Today marks the end of Banned Book Week, a movement to recognize and counter the censorship of books and celebrate the value of literature. For me, though, the week brought what felt like an endless parade of bad news and ugly incidents: men going out of their way to make loud sexist and transphobic comments in a grocery store; discovering the frequency with which people of color, my own professors, are pulled over by cops here in Lincoln; a public lecture on human trafficking and modern slavery (about 21 million people are believed to be enslaved, mostly by businesses forcing them to work in sweatshops, on farms, or in fishing), and the tragic shooting in Oregon. It was a brutal week, emotionally and intellectually, making the censorship of books feel like a relatively petty issue.
Of course, banning books is a very serious issue. School districts have, at one point or another, banned authors ranging from Mark Twain to Kate Chopin to Toni Morrison. This issue is important, but in the United States, one’s life and liberty are not at risk while reading a banned book. This week has proven that the average American’s life and liberty are put at risk because of the failures of legislatures to protect students from violence, and the failures of those with privilege to refuse to participate in institutionalized sexism and racism. I can read To Kill a Mockingbird or The Tempest without fear of being imprisoned as a consequence.
For Qatari poet Mohammed al-Ajami, this is not the case. In 2010, al-Ajami was recorded reading a poem while in Cairo, where he was studying literature at the time. The poem made it to the Internet, and a year later, he was arrested in Qatar. Testimonies varied, the charges were vague, and some contend that a later poem about Tunisia and the early days of the Arab uprisings were the cause for his arrest. In either case, it was clear that al-Ajami was arrested because the regime believed his poetry posed a threat to their power. He was arrested when protests erupted across the Arab world, in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Syria. Originally, he was dealt a life sentence, but it was later reduced to fifteen years.
Fifteen years in prison for reciting a poem. Nevertheless, censorship is much messier than Banned Book Week advocates tend to portray it. This week also saw the CairoComix festival, a festival of comics and graphic novels in Cairo. Earlier this year, the Cairo Book Festival likewise celebrated numerous authors. At the same time, the Egyptian junta has allowed people to burn books supposedly belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood. Writers have ample opportunity to express dissenting ideas about the regime, and the regime has ample power to suppress them. Writers could be thrown in jail if the regime disapproves of their work, or simply destroy the work, so writers will rely on scrupulous methods to write. Censorship is complex, and the writer-regime relationship is equally baffling, creating a space in which books are simultaneously heralded and demonized. Sometimes, however, regimes focus on the mere idea of an idea, rather than the idea itself.
The protests in Syria escalated because the Assad regime arrested fifteen children caught using a slogan used in the Egyptian uprising. Children were sent to prison for using a simple phrase: “Ash-shab yurid isqat an-nizam,” or Down With the Regime. In the U.S., we can say that. Here in the U.S., I can proclaim that same sentiment without fear of arrest: Down with the United States! Down with the Republic! Start over and draft a new Constitution! The U.S. has failed to bring equality, so I say let’s shake it up!
I can type these words, stuff them onto the Internet the way al-Ajami’s poem was, and I will be safe. Maybe, if I’m lucky, the government will pick up on it, follow my blog, spike my stats, and put me on a list of people to watch out for. I can even type much more threatening things to the authoritarian regime I call home:
The U.S. is guilty of war crimes, for its airstrikes have killed innocent civilians in Afghanistan! The U.S. deserves to be put on trial for human rights violations! The TPP is a violation of basic human rights! It will dismantle national sovereignty and allow corporations to sue governments! It is a moral failure to let it pass! The Citizens United case creates corporate oligarchy! The regime has failed to combat climate change, another human rights violation! Down with the regime! Down with the regime! DOWN WITH THE REGIME OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA!
And you continue to read these words, and I continue to write them, with no fear or hope of consequence. The relationship between a subversive writer and an oppressive state is defined by the audience between the two. Al-Ajami was arrested because his supposedly radical poem went on the Internet, where everybody in Qatar could hear it. It could motivate anybody, and clearly the regime has anxieties about its people’s attitude toward their rule. Unlike Qatar, the United States is not populated by people who want to shake up the government and end oppression.
I can easily get away with denouncing the U.S., partly because the U.S. is significantly less oppressive of its own citizens. There’s a reason Syrian writer Zakaria Tamer and Iraqi writer Dunya Mikhail, and many others, relocate to the U.S., Great Britain, and other western countries; for all the sins we’ve committed, we’re not burning books or imprisoning poets (based on the presidential debates, all that will change if we elect one of a dozen ignorant bigots). But the U.S. government won’t be afraid of subversive writers because there is simply no audience for them. Americans are too apathetic to pay attention to subversive poets, or angry writers. Americans do not quantify an audience that is willing to be swayed by authors trying to draw attention to very real problems, which is why I can identify so many and know, to my great sadness, that nobody will walk away feeling any different. Poets will only be incarcerated if there is an audience they can change, and sadly, American audiences are hostility resistant to change. For the love of God, we’ve had yet another shooting, and Americans are still unwilling to acknowledge the need for any changes!
The problem with Banned Book Week in the U.S. is that it allows us to take our liberalism out for a walk, brag to our friends about how radical we are, and then return safely to our communal, private silences. Meanwhile, a poet will remain in prison for a decade, because he recited a poem. Banning books is irrefutably bad, and reading those books can likewise be an exercise in resistance. But all too often, it’s a resistance of distraction; a resistance that keeps us from having to confront larger structural problems in our own regime; a resistance that makes us think real change will come from simply reading, when the truth is that reading is only the first step, and there’s a hell of a lot of work to be done.
I will not give into cynicism, though. Please do not mistake me for a cynic. To me, cynicism is a privilege. It’s emotionally expensive, and only those who can afford the extra emotional toll required to be a cynic can look at the world with hopelessness. I’d rather spend my emotional energy on compassion. It’s like the difference between freshly picked berries and a can of creamed corn. Compassion is simply healthier for you; hopelessness, like creamed corn, makes me want to puke. Even if hope is unrealistic, it’s a fixture of the kind of motion necessary to work harder to improve ourselves.
I am struggling to improve myself, forever and always. I internalize the suffering of others well, sometimes too well, and the result is overwhelming guilt. That guilt is good. It fuels compassion, and it continually forces me to reconcile my shortcomings, my complicity in institutional oppression, the ways I benefit from modern slavery in the products I purchase. I’m proud that I struggle to improve myself, that I a strive to define my actions, my writing, my mannerisms, all that I do by compassion. I do so through literature, which saves my soul, but also through investigation and inquiry into what I consume, into where it comes from, into who benefits and who suffers in production.
I implore you, I beg you, I order you to do the same.