As Syria goes deeper into civil war (and may draw in Turkey) and Egypt’s first civilian president, Mohamed Morsi, calls for the release of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing plotter, “blind sheik” Omar Abdel-Rahman, here’s a small story that could be even more dispiriting when thinking about the future of the region.
Well-known Algerian author Boualem Sansel was awarded an important French literary prize last fall, for his book Rue Darwin, but on Thursday was denied the 15,000 euros that went with the honor because, after the award announcement, he had visited Israel to accept the guest of honor role at the Jersusalem Literary Festival. This hasn’t yet risen to the fatwa issued against author Salman Rushdie. But it shows we haven’t come very far in international understanding.
It wasn’t the French that did this, but the Paris-based Arab Ambassadors Council. The Council said it would never want to interfere with literature but was following the directive of the Arab League dictum that, because it is at war with Israel, Sansel’s trip to the Jerusalem Literary Festival, in the words of Hamas, constituted treason.
French cultural leaders protested the decision to rescind the prize and asserted that Sansel’s novel should transcend politics and hatred. The Arab Ambassadors Council backed down under pressure and granted the award but has continued to withhold the 15,000 Euro prize.
Boualem Sansel stood tall, saying (as quoted in Haaretz), “If I had to be afraid of everybody who’s crazy or sick, or of what they say, I wouldn’t be able to do anything,” he said. “I would stay at home, and I certainly wouldn’t be writing.”
The world is better for his courage. Yet the whole affaire stands as yet another messy and depressing example of how rigid political partisans would rather wallow in ignorance and hatred than reach out to those who disagree and find common ground.