Two prominent Israeli-Arab literary figures yesterday launched, an Arabic-language politics and culture website they say will tackle issues widely considered taboo in the Arabic press.

The site's editors are author Ala Hlehel and Anton Shalhat, a journalist and culture critic.

Hlehel said yesterday that the site is aimed at "restoring the written word as the center of content in Arabic discourse and returning cultural texts as the focus of the Arab literary, cultural, political and societal experience."

Hlehel said quality will be the sole determining factor for featuring items on the site. "We'll post controversial texts that touch on social and cultural sensitivities," he said. "The margins of freedom of the press in Arabic are shrinking under political and social tension from the whole Arab-Islamic scene, with its suffocating effect on free creation."

Hlehel said the new site will include sections on literature, cinema, theater, music, visual art and political analysis.

He said the name Qatida is a reference to an Arab village in the Upper Galilee destroyed in Israel's 1948 War of Independence. "Its land was seized by nature buffs and purveyors of boutique wines," said the author, born and raised in the nearby village of Jish.

Hlehel, 35, now lives in Acre. In April, a combination of Israeli and Lebanese bureaucratic obstacles and the volcano ash that shut down air traffic in Europe prevented him from receiving a literary prize at a festival in Beirut.

Gay, but anonymous

This will be the first Arabic website to include a section on gay and lesbian writing, he said.

"That section will be featured prominently on the home page," he said. "It will include texts written by Arab gays and lesbians who, naturally, will publish anonymously." He said the section would include reviews of gay-oriented cinema and literature in the Arab world and beyond.

Hlehel said the site's openness should not be understood as a commitment to neutrality or objectivity.

"We won't hide behind broad, empty statements. We're committed to complete openness and the desire to reexamine red lines. We'll try to be daring in the defense of freedom of speech and expression, even at the price of coming into conflict with the dominant culture and zeitgeist," he said.

Asked whether he is apprehensive over the site's reception across the Arab world, he said, "Not at all, we're not afraid. We think we're doing God's work. We're trying to prevail over the hypocrisy of the underdog hung up on human rights while he himself doesn't uphold them in his own society. Women, children, gays and lesbians - they're all weak in a society that is, generally speaking, strict and patriarchal. That needs to be changed.

"In order not to be hypocritical, you can't fly the flag of human rights when you yourself don't protect them. This will be another crack in the wall behind which Arab society has barricaded itself for many years," he said.

Expected contributors to the site include Mahmoud Abu Hashhash, a Ramallah-based poet and writer; Yasmeen Daher, a poet and lecturer at Ramallah's Birzeit University; the Palestinian poet Marwan Makhoul and the Nazareth-based writer Raji Bathish.