A book 'ban' raises the requirement of cultural sensitivity
There is nothing like an outright ban to bring attention to a book, not to mention an abrupt halt to sales. The sequels to Fifty Shades of Grey, the risqué novel that has taken the top sales spot from the Harry Potter franchise, have been taken off the shelves of bookstores in the UAE, according to recent news reports.
Unfortunately, for the purposes of this article at least, I haven't had an opportunity to read the book. From a personal perspective, it is not exactly on the top of my current reading list, but I hear from both readers and critics that it leaves very, very little to the imagination. So really, it's not much of a surprise that content that far exceeds an "R" rating is being taken off the shelves.
But there is an added spin to this so-called ban: the National Media Council reports that it didn't issue any such order, while store spokesmen had various reports of whether the books had been banned or not granted approval. Most bookstore managers didn't want to comment on the issue.
The first book has taken the publishing world by storm and I doubt that many retailers would self-impose a ban on a bestseller. On the other hand, the UAE operates an open book policy: unlike in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, the Government cannot legally ban any particular book. That leaves the question open about where this supposed ban is coming from.
Historically, the UAE has always had a strong stance against graphic sexually orientated content that offends religious and cultural sensitivities.
I'll always remember my mother complaining that the pages in her monthly edition of Marie Claire magazine were stuck together because of the infamous black marker that censors explicit images.
But marking out pictures - which closely resemble those found in a Playboy magazine - and an outright ban on written material that depicts borderline disturbing sexual encounters are two completely different things. It is to be hoped that the difference is obvious in terms of the general public's exposure to the content.
When any content is banned, or even just censored with a black pen, it is important to look at the issue from two perspectives. What does the material represent just on a stand-alone basis? Secondly, and this is more specific to the Arabian Peninsula and our culture, how does the material affect other areas that involve cultural or religious sensitivities?
To start with, in and of itself, we are dealing with a book - a book with front-cover art that shows nothing but a necktie with the name of the author. This will hardly give personal offence to any passers-by, unless they stop, buy the book, open it and start reading. If the content offends a person's moral values, they still have the option: stop reading.
However, because of the sensitivities in the region, one can understand why families might worry about their young people reading such content, leading to questions and curiosities that don't necessarily fit the local cultural and religious norms.
The simple answer to those concerns is to require booksellers to have a dedicated section where books such as Fifty Shades of Grey are displayed. Pretty much in the same way that movie theatres limit access to content that is deemed too violent, access could be limited to people over a certain age or those who have parental consent.
This raises another interesting point: movie theatres are free to promote and show movies that contain ridiculous amounts of violence, but when sexual intercourse is the subject, many societies apply a completely different standard. Perhaps depictions of brutality should be subjected to the same scrutiny.
The UAE accommodates, with limitations, other imports that do not fit with our religious or cultural sensitivities, one particular example being alcohol. The UAE takes a liberal approach to allowing non-Muslims to consume alcohol with the restriction that retailers must ensure that such products are not sold in public spaces for all to see. In special shops, avoiding potential insult to Muslims, alcohol products are in a sense out of sight, out of mind.
So how is a book viewed as more harmful or more culturally insensitive? In a country that has most of the world's nationalities residing here, the complex situation demands a great deal of tolerance and consideration from all.
We still are not entirely clear why such a "ban" has been implemented, but there are some points that are very clear. It would be a waste of time, money and effort if the goal were truly to implement a ban that keeps such content out of the UAE. In the age of the internet and online shopping, the world has become a much smaller place. Most content is easily available at the click of a mouse.
But more importantly, when we approach these issues - with full respect to national and cultural priorities - we should also consider freedom of content and expression, as well as the significance of reading to our national development.
If we start really banning books, regardless of content, those Fifty Shades of Grey might just fade to black.
Khalid Al Ameri is an Emirati social commentator
On Twitter: @KhalidAlAmeri
Updated: September 11, 2012 04:00 AM