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Calls for protest in Kuwait as banned book list reveals extent of censorship

#Banned_In_Kuwait and #Don't_Decide_For_Me trended on Twitter as criticism mounted against the government's censorship policies
Kuwaiti liberals have called for protests against the government's censorship decisions. (AFP)

Kuwaiti liberals are calling for demonstrations on Saturday against what they describe as staggering levels of book censorship which has blocked an estimated 4,400 titles from reaching the state’s bookshops and libraries during the past five years.

#Banned_In_Kuwait and #Don’t_Decide_For_Me have trended on Twitter as authors and followers of literature protested against the authorities' decision to ban works including One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez as well as books by Palestinian Mourid AlBarghouti and Egypt’s Radwa Ashour.

Participants responded to the hashtag by posting images of books from their home libraries which were once permitted in Kuwait but have now been added to the expanding list of prohibited titles.

In a conference earlier this month, Khaled Al Shatti, a member of Kuwait's parliament, said the Ministry of Information had informed him, in response to his inquiries, that 4,390 books had been banned in the Gulf state in the past five years.

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Mohamed Al Awash, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Information who is also an assistant deputy for press and publication, told Middle East Eye that the ministry was only implementing laws ratified by an elected assembly, and that the majority of the committee tasked with censoring publications are academics and specialists in the industry, and not from the ministry itself.

"We have asked authors and publishers affected by these decisions to reach out to another committee within the ministry, of different members, to have the block reconsidered. They can also reach out to court. We are flexible and open for discussion," said Al Awash, who pointed out that that the banned titles are a mere fraction - or around 15 percent - of the total amount of titles that have been approved in the same period. 

But the revealed number of banned books has dismayed many Kuwaitis who regarded the restrictions as symptomatic of a tightening grip on freedom of expression.

The oil-rich state was once considered the foremost patron of arts and culture among Gulf states but has now fallen behind the rapidly-developing capitals in the region. 

Posters have been used in social media to call for Saturday's protests. (Twitter)

“Those who ban you from reading today won’t hesitate to block websites tomorrow, or stop you from ordering books from abroad,” said Fatima Al Matar, a professor of Law in Kuwait University.

Translation: We will stand. We'll say no to banning books. No to restraining minds. Stand with us: Saturday 15/9 1700-1800 at Erada Square. #Stand_for_Your_Freedom_of_Thought #Banned_in_Kuwait #Don't_Decide_for_Me

Kuwaiti columnist Hassan Al Eissa described censors as “butchers of literature” carrying out “a massacre against thought” in an article headlined “What are you afraid of?” in the liberal Al Jarida newspaper on Thursday.

Non-Kuwaitis have also taken part in the debate, including Palestinian author and poet Rola Hassan.

Translation: "The country where Hanzala of Nagy Al Ali was created, and where Ghassan Kanafani wrote his first novel and some of the most important... Kuwait, where Ahmed Matar raised his poem and placards.. Kuwait were Al Sayyab was treated.. Kuwait lived a very promising democratic experiment. Why is it relapsing?'

Others have voiced solidarity with the government’s decision. Hayyat Alyaquot, an author and publisher tweeted “Those who call for the assassination of censorship themselves apply censorship on their kids, purchase applications and edit settings. They themselves are the 'Deep State', 'Dominating Authority' and 'Dictator Censorship' but in the form of a caring mother and protective father.” 

Censorship is not a new practice by Kuwait's authorities. International music retailer Virgin Megastore closed its doors in the state in 2012 due to censorship of albums and artwork, following in the footsteps of supplier Music Master.

"Kuwait has had more religious censorship of debates and entertainment than many other Gulf states, due, somewhat paradoxically, to its relatively open political system. That conservative trend seems to be weakening, giving younger Kuwaitis the opportunity to challenge these norms," said Kristin Diwan, senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.

"The new generation across the Gulf is much more interested in new avenues of self-expression, in the arts, literature and music."

Regardless of the turnout for protests on Saturday, it will mark a return of rallies to the streets of Kuwait which have gone quiet after years of political deliberation that has made the country the most democratic out of the six-member GCC.

Kuwait's once-fierce opposition, who caused repeated cabinet resignations between 2006 and 2012 over allegations of corruption and misconduct, have largely quietened after a clampdown that has landed some of them in jail.

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