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.
Political activity is a practical impossibility in Saudi Arabia, where the royal family dominates governance and clerics of the puritanical Wahhabi sect to enforce a rigid moral system.
Most women are unable to drive and mix with unrelated men.
The 2005 novel Girls of Riyadh by Rajaa Alsanea, though dismissed by critics as lightweight, was a sign of the times: three affluent young women reveal their trials and tribulations in finding the perfect mate through a series of email exchanges. It was a surprise success, translated into many languages.
The late author Abdelrahman Munif was stripped of his Saudi nationality for his insolence after publishing books in the 1980s that showed how oil wealth enabled the rise of tribal kleptocracies in traditional Gulf Arab society.
But the new generation of writers have managed to develop a local audience and gain recognition in Saudi Arabia.
“There is censorship, which is sometimes eased, sometimes tightened, and there are the Islamists who are still strong and suffocating,” says novelist Badriya Al-Bisher, whose 2005 book Hind wa al-Askar (Hind and the Soldiers) annoyed conservatives by arguing that after years of living under Islamic tradition, the Saudi woman represses herself.
Abdo Khal’s winning novel Tarmi Bi-Sharar — a Quranic reference to hell, meaning “throwing sparks” — came to market with a non-Saudi publisher and was briefly withdrawn at this year’s Riyadh International Book Fair. His books have in the past been difficult to find in Saudi bookshops.
Mainstream television gives little attention to writers. Saudi state media and the pan-Arab news and entertainment networks presided over by Saudi princes and tycoons have virtually closed off Arab air space to literati.
Even al-Jazeera — the most popular channel in the region, currently on good terms with Riyadh — has reduced its cultural coverage to a minimum for the entire Arab region.
Yet the novel is one of the few areas of artistic production that has not been co-opted by state actors, largely because the powerful have paid it little attention.
Billionaire prince Alwaleed bin Talal has monopolized much of Arabic film and music production through his Rotana network. Critics have noted that Saudi funding of drama in Egypt and Syria involves a subtle conformism with conservative mores.
The biggest selling books in Saudi Arabia itself invariably concern religion — the Quran, works central to Wahhabism and self-help books such as preacher Ayedh al-Qarni’s La Tahzan (Don’t Be Sad) .
Mohaimeed says some Lebanese publishers, despite a new interest in Saudi literature, are reticent about Saudi writers for fear of being cut out of the Saudi market, where purchasing power is high.
Khal speaks to some of these distorted dimensions of power relations in Saudi society in his prize-winning book that depicts the moral dangers brought on by the recent oil boom.
An unnamed, faceless tycoon figure in the city of Jeddah has built himself a palace in the vicinity of a poor neighborhood, which is able to provide individuals desperate enough to work as virtual slaves performing acts of sexual torture on those who have had the misfortune to stand in his way.
“It looks at the humiliation of the human being and suffering,” says Taleb Alrefai, a Kuwaiti novelist who headed the committee that awarded the prize. “It’s about how an individual tries to escape the social and economic chains that are taking away from his dignity.”
“The space for art and culture is very small, and not only in Arab media,” he said, adding: “The novel is the effort of one individual and that’s what gives it its freedom.”
Editing by Missy Ryan