11 - 17 July 2002
Issue No. 594
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Resisting in EuropeNovelist Sonallah Ibrahim has moved the Arab boycott of all things Israeli across the Mediterranean to Europe, reports Amina Elbendary
There is nothing new about the Arab movement to boycott Israel. It is as old as the Arab- Israeli conflict itself. But that boycott has metamorphosed over the years, going through ups and downs, making curves and detours, largely in response to political considerations and facts on the grounds. The counterpoint to boycott has always been "normalisation". And normal Arab relations with Israel are anything but. Intellectuals -- the self-appointed defenders of national identity and national consciousness -- must count among the sectors of civil society that have been most resistant to normalisation. And their steadfast resolve to resist any attempt to incorporate, integrate or in any official way deal with the Israeli establishment remains a rare point of agreement among them.
This resolve is once again in the spotlight and mainly because of Sonallah Ibrahim, a novelist who has often been hailed for his courageous and outspoken views. Ibrahim's first novel Tilk Al-Ra'iha (The Smell of It, 1966), was banned for 20 years, and the author was imprisoned for five years, between 1959 and 1964, under the Nasser regime. He remains an innovative writer, promoting the cause of freedom and persuasively critiquing neo- imperialism and globalisation in his recent novels.
Ibrahim has decided to boycott the Berlin International Festival of Literature to which he was invited. The festival's 11-member jury (which includes such respected figures as the French/Tunisian Abdel-Wahab Meddeb) has invited 80 authors and thinkers from all over the world to Berlin on 10 September. Among those invited are several illustrious names within the Arab intelligentsia, including Taher ben Jelloun, Elias Khoury, Assia Djebar -- and Sonallah Ibrahim. Ben Jelloun and Djebar, however, have French nationality. Ibrahim and Khoury are the only two invited as Arabs.
The main event of the 10-day festival will be a symposium on 11 September headed by Daniel Cohn-Bendit with contributions from Abdel-Wahab Meddeb and Bernard-Henri Levy. The festival is being sponsored by official German institutions, German banks and corporations, the European Union, the German chapter of PEN, as well as several embassies and cultural centres including the Israeli, American, and British embassies in Berlin. The Embassy of Morocco is the only Arab institution sponsoring the festival.
As soon as the list of those organisations financing the event was declared Sonallah Ibrahim sent a message to the organisers declaring his intention to boycott the event.
"I have already accepted your invitation to participate in the Second International Literary Festival of Berlin to be held on the 10th of September 2002. Unfortunately, the festival's programme sent to me lately revealed that the Israeli and US embassies are among the financiers of this event. Since the state of Israel is following a policy of annihilation against the Palestinian people and continues to occupy their land in spite of repeated UN resolutions, and with the full support and collaboration of the US, I feel obliged to withdraw my earlier agreement to participate in your festival," his statement read.
The reaction to Sonallah's decision to boycott such an international event sponsored in part by an Israeli institution has been largely supportive. Yet there are some that question the validity of such a stance, arguing that an Arab presence at such international gatherings provides opportunities to make a statement and express the Arab viewpoint to an international audience.
"In general, I agree that we should be present at international gatherings and voice our opinions, yes," Ibrahim told Al-Ahram Weekly. "This, however, does not negate the fact that sometimes one can take a different position. We cannot prevent the presence of Israelis at international festivals and events, obviously, we need to be there and express our opinions. But this is different because it involves official Israeli funding. There are situations in which boycotting, not being there, is more effective than participating."
"In light of the ongoing barbarity the Israeli government is practicing against the Palestinians, and the atrocious behaviour of the state of Israel," he explained, "as well as the growing sentiment all over the world that is more aware and conscious of the realities on the ground in Palestine -- it becomes necessary to boycott such an event. Not participating is more effective. Whatever I could say there has been said repeatedly. It is known and is repeated in the popular media, though not in the official media of course. Many international civil society institutions are already boycotting events that are directly related to the state of Israel -- popular associations, anti-globalisation NGOs, unions, academic institutions -- many of these are already boycotting similar events."
From his residence in occupied Ramallah, the celebrated Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish told the Weekly: "I fully support Sonallah's decision to boycott the festival on the grounds that it is partially sponsored by the Israeli Embassy in Germany, since the embassy is a representative of the government of Israel which is now waging a barbaric war against the Palestinians."
The International Parliament of Writers (IPW) has supported Ibrahim's decision to boycott the event "We share your position and support your decision not to participate in this festival," Christian Salmon, the IPW's executive director, wrote to Ibrahim.
Letter from the Editor
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