Despite infringing on the author’s copyright and wishes, the unauthorized Hebrew
translation of a best-selling Egyptian novel highlights how the word can help
blunt the sword.
Alaa al-Aswany is an unlikely candidate for savior 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 socioeconomic reality, warts and all, as expressed
through the inhabitants of a declining but once-grand downtown apartment
Although The Yacoubian Building
has been translated into at least
20 languages, 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 normalization”
Going against Aswany’s wishes, the Israel-Palestine Center
for Research and Information recently decided, with the declared aim of
“expanding cultural awareness,” to publish an unauthorized translation of The
in PDF and distributed it to a mailing list of some 27,000
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 Haaretz. “The question here is whether Israelis’ right to read the
book outweighs his copyright.”
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 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 is their readers.
Like 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 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
criticize Israel for practicing against the Palestinians.
One problem is
that intellectuals who deal with Israel in Egypt are often branded as sellouts
and even traitors. If 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.
fact, I would have hoped that 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 mobilize 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.The writer, Egyptian by birth, is a Brussels-based journalist. He writes about a wide range of subjects, including the EU, the Middle East, Islam and secularism, multiculturalism and human rights. His website is www.chronikler.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) in conjunction with the