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The Andalus Test: Reflections on the Attempt to Publish Arabic Literature in Hebrew

[Detail from the cover of Elias Khoury, [Detail from the cover of Elias Khoury, "Bab al-Shams." Image by Sharif Waked.]

Should a visitor from another planet happen to arrive here and look around at the reality between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea without the usual lenses of distortion, she would see that in Israel/Palestine—the land stretching from the river to the sea which has been under one rule for over forty years—almost half the population is Palestinian Arab and Arabic is their mother tongue, as well as that of nearly half of the Israeli Jewish population. Should our guest distinguish—as does the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, as well as the Israeli academy and media—between Israeli citizens and occupied Palestinian subjects, she would find that within the category of “Israeli citizens,” the majority is of Arabic-speaking (and to a large extent reading and writing) origin. Our guest would likely notice that Israel is located in the heart of the Arab world and that each and every one of its neighboring countries is Arab.

Out of a desire to familiarize herself with local culture, our guest might walk into a nearby bookshop, where she would expect to find books in Hebrew and Arabic—the two official languages of the state of Israel. But alas, at the first store: Hebrew books only. At the second store: some English books too. The third store, she will find, is dedicated to Russian literature. “There are no Arabs here!” they would all inform her. “This, my dear, is Tel Aviv.” The guest, who has been to Paris and Rome and London and Moscow and Nairobi and Johannesburg and Buenos Aires, might be a bit surprised: “A city without Arabs? Without Arabic? Here? In the center of the Middle East?”

Then our guest might meet up with a friend, also from another planet. Unlike our guest, the friend does not look at reality but rather at its representations. She watches current affairs shows and nightly news on TV; she reads newspapers, especially the “leading liberal daily” Haaretz; she goes to the theatre and the opera; she attends faculty meetings at the university; and, like our guest, she browses bookshops. “Why are you so surprised?” she admonishes our guest, “After all, this is a European country!” This is because by and large the friend only encounters middle-aged secular Ashkenazi men. They are practically the only ones to be seen, heard, and read: the shelves are overflowing with their books, as well as those of their American, French, German, and Spanish counterparts. Our guest does not manage to convince her friend that middle-aged secular Ashkenazi men make up less than ten percent of the land’s people. Nor does she manage to get her to believe that Israel is not in Europe.

It was into this reality, and its representations, that Andalus Publishing was born. But when I launched a publishing house that would specialize in translating Arabic literature into Hebrew, I had the impression that this reality was going to change. It was in the late 1990s, on the eve of the second intifada, and despite my critique of the so-called “peace process,” I hadn’t altogether internalized my own criticism.

Prominent Palestinian intellectuals, including the late Edward Said and former Knesset Member (MK) Azmi Bishara, now in exile, feared that the Oslo process would lead to the formation of Palestinian Bantustans and the consolidation of Israeli Apartheid. Although the Israeli policy of “closure” began in the early 1990s (heralding the “disappearance” of Arabs from Tel Aviv), even the liberal architects of “separation” never imagined the eight-meter high concrete wall. Many of the Oslo critics, myself among them, imagined “closure” as a temporary setback in a framework that nonetheless aimed at reaching historical compromise and “peace.” And even if the word peace was stripped of any meaning, like justice and equality, it seemed the process still pointed toward rapprochement, understanding, and life together, rather than apart.

In the merry Oslo years, alongside the uninhibited construction of new settlements and the paving of bypass roads for Jews only, there was prolific joint Jewish-Arab activity, much of it under the auspices of “people-to-people” type programs aimed at fostering dialogue and funded with European, American, and Japanese money. Concurrently, it seemed as though the dominant Ashkenazi-Zionist ideology that conceives of Israel as a European “bastion of the West in the East” was starting to weaken: the public presence of two historically disempowered and marginalized groups—Palestinian citizens of Israel and Israeli Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origin (Mizrahim)—could be felt loud and clear.

Andalus’ “Declaration of Intentions,” as written in 1999, read in part as follows:

Andalus is a new publishing house that specializes in the translation of Arabic literature and prose into Hebrew. Andalus, the site of the “golden age” of Islamic and Jewish thought, was also an era during which Jewish and Arabic cultures fed and fertilized one another; an epoch known for its literary and intellectual output by some of the greatest Moslem and Jewish philosophers, theologians, and poets. It was a period during which materials were translated from Arabic to Hebrew and vice versa.

