Babylon & Beyond

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EGYPT: To publish or burn

June 14, 2009 |  9:09 am

Farouk hosni The man who once threatened to torch Hebrew-language books now, in a twist of international literary diplomacy, apparently wants to publish them.

Egyptian Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni is attempting to tidy up his past comments about burning Israeli books by offering a more conciliatory gesture: to print them in Arabic. The change came as writers and artists criticized Hosni’s nomination to head the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

“Farouk Hosni is the opposite of a man of peace, dialogue and culture, he is a dangerous man who inflames hearts and spirits,” went an open letter signed by filmmaker Claude Lanzmann, French philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. “We invite all countries dedicated to liberty and culture to take the initiatives necessary to avert this threat and avoid the disaster that would be his nomination.”

Hosni is trying to untangle himself from comments made last year when asked if there were Hebrew-language books in Egypt’s Alexandria library. He reportedly said: “If there are any, I will burn them myself.”

The quip fit the spirit of the artistic war Egypt has waged against Israel for decades. This nation may have been the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel, but the Palestinian crisis prompted Egypt’s writers, intellectuals, musicians and artists to boycott the Jewish state. That sentiment may work for a novelist but not for a politician seeking the U.N. post for promoting cultural understanding.

Hosni has apologized. The ministry has announced it will publish in Arabic the works of  Israeli writers David Grossman and Amos Oz. Or will it? A report over the weekend in Daily News Egypt suggests otherwise.

Stay tuned for the next chapter. 
-- Jeffrey Fleishman in Cairo

Photo: Farouk Hosni. Credit: BBC