As is customary every year, the Saudis are eagerly awaiting their annual intellectual Olympics known as the Riyadh International Book Fair, which is usually a rich source of inspiration for themes, ideas, and discussion. Throughout the years of the fair, the Saudis have wandered through the aisles of displays in awe, perusing book titles and topics that are normally difficult to obtain from Saudi retailers.
However, in recent years the Saudis have not been satisfied with their role as mere readers, following the ideas and affairs of others in the Arab world. They have now strongly taken to the field of publishing and today have become some of the most significant and prolific writers and authors, with their work becoming an important and ever-increasing feature on the publishing scene in general. The Saudi presence on the literary scene has grown in proportion with the Saudis’ increasing self-confidence; they are now diving into various social, political, cultural, religious, and intellectual topics. Of course, they have received mixed reactions for their work, some of which has been welcomed and championed, whilst other writings have been dismissed as nonsense, vanity, westernization, or an attempt to divide society.
But the Saudis, over time, have grown in confidence and have continued to courageously write about difficult and restricted subjects, addressing them with a high standard of respect and professionalism. In this regard, I wish to draw attention to two very important books that I consider to be among the best Saudi and Arab works of recent years. Both books have been printed by Dar Al Jadawel, a Saudi publishing house that, along with Maderek, is considered to be the most significant Saudi publisher of recent times.
The first book is by the Saudi writer and novelist Badriya al-Bishr, who has published a piece of work rich in thought entitled Najd before the oil. This is a review of the social, cultural, and economic development of a highly important region in the heart of the Arabian Peninsula, documented through folklore, popular tales, proverbs, and the habits and values of the region’s inhabitants. The book addresses life in Najd before the great change that was brought about by the discovery of oil, with all its subsequent consequences on the life and ideology of the people of the region. The book presents an enjoyable journey-written in a beautiful style-of a delicate subject, giving it the respect it deserves. The author here has deviated from the novelistic approach that has characterized her work recently, to present an excellent piece of social research.
The second book, written by the distinguished author Mahmoud Traore, is a novel entitled The neighbors of Zamzam. Here Traore presents the tale of a family migrating within Saudi Arabia from one region to another, recounting the social interactions, differences, and diversity they face. This is a charming story told in a breathtaking manner by Traore, who burst onto the scene with his previous work Maymoonah; a critical success that received the Sharjah award for literature.
These kind of books confirm Saudi Arabia’s presence in the field of literature. In turn, this addresses the domestic Saudi need for greater criticism, review, and openness. Literature can help to highlight errors before they develop into the beginnings of criticism, and with greater calls for reform and opening up there is now a greater appetite for more subjects to be tackled. The Saudi citizen welcomes the quality of such books, and is fully prepared to receive more.
The book is still man’s best companion.