The country is undergoing a cultural revolution that few are talking about
With a Western media establishment that devotes coverage to negative stories coming from Saudi Arabia, in many cases to score domestic political points, the cultural reforms taking place as a result of Saudi Vision 2030 are not being given their due weight.
To appreciate these reforms, one should read them against the backdrop of the Saudi Arabia of previous decades, especially the 1980s and 1990s, when a group of Saudi writers and thinkers known as modernists challenged literary and cultural norms.
These figures imagined a new cultural self-image of their nation, only to be met with calls for their arrest and prosecution on charges of blasphemy and heresy. This was one of the most controversial episodes in Saudi cultural history.
Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) recently posted a tweet celebrating the legacy of a central figure of that episode, namely the poet Muhammad al-Thubayti, who was hailed as a pioneer of literary modernism in the Kingdom.
The tweet quotes a verse from the poet’s The Stance of the Sand/The Stance of Paronomasia, one of his longest and last poems. Prominent Saudi writers read the tweet as emblematic of the country’s new embrace of modern art and literature.
Such a high-profile celebration of a Saudi modernist was almost unthinkable in the context of 1980s Saudi Arabia, when al-Thubayti’s project was evolving. In fact, the entire Saudi modernist project was on the verge of collapsing towards the end of that decade due to the conservative Islamists’ vicious attack on the modernists, whom they deemed as sinners.
The 1980s wars over modernism
In the 1980s, “modernism” was a key word in the battles over symbolic capital between Saudi modernists and conservative Islamists. The modernists consisted of primarily two groups: The theorists and critics, aimed to import foreign modern literary theory to the Saudi cultural scene as well as establish a Saudi school of literary criticism. The poets and prose writers, on the other hand, provided the critics with materials on which to apply literary theory.
Al-Thubayti was a central voice in the latter group.
In 1985, al-Ghadhdhami published his first book Sin and Atonement: From Structuralism to Deconstruction, which was hailed for its introduction of structuralism and deconstruction to an Arab readership. Almost one year later, al-Thubayti published his third collection titled Terrains. This period in general witnessed a profusion of literary publication along the same lines, all constituting a breakthrough in the Saudi intellectual discourse. However, not everybody was happy with the success the modernist movement was gaining.
In the second half of the decade, conservative Islamists began accusing modernists of “corrupting” the Arabic language, of Westernization, importing “atheistic” or anti-religious methods, and even treason against the state. The literary movement was seen as dangerous to the “cultural well-being” of the society, a threat to its traditions, and a “secret war” on the Islamic faith.
The backlash was spearheaded by the 1998 book Modernism on the Scales of Islam, which claimed that modernism constituted a deviation from the Islamic faith. In a shrewd tactical move, the book was prefaced with an endorsement by Sheikh Abd al-Aziz bin Baz, unofficial Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia at the time. It bore the name of a certain Awad al-Qarni, a dissident Salafi-inspired religious-political movement in Saudi Arabia that was influenced by the activism and conceptual framework of Muslim Brotherhood.
Al-Ghadhdhami had to leave his post in the Department of Arabic Language and Literature at King Abdulaziz University in Jeddah. Al-Surayhi was stripped of his doctoral degree in 1989 because his dissertation included “ideas, expressions, and methods incompatible with the teachings and principles of our religion and our Muslim society,” according to an inquiry report.
As for al-Thubayti, he was prevented from accepting the 1989 Jeddah Literary Club Prize for poetry, which was awarded to him in recognition of Terrains, only an hour before he was set to receive it.
To make matters worse, Terrains was later banned from distribution. When Muhammad al-Ali, one of the godfathers of Saudi literary modernism, wanted to respond to al-Qarni’s accusations, no one dared to publish his response in the Saudi press.
Consequently, many “hadathis” chose to go underground. Being labeled as “hadathi,” at that time, amounted to something close to heretic, with all its serious repercussions. One might go as far as to say that the word “hadathah” (modernism) became increasingly taboo.
The new Saudi Arabia of modernists
In the new Saudi Arabia, modernism’s spirit of redefining identity endures. Art is a cutting-edge industry, film is thriving, cinemas are open to the public, women are driving and attending concerts and sports events, modernist (and modern) literature is celebrated in events across the Kingdom, and, above all, culture has its own ministry which just launched its vision, mission, and initiatives to harness the nation’s rich heritage and promote culture as a way of life, a contributor to economic growth, and a bridge between Saudi Arabia and the rest of the world.
The state’s backing of the conservative campaign against the modernists now seems part of a distant past.
An essential part of Vision 2030 is supporting cultural innovation to unlock the creative potential of the young population. Within this environment of openness to art and culture, creative Saudis are exploring new mediums, such as film, and reviving traditional ones, such as storytelling. In this way, they are reclaiming their narrative from a simplistic and Orientalist image of the Kingdom.
The celebration of literary trailblazers such as al-Thubayti should invite us to note the ongoing shift in Saudi Arabia from banning to embracing modernism. His poetry was part of a course I taught last spring at Georgetown University in Washington DC on modern Arabic literature
Literature and art provide people with a space for freedom of expression on matters social, political, and even spiritual, and they are important cites where a new imagining of nations’ self-images are forged.
As for the Saudis of the new Saudi Arabia, they now seem determined to have the prophecy embedded in al-Ghadhdhami’s book Sin and Atonement fulfilled, by moving towards a future that celebrates tolerance and artistic expression.
Hatem Alzahrani is a poet and writer with an MA from Yale University, department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations. This article originally appeared in Al-Arabiya.