KUWAIT — No book, it seems, is too substantive or too insignificant to be banned in Kuwait. Recent targets of the government’s literary censors include an encyclopedia with a picture of Michelangelo’s David and a Disney version of “The Little Mermaid.” David had no fig leaf, and the mermaid, alas, wore half a bikini.
“There are no hijab-wearing mermaids,” said Shamayel al-Sharikh, a Kuwaiti women’s activist. “The powers-that-be thought her dress was promiscuous. It’s humiliating.”
Kuwaitis like to think of their country as an enclave of intellectual freedom in the conservative Persian Gulf, a haven that once welcomed exiled Arab writers. But that self-image is becoming harder to sustain.
Responding to the demands of a growing conservative bloc in Parliament, the government is increasingly banning books.
In August, the government acknowledged that it had banned 4,390 books since 2014, hundreds of them this year, including many works of literature that had once been considered untouchable, setting off street demonstrations and online protests.
Sometimes the 12-member censors committee (six Arabic readers, six English readers) that rules on books for the Ministry of Information gives a reason: The anthology “Why We Write” was banned because its editor, Meredith Maran, had falsely accused her father of molestation.
In other cases, the justification is obscure, such as with “The Art of Reading,” by Damon Young. Maya Angelou’s memoir, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” is also forbidden in Kuwait.
Prize winners are not immune — in fact they seem to be frequent victims. “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” by the Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, is banned because of a scene in which a wife sees her husband naked, as is “Children of Gebelawi,” by the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz, the first Arabic-language writer to win the Nobel in literature.
If all that seems rather Orwellian, George Orwell’s “1984” is also banned, in at least one Arabic translation, though it is allowed in another.
Kuwaiti readers have struck back with a mix of brio and scornful mirth. Some posted photographs on social media of piles of banned books they have in their home libraries.
Authors suggested that online delivery services from abroad could evade the ban, which applies mostly to bookstores and local publishers. “Now books are becoming like drugs,” said Hind Francis, an activist with a Kuwait anti-censorship group called Meem3. “You have to have your banned-book dealer.”
Activists and writers gathered to protest the book ban three times in September.
With the country’s book fair — the third largest in the Arab world, after Cairo and Beirut — scheduled in November, officials have pushed back. “There is no book banning in Kuwait,” read a recent statement by the Ministry of Information. “There is a book censorship committee that reviews all books.”
An assistant minister of information, Muhammad Abdul Mohsen al-Awash, elaborated. “In Kuwait, over the past five years only 4,300 books were banned out of 208,000 books — that means only 2 percent are banned and 98 percent are approved,” he said.
It is a particularly sensitive issue because Kuwait’s emir, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, has pushed to make his country a regional cultural hub. While theater, dance and music are under royal patronage and exempt from censorship, books are not.
“That cultural hub just cannot happen when you have a book massacre like this, all these books being banned,” said Bothyana Al-Essa, a Kuwaiti author whose book “Maps of Wandering” was banned. Kuwaiti censors banned the book over a child abuse scene set in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, she said, but the Saudis never banned the book in their country, where it was a best seller.
Bans have for the first time extended to many international books and reference books already on Kuwaiti shelves.
“This year they’ve gone into the ridiculous,” Ms. Sharikh said. “Children’s stories and books by Kuwaiti authors.” Even works produced by the government’s own publishing house in the Public Council for Culture, Arts and Literature have been banned, such as a scientific study of hymens, according to Ms. Francis.
At a bookstore in Kuwait City, the proprietor showed off a secret cupboard full of contraband books behind the cash register and a basement storeroom with even more. “It’s a cliché that book banning helps book sales,” she said. “As a bookseller, I can tell you I would much rather have the books out on display.”
Contraband works, hidden in a cabinet and sent by mail.