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Censorship in the Middle East 2, March 2008

Posted by thegulfblog.com in Kuwait, Middle East.
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After living in the Middle East for a couple of years, you begin to get somewhat accustomed to various kinds of censorship, especially when you live in Kuwait and you are a teacher. I was reminded of the often bizarre nature of censorship by a recent post on the Indie Hour blog. If ever there was proof to the adage that a picture tells a thousand words, this is it. Witness what the Saudi censors did to Nirvana’s Nevermind album cover.

Nirvana censored

If for some reason you can’t remember what the original cover looked like (shame on you), here is the dastardly image in all its Bielzibubian horror.

Nirvana uncensored a

There is not that much you can add to that really.

This incident fervently reminded me of being in the Jarir bookstore in Hawally, Kuwait when one of my friends showed me a children’s book of Whinny the Pooh and friends. The only difference between this book and one from the UK was that Piglet – cute, little, harmless, Piglet – had been heartlessly, brutally and conscientiously scribbled out with black felt pen. Obviously, if Kuwaiti children saw this picture of a cute pig they would no doubt rush out in a panicked and hungry (but fruitless) rampage to find themselves a chunk of pork.

As amusing as these examples are – and they are, to my mind, simply hilarious – there are, need it be said, more insidious examples of censorship in Kuwait and beyond. Teaching in a Kuwaiti school is an eye opening experience. On the wall outside my classroom there was a nice, large world map. However, political sensitivities being what they are, I was instructed to scrub out Israel on the map. Can anyone tell me where Israel is on a world map? Pretty much right in the centre. So, aside from every child in Primary simply walking past the map ten or more times a day and not paying it the blindest bit of notice, they were all transfixed and curious as to the nature of this black square in the middle of the map. “Mr David…shino hatha?” ‘What’s that’ – was all I heard for weeks.

Then there are the dictionaries and text books. After they have been carefully vetted by the Kuwaiti Ministry of this or that, we were given a list of what must be erased. Words such as “Israel, Jew, Zionist…etc” were to be blacked out of the dictionaries. (As well as the word “Dawn” for some inexplicable reason). In the text books, all Ancient Greek or Roman statues which depicted nakedness in any some way shape or form were to be given shorts or t-shirts. As did any other picture in any other historical context where the human form was depicted unclothed.

The censorship takes a more insidious form as you progress up the school and is, unsurprisingly, most difficult for History and Biology teachers. Most students in Kuwait sit the International General Certificate of Secondary Education (I-GCSE) which is a British exam. There are, therefore, severe clashes between what the pupils need to be taught and what they can be taught. Whole swathes of History text books were stapled together or just ripped out. These sections generally dealt with the Holocaust or Jews generally. The booklet that came around from the Ministry explained why the Holocaust could not be taught by saying that “others suffered more in the War.” I somehow doubt that the Kuwaiti Ministry of whatever was really that preoccupied with the Russians and their huge losses. It was permitted, however, to teach the Holocaust from the perspective that the Jews deserved it. For example, Kristallnacht could be taught as the teacher could explain, if they so chose, that the reaction against the Jews was understandable given the clichéd notion of Jews being disproportionately rich. The history teachers that I knew were totally unprepared to teach in this manner.

You don’t need much imagination to work out what the problems were for the Biology teacher. Either way, the pupils entered the exams only knowing parts of the syllabus and could conceivably have been examined on topics about which they knew absolutely nothing.

The historical censorship is the more surprising example of the two as the Kuwaiti press is arguably the most liberal in the region and frequently discuss Israel. Often this is even done in a relatively even handed way. The subject of the Holocaust is also discussed from time to time. However, the issue of childhood education is always a touchy subject. Witness the issues and diplomatic incidents in Japan and China in recent years over the school history textbooks.

It is a thoroughly trite and clichéd conclusion, but it has to be made: if the Middle East is ever to see any kind of lasting peace, the education of the next generation needs to be changed. Israel, some months ago, tackled this thorny problem when Yuli Tamir the Education Minister said that Israeli school text books ought to also show pre-1967 borders. Needless to say, this caused an apoplectic fit from the right wingers in the country, but it was the brave and correct decision to make. For an Arab country to make a similar decision is, at the moment, singularly impossible (see my article on the Middle East’s ideological straight jacket). However, hopefully slowly but surely the most egregious examples of bias and bigotry could be removed one step at a time. For example, starting with the simple step of acknowledging that Israel can be shown on a map. Such a transition would, obviously, take a generation or more, but with the way that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is spiralling at the moment, and the way animosities are growing seemingly exponentially, then it may come at just the right time.

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Comments»

1. Saudi censors « The Gulf blog - 25, May 2009

[…] of the treatment that Nirvana’s ‘Nevermind’ album got in Saudi which I documented some time […]

2. Piggy censorship « The Gulf blog - 9, September 2010

[…] recent followers, here’s an old article I wrote earlier on this topic some time […]

3. Kuwait Book Fair bans books « The Gulf blog - 21, September 2010

[…] I’ve written on Kuwaiti book censorship before here. […]

4. Joshua Jones - 9, March 2011

This is what happens in any overly religious environment. Karl Marx was right on when he called it “The Opiate of the Masses”. Religion turns ordinary humans into idiots, just like opiate derived drugs due. It’s time for humans to ditch their deities. They’ll be better off thinking for themselves.

thegulfblog.com - 9, March 2011

Hmm…not sure religion has much to do with it to be honest.


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