Banned Books Week: Celebrating Arabic Books Banned in…Israel

Sept 25 marks the start of “banned books week,” which I believe is a mostly American holiday, started in 1982 and sponsored by the American Library Association and other bookish organizations.

Americans are perhaps a little too fascinated by banned books—this sometimes leads us to read even the worst sort of junk, as long as it’s been censored somewhere—but it’s also a topic that needs attention.

I have written at least twice about book banning this week, as the Kuwait Book Fair bannings have been strongly protested by Egyptian writers and publishers, as well as by Arabic Booker-winning author Abdo Khal, who has refused to appear at the Kuwaiti fair.

Books that were “banned in the Arab world” have extra exotic frisson for the Anglo reader. Of course, just because a book is “banned” doesn’t make it any good. I’m not going to suggest you rush out for Salwa al-Neimi’s Proof of Honey, just because it’s been censored somewhere. Nor Alaa el-Aswany’s Chicago, just because the Kuwaiti Book Fair doesn’t want it.

Of course, great books have been banned my neck of the woods. The Cairo Book Fair has disallowed novels by great authors such as Haidar Haidar, Mohamed Choukri, Hanan al-Shaykh, Elias Khoury. Some Egyptian goofs had the idea to ban 1,001 Nights, although they failed. Both social and government censorship are real, serious problems.

But today I wanted to direct my attention northwards, to Israeli’s blockade of Gaza, which for a while disallowed any and all books. (Some did get through. But one bookseller told Xinhua, “Smuggling books is a very difficult, dangerous, and expensive business.”)  The ban has since been “liberalized,” and some books are now allowed. (As well as some crayons! Some stationery!)

But book bans don’t apply only to blockaded Gaza. Inside Israel, all books originating in Syria and Lebanon have been banned since 1939.  So what? Can’t they just import books from Egypt and Jordan? Sure, but Ha’aretz noted that “80 percent of the books” in demand by Arab-speaking Israel originate in Syrian and Lebanese publishing houses. (After all, Egypt writes, Lebanon publishes, and Iraq reads…although not, of course, any more, since repeated wars have decimated Iraq’s literacy rates.)

Banned works thus include the novels of the great Elias Khoury (published in Lebanon), as well as translations of Harry Potter, Shakespeare, and others, where rights are held by Lebanese publishing houses. (Correction: I had previously added Gabriel Garcia Marquez to this list, but apparently no Arab publishing house yet has the rights to Marquez.) A cursory scan of the Arabic Booker shortlists shows most were published in Lebanon.

A bill was introduced in 2009 that would allowed the import of books from any country into Israel. However, I have not been able to find mention of whether the bill passed, or whether any changes have occurred.

Also in 2009, Israeli’s education ministry ordered the word “nakba” removed from a school textbook for young Arab children.

And, for a silly one (that has nothing to do with Arabic), this month Ehud Barak has apparently been seeking to ban Ehud Olmert’s book.

Want to donate books to Palestinians?

Also, one of Palestine’s literary protests, discussed in Words Without Borders:

  • Azareen Van der Vliet Oloomi and Chana Morgenstern are finally back at Words Without Borders with their first real dispatch from Palestine, about “Politics and Art in Sheikh Jarrah.” They write: “One of the unique aspects of this movement—particularly in Sheikh Jarrah—is the crucial role that visual and literary culture play in it.”


  1. Your blog is wonderful. I often share it on Facebook for people who don’t follow it because many of your posts…like this one…are important.

    1. A pity we cannot facebook the articles directly. Could you include a button. It is not difficult with

      1. Seriously, I’ve tried… I could give you my password and you do it? Or can you talk me through it?

      2. Unbelievably, I managed to turn it on! You can now “share” the posts.

  2. Maryanne, it’s very kind of you, and I really appreciate your support. M.

  3. I had no idea about any of these facts, it is very sad to hear though. Everyone should have access to books, all books, at least in my opinion. It’s sad to see books being banned because of where they are published, or because of a blockade.

  4. Ah, Banned Books Week — a time when American libraries celebrate freedom of access to information. This is one of the codes librarians, of which I am one, live by. For as free as a society that America is, librarians across the nation contend daily with irate parents, pastors, board members, etc. who want this or that book removed from the shelves. Recently a mother in Florida held four library books captive for their content for almost two years.

    As a reader, writer, and librarian, I appreciate good books and think that there is a lot of trash out there. Sometimes I even think that America is too quick to open the gates to anything, but then I can choose what to read. Speaking of choice . . . there is a rise in what is called “faith based” search engines that tailor results to the confines of preprogrammed religious parameters.

    In my opinion, the underlying cause of book bans and censorship is fear. Fear of words. Words are the breeding ground for ideas. Ideas threaten regimes — government, military, religious, family, education — so the various regimes try to close off the words and the flow of ideas. But words are like dust. They seep in through the cracks and pile up in the corners and settle on surfaces and get kicked up and stirred around and ingested.

    Nazik al-Malai’ka wrote a poem “Love Song for Words” that asks the question “Why do we fear words?” Her poem talks about shackling thirsty letters and forbidding them to “spread the night for us as a cushion, dripping with music, dreams, and warm cups.”

    Read more:

    Ultimately I think that with freedom comes responsibility. Libraries should always stand for freedom of access, but they should also shoulder the responsibility for teaching others how to evaluate that information and help them determine what is valuable and relevant.

    1. Bella,

      That’s a really interesting final comment! As you might imagine, I’ve never found myself supporting a ban (despite finding some books rather unsavory, and even disliking how my seven-year-old behaved/spoke to me after reading those “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” books). Fortunately, he is young enough to be convinced that they weren’t really good for him…..

      It had never occurred to me that libraries could help shoulder the responsibility of readers evaluating books. But yes, that would be lovely.

      Here, I guess the bookstores have to take on more of that role, at least until libraries get a little muscle.

  5. Very nice.
    I will be you subscribe ) Thanks !

  6. Confused by the title. Just what Arabic books are banned in Israel?

    Here’s an article about books banned in Lebanon:
    Persepolis, the story of a rebellious youth growing up in Iran–banned.
    The Da Vinci Code–banned.
    This is really disturbing. Not that this is all great literature, but why keep this out of the hands of a the reading public?

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