Cover of new anthology released by Tel Aviv publisher, Resling Books (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

TEL AVIV — A new book released by the Israeli publisher Resling Books is under fire for publishing a collection of stories by leading Arab women writers without their permission. Editor and translator of the anthology, Dr. Alon Fragman, coordinator of Arabic Language Studies at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, writes in his introduction that the purpose of the book is to surface the texts of writers “whose voices have been silenced for years.” Now those same writers are decrying the violation of their copyrights through the inclusion of their works in this book, without their consent.            

Titled Huriya (a transcription of the Arabic word for Freedom), the book gathers stories by 45 women writers from 20 predominantly Arabic-speaking countries, stretching from the Persian Gulf across North Africa. Among those are renowned writers such as Farah El-Tunisi (Tunisia), Ahlam Mosteghanemi (Algeria), Fatma El-Zahra’a Ahmad (Somalia), and Nabahat Zine (Algeria).The anthology treats the subject of freedom by showcasing works written in the aftermath of the Arab Spring revolutions which, according to Fragman has brought about a “literary spring” as well.

Khulud Khamis, from her website

Khulud Khamis, a writer based in the city of Haifa in northern Israel, was invited by the publisher to participate in the book’s launch event planned for October. “While leafing through the book, I noticed the large number of writers from across the Arab world and I suspected that the writers were not asked for permission for the translation and publication of their works,” Khamis tells the Arabic online magazine Fusha. Her suspicion was validated after she contacted some of the writers. Khamis has canceled her participation in the event and posted the news on social media, calling her followers to alert the other writers about the unauthorized publication of their works. A torrent of condemnations by the writers has followed.

Libyan writer Najwa Bin Shatwan (photo by Kheridine Mabrouk)

Najwa Bin Shatwan, a Libyan writer living in Italy, describes the publication, to the website Fusha, as a brazen act of literary theft. Nabahat Zine (Algeria) describes the book as “forced normalization.” The word “normalization” refers to ways organizations, business, and governments act as if there are normal cultural relations between Arab countries and Israel in disregard of its longstanding conflict with Palestinians. This term recurs throughout the writers’ condemnations. Salwa Banna (Palestine) tells Fusha “Those who rob a land won’t find it hard to rob a culture” and describes the book as an attempt to coax Arab writers into a “normalization trap.” Buthaina El-Issa (Kuwait) tells the Palestinian daily Al Ayam: “Of course, they never approached me, because they follow the logic of occupation and expropriation, but still they named the book Freedom. They are shameless.”

Activist Roni Felsen (photo by Sophia Trotoush Argaman)

Resling Books is held in high regard locally for its catalogue of quality theoretical and political publications. The anthology was published under a new experimental prose section named VASHTI. Last May, the publisher held a “soft launch” event for the book at a Tel Aviv bookstore. Roni Felsen, a local activist who attended the event, told Hyperallergic that Fragman confessed in front of the audience that he did not have permission from the writers to publish their works. Felsen reached out to the publisher on the matter and heard back from Resling’s chief editor, Idan Zivoni. Felsen and the editor Zivoni discussed the matter over the phone.

When the story erupted several days ago, activist Felsen posted Zivoni’s response to her questions about the book and copyright issues on her Facebook page. Below is a translation of Felsen’s post, that is a transcription of the editor’s comment about the anthology. Zivoni said:

This entire story of translation is an issue by itself especially when it’s from Arabic. It’s a different kind of category. When you translate from English, you deal with norms, you have a subject and you ask for rights. We as a publisher do it all the time, and we never publish foreign works without permission. It’s different in the Arab countries, where there are no publishers. Some of these countries have no ties with us [Israel], so there’s no one to contact. In that respect, a symmetry exists. Books by Resling were translated and published there without permission as well…Here we’re not even talking about books, but short stories. In many cases, the writers wouldn’t even be practically allowed give us their permission. These women are putting a call out to the world. This is literature written in body and blood, for some of them it’s a [sic] SOS signal which reaches us thanks to technology….so that we can use it to save lives. Who will hear the cries of these women? In the past, these women could cry out in their kitchen…or in the field, heard only by god maybe? Now somebody is taking these cries, translates them and voices [sic] them here in Israel… It’s important to us that the voices of these women are heard…We take it as their salvation.

