Retailers in Qatar have long (and quietly) complained about the lengthy process of importing books here, due to government procedures designed to ensure that no “offensive” material enters the country.
But those bureaucratic hassles are expected to soon “be solved,” Qatar’s Minister of Culture, Arts and Heritage Dr. Hamad Al Kuwari has told Publishing Perspectives.
Currently, book retailers in Qatar have to submit a copy of every book they want to sell here to the ministry to check for obscene or blasphemous content – even if it has already been approved for sale by a different store.
The British retailer opened its first Qatar outlet in October, and has found the book approval process difficult, Richard Peers-Weaver, purchasing manager, told online trade magazine Publishing Perspectives:
“We have around 70 percent of our stock still tied up at the Ministry awaiting approval. It’s very frustrating, particularly when we have customers coming in and expecting to see certain things.”
When contacted by Doha News, WH Smith General Manager Jonathan Robinson said that Peers-Weaver’s comments were “not official WH Smith comments” and that the company was “working closely and well with the ministry.”
The Ministry of Culture has not yet responded to a request for comment.
Meanwhile, Emma House, director of publisher relations at the UK Publishers Association, raised the issue with Al Kuwari at this year’s Doha International Book Fair.
In response, the minister said that he planned to put a solution in place:
“We talked about it today and we have solved the problem. There will be no more checking more than once. We have to avoid the bureaucracy. I’m sure there is a technological solution. It will be easy.”
Censorship is a hot topic in Qatar, a conservative Muslim country where all books, foreign newspapers and magazines are subject to approval from the government.
It’s also a sensitive one – the majority of requests for comment from Doha News to publishing houses, libraries, academics and book retailers over the past week have so far gone unanswered.
However, while officials and businesses may be reluctant to go on the record, residents have been less restrained about the subject.
Earlier this year, some students at Qatar University complained about the existence of “inappropriate” titles in the university’s library catalog and called for increased censorship, stirring debate about cultural values and academic freedom.
Meanwhile, distributors of international newspapers here have claimed that the delays in approval are devaluing imported papers, the Peninsula reported:
“We distribute The New York Times on the third day and British dailies are available the next day,” adds Santosh (Mathew, distribution manager of AEC). By the time the paper reaches the hands of the reader, it’s only worth the paper it’s printed on.”
Censorship also applies to the arts in Qatar – not just with nudity and sex, but also certain cultural red flags. Islam prohibits adherents from eating pork, and many Muslims interpret this to mean the pig is an offensive creature.
This is why, for example, when Disney On Ice held sold-out shows in Doha this summer, audience members expressed confusion after Pumbaa – the warthog from the Lion King – was removed from the song Hakuna Matata:
— N Z Aria-Eipe (@dohadispatch) June 13, 2013
Additionally, anyone with small children may be aware that Piglet, Winnie the Pooh’s friend in AA Milne’s books, is not present in any related merchandise in Qatar. A few years ago, a stir was caused when he was removed (using felt-tip pen) from books sold in the country.
Book Fair uncensored
Meanwhile, Publishing Perspectives writer Roger Tagholm notes that unlike Qatar’s book shops, stock sold at this year’s Doha International Book Fair did not appear to be censored:
“Ten minutes wandering the aisles at the fair and it was easy to find Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden, her famous study of women’s sexual fantasies, and a novel called Tease by Immodest Blaize, the cover of which shouts: ‘Packed full of glamour, revenge and oodles of sex’.”
This is likely because screening thousands of books ahead of the fair would have been logistically impossible.
Several Doha residents also tweeted their shock at finding a stand at the fair dedicated to L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of the Church of Scientology:
How do you think Qatar could improve its book selection? Thoughts?