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‘Bold’ titles break taboos at Saudi book fair

A man browses a book bearing on its cover an image of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he visits a pavilion at the Riyadh International Book Fair in the Saudi capital on October 9, 2021 (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)
A man browses a book bearing on its cover an image of Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he visits a pavilion at the Riyadh International Book Fair in the Saudi capital on October 9, 2021 (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

Books on long-taboo subjects like intimacy, secularism and magic are among those on display at the Riyadh book fair this month, as Saudi Arabia seeks to modernize its ultraconservative image.

But despite the exhibition of works long rejected as un-Islamic by Saudi authorities, some publishers say they continue to practice a form of self-censorship while the new boundaries remain unclear.

Since Mohammed bin Salman was appointed crown prince in 2017, the kingdom has undergone economic, religious and social reforms. Changes have included allowing women to drive, the reopening of cinemas and mixed-gender music concerts.

But reforms have been accompanied by a widening crackdown on dissent, which has seen women’s rights activists, clerics and journalists detained.

Mahmoud al-Qadoumi, a long-time Jordanian resident of Riyadh, said the selection at the 10-day book fair, which ended earlier this week, was “bold and unprecedented.”

“There are books on Sufism and atheism, which is contrary to what has been the case for many years,” he says.

A woman views books as she visits a pavilion at the Riyadh International Book Fair in the Saudi capital on October 9, 2021. (Fayez Nureldine / AFP)

He points to a science book he had purchased on the origins of the universe that made no reference to divine creation.

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