Zivoni added that his company is not making any profit from the project, but rather lost money to realize it. Fargman, according to Zivoni, translated the texts for no compensation because he was driven by “a sense of mission.”

“As an Arab female writer, myself, Resling’s response is offensive and patronizing,” Khamis told Hyperallergic. “These writers are not screaming in their kitchens or in the fields, and they are definitely not waiting for the white male savior to ‘save’ them. These are all strong women — activists, human rights defenders, many of whom hold advanced degrees in various fields. Their creative works have been recognized both nationally and internationally. Taking the writers’ words and creations, translating and publishing them into Hebrew — without their knowledge or consent — is the very opposite of ‘saving’ them. They [Resling] have robbed these women of their agency, silenced them, and disregarded their right to make a choice regarding their works,” she added.

Yehouda Shenhav (courtesy of himself)

Yehouda Shenhav, a professor of sociology at Tel Aviv University, told Hyperallergic, “This is a colonial and misogynistic response, typical of an Israeli left that is disconnected from the Arab world. Publishing works of literature without permission does not build bridges with the Arabs but rather builds walls.” Shenhav, who has also translated books from Arabic to Hebrew, represents another model in the business. In 2014, he founded The Arabic-Hebrew Translators’ Forum, composed of Jewish and Arab members. His latest initiative within that forum is Maktoob, a translation project of Arabic prose and literature into Hebrew for the purpose of bringing those works to the Israeli reader — but never without the writers’ permission. The project, says Shenhav, proves that it is possible to get permission for translations, even from writers in “enemy states.” He adds that it has been a longstanding practice by Israeli academics to translate works from Arabic without any permission, always rationalizing the theft of intellectual property by the assumption that there is no one to talk to on the other side. Fragman, who happens to be a member of the aforementioned forum of translators, is not expected to last there, according to Shenhav. In a statement issued yesterday (Wednesday) by the Middle East Studies Department at Ben Gurion University, the department denounced the book and clarified that Fragman is no longer a member of its staff. It’s an important turn of events given the fact that Fragman still appears on the department’s website as the current coordinator of the Arabic Language Studies at the university. The book also presents Fargaman under that title.

Fragman, by his own account, has done all the translation and editing work by himself without the help of a native Arabic speaker. That, according to Khamis, produced a poor quality of translation that flattens the unique voices of the writers. “The texts deal with issues pertaining to women, their lives, and their worlds. They are intimate and complex. Personally, I don’t think that a white man from a different culture can mediate these experiences without engaging in any form of dialogue with the author.” Khamis brings as an example a poetic description of a “woman strolling down the sidewalks of desire,” in Muntaha El-Eidani’s (Iraq) short story Man, which was reduced in Fragman’s Hebrew translation to a single word — “hooker.” That example is typical of Fragman’s treatment of the texts, claims Khamis. “The Hebrew reader is given a flat shallow text, completely disconnected from the real experiences of Arab women in the Arab world.” This approach, says Shenhav, is indicative of “the orientalism of many of the Israeli translators working in the field.” The great majority of those, including Fragman, started their careers in the intelligence units of the Israeli army, says Shenhav.

Eyad Barghouty (photo by Hamodi Badarne)

This is the second time this year that an Israeli cultural organization is accused of expropriating works from neighboring Arab countries. In July, a Tel Aviv gallery opened a show titled Stolen Arab Art, celebrating its unauthorized use of works by artists Walid Raad (Lebanon) and Wael Shawky (Egypt). Is it a genuine desire to reach out to the Arab neighbors at all costs or is it plain theft? Palestinian writer and translator Eyad Barghouty thinks there is no real thirst in the Israeli public for Arabic culture. “The interested sides are usually orientalists who produce their works from a security-oriented interceptive point of view, believing that culture is a more effective way to gauge the political shifts in the surrounding countries,” he told Hyperallergic. Barghouty calls the new book a “culture crime,” and an act of colonial looting in the dark. “The Israeli orientalists consider the Arab world to be a lawless open space where rules don’t apply. When confronted with criticism over their actions, their reaction takes on a belligerent militaristic tone.” A recent survey showing that less than 10% of Israelis can read or understand Arabic, lends credence to Barghouty’s argument.

