A female Arab author claims a “cherished victory” by forcing the University of Texas to scrap the publication of an anthology of women’s voices from the Middle East – because two of the twenty-nine writers were Israeli.
The Center for Middle Eastern Studies at UT Austin was planning to publish the book in honor of the late American scholar Elizabeth Fernea, a professor there whose life and work were focused on the Middle East.
At first, novelist Huzama Habayeb was delighted to contribute as one of fifteen Arab writers. But that turned to “horror,” as a Gulf News editorial put it, when she realized that the collection would also feature two Israeli women, Yehudit Hendel and Orly Castel-Bloom. Habayeb withdrew her manuscript, complaining to the Center that Israel is an “occupier” of her land “Palestine” – although she was born in Kuwait, raised in Jordan, lives in Dubai, and has never set foot in Israel.
The university accepted her withdrawal but moved forward with plans to publish. Taken aback by this, Habayeb determined to ban the book altogether. She urged other Arab contributors to withdraw their manuscripts. A friend, Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour who is married to a Palestinian poet, was the first to go along. Then others got onboard.
The Center shrugged and said the book was already at the printers and would be published as is. Habayeb wasn’t about to give up. “There are academic boycott movements around the world protesting the Israeli occupation,” she said, then incorrectly claimed that “the only two countries where they don’t exist are the United States and Israel.” She threatened to embarrass the university: “It doesn’t need a genius to figure out that the Texas center wanted to resolve the issue quickly and silently.”
According to Dr. Kamran Scot Aghaie, the Center’s director, twelve authors asked to withdraw their contributions from the volume, with one additional request from the translator of another submission. “All the Arab writers whom I managed to contact withdrew their contributions,” Habayeb exulted.
The Center for Middle Eastern Studies refused to censor or discriminate against the Israelis, but the boycott led to enough withdrawals to make the book project no longer viable, so the publication was discontinued. Habayeb crowed to the Dubai-based website Gulf News,
I am so proud of having the book cancelled. I am a Palestinian and to achieve this, to be able to resist the illegal Israeli occupation of my homeland is something that I will cherish forever. It is my own victory in the struggle.
An opinion piece in the Gulf News gleefully reported that “Habayeb has a smile on her face this morning” and described her actions as “those of a resistance fighter.” It insisted that “academics the world over need to ensure that Israel is isolated for its immoral and illegal actions in occupying Palestine and repressing the Palestinian people.” (Dr. Aghaie offers another perspective on that: “The unfortunate reality is that in Middle Eastern Studies sometimes politics trumps academic ideals.”) The editorial closes by saying that “the pen is mightier than the sword” – an odd moral to draw from the censorship of nearly thirty writers.
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