July 30, 2020

The challenges facing the contemporary Saudi novel

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Ever since its emergence in the history of Saudi literature, the novel has been considered a troublesome type. A loose category made up of odd bits and ends, barely worthy of being referred to as “adab” (literature), the novel provoked little interest, contrary to the superior genre represented by poetry, “the Diwān (register) of the Arabs.” Since the early 1990s, this state of things has changed considerably, and all observers of the Arab literary scene wonder at these novels that come out every year and get the attention of the press, critics, and other social actors unrelated to the literary world. The fact that new titles keep coming out despite the difficulties linked to publishing and the novel’s diffusion networks raises many issues regarding the writer’s legitimacy and that of the genre itself. Writing a novel remains thus conditional upon meeting several challenges, only too obvious to the writer without recognition.

From the “romantic void in Saudi literature” mentioned by the Jordanian writer Nasīm al ‑ Ṣamadī in the early 1980s to the “tsunami of novels” – title of an article on novel production in Saudi Arabia in the newspaper “ al ‑ Sharq al ‑ awsaṭ ”in October 2006 -, the novel has aroused over the last two decades (1990–2000) the growing interest of local Arab and oriental observers (critics, academics, press, bloggers). Indeed, the triumph of romantic fiction since the 1990s is arguably one of the most frequently recurring subjects in Saudi Arabia. “The era of the novel” (‘aṣr al-riwāya) raises several questions and debates on the literary scene.

It is difficult, because of the figures, not to agree on the multiplication of the number of works published in recent years, on this “ṭafra,” a term which usually designates the period of economic growth which followed the oil boom of 1973, this “tsunami” – in short, this explosion of works that read like “hotcakes,” to use a few expressions taken from the local press.

The press and the audiovisual media, conferences, or debates raised by all actors in the literary field (writers, publishers, journalists, academics) are the sites of many conflicts caused by the novel’s writing. It would indeed seem that the writing of fiction has in itself become a provocation: for the novelist, the novel draws its strength precisely from its absolute freedom; for the critic – in the very broad sense – there is something scandalous about this freedom, he cannot accept it without putting at least a few bounds to make up for the indefinite character of the genre. And the more the genre abounds, the more the critic feels the need to replace the distinction between permissible and illegal with the distinction between good and evil. This article highlights the main conflicts born around the contemporary Saudi novel, starting with its recognition as a genre.

The novel, a genre long challenged.

Everyone is very agitated about the sudden emergence of romantic literature in Saudi Arabia: 26 novels in 2005, 50 in 2006, according to a study carried out by the Saudi bibliography specialist, Khālid al-Yūsuf. The novel timidly entered the local corpus: from 1930 with al ‑ Taw’amān, The Twins, by ‘Abd al ‑ Quddūs al ‑ Anṣārī, or from 1959 with Thaman al ‑ taḍḥiya, The Price of Sacrifice, of Ḥāmid al ‑ Damanhūrī, according to observers, and it did not gain many readers for a long time. However, half of these works are the first novels by young novelists between the ages of 20 and 25 is not for nothing in this commotion. And the questions arise: “is this ṭafra a healthy phenomenon?”.

Faced with this recent boom in the novel, opinions diverge in Saudi Arabia. Some believe that the phenomenon is the result of the interest of certain Arab publishers in the scandal, who do not hesitate to publish more and more sulfurous novels. Others attribute it to the intuition of a generation of writers who anticipated the “horizon of expectation” of the Saudi public. The idea is all the more widespread as the young writer Ibrāhīm Bādī, author of the controversial Ḥubb fī al-Sa ‘ūdiyya, Love in Saudi Arabia, openly evoked it within his novel. Published in 2007 by “Dār al ‑ Ādāb” editions in Beirut, the novelist uses storytelling technique in the story and devotes the first pages of his novel to a novel, in which the main character is himself a novelist. This character-writer who writes A man and five women and who immediately breaks the most fundamental taboos, congratulates himself, after a relatively raw passage, on his audacity.

“My daring is no longer in doubt. I have described in great detail what happened between Ihāb and Fāṭima. Perhaps I am a proud novelist, even a narcissist! But won’t Ihāb’s life achieve unimaginably, record sales? Won’t it attract huge numbers of readers who want to know the crazy details? “.

