The column appeared originally in Arab News dated 14/3/2013
The pleasant surprise at this year’s Riyadh International Book Fair was that there was no news to report. Well, there was good news in that the fair drew millions of visitors and there were no closing down of sellers’ stalls to ban inappropriate books or strong-arming men and women who mixed by the conservatives.
As much as I wanted to go to the fair, I was unable to attend. But I followed the event in the media and on social media. The Ministry of Culture and Information, and organizers coordinated a trouble-free fair. It was obvious security was tight with the large presence of police officers. There were officers scanning attendees each at the men’s entrance and the women’s entrance. It’s something never seen at regional book fairs.
The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice announced well before the book fair began that it would not seize any books and it would not enforce a ban on men and women intermingling. Instead, the Haia promised that if it observed books that conflicted with Shariah and Saudi Arabia’s social order, it would contact the Ministry of Culture and Information and let the ministry handle it.
Haia members wore identification badges with the commission’s logo. Those who call themselves commission volunteers were nowhere to be seen, unlike last year. There were no confrontations with women, and whatever incidents occurred was handled lightly and in a respectful manner.
This is the Haia I knew as child. The Haia I knew was there for me in Madinah to protect my sisters and I, guide me, and offered religious advice when I needed it. I hope the book fair marks its transformation.
What we had in Riyadh was a book fair that served as a common event where families can come together without fear or trepidation. Because of the low-key approach of the commission, the book fair became a huge financial success that earned sellers millions in Saudi riyals.
What has emerged from a book fair without distractions was the realization that women were the top buyers of books and spent more money on books than any other demographic. Among Saudis there is a renewed interest in children’s books, which highlights the need to make children and young adult books available to Saudi youths. There was a strong customer base that supported the book fair’s inventory more than 250,000 paperback titles and 1 million e-books.
We as Saudis are not a strong reading culture, but the Internet has changed our tastes in literature. Arab language and English language books have permeated our society to the point that simply buying books from bookstores can’t satisfy the demand. The fact that an estimated 2 million people attended the book fair signals that Saudis are becoming more literate and have a hunger for a greater variety of choices.
Which brings me to one of Saudi Arabia’s greatest weaknesses: The lack of public libraries. There is a vital need in the Kingdom to privatize our existing libraries and build new ones by getting specific private companies and publishing houses to build and manage libraries. Costs can be offset through patron memberships. Universities and companies can develop these types of libraries as part of their social responsibility.
Every neighborhood should have a library and every city should have a main branch to enhance the culture of reading. If we wanted a better future for the next generation of Saudis, then Saudis should take the hint from the enormous success of the book fair and implement library programs.
This also doesn’t need to be limited to developing libraries, but also to encourage local bookstores like Jarir to provide a better environment for its customers by installing coffee shops to encourage patrons to relax, read and ultimately purchase books much like Barnes & Noble and Borders bookstores in other countries.
It seems we have gotten past the headline-grabbing and distracting behavior of extremists who used the book fair to further their own narrow agenda. This now allows us the opportunity to expand the vision of the book fair by concentrating feeding brains with literature that will lead to a better educated country.