Novel approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict

 
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By Khaled Diab

Despite infringing on the author’s copyright and wishes, the unauthorised Hebrew translation of a bestselling Egyptian novel highlights how the word can help blunt the sword.

25 November 2010

AR version

Alaa al-Aswany is an unlikely candidate for the job of saviour of the Egyptian novel. Yet this dentist, who continues to run his downtown practice in Cairo, is widely regarded as having revived the Egyptian novel and raised its street credibility in the process. The Egyptian novelist is also an outspoken pro-democracy campaigner and has written numerous articles over the years about the urgent need for democratic reform in Egypt and about the corruption and inertia of the Mubarak regime.

His irreverence and wit shine through in his novella and short story collection entitled Friendly Fire. His best-known work, The Yacoubian Building, first published in 2002, is a courageous exploration of Egypt’s grim socio-economic reality, warts and all, as expressed through the inhabitants of a declining but once-grand downtown apartment block.

Although The Yacoubian Building has been translated into at least 20 languages, al-Aswany has strenuously resisted attempts to translate his novel into one language in particular, Hebrew, in solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians and as an expression of his opposition to “cultural normalisation” with Israel.

Going against al-Aswany’s wishes, the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information (IPCRI) recently decided, with the declared aim of “expanding cultural awareness”, to publish an unauthorised translation of The Yacoubian Building in pdf and distributed it to a mailing list of some 27,000 subscribers.

Al-Aswany was, predictably, livid. Accusing IPCRI of “piracy and theft”, he has threatened to take legal action. IPCRI’s head and founder, Gershon Baskin, is unrepentant. “We didn’t intend to infringe his copyright,” he told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper. “The question here is whether Israelis’ right to read the book outweighs his copyright.”

Well, from a legal and intellectual point of view, the answer to Baskin’s poser is “obviously not”. However, the peace-activist-turned-guerrilla-publisher does have a point when he says, as reported by AP: “Let’s give the Israeli Jewish public an opportunity to understand Arab society better.”

Although al-Aswany stands on very firm legal ground, I am doubtful about the human and moral case for his general opposition to a Hebrew translation, not least because writers can pick many things but one thing they can’t choose are their readers.

Like al-Aswany, I am moved by the plight of the Palestinians and the hardships they suffer under occupation. But I am not convinced that engaging in a blanket cultural boycott against Israel is effective, let alone fair or consistent.

For a start, Palestinians aren’t the only Arabs – or Muslims for that matter – struggling under the yoke of foreign occupation. Take Iraq and Afghanistan, where the populations are suffering at least as badly as the Palestinians, and worse in terms of body count. And I know, from my reading of Aswany’s columns, that he is outraged by the devastation wrought by these Anglo-American invasions. So why has this indignation not translated into a similar refusal to permit the release of an English version of his novel?

There is a certain paradoxical, knee-jerkism among many otherwise progressive Egyptian intellectuals, particularly those of the older generation, who behave like dinosaurs when it comes to Israel – stuck in yesterday’s battles, fixated on yesterday’s outdated and disastrous ideas – but are willing and able to see the greys and nuances in America, despite its far more destructive track record across the globe.

If al-Aswany is concerned about defending the Palestinian cause, surely allowing Israelis to read about Arabs as ordinary human beings – rather than the demons that haunt their nightmares – and gain an insight into Arab society is far more helpful and useful than a boycott that has lasted decades with no perceptible effect. Personally, I am all for a selective boycott of known extremists, but refusing to deal with all Israelis is the kind of collective punishment we Arabs criticise Israel for practising against the Palestinians.

One problem is that intellectuals who deal with Israel in Egypt are often branded as sell-outs and even traitors. If al-Aswany is worried about seeming to profit personally from dealing with Israel while the Palestinians suffer, he could always donate the proceeds from a Hebrew edition of his book to a Palestinian charity.

In fact, I would have hoped that al-Aswany would have used his creativity, stature, fame and undoubted courage to strike out in a new direction for Egypt’s mainstream intelligentsia and establish a dialogue with like-minded Israeli (not to mention Palestinian) reformers and peace activists, rather than remain stuck in negative inaction. Support from such a prominent Egyptian voice would empower Israeli moderates and undermine the power of extremists to mobilise support based on fear and vilification.

I am not naïve enough to believe that the pen is mightier than the gun, but the word can certainly blunt the sword.

This article first appeared in The Jerusalem Post on 21 November 2010. It was written for the Common Ground News Service.

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  • Creel, John

    Hi Khaled
    Your effort to stimulate debate on the Guardian’s CIF, as to how the ‘EU process’ might better encourage contemporary Israel to engage constructively with her native Palestinian ‘hosts’ was a brave effort. But an effort cramped (once again) by the heavy handed ‘Moderation’ that is-near inescapable: wherever contributors strive to redress the unequal power equation that has for long hampered ‘adult debate’ about the legitimately-independent standing, of the contemporary Israeli State.

