Ministry of Information and Culture, explained Halemah, “as they compensated me with another signing day according to my schedule,” a day that went smoothly regardless of the presence of commission members who demanded that men and women stand in separate lines. The commission members, she said, “were hovering around me, just waiting for me to commit what they considered a sin.”
Arab News tried to obtain comments from the commission members; they said they would not speak to women who didn’t wear full-face veils.
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