Passing the Test On October 13, 1988, the Nobel Prize committee in Stockholm announced that the 1988 prize in literature had been awarded to Egyptian novelist and playwright Naguib Mahfouz — the first time an Arab writer had received this honor. In its front-page story on the award, the New York Times hastened to reassure its readers that all was well, because Mahfouz was a “good Arab” — that is, not overly critical of Israel or of US Middle East policy. After three sentences on the award itself and two more quantifying Mahfouz’s literary output, Times reporter Sheila Rule finally got to the heart of the matter by making it clear that Mahfouz was “a strong supporter of President Anwar al-Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel.” Even more reassuringly, she noted, some Arab governments had banned his books for a time because of this stance.
In case the message was not yet sufficiently obvious, the next paragraph (we’re still on the front page) featured the testimony of the Israeli press officer at the UN to the effect that Israel considered Mahfouz “a good neighbor” and that some of his work had been translated into Hebrew and performed in Israel. Only after establishing Mahfouz’s political bona fides did Rule feel able to turn to a discussion of the laureate’s life and work. So can we assume from this treatment that when the Nobel prize is awarded to an Israeli writer, the Times will begin its coverage by asking PLO officials to evaluate the prizewinner’s political views?
Incidentally, reliable sources report that the Nobel committee came very close to giving this year’s prize to the renowned Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis (‘Ali Ahmad Sa‘id). Although poetry is more important than prose as a form of cultural expression in the Arab world and Adonis is without a doubt one of the greatest of contemporary Arab poets, the Nobel committee may have felt that Adonis’ oppositional stances made him too controversial.
Fruits of Victory The New York Times of October 10, 1988 reports that the Iraqi government will build a new presidential palace for Saddam Hussein to symbolize “the heroic sacrifices of the Iraqi people” in the eight-year war against Iran.
Can’t See the Forest or the Trees A group of American Jews affiliated with the Gush Emunim settlers’ movement and the right-wing Tehiyya party in Israel has brought suit in New York against the Jewish National Fund. They charge that the JNF misled donors by falsely suggesting that contributions from American Jews would be used for afforestation work in the West Bank and Gaza, when in reality the funds were being used only within Israel’s 1967 borders. Denying any intent to defraud, the JNF admitted that foreign contributions were used exclusively within the Green Line, while its afforestation and “land-clearing” work in the Occupied Territories was funded by the Israeli government. The litigants want the JNF to allocate “a fair and equal amount of funds” to projects beyond the Green Line.
Welfare State? There is apparently at least one Palestinian in the Occupied Territories who has benefited materially from the intifada. Direct from the West Bank we have a report of a man with three wives and 25 children, 16 of whom are already being held in Israeli prison camps. Realizing how much cheaper it is to have the Israelis provide their room and board, the man is said to be encouraging the remaining nine to become activists and get arrested. Another bulletin from the same eminently reliable source tells of a village near Hebron where the uprising was being organized by a very efficient 8-year old, who acquired the title of “al-general.” The Israelis eventually got wind of this famous “inciter” and came to arrest him, but were so insulted to find out that it was an 8-year old who had been giving them so much trouble that they didn’t bother taking him in.
Underground Battles 1988 witnessed the opening of a new front in the struggle for American public opinion on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — American subways. In April a coalition led by Mobilization for Survival bought advertising space on Boston subway cars for posters opposing Israeli brutality against Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and calling for an end to US aid to the occupation. The campaign stirred up considerable controversy and media coverage, and Jewish Defense League threats to tear the posters down. In August the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) put posters in the Washington, DC, subway system calling for “One Yardstick for Human Rights” and urging Congress to “Just Say No” to unconditional aid for Israel. Once again there was considerable controversy, with some Jewish groups denouncing the posters as inflammatory and misleading and demanding that political advertising be banned from the Metro.
Middle East activists also brought the Palestinian issue to public attention through local referendum campaigns on the November ballot in Cambridge and Newton, MA, as well as in Berkeley and San Francisco, CA. The Cambridge referendum, which calls for an end to US aid to the occupation and for a Palestinian state, was the only one to win, by a margin of 53 to 47 percent.
Press Watch These are rough times for freedom of the press in the Middle East. In August the Jordanian government dissolved the boards of directors of the country’s three leading newspaper groups and put its own nominees in charge, in order to “enhance the role of the Jordanian press in serving Jordan’s pan-Arab aims” following King Hussein’s severing of ties with the West Bank. A few days later the new management of the al-Dustur group closed down Jordan’s only English-language weekly, the Jerusalem Star.
Iraq is threatening to sue newspapers which, under what it called “hostile Zionist influence,” have published reports on its use of chemical weapons against the Kurds. In Egypt the government has shut down the Nasserist opposition newspaper Sawt al-‘Arab for publishing an article attacking Saudi policies and criticizing “the princes and princesses making the rounds on yachts and in nightclubs.” Israeli security forces have arrested several more Palestinian journalists working for al-Fajr and al-Sha‘b. Some of the recent limitations on coverage have been self-imposed, however: In an effort to pressure management for higher salaries, the employees’ association at Israel Radio decided early in September to prohibit its members from covering events beyond the Green Line.
Finally, A Little Justice From Tripoli comes word that an Anti-Imperialist Court has put President Reagan on trial on charges of terrorism and “barbaric aggression” for ordering the April 1986 attack on Libya.
The Joke This one is currently making the rounds in Iran: All the prophets were seated around a banquet table in heaven, with Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad at the head of the table and Khomeini way down at the far end. After the meal Muhammad got up to use the bathroom, and as soon as he had left Khomeini rushed to take his seat. When the Prophet returned he was surprised and annoyed, and asked Khomeini to move. Khomeini refused, and there ensued a long argument about the propriety of Khomeini’s action. Finally, the exasperated Muhammad said that he was going to seek divine intervention. He went before God, explained the situation to Him, and asked His help. God replied, “What do you expect me to do? I’ve had to go to the bathroom for over an hour, but I’m afraid that if I leave for even a minute I won’t have a seat when I get back.”