Censorship and the National Identity
In the Arabian Peninsula
Middle East Studies Center
New York University
New York, USA
Mazin S. Motabbagani, Ph.D.
Department of Orientalism
Faculty of Da’wa. Muhammad Ben Saud Islamic University.
Al-Madina, Saudi Arabia
I would like to seize this valuable opportunity to thank New York University for this kind invitation to contribute to this significant function on an extremely sensitive area of research hoping that this panel will fulfill its objectives toward serving the noble cause of humanity all over the world.
“ I would rather be labeled a coward than erring and consequently seeking forgiveness.” Thus reads an Arabic proverb. The question is then asked are we all cowards? Are we all silent? Are we the silent majority that I saw once pictured by a cemetery?
Another characteristic of how some countries view freedom of speech is explained in these few verses that I had written down on my desk when I was an employee of Saudi Arabian Airline:
Fast and speak not
Talking is prohibited
Sleep and do not wake up
The winners are those who are sleeping
If it is said that your honey is bitter
Say it is very much so.
In this very unorthodox paper I shall speak of my experience with censorship, and what some other Saudi writers have said about the matter.
Censorship is something relative. How much do we want to say? What are the things that can be said? What are the things that should be left unsaid? What books can we bring with us when coming back home from abroad? What are the books that we can buy from publishers outside Saudi Arabia? What was or is censored in video or T.V can be had access to through satellite channels. Not only this but, the fax has also broken the lines, and with the fax we have the computer communications that transmit hundreds of pages in no time. We must also mention the Internet and the huge amount of information it is going to make available to users. However, still what is the percentage of the population that uses these technologies? It seems that there is a fragile line between what is censored and what is permissible.
A Palestinian writer was once asked: why don’t you say things openly? Why do you have to use implicit language? She replied: “ If we do not express ourselves this way we cannot write anything.” This reminds me of a verse Sheikh Abdul Hamid Ben Badis (1889-1940) used to recite to his students when unable to speak openly: " I have talked to you in an indirect way that you may understand, since implications is understood by the smart ones.
Censorship was not always very strict as many may think. Writers have always been able to speak out or voice their opinion. I still remember the first year of the Second Five-Year-Plan when Saudi Arabia was going through the economic boom how many writers and journalists wrote very severe criticism of this plan. I used to wonder how these writings were permitted. Then things calmed down or that I was busy working for my university degrees.
Again I came to experience censorship about eight years ago when I began requesting permissions to publish the books I happened to write. Here is a brief description of my dealings with the Directorate of Publications -- the Ministry of Information