Despite Israel’s location in the heart of the Arab world, Hebrew-reading Israelis remain, for the most part, unexposed to Arabic culture in general, and Arabic literature and thought in particular. The quantity and variety of existing translations is insufficient, especially as compared with the wealth of works translated into Hebrew from European languages—since the 1930s less than forty Arabic language titles have been translated into Hebrew.

Our goal is to establish a successful independent publishing house that will produce a dozen translated titles each year, representing a variety of styles: classical and modern literature, journalistic and academic research, poetry, plays, satires, theory and criticism.

Our first move was to identify translators and editors. Palestinian artist Sharif Waked, who has designed all of our books, also helped to choose the first titles for publication. Everyone and anyone with expertise was consulted, and our appeals for advice were met with enthusiastic and generous input. Our first list of publications consisted of ten novels that would give the uninitiated Hebrew reader a good “sampling” of contemporary Arabic literature.

However, our plans changed when in March 2000, then-Minister of Education, Yossi Sarid announced that he would include two poems by the Palestinian national poet Mahmoud Darwish in the high school curriculum. These “poetical not political” poems, to quote Sarid, were to be included in a long list of poems that teachers could choose to assign to their students, but were not, God forbid, to be included in the mandatory reading list. This fact did not prevent Sarid’s decision from triggering pubic hysteria. Prime Minister Ehud Barak declared: “Israeli society is not ripe to study Darwish.” It was much ado about nothing, and still, not a single collection of Darwish’s poems on the Hebrew bookshelf.

The first translator I turned to was the late Muhammad Hamza Ghanaem. Ghanaem dedicated his life to Arabic-Hebrew and Hebrew-Arabic translation. He was devoted to Andalus Publishing as a project and translated three of Darwish’s collections.

When the Darwish “hysteria” broke out in Israel, Ghanaem suggested that we publish Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?, which he had already translated. So our first publication was not a novel, but a collection of poetry. The hysteria only strengthened our conviction that the Hebrew-reading public needed to be exposed to Arabic literature. Within weeks, the publishing house was named, a design plan was conceived, and our first book hit the shelves.

Much to our surprise, when the book was published it received almost no attention. Apparently, people found it easier to talk about Darwish without a book in their hands. Despite the hysteria, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? did not sell as well as expected—and yet it remains one of our best and most steady sellers. Most of the poems in the collection deal with the 1948 Nakba and the life that preceded it. It turns out that these “materials” have a readership. One such reader was none other than former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In an interview with Ma'ariv in April 2005, he was quoted as follows:

Have you finished Fontanelle by Meir Shalev?
“I have a few more pages to go. At first, I had a hard time with that book, but as I read on, I discovered that it’s an extraordinary book.”

Meir Shalev is hardly a fan of yours.
“So what? I also read Mahmoud Darwish’s book, and I have spoken about his poem, the one with the horse that was left alone, and how much I envy his description of their connection to the land.”

Mahmoud Darwish addressed the motivation of his Israeli readers before the book was even published, repeating the following sentiment on various occasions: “I would like Israelis to read my poetry, not as a representative of the enemy, not so as to make peace.” In that spirit, Darwish granted us blanket rights to publish his books, refusing any and all form of compensation: “By asking for permission you have surpassed your predecessors. When you start making money from this venture, come back with your offer for remuneration.” With the arrogance and hubris of a first time cultural entrepreneur, I refused to accept what he was telling me. How wrong I was.

Like Andalus’ partners, I too support the position of Palestinian and Arab intellectuals who object to “normalization,” the forging of normal neighborly relations with Israel—economically, politically, culturally—despite ongoing occupation. If you normalize with Israel, you normalize with the occupation. Only on the basis of a just, equal, and viable historical compromise can relations with Israel be normalized, and ending the occupation is but the first condition. Since I founded Andalus, I have recognized the dangers of creating a false sense of "peace-making" and "dialogue" by means of “normalization.” I have always made my objection to normalization publicly known, but more importantly, I have searched for ways to make the translation of Arabic literature into Hebrew a means of resisting the occupation. In our racist reality, where the walls of “separation” loom larger by the day, making Arabic language and culture present in everyday Hebrew life is itself a form of resistance to the rhyme and reason of occupation.

