Censored in Kuwait

Mediocrity is the only thing that can get by the censor and that’s exactly what we have seen in some artistic productions — just trivial content and total immaturity.
Sunday 20/01/2019
Backward in coming forward. A Kuwaiti man reads a book during the 43rd international book fair in Kuwait City, last November. (AFP)
Backward in coming forward. A Kuwaiti man reads a book during the 43rd international book fair in Kuwait City, last November. (AFP)

Each year during the Kuwait International Book Fair, a strange atmosphere envelops the country. The phenomenon is manifested by censoring books, sometimes ordinary and innocuous ones.

The list of banned books gets longer every year and each time harmless books are added. The blame, of course, is placed on some supposed censor who could not care less about the reputation of Kuwait or about the regrets of those who love this country for its historic tolerance of matters of art, culture, journalism and books.

After every session of the book fair in Kuwait, debate erupts on social media about who has turned off the lights of modernity and civilisation in Kuwait, a country known in the region for being a forerunner in all domains. Kuwait, for example, was the third Arab country — after Egypt and Lebanon — to establish an international book fair.

However, in the past few years, Kuwait has banned books by well-known Arab philosophers and writers who were previously admired and adopted in Kuwait.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude” was banned and it wasn’t an isolated case. “Zorba,” “Faust” and “Don Quixote” were also banned. Marquez’s book had been allowed in and distributed several years ago in the “Books for All” series.

It’s not only books by foreign writers that get banned. Many books by Kuwaiti writers don’t get to see the light in Kuwait, in total contradiction with the country’s historical role in spreading knowledge across the region.

Although the idea of preventing the circulation of a given book has become ineffective and useless considering technological developments in offering and sharing books, the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information allowed its administrators to prevent 4,500 books from entering the country in the past five years. This is a huge number for a country familiar with the ideas of freedom of opinion and expression and political pluralism.

The practices of censorship and restricting freedom in Kuwait are not limited to book fairs. There is a sharp rise in interference by powerful bureaucratic agencies in the creative work of media and news platforms. There is a feeling of restriction that signals a perceptible change in the moods of the leadership and society at large with respect to the general freedoms of expression, opinion and pluralism.

This mood change in Kuwait doesn’t seem to be indicative of a societal feeling of being fed up with freedom; Kuwaiti society is used to freedom and has always preceded its Arab neighbours in seeking it. However, this rise in censorship constitutes a setback that nobody paid attention to its beginnings. Now, all sorts of creative people are feeling its evil consequences.

People often forget that the first national television station in the Gulf was in Kuwait and it was rather liberal for its time. Censorship, though, is ever present. Recently, a docudrama by Lebanese-Kuwaiti director Farah al-Hashem titled “Breakfast in Beirut” was not allowed to be aired on television because censors had reservations about costumes and dialogue in the film.

Many television producers and film-makers in Kuwait have resorted to filming in the United Arab Emirates or Turkey to escape censorship that hampers artistic projects.

The banning of the filming and screening of the series “The Bamboo Stalk,” because it dealt with racism in the country, stirred up a big fuss in 2016. The series was taken from a book by Kuwaiti novelist Saud Alsanousi, winner of the Arab Booker Prize. Another novel by Alsanousi, “Firan Ummi Hissa” (“Mama Hissa’s Mice”), which deals with sectarianism in Kuwait, was also banned.

We can’t find a good explanation for the rise of intellectual intolerance in Kuwait but it is safe to assume that it has something to do with Kuwait’s tumultuous and discouraging regional environment.

Because of the sensitivity of the political context, the state of freedom in Kuwait fluctuated with events. There was the first Gulf War, then the invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad, followed by the “Arab spring,” which left a profound and severe political, economic and intellectual effect on everyone in the region, including Kuwait.

The Gulf region is living a security nightmare. Just like the rest of the Arab world, Gulf countries are struggling to live amid a minefield of relentless surprises and storms. Fear is paralysing everything and nobody can breathe naturally and with ease.

This would explain the quasi-democratic paralysis that Kuwait is experiencing. The country seems caught in a complex cycle of debates and interrogations that sometimes ends with the dissolution of the country’s largest democratic institution. Then, it starts building a new democratic experience from scratch again.

Given this context, mediocrity is the only thing that can get by the censor and that’s exactly what we have seen in some artistic productions — just trivial content and total immaturity. It is perhaps this mediocrity that drove society at large to refrain from demanding more freedom and defending it. In some cases, society seemed to side with the censor and support efforts for more restrictions.

In a civilised message of protest against censorship, Kuwaiti artist Mohammad Sharaf created a piece composed of a symbolic cemetery in which the tombstones carried titles of books banned from the book fair. The piece was placed in the middle of one of the squares of Kuwait International Book Fair.

The work was symbolic and meaningful and was praised and discussed on social networks. As expected, authorities immediately proceeded to remove it.