Controversy Erupts in Egypt Over Inclusion of Israeli Book at Cairo Fair

Charges of 'normalization' greet discovery of non-fiction work about modern Arab society, which was translated from Hebrew to Arabic.

Visitors browsing at annual Cairo International Book Fair, February 3, 2009.

An Egyptian parliamentarian is demanding that his government investigate how an Israeli book was allowed into an international book fair now taking place in Cairo.

The book, “Arabian Nights.Com,” is by Jacky Hugi, an Arab affairs analyst for Army Radio. He describes it on the Al-Monitor website as “a nonfiction introduction for Israeli readers to contemporary social, cultural and political discourse in the Arab world.”

Though published in Hebrew in 2011, it was only recently translated into Arabic by Egyptian translator Amr Zakaria in preparation for the Cairo book fair. The fair, which opened last Thursday and closes on February 10, features some 3 million books at 850 booths from 34 countries.

Shortly after it opened, the discovery of Hugi’s book raised a storm, primarily because Hugi works for a military radio station. Mohamed Al-Masoud, a member of parliament for the Free Egyptians party, which is considered liberal, promptly demanded that Culture Minister Helmy El Namnam investigate how such a lapse occurred.

Jacky Hugi.
Tali Mayer

“If we don’t translate Hebrew books, how will we know what’s being written about us?” countered Zakaria in an interview published on Sunday in the Egyptian daily Akhbar el-Yom. “This book in particular was written about our society. How long will we hide our heads in the sand?

“If the situation goes on this way, the state should abolish the universities’ Hebrew language departments. Every year, they produce 2,000 graduates. If they work in tourism, they’re considered normalizers. If they translate, they’re also considered normalizers,” Zakaria continued, referring to the fact that many Egyptians oppose “normalizing” relations with Israel.

Monday evening, Dr. Haitham El-Hajj Ali, head of the public committee that organized the fair, was interviewed on the matter by the television station TEN. He said he hadn’t yet encountered the book, but intended to hunt it down and examine its content to determine “whether it harms national security or not,” given that “media reports say the book’s author is an Arab affairs analyst for the Israeli army.”

“I must stress that many people in the Culture Ministry believe we should translate from Hebrew, but we won’t pay Israelis for the translation rights,” he continued. “We must translate them to become familiar with their culture and learn how to deal with them, but we won’t sign contracts with them.”

Hugi responded, “The campaign against normalization was born as a means to pressure Israel on the Palestinian issue, but it’s absurd. When you prevent an Egyptian citizen from reading Hebrew literature or watching an Israeli film, the boycott is against him.”

“It’s strange that Israeli governments have watched the Egyptian regime drying up relations for 30 years now, but swallowed the insult without a jot of protest,” he added.

Last week, a planned screening in Cairo of the prize-winning Israeli film “The Band’s Visit” was canceled by order of the Egyptian Culture Ministry, also on the grounds of “preventing normalization.” The ministry ordered an investigation into who approved the private screening.