On April 7, 2015, Multaqa Al-Thulatha, a cultural gathering conducted every Tuesday at The Graduates Society of Kuwait, hosted a conference on book censorship. They invited three key speakers: Haidar Jamal, a lawyer and a human rights activist, Musab Al-Rowaishid, a lawyer and a poet, and Khalaf Al-Enizi, a director and a trade unionist.
Haidar Jamal spoke about printing rights, which has two sets of laws. The first concerns books that are printed locally. For books printed in the country, a copy must be given to the ministry of information, along with the name, address, and other details of the printing press. In addition, a copy must be given to the national library. Jamal made it clear that the ministry of information has no legal rights over books printed in Kuwait. In other words, the law does not permit the ministry to retract or to censor books printed in the country.
In the case of books printed abroad, authors or publishers must request permission from the ministry to allow them to import their books into the country. Permission must be granted if the books do not violate 12 conditions. These are stated in articles 19, 20, and 21 of the printing law. The two most prominent conditions pertain to the sanctity of God and the Amir. In other words, books must not call into question the existence of God, and they must not call into question the standing of the Crown Prince. Others deal with enticing hatred or social divisions. At their core, these conditions are meant to protect national and social identity.
However, the law is predominately vague, and the obscure phrasing of each law enables individual censors to (mis)interpret their meanings at will. Hence, throughout the years, some authors have been charged with different kinds or degrees of punishments for the same alleged crimes.
Jamal concluded his speech by reminding writers to retaliate. If the ministry is abusing its role and responsibility, then writers should protest against the ministry. If it’s the law itself that is abusive, then writers must retaliate against the judicial system and require amendments that will defend their rights and enable them to create their own works of art.
One theme that kept reappearing throughout the conference was frustration. Writers were visibly irritated with both the censors’ and the public’s view regarding the social function of art. Censors and public alike misconstrued the socially elevating role of art. Most issues with censorship in Kuwait, whether they originate within the ministry itself or end up in a censor’s office after a layman’s complaint, arise from the fear of misrepresenting Kuwaiti identity. For example, Dala’ Al-Mufti, whose book, Rai’hat Al-Tango (The Tango’s Aroma) was banned without official reasons. Only after months of persistence and incessant questions, did a censor finally tell the author that the book was banned because a character in the book, who was identified as Kuwaiti, travels to Lebanon to drink alcohol, since alcohol is illegal in Kuwait. The censor explained to the author that this line represents Kuwaiti identity in a bad light. In another book that was banned recently, the censor informed the author that the prohibition was due to the character’s choice of wife. The protagonist, a Muslim, marries a Christian. The censor explained that the ban would only be lifted if the entire premise of the book was changed. Thankfully, the author declined.
The second speaker, Musab Al-Rowaishid, the olive-skinned lawyer/poet, and ex-policeman, decked in the national garb, sitting straight in the middle of the panel, also evoked the law. Use the law, he told the audience, to keep the ministry in check. After quitting his job, Al-Rowaishid decided to practice law. He was particularly interested in representing authors whose work had been mishandled by the government.
“The state doesn’t care about your voice,” he told the audience. “And it does not want you to stand out.”
Finally, Khalaf Al-Enizi, the TV director and trade unionist elaborated upon his experience organizing the first union of its kind in Kuwait, joining members from the censorship committee at the ministry with craftsmen (writers, actors, directors, producers, etc.), with the minister himself. The process took a long time and experienced countless setbacks, but ends on a positive note. Al-Enizi explains that a few laws have been changed in favor of the artist, as opposed to the whims of the censor. In one of his anecdotes, Al-Enizi explained that he had insisted that the law “Kuwaiti norms and traditions” be scraped, or at least be changed into something a little more substantial. The censor, Al-Enizi said, refused in the beginning.
“Why do you want me to change it? Aren’t you a Kuwaiti?”
According to the whimsical aspect of the law, Al-Enizi explained, he wasn’t a law-abiding citizen.
“How so?” asked the censor.
“Well, I am not dressed in the traditional attire. I am dressed in a Western suit.”
After the three speakers, a number of authors, publishers, and critics spoke about their own experiences with censorship in Kuwait.
At the back of the conference hall, a table was set up. Stacked upon the table were banned books.
“We practice what we preach,” said the vendor.