Kuwaiti officials banned a total of 948 books from the county’s international literary festival, which was held from November 14 to 24 in Kuwait City. This list included Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov”, “100 Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Márquez and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” by Victor Hugo. In protest, a Kuwaiti artist created a cemetery filled with tombstones for the censored books.

A censorship board from the Ministry of Information examined all of the books set to be displayed at the 43rd edition of the festival. This commission checked these books against a 2006 law that bans any book that could be detrimental in any way to Islam, justice or national security.

“There is no clear mechanism for censorship”

Mohammad Sharaf is a graphic designer. He set up his installation on November 22 to denounce censorship at the literary festival.

I wanted to design a piece of art that would be accessible to everyone – I didn’t want to make something that would end up closed off in an art gallery. That’s why I decided to create an open-air installation. So I built 200 wooden headstones and I inscribed them with the titles of some of the books that had been banned. I set them up in an empty lot not far from the exhibition centre where the literary festival was set to take place.

The headstones were removed by security forces about three hours later. They said that I didn’t have official authorisation to use that space. However, the installation was successful because photos of the headstones were shared on social media and some appeared in the mainstream media. That meant that a lot of people were talking about book banning in Kuwait.

The book cemetery built by Sharaf.
The book cemetery built by Sharaf.
No one really knows why these books were banned. There is no clear procedure for censorship. The list of banned books includes globally recognised works of literature by authors such as Gabriel Garcia Márquez and Victor Hugo, as well as Kuwaiti novels like Mama Hessa’s Mice by Saud Alsanousi [Editor’s note: this is a science fiction story that imagines Kuwait in 2020 as a country torn apart by religious conflict], as well as dictionaries and children’s books [Editor’s note: The Little Mermaid was banned because her bikini top was found to be too revealing].

More than 4,000 books banned in the past five years

The list of books banned by Kuwaiti authorities has been growing since 2013. In five years, more than 4,000 books were banned by the Ministry of Information, as conservative members of parliament gained more power within parliament.

Even so, activists and writers aren’t giving up. Last September, three different protests were organised to protest censorship.

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