Saudi writers find voice depicting closed society

Tue Jun 22, 2010 2:42am EDT
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By Andrew Hammond

DUBAI (Reuters) - Islamists in Saudi Arabia depict them as a pampered liberal elite while the authorities in this conservative Islamic state throw up obstacles in their path.

Despite the odds, novelists in closed, controlled Saudi Arabia have come into their own in recent years, publishing a growing body of work that has attracted attention not only in the kingdom but beyond for the creative representations of an opaque, troubled society.

Saudi novelist Abdo Khal this year won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, known as the Arabic Booker, a departure from previous years when winners hailed from Egypt, the traditional center of Arabic literature. The success was taken by many as a sign that the Saudi novel had come of age.

"Saudi Arabia and the Gulf have been regarded as marginal countries in the cultural scene, but now they have a major presence," said Saudi novelist Yousef al-Mohaimeed, whose 2003 novel Wolves of the Crescent Moon painted a striking picture of a merciless society.

"Output has increased steadily over the last 7 years and now there are more than 50 novels published by Saudis each year."

For decades a society largely closed to outsiders, tightly controlled by state-backed religious and security services, Saudi Arabia has witnessed immense change in recent years.

The September 11 attacks forced the clique of princes running the world's top oil producer to reconsider engagement with the world. High oil prices since 2002 have been another factor, allowing ordinary Saudis to access the information revolution seen as a threat by many in the ruling elite.

Young Saudis especially, who make up a majority of the country's population of 18 million, turned to writing blogs and novels in an outpouring of expression.   Continued...