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The Yacoubian Building – in Hebrew?
9 Nov 2010
Until last week, the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information wouldn`t have rung any bells in literary circles. But this changed after the Jerusalem-based organisation – which aspires to serve as an `intellectual platform for Israelis and Palestinians to create and develop new concepts ... that enrich the political and public discourse` – published a Hebrew translation of Alaa al Aswany`s bestseller, The Yacoubian Building, on its website. The `rare privilege` of reading the book was offered to `(expand) cultural awareness and understanding in the region`. However, the organisation neglected to seek Al Aswany`s permission before acting thus.
Some context: Although Al Aswany`s book has been translated into 19 languages, the author has, until now, refused to permit its translation into Hebrew. Needless to say, he was not impressed with the actions of the IPCRI. `What the centre and the translator did is piracy and theft,` he told news agency AFP , `I will be complaining to the International Publishers` Association.`
One cannot but sympathise with Al Aswany; breach of copyright is repugnant to a writer. It is hard to understand how this brazen act of unauthorised translation and distribution can be expected to promote understanding. But Gershon Baskin, head of the ICPRI, doesn`t see things this way.
`We didn`t intend to infringe his copyright, but just to get Israelis acquainted with the book,` Baskin told Israeli daily Haaretz . `The question here is whether Israelis` right to read the book outweighs his copyright.` High-minded as this sounds, his argument holds little water. Copyright, after all, is the expression of proprietorial rights over intellectual property; Baskin can scarcely claim the high moral ground when the property he has given away does not belong to him.
But as is often the case in this part of the world, there may be more to the dispute than meets the eye. `(Al Aswany) told me that if the book was published in Israel and there were royalties, he would give them to Hamas,` Baskin claims. `(The) cultural boycott of the Hebrew language which he supports or is forced to support is a form of cultural terrorism, which I don`t have to agree to.`
On this point, at least, both parties are in agreement. Al Aswany is equally emphatic on this point: `My position has not changed regarding normalisation with Israel. I reject it completely,` he told AFP.
To be critical of Baskin and the IPCRI is not difficult. While the organisation does admirable work in the field of cooperation and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, this does not give it rights over intellectual property. Ultimately, it is for Al Aswany to determine what he wishes to do with his property. If Baskin doesn`t like this, tough luck.
But this is not to absolve Al Aswany either. To be clear: It is his absolute right to boycott Israel. And, to be fair, he draws a very clear distinction between his non-relationship with Israel and antisemitism, as in this video.
Still, one is obliged to observe that Al Aswany has nurtured a reputation as a literary champion of coexistence, one who uses writing as a tool for resolving the contradictions of our pluralistic existence. `I am writing for ordinary people,` he told the New York Times in 2008. `I want everybody to be able to read my books.` Similarly, he has argued eloquently about the facility of literature to reveal the unknown. `Literature makes us question things,` he told Egypt`s Daily Star in 2005. `It makes us more human.`
This sits uneasily with his opposition to `normalisation`. It doesn`t seem quite right to try and have it both ways: championing one`s own writing as a bridge to understanding, while at the same time insisting that a set of people be excluded from this happy feast.
That said, matters are not entirely in Al Aswany`s own hands. In Egypt, the boycott of Israel by the state-sponsored Writers Union is absolute. One runs foul of this at one`s own peril; for instance, Ali Salem – a respected playwright – was expelled from the union in 1994 after visiting Israel. Perhaps Al Aswany is wary of being caught up in political intrigue beyond his control.
But this might be to let him off a bit too easily. Al Aswany has been critical of the Egyptian government in the past, and acknowledged that his fame affords him a level of protection many of his contemporaries do not enjoy. Would it be fair to expect him to stand up to what – given the existence of formal diplomatic relations between Israel and Egypt – can be classed as official hypocrisy? Perhaps, perhaps not.
In any case, the matter seems destined to end up in the hands of our learned friends. Al Aswany has threatened to sue, but whether he will agree to testify – in person – in an Israeli court remains to be seen
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