Joharah Baker: Dangerous Minds

By Joharah Baker

Over the past few days, Palestinian intellectuals have been up in arms over a recent Ministry of Education decree to remove the book “Qul ya Tayr” (Speak Bird, Speak Again) from all Palestinian school curricula and school libraries. Palestinian media sources have claimed the ministry has ordered the destruction of all the books, which it says uses “foul language” inappropriate for school children.

“Speak Bird, Speak Again” is an anthology of Palestinian Arab folktales, coauthored by anthropologist Dr. Sharif Kanaana and Ibrahim Muhawi. The book, which originally appeared in English in 1989 and was later published in Arabic in 2001, is a compilation of 45 popular folktales from Palestinian heritage and is written in colloquial Arabic.

After its Arabic publication, the book was widely distributed in Palestinian schools and universities and used as a valuable reference in Palestinian cultural studies. The Hamas-run Ministry of Education is said to have ordered that the books be burned or otherwise destroyed, giving schools throughout the territories a matter of weeks to complete the task.

Education Minister, Nasser Eddin Shaer has so far denied that the ministry ordered the destruction of the volumes in Palestinian schools, but maintained that it contained language not suitable for students.

Palestinian educators, intellectuals, factions and non-governmental organizations are condemning the order, saying it goes against the democratic principles on which Palestinian society is based, especially freedom expression. It also embodies a fear harbored among many that Hamas, now the ruling party, will impose its social agenda on the people and enforce a stricter, more Islamic regime.

Reportedly most offending to the ministry are the so-called sexual innuendos incorporated in some of the stories, namely the mention of certain body parts. Kanaana, who has been extremely vocal on the subject since the story broke in the Palestinian press two days ago, defends his work as “academic and scientific,” maintaining that the ministry has no right to judge the contents of the book.

Whether or not the book contains words “inappropriate” for young ears is irrelevant. Like any other non-mandatory book, teachers are free to handpick the parts of a manuscript they want their students to read. Rather, this book must be viewed in light of the valuable cultural and historical insight it offers into our heritage. Nothing in the book should be taken out of context, including anything deemed “unsuitable” or “taboo”.

Two things are extremely disturbing about this move. For one, it represents the lack of respect for a truly academic and historic piece of work. According to its authors, the book took ten years in the making and includes countless interviews and recounting of stories told by Palestinians from all walks of life. As a people who have lived under oppression for decades and have had our political and human rights violated and oppressed constantly and systematically, a book such as “Speak Bird, Speak Again”, provides a refreshing reference to that part of our history unblemished by the Israeli occupation. Not only should it not be shunned, but it should be valued and disseminated as a means of educating our young and old on our authentic Palestinian identity.

What is equally if not more unsettling is the underlying message such a move represents. Not only does Hamas control the government but it is now proving that it can wield its power over fundamental issues such as education and culture. If the subject at hand today is an academic book that has failed to pass their “morality test,” tomorrow the issue may be something that hits even closer to home, such as how our women dress or where we go in the evening for entertainment.

Since Hamas won the Legislative Council elections last January and formed the government two months later, secular Palestinians have often voiced their fears that the Islamic movement would exploit their victory as a means to impose their own stringent social dictates.

Prior to this recent outrage, there have been a handful of incidents in both the Gaza Strip and West Bank which perhaps have offered a foreshadowing of things to come. (Women have been harassed on the streets of Gaza City for their dress and restaurants in Ramallah have been closed down at gunpoint for offering alcoholic beverages). This, however, is the first real red flag indicating that if Hamas is left in charge of the education and cultural ministries, it may try to remold the largely secular society into one with a more Islamic flavor.

Furthermore, the very action of banning, destroying or burning books is a reflection of an extremely oppressive regime, which is not without precedence in history. Perhaps the most infamous example of book burnings in modern history were those carried out by the Nazi regime. Among the thousands of books that were torched by the Nazis was an 1821 play written by German playwright Heinrich Heine entitled “Almansor”. Ironically, one of the play’s most famous lines reads: “Where they burn books, they will end in burning human beings," in reference to the burning of the Quran during the Spanish inquisition.

Back in present time, it is now up to Palestine’s educators, intellectuals and average citizens concerned with the preservation of our heritage and also with our freedom of expression, to prevent “Speak, Bird, Speak Again” from being obliterated from our bookshelves, our schools and our universities. There is much more at stake here than this valuable 400-page anthology, as much significance as it may carry. We must fight against a new form of oppression, one which aims to stunt our cultural growth and dictate the intellectual perimeters to which we are allowed to venture.

The Israeli occupation has done a fine job at politically oppressing us. It is unacceptable and unfathomable for us to allow any sector of our own society to gag our mouths and silence our voices. While less ocular than a military occupation complete with its walls, checkpoints, settlements and army, such intellectual oppression could have equally as devastating and far-reaching repercussions on our society as a whole.

-Joharah Baker is a Writer for the Media and Information Programme at the Palestinian Initiative for the Promotion of Global Dialogue and Democracy (MIFTAH). She can be contacted at mip@miftah.org

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