We wanted to publish books on the basis of “purely” cultural considerations (if there is such a thing). We wanted to translate Arabic into Hebrew in accordance with the norms and conventions of the intelligentsia (as opposed to the “intelligence” community—which produces most of the Arabic-Hebrew translations in Israel) and, to the best of our ability, without paternalism and Orientalism.

The Egyptian authors we approached did not share our thinking. Rather, they preferred to ignore our declarations and refused to have their works translated on the grounds of “anti-normalization.” These writers belong to a milieu that avoids any and all contact with Israel as such, even at the price of refusing to visit the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) since, according to them, any contact with Israel, including applying for a visa to cross its borders so as to enter the OPT, constitutes “normalization.” After my initial approach, Andalus came under vicious attack by an Egyptian cultural weekly. This attack was followed by dozens of articles across the Arab world, both supporting and opposing our enterprise.

We were honored to find out that Andalus is privileged to have so many supporters in Arabic literary and intellectual circles. Mahmoud Darwish, Elias Khoury, Edward Said, Mohammed Berrada, Mohamed Choukri, and many others launched a “counter-attack,” lauding Andalus both in theory and in practice. Many of them granted us publication rights free of charge, as a way of expressing partnership and solidarity with our effort. Unsurprisingly, this debate had no echoes in Israel. Just as most Jewish Israelis do not seem to care what Arabs write, they do not care what they think.

I guess Mahmoud Darwish was right. Most Israelis do not care about Arabic literature, and the select few who do want only to “know the enemy” or “make peace” with him. The two novels we published by the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury form an interesting exception. Gate of the Sun (Bab al-Shams) that deals with the Nakba, received a few mentions in the Israeli press over the years, but upon publication in Hebrew it garnered relatively few reviews. Nonetheless, we sold over 5,000 copies (a quarter of which were donated to Israeli public libraries, where they are borrowed frequently). This is Andalus’ bestseller, and the most popular Arabic title ever translated into Hebrew.

In 2005, we published Khoury’s masterpiece Yalo, which does not have to do with the Palestinian narrative per se; rather, like Gate of the Sun, it deals with the intersection of history and memory, this time of a Lebanese prisoner who endures interrogation and torture. We thought the book would surpass its predecessor, especially since the stores showered it with attention, as did the press (sixteen rave reviews in the first month). But alas, Yalo sold just 1,500 copies—far more than most of the titles we have published, which have generally sold five hundred copies or fewer, but nonetheless a disappointment. If this is what a bestseller makes, it seems we have lost the battle for the Hebrew reader’s heart and mind. Our dream of being a self-sufficient, sustainable independent publishing house came to an end.

And then, just as we were forced to freeze our activities, we had a short glimmer of hope. Award-winning Canadian author Naomi Klein—who, like us, resists the normalization of the occupation—asked to publish her latest bestseller The Shock Doctrine in Hebrew via Andalus. Alongside her pointed criticism of the state of Israel, dialogue with Israelis is extremely important to her. So, while like me she has called to support the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, the idea was "not to boycott Israelis but rather to boycott the normalization of Israel and the conflict." She thought that Andalus would be the perfect address for this kind of resistance, and we thought salvation had come.

When Klein generously donated all her royalties toward future translations of Arabic writing into Hebrew, we had every reason to believe that following the Hebrew publication of The Shock Doctrine, Andalus would be able to publish several more books—always our primary goal. Sadly, the increased readership we hoped for never materialized: it seems that Israelis cease to care about anti-globalization when it is linked to anti-normalization and calls the occupation into question. Our would-be Northern savior turned out to be a true political friend, but no Santa Claus.

Klein’s book launch and book tour in June 2009 were dedicated to BDS promotion. We did not plan on there being a brutal massacre in an already besieged and beleaguered Gaza just a few months before. We could not have imagined that ninety-five percent of the Israeli-Jewish population would support the brutal killing of four hundred children. In our wildest dreams, we never imagined the first-time (there is always a first time) phenomenon of Israeli families making their Saturday outing to the hills overlooking Gaza to cheer at the shelling and bombing of one and a half million civilians incarcerated in the world’s largest open-air-prison. We did not realize that the walls we have been trying to topple for so many years would become hermetically sealed with self-censorship.

The book launch and book tour for The Shock Doctrine were effectively censored, and most of Klein’s Hebrew followers (from the bestselling No Logo), refusing to hear any political criticism, have boycotted the book. Hence, not only did publishing Naomi Klein not enable us to translate more Arabic titles into Hebrew, it elucidated the fact that the walls we are confronting are more fortified than ever, and that breaking them is a nearly impossible mission.

