America Seems to Embrace Arab Literary Figures in Inverse Proportion to Their Openness toward Israel

Over a decade ago, Peter Theroux participated in a panel discussion at Columbia University on the work of the Arab-Israeli writer and Communist Knesset member Emile Habibi (1922-1996), whose work he had translated into English. Reflecting on the experience, Theroux recalls the different ways the participants spoke of the country where their subject had lived:

Professor A noted Habibi’s literary achievements and attachment to Palestine, though she faulted his acceptance of the Israel Prize for Literature in 1992, which advanced the “Zionist project.” She went on for a little longer in the same vein, before concluding to loud applause. Elias Khoury, [the Lebanese novelist and PLO member], thumped the table with the palm of his hand in approval.

Professor B announced that he would read aloud from something he had composed on the redeye flight from the West Coast the night previous. He denounced the U.S. government’s detention and alleged torture of al-Qaeda terrorists in black sites, as well as the practice of translating foreign works into English (referencing colonialism and, in an anguished tone, “English, the hegemon”). My recollection is that he did not mention Habibi at all. The audience applauded him noisily, and Khoury thumped the table even harder.

These literary and academic figures had nothing to say, Theroux notes, about Habibi’s lifelong efforts to promote coexistence between Arabs and Israelis. Perhaps, he suggests, it would be both fair and useful to start judging the “authorial empathy” of Arab writers based on their ability to acknowledge “the world’s only post-Holocaust Jewish state.” And perhaps that ability should be compared with the extent of their acceptance in the West:

It probably is no surprise that acceptance, or not, of a secure Israel brought out the best or worst of these political Arab men of letters while providing a kind of quick X-ray of the inner integrity and therefore the lasting qualities of their own work. What gives me pause is how America has embraced them in inverse proportion to their openness toward the Jewish state. Khoury [and the likeminded, if less extreme, Saudi Arabian author] Abdelrahman Munif are Amazon celebrities. Habibi’s great Saraya, the subject of the memorable panel in the Upper West Side? The English translation celebrated that evening was published in Jerusalem, not New York.

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Read more at Tablet

More about: al q, Anti-Zionism, Arabic literature, Israel on campus, Israeli Arabs, Translation

Iran, America, and the Future of Democracy in the Middle East

Nov. 23 2022

Sixty-two days after the death of Mahsa Amini at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s police, the regime has failed to quash the protest movement. But it is impossible to know if the tide will turn, and what the outcome of the government’s collapse might be. Reuel Marc Gerecht considers the very real possibility that a democratic Iran will emerge, and considers the aftershocks that might follow. (Free registration required.)

American political and intellectual elites remain uneasy with democracy promotion everywhere primarily because it has failed so far in the Middle East, the epicenter of our attention the last twenty years. (Iraq’s democracy isn’t dead, but it didn’t meet American expectations.) Might our dictatorial exception for Middle Eastern Muslims change if Iran were to set in motion insurrections elsewhere in the Islamic world, in much the same way that America’s response to 9/11 probably helped to produce the rebellions against dictatorship that started in Tunisia in 2010? The failure of the so-called Arab Spring to establish one functioning democracy, the retreat of secular democracy in Turkey, and the implosion of large parts of the Arab world have left many wondering whether Middle Eastern Muslims can sustain representative government.

In 1979 the Islamic revolution shook the Middle East, putting religious militancy into overdrive and tempting Saddam Hussein to unleash his bloodiest war. The collapse of Iran’s theocracy might be similarly seismic. Washington’s dictatorial preference could fade as the contradictions between Arab tyranny and Persian democracy grow.

Washington isn’t yet invested in democracy in Iran. Yet, as Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has often noted, American hostility toward the Islamic Republic has been damaging. If the theocracy falls, Iranians will surely give America credit—vastly more credit that they will give to the European political class, who have been trying to make nice, and make money, with the clerical regime since the early 1990s—for this lasting enmity. We may well get more credit than we deserve. Both Democrats and Republicans who have dismissed the possibilities of democratic revolutions among the Muslim peoples of the Middle East will still, surely, claim it eagerly.

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Read more at Dispatch

More about: Arab democracy, Democracy, Iran, Middle East, U.S. Foreign policy