This character-supported idea remains widely shared and tenacious in Saudi society and adds disparaging value to a genre whose recognition has long been problematic. Indeed, the introduction of the novel genre into the Arab narrative tradition immediately pitted supporters of modernity imported from the West against traditionalists who saw poetic writing as the highest form of Arabic expression. We can read numerous testimonies from writers of the first generation that of the precursors attesting to the condescending gaze of men of letters towards the “novel” genre. Muḥammad ‘Alī al-Afghānī, calling for the writing of the novel, wrote in one of his essays published in 1941:

“The most astonishing in this matter is that many of our fellow writers and men of letters consider the novel as a scum which should not occupy those who claim to be science, virtue, and literature, and that ‘they find weakness and dishonor in his interest.”

Almost 70 years later, Hadīl al-Khuḍayf, a short story writer who publishes her texts on her own blog, refuses any idea of ​​trying her hand at novel writing, which she finds “dishonorable.”

Social taboos at the heart of the Saudi novel

The novelist must not only face the difficulties linked to the publication and dissemination of his work. He also struggles to see his talents recognized in the service of the novel. After his novel established itself on the literary scene, the minister-poet Ghāzī al-Quṣaybī, author of Shuqqat al-ḥurriyya, The Apartment of Liberty, published by Riyad al-Rayyes editions in 1994 then reissued five times and translated into English, his identity as an author was seriously questioned. Turkī al ‑ Ḥamad, thinker and political writer, had a hard time being recognized as a novelist after having published, in 1998, at al ‑ Sāqī, his trilogy Aṭyāf al ‑ aziqqa al ‑ mahjūra. We may attribute the work’s success to the author’s social or political position in the literary field, pointing out its mediocrity from an artistic point of view.

The writer is not immune to moral, even ideological accusations. When al-Quṣaybī published his first novel, which chronicles the years of study of a group of young Saudis in Nasserite Egypt, and later al ‑’ Aṣfūriyya, named after a famous psychiatric hospital in Lebanon, his high official status did not prevent accusations of secularism (‘ilmāniyya) and atheism (zandaqa). Turkī al-Ḥamad, meanwhile, was only able to avoid the apostasy judgment thanks to the support of Crown Prince Abdullah when he published his trilogy.

The importance assumed by the al ‑ Ḥamad affair is undoubtedly commensurate with what the novel represents in the history of the contemporary Saudi novel. His trilogy was of definite interest from the point of view of socio-political analysis, and it is not trivial that the author chose the fictional form to address subjects considered to require silence. What has caused a scandal is that the fictional film’s plot and characters occur in Saudi Arabia and not abroad, as was usually the case with Saudi novelists. Only the expatriation of the characters could make writing possible. Far from Saudi social laws that jeopardize the novelist’s realistic project, they really thrive in less conservative societies and where the taboos related to life are less numerous.

By daring precisely to appropriate a space where we usually ignore the flaws and which prides itself on having excluded them, al ‑ Ḥamad has made Riyadh a city of pleasures where “everything is possible,” where “everything is forbidden, everything is allowed. ” The novelist realistically lays bare the contradictions of society, after all like the others, while playing closely with the limits of the speakable. Following it, Banāt ar ‑ Riyāḍ, the first novel by young Rajā ’al ‑ Ṣāniʿ published in 2005, goes even further and reveals the secrets of women, which in itself constitutes a taboo and raises a challenge. How does a local girl dare to reveal the faults of her own countrymen to the world? This is indeed unacceptable in a society where it is not fashionable to show off one’s faults and where anyone who points to them is accused of wanting to distort one’s image.

The latest novels are always more daring because of the taboos; they bring moral audacity, daring scenes, and raw tone to light. The scandal is assured. One of these novels, Ikhtilās, Larcin, by Hānī Naqshabandī, was nearly banned from publication in Beirut as it was banned in several Arab capitals – before experiencing five reprints by al ‑ Sāqī. A Saudi journalist, editor-in-chief of a women’s magazine, regularly receives strange letters from a Saudi reader who tells him his secrets and a possible affair with his driver. But sex is not the only brutalized taboo in this literature that plays to the lawful limits. The year 2000 saw the publication of the novel by writer-journalist Maḥmūd Trawrī, Maymūna, in which the author discusses, through the story of the emigration of Maymūna and her family from Africa to the Hejaz, the issue of the marginalization of people of color in the kingdom. A few years later, in 2006, al-Sāqī appeared once again, al-Ākharūn, The Others, a novel by a young Saudi woman, Ṣibā al-Ḥirz, from Qaṭīf, a province in the east of the country which concentrates part of the Shiite population. Her novel also deals with a religious minority rejected in otherness. So many subjects that only fictional writing can tackle fiction through its artifices show a reality that social discourses refuse to represent.

