Saudi Arabia, a country in which book clubs are required to register for government licenses, is not known for its literary culture. Associating the Land of the Two Holy Mosques—ranked as the eighth “Most Censored Country” in the world this year by the Committee to Protect Journalists—with a thriving literature scene seems comical, if not perverse. So, it’s surprising that more people in the publishing world were not shocked last year when the 17th annual Book World Prague, an international book fair co-sponsored by the Czech Republic’s Ministry of Culture, named Saudi Arabia “Guest of Honor”—and that so few people have taken note of Iran’s perplexing prominence at this week’s Frankfurt Book Fair in Germany.
A visit to last year’s Saudi pavilion—housed inside a fake Arabian fortress whose turrets looked borrowed from White Castle—left me with the distinct impression that the Czechs’ decision to honor the Saudis was less about literature and more about cash. Books on display included Verbs in the Arabic Language, All the Tourist Needs To Know About the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, Essam Doesn’t Like Taking a Shower, and The Modern Saudi Novel (a title that reminded me of the exchange in Airplane! when a passenger asks for “light” reading and is handed a pamphlet titled Great Jewish Sports Legends).
The sparse display of books seemed to attract less attention than did models of Mecca and Medina. A giant tent replete with prayer mats, tea, and dates had been set up outside Prague’s art-noveau style Industrial Palace exhibition grounds; pasty, beer-bellied Czech men dressed up as Saudis ambled around in flowing white robes. (The regime was wise enough not to display the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, for many years one of the most popular books in Saudi Arabia and a favorite of the late King Faisal, who regularly distributed it to state guests.)
Visitors to the homeland of Franz Kafka and Vaclav Havel must have been perplexed to see an international literary event in which the keynote address was delivered by the Saudi Minister of Education. But honoring Saudi Arabia at last year’s Book World was only the most absurd example of what has become, in the words of author Michael Scammell, the founding editor of Index on Censorship, a “sinister trend” in the European book fair circuit. In 2009, China was the guest of honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair, the world’s largest with over 7,000 publishers and 300,000 visitors. Earlier this year, the People’s Republic was the “Market Focus” country at the London Book Fair, a tribute bestowed last year upon Russia, a country where critical journalists are routinely harassed and killed.
The Frankfurt, London, and Prague book fairs were not celebrating the writers and literature of these countries so much as collaborating with the governments to present what they want to show the international book-publishing market. The latest instance of this “sinister trend” is on view right now in Frankfurt, where the Islamic Republic of Iran is promoting its own, highly politicized view of what constitutes good literature.
Iran, of course, has a renowned literary tradition going back millennia. But since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, most of the country’s internationally revered writers have been forced to live in exile or to endure censorship, jail, or worse under the mullahs. As was the case with the Saudi exhibition in Prague, one will not find books in Frankfurt by Iranian authors that deal sympathetically with homosexuality or question whether women should have to wear a veil. Instead, books at the Iranian display include “children’s war novels” dealing with the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, which, judging by their titles—If Only I Were a Bit Older and If I Were a Pilot—appear to glorify the conflict that took 1 million Iranian lives. (As it turns out, age was no barrier to involvement in that disastrous war, as Iran reached new depths of depravity when it forced children to act as human minesweepers.)
Still, Iran’s presence at this year’s fair is particularly bizarre. According to the German political scientist Mathias Küntzel, writing in the Wall Street Journal, the Book Fair is financially supporting exiled Iranian author Mohammad Baharlo, currently living in Frankfurt. He fled his homeland earlier this summer after the regime put his name on a death list in response to his signing a document calling for more artistic freedom. This wouldn’t be the first time that the Frankfurt Book Fair has tangled with the Iranian regime: For three years, Tehran was banned from the gala due to the fatwa it issued against Salman Rushdie. Yet this year, the fair’s organizers did nothing when, in June, an Iranian-based website put a $100,000 bounty on the head of Shahin Najafi, an Iranian hip-hop artist who fled to Germany in 2005 after the regime threatened him for staging underground concerts.
Iran’s attendance at the Frankfurt Book Fair has caused far less outrage than China’s status as “honored guest” did three years ago. At that time, controversy flared when, due to pressure from the Chinese government, which had invested $15 million in the event and translated more than 100 books into German and English, the fair’s project manager Peter Ripken rescinded invitations to Dai Qing, a Chinese author who has written critically about the Three Gorges Dam and other environmental issues, and the exiled poet Bei Ling. At the last minute, other organizers overrode him and re-invited the Chinese writers to speak at a symposium prior to the fair’s opening, during which the official Chinese delegation walked out. After Ripken prevented Qing and Ling from speaking at the event’s closing ceremony, he was fired. Ripken claimed, however, that he was only following orders from the German Foreign Ministry, which co-hosts the fair. (This episode played itself out in similar fashion this year, when the London Book Fair, with China as its guest of honor, neglected to invite Ling, who lives in London.)
It’s not hard to understand this toadying to Chinese sensitivities. Beijing offers businesses the world’s largest consumer market. All sorts of companies, never mind governments, put aside whatever pretense of belief they express for democratic values to do business in China, so why should book publishing be any different? Others argue that banning authoritarian regimes from international cultural events will just worsen the plight of artists in those countries. Writing last year in response to critics of Prague’s Book World, the Saudi novelist Mohammed Hasan Alwan asserted, “It is the Saudi writers themselves who would suffer the most from such international isolation.”
But the proper way to honor writers from Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other closed societies is to promote their works as individuals—not exalt their countries of origin as exemplars of literary and artistic achievement. In the case of Saudi Arabia at Book World, merely opting not to lavish the title of “Guest of Honor” on the country would have sufficed.
“We did not come to be instructed about democracy,” China’s former ambassador to Germany fumed in 2009, furious that critics of the country’s Communist regime were given an opportunity to speak at an event intended to honor the People’s Republic. That the emissary from Beijing reacted this way ought to have been a point of pride for the Frankfurt Book Fair. But rather than continue with the lessons in democracy, European book fairs are letting the authoritarians do the teaching.
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James Kirchick, a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, is a columnist at Tablet magazine and the author of The End of Europe: Dictators, Demagogues and the Coming Dark Age. He is writing a history of gay Washington, D.C. His Twitter feed is @jkirchick.