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ALAA AL-ASWANY headshot 58.(Photo by: Tim Poor/MCT)
Novel approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict
Allowing Israelis to read about Arabs as ordinary human beings is far more helpful than a boycott.
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 block.

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” with Israel.

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 Yacoubian Building in PDF and distributed it to a mailing list of some 27,000 subscribers.

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.

In 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 This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) in conjunction with the Jerusalem Post.
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