Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 March 2008
Issue No. 889
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Paris Book Fair boycott

As international protests continued against the current Israeli military attacks on Gaza, which have thus far led to the deaths of at least 120 Palestinian civilians, Israeli president Shimon Peres was invited to open the Paris Book Fair last Thursday, at which Israel is guest of honour, in commemoration of 60 years since the declaration of the State of Israel.

Arab writers, publishers and cultural bodies decided to boycott the event in response, and this year's Fair, organised by the French Syndicat national de l'édition, a professional association, lacked the Arab and international dimension of previous occasions. Countries such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Lebanon that have significant French-speaking populations were conspicuous by their absence.

While the Paris event is small compared to the larger European book fairs held annually in Frankfurt and London, it is a major international meeting place for French and French-language writers and publishers, as well as for publishers from countries that are members of La Francophonie, the international French-language and cultural organisation, among them Egypt.

Israel's designation as guest of honour at this year's Fair meant that some 40 Israeli writers were invited to promote their works in Paris, and there was a programme of events drawing attention to aspects of Israeli literary and cultural life.

In defending their boycott of the Fair, Arab writers pointed out that they had no objection to Israeli writers promoting their works in Paris or elsewhere. However, Israel's on-going attacks on Gaza and its decision to expand its illegal settlements programme on the West Bank have made it impossible for them to attend an event at which the Israeli state, rather than simply Israeli writers, is the official guest and one that is designed to commemorate the declaration of the State of Israel and with it the dispossession of the Palestinians.

Arab writers have also not been alone in boycotting the Paris Fair.

The Israeli historian Ilan Pappe, best known for his work on the Palestinian nakbah, the catastrophe that befell the Palestinians as a result of the declaration of the State of Israel, said that "the decision to associate the [Paris] Salon this year with the celebration of Israel's sixty years of Independence has caused many Palestinian, Arab and progressive writers and artists to withdraw and boycott the fair. One would assume that the recent genocidal Israeli attacks on Gaza would cause many others to follow suit."

"Under these circumstances I can not myself participate in any direct way in the Salon... so as not be associated with its celebrations of Israel's independence and its total denial of the Palestinian Nakbah."

A further feature of the Israeli presence at the Fair was the decision to send only writers writing in Hebrew to the event, despite the fact that Israel has two official languages, Hebrew and Arabic, and significant minorities speaking Russian and other languages.

Sayed Kashua, a member of Israel's Arab minority and the only Israeli-Arab writer attending the fair, told the French newspaper Libération on 13 March that "I went to a Jewish school and I grew up speaking Hebrew, which is my mother tongue, but the State of Israel has difficulty accepting anything that is not Jewish."

"I am a writer and an Israeli citizen, and I am closer to other Israeli writers than I am to any Arab writer. However, I can understand that [Arab writers] need to express their views. Moreover, Arab writers need to put pressure on their governments in order that they will do something to help the creation of a Palestinian state, because at the moment no one is doing anything."

Peres's opening of the Paris Fair came at the end of an official visit to France, during which French president Nicolas Sarkozy signaled what he called "a revitalisation of the relationship" between France and Israel. He told the Israeli president during a dinner held at the Elysée Palace last week that "I wanted the first state visit to France after I took office as President of the Republic to be reserved for Israel... a choice I take responsibility for."

Since his election as president last year, Sarkozy has gone out of his way to strengthen French ties with the United States, damaged as a result of France's opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and to underline French support for Israel.

Relations between the two countries had been lukewarm during the presidency of his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, who was regularly accused of pursuing "pro-Arab" policies by Israel.

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