'Egyptians Should Read in Hebrew, to Know What the Enemy Is Plotting'

An Egyptian writer defends the middle ground in a new debate on an old topic rekindled by a book of poetry.

A gigantic storm has been brewing among Egyptian intellectuals ever since Egyptian poetess Iman Mersal permitted one of her books to be published in Hebrew ("An Alternative Geography," translated by Sasson Somekh, Hakibbutz Hameuhad publishing house). How, they demand, could any Egyptian writer cross the lines, defy the writers association's orders and destroy the bases from which the war against normalization with Israel is being waged?

In the latest round of this public debate, writer and critic Jaber Asfour, director of the National Center for Translation in Egypt, weighed in.

Asfour's institute has itself come in for criticism, due to his decision to allow Hebrew books to be translated into Arabic under an agreement reached between Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a few months ago, when Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosny was competing for the position of UNESCO director general. Hosny was not elected, for which he blamed Israel. But the translation project is still on.

In an interview with an important Egyptian literary magazine, "Akhbar Al Adab," Asfour wrestled with the definition of the term "normalization."

"Normalization means an act from which the one who commits it derives economic or spiritual benefit," he said. "That did not happen in Mersal's case." In other words, she received no money for letting her book be translated.

That is also how he defends his agreement to translate books from Hebrew: He stressed that he signed no agreements with any Israeli publishing house, thus ensuring "that the Egyptian public's money would not go into Israeli hands."

Instead, the translations are being done by foreign companies, from English or French into Arabic.

If normalization means economic benefit, Asfour was asked, what is "spiritual benefit?" He replied: "If Israeli papers write about you favorably."

"But that is no criterion," objected the interviewer, Mohammed Shair. "After all, if Haaretz were to write nice things about you tomorrow with regard to your cultural role in Egypt, would I then accuse you of normalization?"

"No, I don't think so," Asfour replied. "But if it was in the context of cooperation between me and them, then it would be normalization."

Asfour drew a distinction between translating from Hebrew into Arabic and translating from Arabic into Hebrew.

"We have to get to know the enemy, to understand his strengths and weaknesses, so that I can know how he thinks and what he is plotting against us," he explained, offering an excuse for translations into Arabic.

But what about the opposite direction? "I prefer that translations into Hebrew should not be done with the writers' consent. If they steal our literature, that is another matter."

Asfour at least absolves someone involved in normalization of one sin: Such a person "is not necessarily a traitor," he said. "But he is acting contrary to the national consensus, which sees cultural normalization as the last weapon we have with which to confront the Israelis. We the intellectuals have the right to say 'no' until there is a just peace. But if one of us violates the consensus, we will not describe him as a traitor."

Even that is something.

Hezbollah's new pose

Beirut's Dahiyeh neighborhood, where Hezbollah's headquarters are located, is also a major Shi'ite center.

Some 750,000 people, the vast majority of them Shi'ites, are crowded into the area's narrow alleyways and tiny hovels, and there is so much dirt that even Hezbollah cannot control it all.

This is a neighborhood where Hezbollah calls the tune, about everything from traffic to building permits.

The organization carried out an impressive reconstruction of those parts of the neighborhood that were bombed by Israel during the Second Lebanon War, but other parts remain in a disgraceful state.

This has given rise to anger against Hezbollah on the part of the residents.

Now, with the new Lebanese government finally established, Hezbollah has decided to improve its image, especially among the people who live near its headquarters.

The organization has therefore embarked on a campaign for cleanliness and order.

A group affiliated with the organization has prepared a far-reaching plan to get the residents to maintain order, stop stealing electricity and water from government networks, preserve hygienic conditions and obey traffic rules.

The group has hung billboards in the streets with quotations from the Hadiths, or sayings of the prophet Mohammed, about maintaining public order, as well as quotations attributed to the late Iranian spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

But the most important move from Lebanon's point of view was Hezbollah's decision to allow state police forces to enter the neighborhood to take care of traffic arrangements.

This is the first time the organization has allowed the state any official role in this neighborhood, which is considered a Hezbollah "state."

As a result, 150 traffic policemen will soon replace Hezbollah operatives, and later, the organization will also transfer responsibility for the neighborhood's internal security problems to the Lebanese Interior Ministry.

So far, however, this is merely a gesture to the state. Hezbollah has no intention of handing over its weapons, and southern

Lebanon will remain under its control.

Not because of its sanctity

Mustafa Fiqi, chairman of the Egyptian parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee and one of the country's most important liberal philosophers, is concerned about the demand that Jerusalem be liberated because of its sanctity to Islam.

"If we, the Muslims, say that the Al-Aqsa Mosque is ours, then the Jews will say that the Western Wall is theirs, and the Christians will say that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is theirs," he said in a lecture last week. "I prefer that the Arabs not talk about Jerusalem as holy ground, because then the problem will lose direction. It is better to present Jerusalem as land that was conquered in 1967."

In his lecture, delivered in honor of Jerusalem's anointment as the Arabic cultural capital of 2009, he explained why he preferred nationalist reasoning to religious reasoning.

The close connection between Judaism and Christianity, as expressed during the tenure of former U.S. president George W. Bush, could lead to Muslim religious reasoning being "defeated" by Christian-Jewish cooperation, he warned.

Therefore, it would be best to return to nationalist reasoning.