A week or two ago Rachel posted on censorship, which is always a hot-button issue, even among citizens of a country who generally agree that freedom of speech is a good thing, and are pleased to exercise it, in tones both civil and hysterical, as often as we can. Yet despite how absorbing questions relating to censorship and the first amendment can be, it can be eye-opening to look beyond our own borders, where limits on civil society (or even shrieking, rabid, partisan society) are far more onerous. And dangerous.
Earlier this month at the Cairo International Book fair, Egyptian security officials confiscated a novel entitled The Leader Cuts His Hair, and arrested its publisher on the grounds that the books insults Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi. The novel, written by the Egyptian novelist Idris Ali, looks at social conditions in Libya in the late seventies, a period during which Ali was living in Libya. Egypt has long outlawed books that cast aspersions at its own President, Hosni Mubarak, now in his 28th year in office, but I’m surprised that Qadhafi is afforded the same treatment. The Egyptian Writers Union protested the incident, calling it an embarrassment and a stain on the nation. Indeed, this is hardly the sort of behavior that will win the Cairo Book Fair—now the largest in the Arab world—the kind of international status that it quite deservedly seeks. Which is too bad, since the fair, which throws open its doors to thousands of publishing professionals and millions of Cairenes, is an experience to behold. Whole families make a day trip of the fair, and when not browsing the miles of bookstalls in search of bargains (take note, Strand Bookstore, home of “18 miles of books”), they picnic on the grounds. Between the ice-cream vendors and balloon sellers and the impromptu soccer matches are people of all stripes, laden with books. It’s a far cry from the trade oriented fairs at Frankfurt or London, but it’s a clear demonstration that the culture of the book is thriving—despite, as recent events again demonstrate, some very serious obstacles.