Dubai A Palestinian author in Abu Dhabi is celebrating this week after successfully campaigning to have the University of Texas cancel a proposed book by women on life in the Middle East.
The university in Austin had wanted to include Israeli women authors in the anthology over the objections of the Arab writers, who argued the Israeli’s inclusion was politically unacceptable.
“I am so proud of having the book cancelled,” Palestinian author Huzama Habayeb told Gulf News.
“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.”
Huzama’s story began on May 1 when she received an email from the acquisitions editor at the Centre for Middle Eastern Studies at the Austin-based University of Texas.
It was planning to publish a collection of short stories from women writers across the Middle East to honour the late US scholar Elizabeth (B.J.) Fernai, who had lived and written on the region.
To Huzama’s delight, she had been commissioned to submit a story. Joy to anger But that joy soon turned to anger when she discovered that two Israeli writers had been included on the list of proposed contributors. ”I was so angry,” Huzama told Gulf News.
“My feelings ranged from disdain, rage, resentment, contempt, disgust — any word you like to describe my anger.” But Huzama isn’t just a woman of words — she opted for action.
“It didn’t take me long to decide,” she said. “I knew that I cannot be part of this project. There was no second thought at all So, I sent an email to the centre requesting them to withdraw my story for the book and I explained to her why I wanted to withdraw,” Although she was born in 1967, she has never set foot in her native Palestine.
“Once, I went to cross over from Jordan. When I was told that my papers would have to be stamped with an Israeli stamp, I refused to cross. To accept that stamp would be recognition of Israel,” she said defiantly.
“I am Palestinian and I can never accept the illegal occupation of my country.”
And the writing protect hit another raw nerve for her.
“We do not have our land,” she said. “It is illegally occupied the only thing that we have as Palestinians is our heritage, our arts, our writings, our culture. This is very important for every Palestinian. It is part of the glue that keeps us together where ever we are. We cannot compromise on this.”
She contacted the university and asked them to withdraw the name. She was surprised, however, at how quickly the centre agreed to her request. That just spurred her to more action.
“There are academic boycott movements around the world protesting the Israeli occupation — and the only two countries where they don’t exist are the United States and Israel. I wanted to do more to resist or to try and isolate Israel,” Huzama said. “It doesn’t need a genius to figure out that the Texas centre wanted to resolve the issue quickly and silently,” she explained.
At a loss
“For me, I was resolute not to stop at that point. To be honest, at the beginning, I felt at A loss. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know whom to go to. I went back to the centre wrote downthe names of writers, all of whom except for one, I have never met or known personally, though acquainted with their works. In the meantime, I wrote a letter, to be sent to all writers enlisted in the anthology, whereby I tried to explain what happened. I felt that my colleagues had the right to know, so that they would decide themselves whether to stay in the project or withdraw. So I started with the one whom I knew pretty well — Radwa Ashour, a friend of mine, and a prominent Egyptian novelist and critic.
"As I expected, Radwa was shocked. She was very angry, and she herself wrote a strong letter of protest,” Huzama said. “She threatened the centre to withdraw her story if they insisted on keeping the stories of the two Israeli writers.
With Ashour on board, Huzama felt invigorated and vindicated. “I made tens of calls, sent tens of emails, and I was willing to reach all concerned writers, wherever they were, no matter what,” she recalled.
Slowly, the tide began to turn, with two, then four, then five writers threatening to withdraw. But the university wasn’t backing down. It sent a letter telling the writers the book was going ahead.
“[Memory of a Promise] has been in press for some time and has been advertised and advance orders have been placed,” the centre told the authors. “No changes to the anthology can be made at this point. “I got mad,” Huzama, “We were all pissed off.” She organised a manifesto and circulated to her fellow Arab writers.
On Monday, the University of Texas formally cancelled the project as a result of the boycott Huzama organised.
Gulf News placed calls to the University of Texas centre for comment. The calls were not answered.
“We have heard back from many of the contributors to the volume in honour of B.J. Fernea,” Kamran Scot Aghaie, the director of the centre wrote the contributors. “Some of you wish to proceed with the project, and others have withdrawn their contributions. On balance, the net result is that the book project is no longer viable. Therefore, we are discontinuing publication of this volume.”
In his letter, Aghaie said: “A few contributors feel that we should have excluded Jewish Israeli authors as a matter of policy, or that we should have treated them differently from other authors. We, of course, will not do that, because it violates our policy against discriminating based on race, religion, or national origin.”
For Huzama, the accusation of being anti-Jewish is hard to accept.
“At no time did anyone use the term anti-Jewish,” she said.
“But it seems if you are anti-Israel, you are automatically anti-Jewish. For generations before Israel existed, back hundreds of years, Jews and Palestinians lived side by side. That accusation saddens me, but at least the book has been cancelled. I feel vindicated. And proud.”