Frankfurt Book Fair: Arab censorsstricter on religion than explicit sex
7 October 2004 , FRANKFURT - Censorship, or else not even bothering to write for fear of being censored, is still a painful reality in most of the Arab world. But in contrast to what most westerners suppose - that dissidents, or authors taking a liberal view of sex, are always banned - most of the bans actually involve books that offer an interpretation of Islam differing from that of the state-backed clergy. "It has become especially difficult to publish a biography of Mohammed," noted scholar Sonja Hegas
7 October 2004
FRANKFURT - Censorship, or else not even bothering to write for fear of being censored, is still a painful reality in most of the Arab world.
But in contrast to what most westerners suppose - that dissidents, or authors taking a liberal view of sex, are always banned - most of the bans actually involve books that offer an interpretation of Islam differing from that of the state-backed clergy.
"It has become especially difficult to publish a biography of Mohammed," noted scholar Sonja Hegasy of the Modern Orient Centre in Berlin, who chaired a discussion of taboos and censorship this week at the Frankfurt book fair.
She had great difficulty finding Arab authors to participate. But she was not refused because authors were afraid of a visit from the police when they got home for criticizing their countries.
"The reason they were so hesitant was that 'Arab censorship' is one of those cliche things that Westerners get enthusiastically worked up about," she said.
Saida Khater al-Farisi, an Omani author, could only agree with this irritation at the Western point of view. She was attending the German fair this week at the invitation of the Arab League's cultural organization. The Arab World is guest of honour at this year's fair.
None of her volumes of Arabic poetry has yet to appear in any European language, but al-Farisi was a self-assured figure in her striking makeup and bright red headscarf as she and her male writing colleagues met the public.
She accused earnest European authors and the western public of being strangely obsessed with the issues of censorship, sexual taboos and the "repression" of women in Arab society.
"Arab women authors who write about how they have been repressed by men get a heroes' welcome in the West," she said tartly. Al-Farisi says she is not hemmed in by any taboos in her writing.
"Only God and the Prophet can't be touched," she said.
The conservative Islamic scholars in countries such as Egypt who have forbidden books and films are wrongly interpreting Islam, she added.
"Our religion is an open one that has hardly any taboos," she said, citing a tradition of how Mohammed told some women he met that there was no impropriety in talking about menstruation and related biological topics even if men were present.
Sonallah Ibrahim, an Egyptian humour writer, turned self- censorship into a joke in his 1992 novel "Zaat", telling the reader that there will be no details on the bride's first night "owing to the current censorship rules".
"In fact, where sex is concerned, it's rather surprising what they can get away with these days," commented Berlin scholar Hegasy.
One of her panelists Wednesday was Ibrahim Farghaly of Egypt "whose novel is packed with steamy scenes".
Farghaly told a mixed audience of Germans and Arabs that he was aware of some censorship in Egypt but he was not going to "embellish" the matter. Bans were mainly applied by the courts after due process, or by religious institutions, not the government, he said.
Hegasy, al-Farisi and Farghaly would probably have been unimpressed at the outrage of Johano Strasser, president of the German section of the writers group PEN, who gave a speech the same day, elsewhere in Frankfurt, about censorship in the Arab world.
Sexuality and the role of women were the greatest taboos in Arab lands, the leftist writer declared, adding, "We are witnessing a terrible hysteria over any sexual behaviour that varies from the permissible."
It was the "hypocrisy of puritan societies, just like in the United States", he said.
Subject: German news