'Unjustified provocation for Arab public opinion'
Mohamed Salmawy, Secretary-General of the Union of Arab Writers, explains the thinking behind the Arab boycott of this week's Paris Book Fair to Rania Khallaf
Representatives of 25 Egyptian and Arab syndicates, led by Mohamed Salmawy and Ibrahim El-Moalem, chairman of the Arab Publishers Union, submitted a memorandum to the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs on 24 February explaining the reasons behind the Arab protest at Israel's invitation as guest of honour at this year's Paris Book Fair, which opened in the French capital last week.
"Honouring Israel, and celebrating the sixtieth anniversary of Israel's independence, a state which constantly violates international peace and the basic human rights of the Palestinian people, can only be seen as an unjustified provocation for Arab and international public opinion," the memorandum read.
It was presented to the French Ambassador to Egypt, while a symbolic picket was staged outside the French Embassy in Cairo. Many Arab and Islamic countries then announced that they would be boycotting the Paris Fair, including Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO) also urged its 50 member states to pull out of the Fair.
According to Salmawy, the Arab and Islamic boycott of the Fair has been useful. "This was one of those rare occasions on which a unanimous position was taken in Egypt by all in order to express anger at the invitation of Israel to be guest of honour at this particular moment," he said.
"The move then triggered a chain reaction, prompting many other civil and governmental bodies around the world to join the protest. This protest has included French and Israeli writers, who have expressed their anger at the honouring of a state whose record of human rights violations has reached an unprecedented peak and of a state that is currently engaged in the systematic destruction of the cultural and educational infrastructure of the Occupied Territories."
Salmawy described statements made by the organisers of the Fair to the effect that it was a coincidence that Israel had been invited to be guest of honour in a year that was also the 60th anniversary of the declaration of the State of Israel as simply false.
"We are not against freedom of expression or against any Israeli writer," he explained. "However, this year the Paris Book Fair has itself decided to bring in politics and has made the occasion political. There can be absolutely no opportunity for dialogue when one side, the aggressor, is being honoured, and the other side, the victim of that aggression, is prevented from even attending the Fair," he said, referring to the Palestinians.
"The fact that Shimon Peres inaugurated the Book Fair makes it even more political, because he is not a literary author or a creative writer as far as I am aware."
Asked to respond to comments made by Egyptian novelist Gamal El-Ghitani in the Cairo weekly Akhbar Al-Adab last week, a literary journal he edits, to the effect that Arab intellectuals should have turned out in force at the Paris Fair rather than simply boycotting the event, Salmawy said that "the announcement of the boycott before the event was crucial, since it led to a clear protest from Arab countries and from peace-loving writers from different parts of the world."
"The stance we took was decided at a meeting of the Writers Union, but any writer or non-writer is free to react differently. Disagreement with the opinion of the majority is not necessarily bad. On the contrary, it is a point of strength."
Salmawy was emphatic that boycotting this year's Paris Fair was not the same as refusing any kind of dealings with Israeli writers opposing Israel's apartheid policies: "The move we made is not directed against Israeli writers that are critical of their country's policies and that support Arab rights. Rather, it is directed against the State of Israel, which violates the basic human rights of the Palestinian people."