Nevertheless, after all I have said, Andalus does what it can to prove me wrong, and I hope one day it will. I am continuously reexamining the ways we worked, the choices we made, and the tools we employ to get our books out there. As a cultural enterprise, it has left its illustrious mark: rave reviews, die-hard fans, grateful happenstance readers. As an economic venture, it is a complete failure: supply without demand. Maybe it is not about us, continuous reexamination notwithstanding, but rather about the other publishing houses: in seven years we published twenty-four titles, eighteen of them Arabic literature translated into Hebrew. We increased the numbers of such books by over fifty percent, while the Arabic titles published by other Hebrew publishers in the same period can be counted on a single hand.

And here we must remember our alien guests. How strange it must seem that despite the fact that the majority of the people of the land are Arabic speaking or of Arabic-speaking origin, Arabic is hidden away, and along with it the possibility of al-Andalus—the site of an Arabic-Jewish culture—and of Andalus Publishing. “Our Place in al-Andalus,” wrote Maimonides, yet the number of Israeli Jews who know that Maimonides wrote his finest works in Arabic grows smaller by the day.

At times it seems as though the cultural divide, the mental walls, are deeper and taller than any physical barrier underway. These walls do not just pass between “us and them” (or as former Prime Minister Ehud Barak put it: “We are here and they are there.”). They are erected within ourselves, between our past and our present, between metaphysical fantasy and physical reality, between us and the place where we live.

7 comments for "The Andalus Test: Reflections on the Attempt to Publish Arabic Literature in Hebrew"

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Andalus's failure was/is mainly a marketing and managerial failure. Long before Andalus was created, translations of Najib Mahfuz and Jubran Halil Jubran sold tens of thousands of copies. The same is true for Egyptian movies which used to be screened in Israel on a regular basis, and attracted immense viewership. The main problem with Andalus is the mix between politics and business, including cultural business. When the owner supports BDS and chooses political titles dealing with the "Nakba", sales are destined to diminish. Why not start with titles dealing with the Arab countries and their problems, without any relation to Israel? Why not start with comedies or satires? Why not translate poems about love? And also, with regard to Arab authors who refuse to allow a translation of their books to Hebrew: why not see this as an aggressive act of war and hatred, and translate them anyhow?

R.Z. wrote on May 16, 2012 at 01:50 PM
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The last words on the divide between past and present have moved me strongly. I was born in Balaguer (Catalonia), educated as a Christian. The town church lies over the remains of a Mosquee and I lived in the out of town quarters housing jewish community, until the end of XVth Century. The remains of the divide have lasted till 1975 and still the hatred to Catalan language witnesses effects of the "francoist" Shock, an ancestor to the chilean one.

Albert Bradomin wrote on May 16, 2012 at 06:53 PM
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A beautifully written piece. I will teach this in the fall in a class on Orientalism. Thanks.

Deborah wrote on May 18, 2012 at 12:05 PM
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Could it be that Israelis don't trust a translation made by Arabs? Might be also that your political discourse was preventing them to make the first step: to go to your edited books. But more deeply, it remains difficult for a colonialist nation to appreciate the Other's culture. A feeling of superiority, a contempt for the Arabs (and more for Palestinians) erase the value of the Other's culture. Maybe there is also the unconscious (and conscious for the politics) fear to discover that the Other has a culture as anybody, that it could be nice, interesting even if critical etc. Finally to discover that the Other is also a human being like I am.

Marianne wrote on May 22, 2012 at 07:07 AM
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This is a nice piece about a solid cause. My one issue is why use the "alien from outer space" rhetorical device to make a point about white male patriarchy? Why should this blatant injustice regarding literary representation in Israeli bookstores be historically decontextualized? Almost any human situation in the world can be painted as absurd through the perspective of an alien visitor armed with only a synchronic lens.

Jake wrote on May 24, 2012 at 08:26 PM
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Does anybody know if there are any Arabic publishing houses/magazines etc. that do the opposite... translate Hebrew books into Arabic?

Boots wrote on May 30, 2012 at 07:47 PM
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Egyptian author Nael el-Toukhy translates all kinds of things on his blog 'Thus spake Cohen': http://hkzathdthcohen.blogspot.co.uk/

kiki wrote on June 13, 2012 at 09:37 AM

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