Book ban ends rare Arab-Israeli cultural exchange

Tue Sep 30, 2008 10:41pm EDT
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By Joseph Nasr

HAIFA, Israel (Reuters) - For 15 years Israeli Saleh Abbasi has traded books between the Jewish state and its Arab neighbors, fostering a rare cultural link.

But in August Israeli authorities suddenly refused to renew his trading license because he was trading with "enemy" states Lebanon and Syria, frustrating both Abbasi's business and the Arab and Israeli readers he has helped interest in each other's literary traditions.

"How can the People of the Book be against books?" Abbasi asked, evoking the Jewish Bible as the first monotheistic holy text. "Books are a bridge to peace between cultures."

An Israeli Trade Ministry spokeswoman declined to explain the timing of the ban. But she cited a recent legal opinion that forbade importing goods from four countries Israel views as enemies -- Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

Israel has no diplomatic ties with Beirut or Damascus, so 57-year-old Abbasi uses Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab nations to sign peace deals with the Jewish state, as conduits.

Abbasi's original aim was to cater for Israel's 1.2 million minority Arab citizens, many of whom feel the perpetual absence of relations between Israel and its neighbors denies them cultural and ethnic ties to the Arab world.

But he branched out, and over the past 10 years has sold over half a million copies of some 16 Hebrew titles to Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and other Arab countries, where the translated books reach Arab readers mainly through public libraries and universities.


<p>Israeli Saleh Abbasi poses in his publishing house in the northern Israeli city of Haifa August 18, 2008. Abbasi says he wants to use his publishing business to foster cultural ties between Israel and its Arab neighbours, but his plan was dealt a setback by a ban on importing books from Lebanon and Syria. Israel has no diplomatic ties with Beirut and Damascus, so Abbasi, an Arab citizen of the Jewish state, has been using Jordan and Egypt as conduits to trade books with publishers in Lebanon and Syria. Picture taken August 18, 2008. To match feature ISRAEL-BOOKS/BAN REUTERS/Baz Ratner</p>