Threats of multiple lawsuits are now hovering over Zivoni’s head, since many of the writers announced their intention to take legal action against the publisher. Egyptian writer Intissar Abdul Monaem, reported on her Facebook page that she filed a complaint to the Egyptian Writers’ Union and its Palestinian counterpart. Habib al Sayegh, secretary General of the Arab Writers Union issued a condemnation of the book, calling it an act of “Israeli piracy.” Al Sayegh vowed to pursue the case in legal international forums. But the chances of an actual court case against the publisher are unlikely, given the absence of diplomatic ties between Israel and most of the countries in question. The only way to hold Resling Books accountable is to sue the publisher in an Israeli court, which would mean recognizing the state of Israel and accepting the authority and legitimacy of its legal systems (i.e. “normalization”).

Pouring salt in the wound, it was revealed on Tuesday that the artwork adorning the cover of the book was also taken without permission from its creator, Lebanese cartoonist Hasan Bleibel.  Hyperallergic requested comment from the publisher, which remains unanswered as of the posting of this report. Resling Books has pulled the book from its online catalogue without notice.

Hakim Bishara is a Senior Editor at Hyperallergic. He is also a co-director at Soloway Gallery, an artist-run space in Brooklyn. Bishara is a recipient of the 2019 Andy Warhol Foundation and Creative Capital...

17 replies on “Why Did an Israeli Publisher Release a Book of Translated Arabic Essays Without Consent?”

  1. The actions of the publisher are unethical and inexcusable; they deserve only condemnation, even in the complicated sociopolitical milieu of the Middle East.

    That said, there are some serious issues with this Hyperallergic piece.

    First, no editorial commentary is made following the quotes by Salwa Banna and Buthaina El-Issa, both of whom paint a picture of Israeli Jews as a monolithic “they” guilty of theft and expropriation. Surely, were a similarly damning commentary assigned to any other “they,” we’d take offense as progressive thinkers.

    Second, the writer of the piece claims that a “recent survey [shows] that less than 10% of Israelis can read or understand Arabic.” Anyone familiar with Israeli demographics will recognize that’s patently false, and a click-through to the actual study plainly states that the 10% figure applies only to Israeli Jews. Why is it problematic to write “Israeli” when the writer actually means “Israeli Jews”? Because it’s yet another example of the toxic combination of bigotry and ignorance with which most reporters approach Israel. Israelis are in fact diverse, with 20% of the population identifying as Arab Israelis (all of whom “read or understand” Arabic). Moreover, nearly 60% of the Israeli Jewish population is composed of what we’d here call “people of color,” Arab, Persian, African, or North African Jews, many of whom have a parent or grandparent who speaks Arabic as a first language. The 10% figure in the cited study represents fluency only, a reflection of the fact that all immigrants to Israel come to prioritize Hebrew; nevertheless, a great many Israeli Jews read Arabic poetry or are able to carry on a conversation with a neighbor in Arabic.

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is brutal, sad, and incredibly complex. We need careful reporting on anything to do with it, lest we fan the flames of hate that animate most people’s simplistic and dualistic appreciation of it.

    1. where are your stats for this statement?? “a great many Israeli Jews read Arabic poetry or are able to carry on a conversation with a neighbor in Arabic.”

      i have no doubt most “israeli jews” can carry on a conversation with their arab neighbors, probably something along the lines of “evacuate your house immediately or we’ll bulldoze.”

    2. where are your stats for this statement?? “a great many Israeli Jews read Arabic poetry or are able to carry on a conversation with a neighbor in Arabic.”

      i have no doubt most “israeli jews” can carry on a conversation with their arab neighbors, probably something along the lines of “evacuate your house immediately so we can bulldoze.”

        1. they sure as hell don’t refer to themselves as “arab israelis.”

          they call themselves israelis tout court. and they stopped speaking arabic a few generations ago.

          1. You don’t have to take my word for it. Many first generation Jews who were expelled from the Arab world are still alive and speak Arabic.

    3. NOT TO MENTION: You’re being totally imperialistic to expect non-Jew arabs within Israel to identify themselves as “Israeli.”

      Zionists call them Arab Israelis. The rest of the world calls them Palestinians.

