Saudi intellectual sees ‘clouds in the literary scene’
RIYADH - Saudi writer Muhammad al-Shaqha was brought up in a typical environment. He grew up in the Saudi city of Taif where he attended school and went on to work for the government.
After four decades as a writer, Shaqha, 72, said the cultural landscape in Saudi Arabia “is like sporadic islands and communication between their inhabitants is fraught with suspicion and lack of appreciation and, in extreme cases, people don’t hesitate to hang you or assassinate your character.”
“We were literary imitators and transmitters of art,” Shaqha said. “We respected the masters from Egypt, Syria and Iraq and we listened so that we could learn how to read and write and how to eradicate the environment of illiteracy we grew up in. Then we became intellectuals, specialising in fields that we knew nothing of their essence — even after completing our education.
“Finally, we embarked on the phase of modernity that was essential in building our personality but we ignored the identities of all those who came to help us with building our country in all fields.”
Shaqha continued: “The Taif Literary Club saw the light as a lush island filled with fruit and voices from all over the place. There were continuous relations and exchanges between the different regions and components of the Saudi kingdom but now I see only dark clouds and the winds are still in the sky of the literary scene.”
He said Saudi Arabia has always had a fourth branch of power — the media. Press institutions did not live up to expectations and did not meet the needs of the citizens. The distribution of the newspapers and their popularity were dependent on how good their sports sections were and the whims of their writers and editors, he said.
“The recent national transformations came at the same time as the bankruptcy of the press institutions and their paper editions,” said Shaqha. “They coincided with the national Saudi television shutting down its channel dedicated to culture, its children channel, its economic channels and its English-speaking Channel Two.
“They have been replaced by one channel that looked very much like Saudi TV’s Channel One but using foreign characters. All the closed channels were turned into sports channels that nobody watches except when there were local football matches on. This is the current state of our state television and our press institutions after the onset of the national transformations.”
Shaqha said “a living and vibrant society” will not be affected by negative alliances.” He used as an example when Iraq occupied Kuwait and the political decision was to form a “military alliance of brothers and friends” and Kuwait returned to its people and the liberating forces left at the end of their mission.
“At that time, the revivalist camp felt that they were failing, so they turned their rhetoric and discourse against the internal social movement and changes and against modernist literature and thought,” he said.
“My experience with the Taif Literary Club informs me that all religious, intellectual and literary currents, be they traditionalist or modernist, can make their voices heard and express their convictions. There were confrontations outside the confines of the club and in other cities between individuals, and I repeat here individuals.”
Shaqha said economic, modernity and modernisation aspects of Saudi Vision 2030 are key foundations for the country’s development and that Vision 2030 embraces the establishment of a national humanitarian system supported by all members of society.
“There is no social conflict between the religious establishment and the existing liberal establishment,” he said. “It is rather a fabricated clash between those who are ignorant of religious law and speakers who do not know the values of liberal thought based on freedom of speech and action. Islam is a heavenly law that came ‘to perfect morals’ as the Prophet had said.
“Each community in each region of the kingdom would have values that are quite different from those of a neighbouring region. Let’s not even talk about the differences between the cultural values of a community in the far north and those of a community in the deep south. We even find influences from neighbouring countries.”
Regarding literary clubs after government initiatives for private cultural houses and centres, Shaqha said: “I did not find literature among the ministry’s sectors. The ministry’s vision considered poetry as an independent sector, while poetry obviously comes under literature.
“The General Presidency for Youth Welfare in the days of Prince Faisal bin Fahd treated a literary club as it would deal with a sports club. If a group applied for permission to create a literary club, its members would be granted that permission. Since last March and until now, the official view of a literary club is blurry.
“So far, nothing can really be said about the outlook of the ministry’s cultural initiatives. The 16 cultural sectors have not been implemented and neither were the related cultural entities. As to the literary clubs, their elected directors have been sacked and replaced by committees of four appointed members. The Ministry of Culture is nothing more than a headquarters and a theoretical programme in a bunch of files waiting to be opened.”