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?
- Kitabi Kitabak is setting out to build libraries at every camp in Lebanon.
- Gaza Freedom March’s Right to Read campaign is still ongoing, I believe.
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.”