Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Dubai Book Ban

Five years before I was born, a new law, the Obscene Publications Act, allowed publishers in my native United Kingdom, for the first time, to escape conviction for obscenity if they could prove a work they produced had literary merit.

Its first trial was in 1960, when Penguin books went to court over DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, a suit brought by the Crown. They won the case and a new era of freedom was ushered in, allowing people to explore ideas and concepts that had previously been impossible to air in public.

By 1971, the producers of the underground magazine Oz faced trial in a UK court for obscenity, again a suit brought against them by the State. After a lengthy and expensive trial, they too were acquitted (on appeal, in fact).

In the meantime, satirical magazine Private Eye was banned from sale at branches of WH Smith until the 1970s. In fact, the retailer also refused to stock the controversial 'Diana' issue as recently as 2004.

The Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks (Here's the Sex Pistols) was banned from the charts, BBC radio and many record stores across the UK. Their 1977 single 'God Save the Queen' was banned by the BBC. As was The Stranglers' Peaches.

Frankie Goes To Hollywood's overtly homosexual record Relax was banned from the charts, BBC Radio and many record stores in 1983.

In 1992, Radiohead agreed to edit the word fuck out of 'Creep' and thereby avoided a radio ban.

This list of records banned by the BBC for reasons of sexuality, politics and 'obscenity' details the lot, right up to 1997, when The Prodigy faced an effective 'no airtime' ban by BBC radio.

Throughout my lifetime I have seen censorship in my home country, from the demonstrations against Monty Python's Life of Brian (and the cutting of the film to meet the demands of the UK's censor), the censorship of television (Mary Whitehouse and all), of literature (see above) and of music (ditto).

I don't like censorship. I'm against it. I have pushed against it, as slowly and surely as I believe I can within limits of reason I choose to set myself. I believe strongly in freedom of speech and expression.

But the sound of the newly secular and liberated voices of the UK media howling like a pack of infuriated Macaques at the temerity of people living and working in another society and cultural environment in deciding whether a work is appropriate for that audience is really too much. Over the period in which the UAE has been a nation, the UK has only just managed to stop banning, suing, censoring and repressing literature and music. Is it SO hard to understand that other societies might not be quite as... umm... 'advanced'?

Media freedom in the UAE has moved ahead in my time here. It's by no means perfect, but it's a whole lot better than it was and much more liberal than in many other parts of the Middle East and Asia. Greater freedom of expression is allowed here than in many other parts of the Middle East and Asia. But there are limits. These are being constantly explored, tested and pushed. Probably not as much as they could or should be, but they are. It's a long, slow game to play precisely because this Muslim society holds different values and is keen to preserve those.

As is its right, no? People do still have the right to uphold different values, don't they?

I agree on the principle. No book should be banned. And I look forward to the day when we get there. But in the case of the celebrated 'Festival Book', I believe the author knew exactly what she was doing. I believe this is a cynical attempt to use this ban to create 'buzz' around an otherwise, I suspect, unremarkable book.

In the meantime, I do strongly believe that the newly libertarian UK could engage in a little less hubris and a little more introspection regarding its own, hard-fought and newly won freedoms.


the real nick said...

Man, you are able to argue for both corners at the same time, aren't you?!

I'd suggest a career in PR, then....or law.

The Wizard of D said...


I'd rather focus on the positives and the progress that UAE has made. We need to keep pushing for progress and so long as we are moving...we will get there.

One needs to keep in mind that each society has its own values.

Of late the British press seems to have gone into a tizzy playing judge over everything in Dubai while its own backuard seems to be on fire. Not that its any of my business!!!

Tom Gara said...

It's not the censorship, its the censorship at a supposedly world-class literary festival. You don't see stories in the global media about how there's no tits on Dubai One, or no swearing on the radio etc.

AmericanInDubai said...

Tom Gara, this ain't the festival censoring the book. as I understand it is banned in the country; how do you expect the festival, regardless of their ideals, to bypass the ban ?!

The UAE doesn't have a 1000-yr history of culture like Europe, only 50 years (even less). So it takes time for them to absorb everything.

Perhaps if you let the festival run its course, they will see the light.

But if you insist that they see the light before you bring the lamp over, that's just stupid.

sabaza said...

There are things in this that I agree with and others that I don't. Censorship is bad. Full stop. No two ways about it. As someone who worked with a festival in this country that aims to build cultural bridges and promote the dialogue, I can say that I have seen the limits stretched and boundaries tested on issues as pertinent and controversial as the Israeli acknowledgement. (Many of us will also remember the not too far gone IMF in Dubai - where similar controversy occured).

There is a huge difference between allowing dialogue and accepting other people's opinions and what, at least seems to many people, as a blatant PR stunt to get rich. I would like to read that book before I form any further opinion on the literary value.

It's a literature festival that has accepted a ban made by the government. The other festival I mention earlier went beyond a stricter ban to include a dialogue that was meaningful and a point that needed to be made and heard for a valid reason. I suspect, as Alex mentioned, this book will not be as deep. But I will confirm once I read the book!

The Spear said...

I agree.

Yet, if they MUST ban something, they should ate least be consistent in their banning ways.

Anonymous said...

Alex, I wouldn't call the current freedom experienced in the UK and the West in general as 'advanced' (vs. 'backward' elsewhere). I prefer to see it as 'different'.

Every culture has a different set of values as I am sure you know.

I am not particularly sure the author is complicit in this cheap shot at a publicity stunt. It appears to be Penguin.

highandwild said...

Margaret Atwood now rues pulling out of the Festival:

Jacques Renault said...

Very interesting points there. i am of the same opinion that there is a cultural and moral arrogance towards Dubai and UAE and a lack of appreciation of the advances being made.
i do worry though that maybe I have had the fight knocked out of me after living here for 3 years and have began to conform to the system.
i hope not.

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