In Other Words

Very, Very Lost in Translation

How the Egyptian literary czar who wants to lead the world's top cultural body got caught up in his own country's rabid anti-Semitism.


To say that Farouk Hosni doesn’t much like Israel is putting it lightly. According to the Anti-Defamation League, he has called it "inhuman," and "an aggressive, racist, and arrogant culture, based on robbing other people’s rights and the denial of such rights." He has accused Jews of "infiltrating" world media. And in May 2008, Hosni outdid even himself, telling the Egyptian parliament that he would "burn right in front of you" any Israeli books found in the country’s libraries.

What’s shocking is not just that Hosni has said these things, but that he is Egypt’s culture minister — and even more scandalous, that he is the likely next head of UNESCO, the arm of the United Nations sworn to defend cultural diversity and international artistic cooperation. Less surprising but also sadly true is that Hosni’s opinions about Israeli culture are par for the course among Egypt’s intelligentsia, for whom 30 years of official peace with the Jewish state, the longest of any Arab country, have done virtually nothing to moderate its rampant Judeophobia. If anything, the opposite might be true.

This affair has sparked protests from prominent intellectuals and politicians in Israel and around the world. And the only reason Hosni even has a shot at the UNESCO job, which he’d be the first Arab to hold, is because, in a major reversal, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently lifted his country’s opposition to the Egyptian’s candidacy. How this came to pass remains shrouded in mystery. All that’s known is that on May 11, Netanyahu met with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and was convinced not to block the culture minister’s candidacy in return for some unpublicized conditions. A few weeks later, Farouk Hosni penned an apologetic article in Le Monde, retracting his statement on book burning. Soon after that, he pledged that Egypt’s culture ministry would translate literary works by two Israelis, Amos Oz and David Grossman. This seemed like a significant concession because official Egyptian policy mostly bars translation from Hebrew to Arabic — or at least any dealings with Israeli publishers.

But what appeared to be signs of positive change in Egypt’s literary elite were actually just reflections of its deep-seated hostility to Jewish and Israeli culture. Hosni was quickly and widely attacked as "courting Zionist influence" by his fellow members of the Egyptian intelligentsia. In fact, Gaber Asfour, the head of Egypt’s National Translation Center, immediately denied any link between the translations and Hosni’s UNESCO campaign. He clarified that there would be no translation of the Israeli authors from Hebrew at all, but rather from existing European translations, so as not to have to actually deal with the Israeli rights-holders themselves. Although there are certainly a lot of books about Israel on the market in Egypt — most of them full of conspiracy theories or tendentious views of Jewish history — Egypt’s head translator said he wanted to publish more, if not directly from the Hebrew. For his justification, he quoted an Arabic proverb: "Who knows the language of a people is safe from their evil."

This whole imbroglio only serves to highlight the Egyptian literati’s generally hateful and hidebound views of Israel, which are often more virulent than those of the Egyptian public at large. To this day, Egyptian cultural figures and academics are professionally barred from contacts with Israelis. Even the faculty senate at the American University in Cairo passed a resolution urging a boycott of Israeli scholars and schools. In July, the longtime management of the Atelier du Caire, the main gathering place for the city’s artists and writers, fell to a coup mounted by a group of disgruntled members; the charge was incompetence and catering to Israelis. And Egypt’s greatest modern writer, the late Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, was nearly expelled in 2001 from the Egyptian Writers’ Union simply because many of his books had been published in Israel.

Indeed, this only confirmed what Mahfouz once told me in the early 1990s: "The intellectuals who grew up under Nasser will never accept Israel," he said. "They imbibed hatred of Israel with their mothers’ milk — it is deep in their blood."

So why do Egyptian intellectuals fear Israeli influence so intensely? The constantly invoked explanation is that Egyptian intellectuals, the self-styled conscience of the country, cannot accept Israelis in the absence of a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, and especially not as long as Israel "oppresses" Palestinians. Although this rationale usually includes a pro forma reference to "occupied lands" and "Israeli aggression," what most of them mean is that Israel’s existence itself is the barrier to peace in the region. Few Egyptian intellectuals (unlike many ordinary Egyptians) acknowledge Israel’s right to exist, and even Mahfouz, whose books and films were banned in many Arab countries because of his support of peace talks with Israel, admitted he originally did so because he realized that military victory was not likely (though he greatly admired Israel’s literary culture, technology, and its democracy — however flawed).

The Egyptian generation that has grown up under Mubarak — who has worked for peace while often fostering resentment of Israel with his rhetoric at home — may be just the same. Then again, most of these Egyptians are not listening to Mubarak, but are following those in the media trained under Nasser or inspired by the semi-tolerated opposition group the Muslim Brotherhood and its offshoots in al Qaeda and beyond, even the militant Lebanese Shiites in Hezbollah.

These more extremist influences might seem to sit uneasily beside other equally popular ones. There is, for example, a lingering euphoria among Egypt’s cultural elite from U.S. President Barack Obama’s June 4 address in Cairo (though tempered, of course, with irritation at his references to the Holocaust and his reaffirmation of America’s bonds with Israel). Seeming incongruities like this one can also be seen in the many Egyptians who mourn Michael Jackson while downloading chanted Koranic verses for their cellphone ring tones, and who watch racy clips of Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe while cheering on Hamas. But these apparent contradictions shouldn’t lull anyone into thinking that the Egyptian cultural elite is thawing in terms of Israel. Indeed, the Hosni brouhaha is just the most recent demonstration of the extreme paranoia against Jews that exists in Egypt.

Should Hosni’s bid to be head of UNESCO succeed, as is likely, it could obscure the truly virulent prejudice that passes for cultural understanding among the Egyptian intelligentsia. Despite his apology for offering to burn books, Hosni told the Egyptian station Dream TV in July that he will oppose normalization with Israel until "two states exist" and the "Palestinian people get their right." And whatever the United Nations decides in the end, his gut feelings about Israel and the Jews are not likely to change.

Trending Now Sponsored Links by Taboola

By Taboola

More from Foreign Policy

By Taboola