Saudi literary critic: ‘Fight against extremism continues’

“I hope that the concept of modernity we’re talking about here is not restricted to the contexts of culture and literature," said literary critic Saad Albazei.
Sunday 14/10/2018
Saudi literary critic Saad Albazei. (Al Arab)
New dynamics. Saudi literary critic Saad Albazei. (Al Arab)

Literary critic Saad Albazei says there are literary efforts in Saudi Arabia to document and keep up with current developments in the country.

Albazei insists that Saudi intellectuals have been active against religious extremism and are trying to make up for time lost during decades of constraints and taboos.

“It is perhaps too early to tell if what is happening now — after the official Saudi position with respect to revivalist discourse — will be the last witness on the grave of the past Saudi revivalism. For every force, there is a counter force and the fight against extremism continues, Albazei said. “I just hope that it won’t be as fierce as before.

“I hope that this despicable extremism won’t form a force that will threaten the social and economic dynamics that are portending great changes in this era of renaissance. Let’s hope there won’t be concessions made in fear of this backlash. I’m more confident than ever that what has been achieved is just the beginning of a promising road full of achievements.”

Can modernity power a human and social context in which cultural freedom becomes the real engine for a new comprehensive civilisational project or is modernity just the other party in a struggle between competing social currents under the same conservative roof? Will it turn out that the revivalists and the modernists in Saudi Arabia are two conservative currents with only minor differences between them?

“I hope that the concept of modernity we’re talking about here is not restricted to the contexts of culture and literature,” Albazei said. “Modernity in these two domains is part of a more comprehensive trend that has touched the different aspects of life, such as education, media and social life.

“It is true that the changes in those areas were relatively quiet — quite radical here and less radical there — but that is part of the nature of life in this part of the world and part of the nature of the current phase.”

In 2014, Albazei was president of the jury for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, which is often referred to as the Arabic Man Booker Prize.

As to whether the prize is politicised, Albazei said: “I’ve stated on previous occasions that any type of work in the domain of culture, be it judging for a prize or writing an article, is politicised in the sense that it is born out of an awareness of its context and seeks to achieve certain objectives but not in the sense that it belongs to some party or it defends some ideology or, even worse, that it has conspiratorial goals.

“Politicisation comes from a sense of historical and social awareness and what it implies in terms of responsibility. Prizes are politicised by necessity but not in the sense that they serve some conspiracy or that they are biased towards one author or one region in particular.

“From this perspective, the Arabic Booker is politicised just like any other prize. It is biased by the jury’s views on what deserves to be read first and to win second. This is a normal and natural bias because complete neutrality is beyond human capacity.”

Albazei added: “This, however, does not mean that the Booker, in terms of the composition of its juries or its board of trustees, is totally free of taking positions that might be construed by some as serving certain institutional objectives. It has in the past and continues to give rise to controversy each time its prize is announced. This is the case in Britain, where the original Booker Man Prize is handed out, and the case in the Arabic competition.”

On freedom of opinion and freedom of expression in the Saudi media, especially after the latest changes on the national scene, Albazei said: “Freedom of opinion and freedom of expression are relative concepts that fluctuate between the imaginary limits of absolute freedom and absolute restriction. This is true everywhere on the face of the Earth.

“Saudi media are no different from books in Saudi Arabia or social media platforms in Saudi Arabia. They all must submit to restrictions, some of which are imposed by the government and some of which are imposed by the interests of the media themselves or by personal fears.

“Above all, freedoms are restricted by the collective interests, including questions of privacy and other people’s lives. Since the matter is a question of degree, there is in the region a whole range of levels of freedom in the media and publications where our situation in Saudi Arabia might seem weak in some respects, acceptable in some others and even sometimes excellent. There are neighbouring countries that do not enjoy the same level of freedom of expression that we have in Saudi Arabia and there are others which surpass us in this respect.”