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Banned Saudi novels thrive abroad - and at home

Outlawed works of fiction, which address topics like sex and politics, still make it into the hands of Saudi readers

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The two latest bestselling novels on Neelwafurat, an online bookstore based in Lebanon, are by Saudi authors. But "Cities of Salt" by the late Abdul-Rahman Munif and "The Insane Asylum" by Ghazi al-Gosaibi - the Saudi Minister of Water and Electricity - are not available in Saudi bookstores.

These books and other more recent ones by the country's most celebrated novelists, a small avant-garde group who often write in realistic detail about life in Saudi Arabia, are banned here.

"It's amazing that Saudi Arabia has produced some of the finest writers in the Arab world, given the lack of support they get from their society and the government, and the unhealthy environment they are living in," says Youssef al-Dayni, a Saudi researcher who writes for the local press on literature and religious affairs.

The success of Saudi novelists abroad is casting a fresh spotlight on the tension here between conservative Islam and the principles of free speech. It also illuminates a deeper divide: the gap between what is officially sanctioned and what is privately watched, read, or talked about behind closed doors.

For example, there are no movies in the country. But most Saudis can buy the latest films on DVD in stores and watch Arabic language programs showing scantily-clad pop singers and dancers on satellite TV at home. They also can hear Saudi dissidents criticizing the government and clerics talking openly about more moderate strains of Islam not allowed in the country. But what is acceptable when it originates outside the country is still taboo when it comes from inside the kingdom.

Writer Abdo Khal, who has written five novels, says his books are not sold in Saudi Arabia because they "address the sacrosanct trio of taboos in the Arab world: sex, politics, and religion. But these are the things that make up people's lives," he argues.

'Celebrating immoral behavior'

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