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Censorship in the Arab world: Debating its impact at a conference in Tunisia

Censorship concerns many in the worldwide book industry today. The Arab Publishers Association conference in Tunis this month addressed the issue specifically in the Arab world.

Shortly before the announcement of the International Publishers’ Association’s shortlist for the 2018 Prix Voltaire, the fourth Arab Publishers Association (APA) conference was held in Tunis and addressed a number of issues and opportunities in the region.

The Arab Publishers Association was established in 1995 in a meeting in Beirut and today comprises some 808 publishers in its overall membership, with APA offices in both Beirut and Cairo. In its mission statement, the association describes its intent as being “to defend and develop the Arab publishing industry and protect intellectual property rights, and defense of Arab culture in all its components.”

The conference in Tunis earlier this month (January 9 and 10) staged 46 speakers in a program built around eight topics:

  • Components of the publishing industry
  • Arab Libraries, supply and indexing policies (and the ISBN)
  • Publishing, the marketing of print, digital and audiobooks
  • A crisis in Arab book content
  • Intellectual property and the problem of piracy
  • Realities of publishing in the Arab Maghreb countries of northern Africa
  • Challenges facing the publishing industry in the Arab world
  • And questions of books in the wider media context

In a session of particular pertinence to many of the world’s publishing markets today, Shukri Al Mabkhout—the 2015 winner of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction for Al Talyeni (The Italian)—led a panel discussion titled “Censorship in the Arab World: Restrictions Imposed on Cultural Expression and its Impact on Creativity.”

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The man who remade Arabic poetry

Adonis’s poems reflect a lifelong argument with his culture.

In March, 2011, when civil protests broke out in cities and towns across Syria, the country’s most famous poet, Adonis—who is in his eighties and has lived in exile since the mid-nineteen-fifties—hesitated to support the demonstrators. Although he had welcomed earlier uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, he flinched when Syria’s turn came. In an editorial published in al-Hayat, a leading Arabic newspaper, in May, 2011, by which time more than a thousand protesters were dead and government tanks had shelled several towns, Adonis wrote, “I will never agree to participate in a demonstration that comes out of a mosque.” He portrayed the opposition as young naïfs, easily coöpted by canny Islamists who dreamed of establishing a religious authoritarianism that would be even worse than the Baathist regime of Bashar al-Assad.

Adonis’s assessment of the demonstrators echoed the rhetoric coming from the regime, and many readers were dismayed. For the past sixty years, he has tirelessly called for radical change in every sphere of Arab life, and he is the author of some of the most revolutionary poems in Arabic. Sadiq Jalal al-‘Azm, an eminent philosopher at the University of Damascus, was bewildered that Adonis, “the man of freedom, transformation, revolution, progress, and modernity,” should “disparage if not condemn the Syrian revolution from its outset.” But for Adonis the Syrian uprising was no revolution. In a recent interview in French (he has lived in Paris since the mid-nineteen-eighties), he claimed, “It is impossible, in a society like Arab society, to make a revolution unless it is founded on the principle of laïcité ”—the French term for a stringent secularism. Long before the emergence of the Islamic State’s caliphate, Adonis warned that the alliance of theology with state power was the region’s most deep-rooted danger.

Adonis’s long poem “Concerto al-Quds,” published in Arabic in 2012 and now available in an English translation by Khaled Mattawa (Yale), is the poet’s secularist summa, a condemnation of monotheism couched in the form of a surrealist montage. Its subject is Jerusalem—al-Quds, in Arabic—the spiritual center for all three monotheistic faiths and the site of their most apocalyptic imaginings. In the Islamic tradition, Jerusalem was the first qibla (the direction faced in prayer), the starting point of the Prophet Muhammad’s trip to the heavens (al-mi‘raj), and also the place where the archangel Israfil will blow his trumpet on the Day of Resurrection. In Judaism, the city is the site of the First and Second Temples, both destroyed, and the envisaged site of a third. In the Book of Revelation, John beholds a “new Jerusalem” descending from the heavens and hears a voice describing the life to come: “And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.”

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John Berger contemplates life and death at the graveside of Mahmoud Darwish

A few days after our return from what was thought of, until recently, as the future state of Palestine, and which is now the world’s largest prison (Gaza) and the world’s largest waiting room (the West Bank), I had a dream.

I was alone, standing, stripped to the waist, in a sandstone desert. Eventually somebody else’s hand scooped up some dusty soil from the ground and threw it at my chest. It was a considerate rather than an aggressive act. The soil or gravel changed, before it touched me, into torn strips of cloth, probably cotton, which wrapped themselves around my torso. Then these tattered rags changed again and became words, phrases. Written not by me but by the place.

Remembering this dream, the invented word landswept came to my mind. Repeatedly. Landswept describes a place or places where everything, both material and immaterial, has been brushed aside, purloined, swept away, blown down, irrigated off, everything except the touchable earth.

There’s a small hill called Al Rabweh on the western outskirts of Ramallah, it’s at the end of Tokyo street. Near the top of this hill the poet Mahmoud Darwish is buried. It’s not a cemetery.

The street is named Tokyo because it leads to the city’s Cultural Centre, which is at the foot of the hill, and was built thanks to Japanese funding.

It was in this Centre that Darwish read some of his poems for the last time—though no one then supposed it would be the last. What does the word last mean in moments of desolation?

