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

February 5, 2020 | Peter Theroux
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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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