On Wednesday the conservative news website Lojainiat came out with the news that gender segregation will be enforced at the book fair. They announced it with a big congratulatory red banner on their homepage. And yesterday I went to see for myself and found that women were allowed to enter and walk around freely. After I got home, it turns out that the Ministry of Culture and Information issued a statement denying that women will be banned from attending the book fair. Obviously I’m happy about that.
Anyhow, my report about last year’s book fair got a fair number of readers, so I thought I would do the same this year. This year it was more crowded than the last and there were more women in attendance. Security was also more available but not as careful as it should be. There are four entrances and they had a metal detector and bag scanner at only one. What’s the point if there are three other doors that a person can go through without being examined? After Al Barack’s fatwa that those who don’t practice gender segregation should be killed, security is very important.
A vibe that I did get from this year’s book fair is the the organizers brazenly flaunting their newfound freedom by having all the microphone announcements made by a woman. I bet that really gets to a lot of muttawas, since many are of the opinion that a woman’s voice is just as sexual as her naked body. Speaking of muttawa; they were on a tight leash. Their exhibit was at least half the size of last year’s and I did not see a single one “advising” women on how to cover properly, even though I was there for about three hours. What I did see was a civilian muttawa bringing over a Hannah Montana book that was being sold at one of the stands to complain about it
The PVPV had promptly and proudly displayed two items that they had confiscated in their raids; a T-shirt and a roulette wheel.
While I was waiting in line at one of the computerized book catalogs, a muttawa woman came up to me to ask me to cover my face. I (tried to) look her in the eye through her thick face cover and said that I am from the ultra conservative Qaseemi region and that I had tried her style of abaya and found that men still harassed me despite of my full cover . So now I’ve decided not to bother anymore. She was shocked and actually stuttered in trying to find a reply to that.
This year the children’s book section was greatly expanded and also better organized. All the children book stalls were gathered in one place and at the end of that hall is the women-only children section. Ms. Jawhira Al Sibti did a fantastic job this year by expanding the section. There was the usual children’s reading area with loads of books to choose from, a coloring area, a stage where plays are performed at regular intervals and a projector area where educational programs on child abuse and domestic violence are shown to the mothers.
Ms. Al Sibti is great. She allowed Saudi girls to volunteer. And not only college students that were recommended to her by a professor but also any girls who walked into the section and expressed interest in helping. The dress code for volunteers is a pair of pants and a Riyadh book fair T-shirt. I asked them how they got the education ministry to agree to that and they replied with a smile, that they didn’t ask.
All kinds of books were for sale. One of the publisher’s standing at the Syrian stalls told me that the muttawa came by and objected to several books that included two on the history of the Vatican, one on the reconciliation of the differences between Shias and Sunnis, and a bunch about Shiaism even though they were written by a Sunni. But the publishers defied the muttawa’s verbal instructions and kept them on display. He insisted that he would not take them out unless he gets a formal written letter of their ban.
There weren’t many English books but a few stalls had some and I was impressed by the quality and variety.
Just outside of the exhibition hall there are stalls for the Saudi Human Rights Organization, the Riyadh orphanage, the disabled association and others. There is a representative from each organization and free booklets.
Also there is a mini Islamic heritage and Saudi history exhibit with coins, old books and writing tools.
The food court wasn’t bad. I liked the sitting area more than the actual meal options available.
All in all, I would say this year is better than last year’s and definitely worth a visit. For dates and schedule click here.