In fact, when we talk about the freedom of Arabic publishing, we always evoke the triple taboo sex-religion-politics. However, this freedom varies from country to country. Saudi Arabia, which politically dominates both the publishing market and the region, imposes a strict censorship regime on all three issues, requiring prior authorization. In addition to institutional censorship, there is that imposed by the idea of ​​Arabia’s “particularity,” khuṣūṣiya, often used in local discourse and bans several public debate topics.

The challenge of publication

In a society known to read little, sales numbering in the tens of thousands of prints seem almost unbelievable: 60,000 for Rajā ‘al ‑ Ṣāniʿ’s novel in the first year after its publication, 10,000 in the quarter following that of the novel Fusūq by ´Abdū Khāl. This is precisely another facet of the changes that have taken place in the Saudi literary scene. If the writers have taken a step in the transgression of the discourse specific to the local market and have broken the rules of self-discipline, they have certainly adapted this new type of discourse to the available distribution networks. Indeed, to circumvent the censorship that categorically opposes the “exposure of reality,” Saudi writers already had recourse to publishing from other Arab countries, particularly its most liberal pole. Quest for a space of freedom or a possible recognition by the regional literary field, the bypassing of censorship in this way made it possible, from the 1990s, to introduce new writing practices, thereby confirming the discredit expressed by the most conservative pole of the field, and which associates this writing with a pure strategy based on the interest of the forbidden.

But it is undoubtedly the digital revolution applied to the literary field that constitutes the most remarkable feature. Since the end of the 1990s, the proliferation of press websites, then blogs, has provided writers with a distribution network that is far more efficient and difficult to censor. This shows the interest in the novel Banāt al-Riyāḍ, which revolves around the world of the Internet and discussion forums. It is based on an alleged disclosure by the Internet of the adventures of a group of young Saudi women from Riyadh. Every Friday, a young Saudi woman sends her fellow citizens an email. She describes her love life and that of her three girlfriends in minute detail. Internet users are reacting en masse. Most are outraged, and others want more. The novel, therefore, presents itself as the narrator’s blog to which readers can subscribe to follow these adventures. Note also that Muḥammad Ḥasan ´Ilwān’s novel, Saqf al ‑ kifāya, Peak of satisfaction, published by al ‑ Farābī, was already on its author’s own site, and in full, when it appeared in 2002, and that al-Awba, The Return, by Warda ´Abd al-Malik (a pseudonym used by the young novelist), published by al-Sāqī in 2007, was first created on a virtual literary circle, the “muntadā dār al-nadwa, and that about 23,000 readers read it according to the writer.

The Web thus becomes the first space for publication and distribution: not only are the works often first published in virtual “literary clubs,” but once published traditionally, the Internet partly ensures their distribution, especially when they are published abroad and are not readily available in local bookstores.

The Internet is a new way to outwit the red lines imposed by censorship and the prevailing social discourse and make Saudi novelists known abroad. It certainly paved the way for the holding of the 11th Riyadh International Book Fair, which reveals a certain relaxation of censorship practices.


The 11th International Book Fair, held in Riyadh from March 4 to 14, 2008, which brought together more than 550 publishers from twenty countries, exhibited more than 20,000 titles. The event did not fail to draw attention to its organization based on consensus between the Ministry of Information and Culture, which now sponsors this event and the religious bodies represented by the local religious police, which kept an office on-site to regulate the diversity allowed in the corridors of the fair. As a result, the flagship titles of the new Saudi novel, these texts that local readers must most often obtain abroad, are quite widely present there. Many books, including novels that Saudis are used to buying overseas, were available, but purchasing more than five copies was prohibited, and they remain prohibited in local bookstores.

This opening is quite seasonal, of course, but it profoundly modifies the regional cultural map by giving certain notoriety to the romantic genre and the Saudi literary scene. Because, despite all the challenges that romantic writing imposes on its author, the Saudi novel is talked about and shows the changes affecting Saudi society, which can no longer continue to throw “a modest veil,” according to the expression of the critic ´Abdallah al-Ghadhamī, on what she does not want to see.

Indeed, the genuine interest in current Saudi novels reveals a shift in the Arab cultural map. Proof of this is the Booker Prize awarded in its third edition in 2010 to the writer ´Abdū Khāl for his sulfurous Tarmī bi ‑ sharar, which in fact crowns the fictional production of an entire region of the Arab world too long neglected by critics.

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