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Palestinian children’s book becomes target for boycott and censorship

By Radhika Sainath for Lithub

As a new parent, I’m now alert to a substratum of media that passed below the radar of my younger, less narcissistic, self. In the space of mild leftist parenting, this means acquiring board-book samizdat such as Click Clack Moo (cows striking for workplace benefits), and A Rule is to Break (inculcating anarchist principles in pre-literate children.)

Of course, the post-colonial space of this genre (Babar notwithstanding) is pretty unpopulated, so I was excited to spot P is for Palestine by Golbarg Bashi at my local Book Culture.

The book is fantastic on so many different levels: it features a little girl with curly black hair, big eyes and brown skin; the illustrations are gorgeous; and it teaches the alphabet through egalitarian and multi-cultural words from both Arabic and English like “C is for Christmas,” “E is for Eid,” and “M is for Miftah, Key of Return.”

But nothing Palestine-related, no matter how anodyne, can be consumed safely in America, let alone on the Upper West Side.

When I started chatting with the cashier when I bought the book a couple of weeks ago, I learned that the store was in the middle of a targeted boycott campaign.

“They haven’t even read it!” he said.

Googling the story, I learned that Bashi, the author, received death threats and needed police security at her storytime reading at Book Culture’s Upper West Side location. Book Culture received threats comparable to when it refused to ban Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses after Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa. A local synagogue threatened to ban Book Culture from an upcoming book fair if the owners did not denounce the book, and anti-Palestinian activists called for a boycott of the store. The “Upper East Mamas” Facebook group was shut down after parents “went ballistic” over the book, as reported in Page Six, The Forward and The New York Post.

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Another Birth, Other Words: Queering the Poetry of Forough Farrokhzad in Translation

Recently, the Swedish Academy responsible for the dictionary of Swedish language added the new gender neutral pronoun hen to the newest edition of their work. The news reached international media and reaffirmed the idea of Scandinavian countries as being the ‘frontrunners of gender equality.’

The application of the gender neutral pronoun isn’t all that new, though. It has been a subject of debate among feminist-leftist circles since the 1970s. Swedish kindergarten Egalia even applied the use of hen back in 2011. Egalia’s mission to undo gender stereotypes entailed among other things the substitution of the gendered pronouns han and hon (he and she) with the gender-neutral neologism hen.

The Scandinavian narrative of progressiveness and gender equality isn’t without its challenges and controversies, however. Internal disputes within leftist-feminist circles suggest that some see the gender neutral pronoun as a liberating panacea, bound to revolutionize binary gender roles, while others view it as an unrealistic utopian project that will only serve to blur actually-existing inequalities. Semantics won’t fix the lived experiences of sexism, they argue.

What those opposed to linguistic gender neutrality forget, however, is that this trend is often not nearly as ‘exotic’ or foreign a phenomenon as is often cast. You don’t have to travel farther than Finland — Sweden’s neighbor — before you encounter a gender-neutral language, where the neutral (and only) 3rd person pronoun is hän. This word has served as an inspiration for the Swedish equivalent: hen and the Danish: høn.

Even further afield, another language remotely related to Danish with shared Indo-European roots is Persian, in which some of the oldest and most influential literature in history has been written. Throughout history, Persian’s lack of gendered pronouns has allowed for the production of subversive texts that have confounded and enchanted readers and leaders alike.

The world-renowned Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Mohammad Molana Rumi, who lived in the 13th century and wrote in Persian, is often brought forth as an example of this subversive poetic tradition, where the Persian neutral pronoun ou (او) allows for a wide array of interpretative possibilities. His object of desire could be a monotheistic God, a deity of the earth, a woman, or his friend and mentor Shams-e-Tabrizi.

Although some read his poems as homoerotic, there is no known proof that Rumi was homosexual or had a physical relationship with his mentor, Shams. What is beyond dispute, though, is their intense love and admiration for each other.

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Five Essential Works of Arabic Literature

There’s a lot of news coming out of the Arab world these days, mainly grim stuff in the press or online, painting a depressing and very much one-sided picture of this vast geographical and culturally diverse area. If you want to delve a little deeper into the Arab world and see another side of its rich heritage and culture, it’s well worth taking the time to sample some of the delights of Arabic literature.

Here are five suggestions to give you an idea of what’s on offer. They are all available in English translation, so you don’t have to learn Arabic to read them, though you may be tempted to once you have.

The Epistle of Forgiveness by Abu Al Alaa Al Maarri

This celebrated freethinker, ascetic, humanist and committed vegetarian lived in Syria during the 11th century. The head of his statue in his home town of Ma’arrat al Numan was recently chopped off, possibly because he challenged accepted doctrine with a passion. He was the Voltaire of his time.

‘All religions err’, he says. In fact, there are only two sects in the whole world: ‘One, man intelligent without religion, the second, religious without intellect’. In the epistle, al Maarri considers the works and thoughts of some of the great poets and thinkers who preceded him. With his great erudition and mastery of language, coupled with a biting sense of irony, he challenges and refutes their views and is critical of many aspects of accepted orthodox belief. At one point, in what is a clear precursor of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he makes a journey to paradise where he meets the wine-drinking, womanising pagan poets of the pre-Islamic period, and then to hell where he encounters the religious scholars.

Once banned in Algeria and decapitated almost a thousand years after his birth in his home town, Abu Al Alaa Al Maarri is widely read in the Arab world, and many Arabs acknowledge him as one of their greatest literary figures. His influence has been enormous, but so little known in the modern West that we have little idea how far ahead of his time he really was.

The latest English version of The Epistle of Forgiveness has just won the Sheikh Hamad Translation Prize.

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