    Compromise will be a key ingredient for any viable resolution that truly brings peace. But an honest historical perspective is also crucial. Hence my resort to verse: until the rude interruption:

    Tiberius in Galilee
    On the Jordans’ Chinnereth
    Her name, one moments grandure
    For Empire’s but one breath
    In the million years of passage
    Since Man first strode this shore
    Each generation humbled
    By what has gone before

    While on the beach at Tel Aviv
    She basks in an evening sun
    Still dry in late November
    With winter still to come
    Where in former times October
    Brought the opening winter rains
    Now as is fitting on a desert rim
    She is on the cusp of climate change

    Have her eyes been opened?
    Does she begin to understand?
    How in each and every corner
    Here, she walks upon a land
    Haunted by deception
    And by a narrative of war
    That is a travesty of justice
    Serving crucify …the poor

    A land wherein the powerful
    Still purport to hold as right
    A myth of distant Empire
    That in triumph seeks to fight
    To impose an insurrection
    To condemn the common heart
    For a dream …remit with honour
    One that seeks to live …apart!

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  • KhaledDiab

    Agreed, religious extremists do play a significant role in the conflict. I call it the ‘God veto’ (see http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/18/israelandthepalestinians.middleeast) You’re also right to state that more secular Jew…s and Palestinians are willing to make peace compared with the religious compatriots. However, there are large numbers of secularists opposed to making the kind of compromises necessary to achieve peace. On the Israeli side, Netanyahu is hardly a religious fanatic, nor was Ariel Sharon. In fact, Revisionist Zionism is largely secular in nature. As for freedom of religious worship in Jerusalem, it existed before the creation of Israel and there’s no reason to think it can’t be achieved if Jerusalem is shared.

    To sum up, I think the main fault line lies not between the religious and secularists, but between those with a maximalist view of the conflict and those willing to compromise.

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  • Jordana

    Respectfully, I disagree. You assert that it’s a secular-nationalist issue. It seems to me that the situation has morphed over the years into a religious issue. Again, I do not have as much knowledge as you or Alex, and I am not as well …read. I have only my own experience which is admittedly, limited. From what I see, Muslim extremists are dictating the future of the Palestinian people. Similarly, the religious right in Israel will not capitulate. Both camps are claiming the land and neither is willing to agree to a side-by-side co-existence. Many more secular Jews are ready to make peace and accept the Palestinians as their neighbors. That is not an option in either the Jewish or Islamic fanatic camps. What do you think about the issue of Jerusalem? Right now both Jews and Muslims are able to pray freely, as are Christians, at their respective Holy sites. Would the freedom of religious worship exist to the same extent and with the same amount of safety if we divide or hand over Jerusalem to Palestinian rule, which has become Muslim rule?

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  • KhaledDiab

    Jordana, while your observations make for interesting reading, your assertion that ” It’s not about Arabs or Israelis; it’s about Arab Muslims and Jews” is a non-starter. Until the rise of Hamas, the Palestinian struggle was a very secular one, as the PLO’s membership and leadership demonstrate. For example, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine was founded by George Habash, a Palestinian Christian. Edward Said, one of the most eloquent advocates of the Palestinian cause, was also Christian. Though religious groups play a role on both sides, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is essentially a secular-nationalist one.

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  • Alex Stein

    Same with most books in university libraries these days…

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  • Josh

    I was nosing through Hebron University’s library not too long ago and I came accross an Arabic edition of “A Tale of Love and Darkness” by Amos Oz translated by an Israeli Arab and produced by a Beirut based publisher. “The Smile of the Lam…b” was next to it.

    I don’t know if anyone there ever read them other than the librarian though.

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  • Jordana

    At the risk of inciting a maelstrom of criticism, there are Arabs, there are Muslims, and there are Arab Muslims. From my experience, which is limited compared to yours, I have had great interactions with Christian Arabs who are alienated …from the Muslim Arab world. I have had wonderful encounters with Muslims (Afghani and Pakistani, specifically) as well. Unfortunately, my experiences with Arab Muslims, while civil, have always resonated with an underlying sense of hostility. Once in particular, an Arab Muslim young lady started crying and screaming that the Jews were burning her family in ovens all over Israel. I said I had been to Israel numerous times and never saw these ovens. She responded by saying it’s all over the newspaper, the Arabic newspapers that her parents read. You want a new approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict? First label it truthfully. It’s not about Arabs or Israelis; it’s about Arab Muslims and Jews. Second, present the truth-translating this book is a great way for us to see their world. And I think it is quite revealing that there is a large Hebrew speaking audience to warrant a translation. Here’s the questions though: Are they just as provoked/interested/inspired to read our literature?

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  • Mehdi

    It’s pretty simple: take a trip to the West Bank (not Ramallah for Christ’s sake) or Gaza, and you’ll realise why South Africa’s anti-apartheid veterans themselves are calling for a boycott.