      So take your fake statistics and shove ’em.

      1. Apparently, approximately 40% of Israeli Arabs are “imperialistic,” then, as that’s the number that identifies themselves as Israeli: 22% as “Israeli Arabs,” 6% as simply “Israeli,” and 10% as “Israeli Palestinians.” You’re right that the other 60% of the population identifies themselves as strictly Palestinian, but I assure you these aren’t “fake” statistics. As someone who has volunteered many hours to cross-cultural Israeli-Palestinian efforts via organizations like the New Israel Fund (which the far right in Israel identifies as an anti-Israel group, but is anything but), I assure you the statistics are accurate, and I’ve studied them carefully. Please, before you take biased, hostile positions, read more about the history of the conflict. It’s messy, ugly, and tragic, but villifying one side or the other ain’t going to get us anywhere.

        1. lmaoooooo

          yeah, let’s trust the self-identification choices of the arab population via a survey they were given by their oppressor’s bureaucratic census arm.

          1. Okay; don’t believe the studies conducted by academics. I can’t convince you of anything, but i wish you luck finding a way forward on *any* issue with competing narratives – systemic racism in the US, the Ukraine, climate change – without the academy, which strives to be unbiased…in Israel, as here. Thank goodness they do.

            In any case, if people like you refuse to even delve into the issues becauae you’ve made your mind up, so be it. I can only request that you *do* dig. In my twenties, I loathed Israel and characterized it as as a global pariah. In my thirties, I actually started digging, and what i learned – not just from reading, but from joining organizations that bring Israelis and Palestinians (of diverse backgrounds and religions) together for conversation – is that the actual history and moment is far messier than I’d realized. I now look back on the vocal position of my twenties with shame, as I spoke from a place of ignorance and naivete.

    4. “First, no editorial commentary is made following the quotes by Salwa Banna and Buthaina El-Issa, both of whom paint a picture of Israeli Jews as a monolithic “they” guilty of theft and expropriation. Surely, were a similarly damning commentary assigned to any other “they,” we’d take offense as progressive thinkers.”

      Perhaps the writer wanted to put forth a more objective/journalistic tone, rather than editorializing, like you say. Or maybe it’s simply because the “theys” you point out in this article’s quotes from Banna and El-Issa don’t refer to Israeli Jews as you say they do. That’s actually a pretty messed up way to read those quotes, and it tells us a lot more about you than it does about El-Issa or Banna.

      As for your referring to the “conflict” as “incredibly complex,” well… In some ways, I guess it can be. But more often than not, I find that in these discussions folks who refer to the “conflict” as so very complex say that more as a way avoid discussing the main problems w/ Israel, which are relatively straightforward.

      1. Color me fascinated; what does it tell you about me that I read it that way?

        As for objective journalism, fair enough…except that I’d be no less troubled by quotes generalizing about all Egyptians or Americans as a monolithic “they.” You wouldn’t be?

        1. if you’re one of those israeli/us college students getting paid to be a zionist troll, you’re not doing a very good job.

          1. I *wish* I were paid to post the facts. Look, Israel isn’t guiltless; I oppose most Israeli policy, including many bigoted/racist standards within the nation. I’ve been actively working against the Occupation for years. Have you? I’m not talking about protests or article comments, but sitting down with politicians, both US and Israeli, as well as meeting with Palestinian represntatives. I’d wager I know more about the conflict than “paid Zionist trolls.”

            The fact that I’m condemned by most “pro-Isael” folks as “anti-Israel” as well as by the likes of you, the kneejerk, Israel-is-always-in-the-wrong camp, speaks to the complexity of the situation as well as the foolishness of our species.

            I’d like to think that I could make you less prejudiced and more open-minded, but my engaging with climate change denialists has produced no sea changes, either. I’m probably tilting at windmills, but the tilting remains important.

  2. Excellent article Hakim Bishara.

    FYI: Another statement on the controversy came this morning from the publisher:

    “Resling Books regrets the loss of consent, but we have the right to self-publish. This was a book without a people for a people without a book. Resling Books makes the pages bloom and is the most moral publisher in the world. Any criticism of our publishing house is clearly anti-literary. A thorough investigation of the matter will be conducted internally and we consider the matter closed.”

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