    Israel is not a normal state – I don’t understand …why that’s so controversial. Were people worried about the well-being of the whites in apartheid South Africa, or were they looking to free the oppressed blacks?

    “We are witnessing the death of a nation.” – the late Israeli sociologist and historian Baruch Kimmerling.

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  • Firas

    How about we let Israelis buy our cultural products but stay away from theirs? I hear what you’re saying, Khaled. But somehow I feel like Israeli/Jewish discourses are widely available and to some degree shoved down people’s throats. While …the Palestinian culture is ignored, undermined, substituted/hi-jacked and straight-up deleted from the map of world culture. If you’re talking from a pov that assumes some kind of cultural equality and equilibrium, I guess we have to shove some Arab/Palestinian discourse down some throats until we reach that vintage point of dialogue you refer to. Otherwise, it just ain’t fair!

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  • Sammer

    Indeed I did, Mona. The cultural boycott is part of the 2005 BNC call, and the Israeli government has explicitly stated that it uses cultural events and institutions to “rebrand” Israel abroad. To demean cultural boycott is to undermine grassroots Palestinian non-violent struggle.

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  • Mona Eltahawy

    Sammer – did you read Khaled’s comment just above Arieh’s? It doesn’t sound like you have.

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  • Sammer

    Yet another uninformed article on the BDS movement. I would encourage people to read the 2005 call from over 170 Palestinian civil society organizations regarding the purpose and function of BDS. (http://bdsmovement.net/?q=node%2F52) Ple…ase do not subscribe to the well-meaning yet embarrassingly ignorant “strategy” expressed in this article. BDS is the non-violent strategy crafted by the oppressed of Palestine… while it is easy to demean (in whole or part) from the safety of Brussels or New York, the survivors of atrocities deserve a basic understanding of their non-violent struggle before it is summarily dismissed.

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  • Arieh

    I agree with you; I can appreciate however, that there are very few legitimate tools available to the normal citizen who wishes to have some effect on political processes.

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  • KhaledDiab

    Thanks all for your comments. In case it wasn’t clear in my article, since a couple of comments reflect this, the boycott I am opposed to is the cultural boycott, which is not helpful because it alienates the two sides further and paralysis… any opportunities for dialogue.

    I personally do not buy Israeli products because I don’t know how much of my money will go to propping up the occupation. I am also in favour of a well thought-out grassroots economic boycott and divestment campaign that target economic activities that help perpetuate the occupation and/or oppress Palestinians, without unduly hurting ordinary Israelis or engaging in collective punishment.

    In my next article for The Guardian, I will be exploring what the EU can do to harness its soft power with Israel.

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  • Firas

    Staunch opponent of false dichotomies…why can’t we be doing both? Boycott AND allow Israelis to read about Arabs? One is about not buying certain goods and the other is allowing certain discourses to circulate in Israel combating stereotypes. Not mutually exclusive at all…

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  • Aaron

    I actually found two fabulous, to die-for garments on eBay from an obviously very cool designer. I was about to click the ole Buy Button when I saw it was located in Israel and the designer has trendy shops in Haifa and elsewhere. No click. I don’t shop wal-mart either.

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  • Joumana

    I agree with Aaron on this one.

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  • Aaron

    I have absolutely no problem with a boycott of Israeli goods and services. I don’t understand the “not fair” whine. Life isn’t fair and nobody can have it all their way all the time. Boycotts is a powerful means of getting one’s point across and anyone who warns against boycotts knows this.

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  • Shoshanna

    Wow…that was a great article, at first I am all about boycotting Israel and stand is solidarity with the oppressed Palestians. Howver, Khaled Diab makes a lot of sense and I agree with what he says. BTW Aswany’s books are awsome.

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  • Sharon

    Great article. Thanks for posting.

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  • Ahmad Sharief

    will definitely get back to you on that at one point, soon i hope, isa.

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  • KhaledDiab

    How so? Please explain.

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  • Ahmad Sharief

    I could possibly share some ideas and starting points with you. I have to admit, however, as I much as I m interested in listening to what you have to say, I hardly agree with any of your conclusions in this article, which you base, I believe, on a lot of misleading parallels..

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  • KhaledDiab

    Cheers, Gershon. Glad you liked it.

    Too true, Zvi, too true. Many Arabs’ only view of Israelis is of those in uniform. When I was in Israel, I was confounded by the amount of ignorance and feat many people I met exhibited towards Arabs.

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  • Zvi Leve

    Thanks for the creative ideas about how to make a stand and yet to encourage dialog at the same time. People on both sides of the conflict need to see that their “enemies” are people too. Sadly, this kind of “cultural” exchange is becoming ever more suppressed, and it applies both ways. How much exposure does your average Arab reader have to “normal” events in Israel?

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  • Gershon Baskin

    Thanks Khaled for the excellent article!

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