#IndexAwards2018: Banned novelist Abbad Yahya sheds light on the taboo

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_video link=”https://youtu.be/WzJkJikmYe8″][vc_column_text]Abbad Yahya is a 29-year-old Palestinian novelist whose fourth novel Crime in Ramallah was banned by the Palestinian authority in the West Bank in 2017. The novel includes depictions of gay sex, as well as political commentary about fanaticism and religious extremism — subjects largely considered taboo in the region. All copies of the book were confiscated by the attorney general in February this year, on the grounds it contained texts that threatened public decency.

Index on Censorship Freedom of Expression Awards and Fellowship 2018

When the controversy arose, Yahya was abroad in Qatar. He was so afraid for his life that he did not to go back to his native Ramallah and spent time in other countries in the Middle East and Europe. Threats were issued to him and his family via social media and copies of the book burnt on the Gaza strip. The Public Prosecutor issued a summons for questioning against Yahya and detained the distributor of the novel.

Despite this, Yahya has spent the last year giving interviews to the international and Arab press and raising awareness of freedom of expression and the lives of young people in the West Bank and Gaza, particularly in relation to their sexuality.

“In my point of view, the most important impact of all of this, was raising the awareness amongst the youth and their decisions that are related to their sexual lives, as well as making a public discussion about the issue,” says Yahya.

Crime in Ramallah follows the lives of three young Palestinian men and the different ways they cope with living in the claustrophobic society of Ramallah. The passage in the novel most cited as causing outrage is when one of the characters sees a picture of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with a gun and imagines it as a penis.

The novel was criticised by some of Yahya’s own colleagues. According to AP, the head of the Palestinian Writers Union, Murad Sudani, said it was a: “silly novel that violates the national and religious values of the society in order to appease the West and win prizes.”

“The job of the writer in our occupied country is to raise the hope and enlighten people — not to break the national and religious symbols,” Sudani added. “My freedom as a writer ends when the freedom of the country begins.”

But Yahya does not agree. “Censors proclaim themselves to be the representatives of the public and their opinion, while present us as an obscure minority, insignificant in its voice and influence,” Yahya tells Index on Censorship. “This nomination proves the exact opposite, as it comes as a recognition of what we do and the things we stand for, and a proof that our voice is indeed heard. Freedom is contagious, and being one of the nominees strengthens my unshakable conviction in the ideals of freedom and freedom of expression.

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China: Chen Xiwo banned book published in English

From left to right: Harvey Tomlinson from MakeDo Publishing, Chen Xiwo and translator, Nicky Harman at Free Word. (Pic: Aimée Hamilton)

From left to right: Harvey Tomlinson from MakeDo Publishing, Chen Xiwo and translator, Nicky Harman at English PEN. (Photo: Aimée Hamilton)

Chen Xiwo, described as “one of China’s most outspoken voices on freedom of expression for writers” by Asia Sentinel, has spoken about how he challenged the Chinese government’s decision to censor his latest book ahead of its launch in English.

The Book of Sins is a collection of seven novellas exploring controversial topics including rape, incest and S&M and examine the links between sexual and political deviance.

A heavily censored version of the book was published in China, in which parts of the text, including an entire novella, were removed.

Xiwo launched a case to sue China’s customs agency in an attempt to find out why his book, which was published in full in Taiwan, had been confiscated when it arrived in China in 2007. He was originally told that it was its dark and pornographic nature that had led to it being banned in its complete form.

In an unprecedented move, Xiwo took the customs office to court. He said in the history of the People’s Republic of China, since 1949, there has never been a case of a writer suing for not being allowed to publish a book.

Originally when the court hearings got underway the domestic news outlets were able to report on the progress until the propaganda ministry sent out an order forbidding further coverage.

During a meeting today run by English PEN at the Free Word Centre in London, Xiwo said: “These days these kind of orders are usually just made by phone call, so they won’t send an email where there’ll be a record, they do it by phone.

“This makes it even harder to get to the bottom of who’s banning what and why they’re doing it, because there’s no record.”

Chen Xiwo (Pic: Aimée Hamilton)

Chen Xiwo (Photo: Aimée Hamilton)

Eventually the court ruled that Xiwo’s case was a matter of national security, which ended further questions on the topic.  In a blog entry for Free Word, Xiwo writes: “The Book of Sins had been impounded because it was deemed a threat to ‘national security’. In fact, they completely dropped the charge of obscenity. That meant they did not have to divulge any further information, or even say who had made the final decision.”

Xiwo’s book has now been translated into English by prolific translator Nicky Harman, who said: “Chen is a highly moral writer in my view.  The sex and the small amount of violence, it’s never gratuitous.  He really focuses on feelings, he has a good attitude towards women, he’s not misogynistic.”

One of the most provocative stories within the book, I Love My Mum, is about a disabled man who strikes up an incestuous relationship with his mother which ultimately ends in him murdering her. The novella is metaphorical of Chinese society and remains banned in the country.

When asked if he would challenge the banning of his books again, Xiwo said that it is inevitable future books of his will be banned, but he cannot launch a case for every one of them.

Although Chen Xiwo has written 10 books, he says only six or seven of these have been published in their complete form. The Book of Sins has won an English PEN award. Chen Xiwo will be launching the English translation of the book at Waterstones Piccadilly, tomorrow 7 October, at 7pm.

This article was posted on 6 October 2014 at indexoncensorship.org

Bialiatski’s book banned in Belarus

Ales Bialiatski has been imprisoned in Belarus since 2011 (Image: AmnistieWeb/YouTube)

Ales Bialiatski has been imprisoned in Belarus since 2011 (Image: AmnistieWeb/YouTube)

According to Belarusian authorities, a book by political prisoner Ales Bialiatski can “damage the image” of the country.

That was confirmed in a recent letter from the Ashmiany regional customs office to Tatsiana Raviaka, Bialiatski’s colleague from Human Rights Centre Viasna. In July 2013 its officers confiscated 40 copies of Bialiatski’s book “Enlightened by Belarus”, as they were being transferred from Lithuania, where they had been published, to Belarus. Now Raviaka has been told to “re-export the copies of the book to Lithuania” as it has been included on a blacklist of goods that are barred from the territory of the Customs Union of Belarus, Russia and Kazakhstan.

The exact reason for including Bialiatski’s book on the list is not mentioned. After it was first inspected, authorities conclude it could “be harmful for the image of the Republic of Belarus”. However, the State Customs Committee of Belarus itself admitted this justification did not match the legal requirements for a ban, and a second inspection was initiated. The results of this are unknown, besides providing ground for banning the book.

“I am sure the real reason for such close attention to the book is the personality of its author,” Tatsiana Raviaka told Index. “Ales Bialiatski is a well-known human rights defender and he serves a prison term at the moment. Several parts of the book were actually written while he was in prison.”

The actual contents of the book may also play a part in the decision to ban it. “Enlightened by Belarus” is a collection of essays on the history of the Belarusian literature. Before joining the human rights movement he was a post-graduate student at the National Academy of Science and a director of Maksim Bahdanovich literature museum in Minsk. Several essays contain critical assessments of literary works by Belarusian political prisoners, like Uladzimir Niakliaeu and Aliaksandr Fiaduta, written behind bars as they had been arrested after protests on 19 December 2010.

“Ales introduced a notion of ‘Belarusian prison literature’. In fact his book points out that for decades writers in Belarus have been persecuted and put in prisons, from the times of the Czar Russia and Soviet repression, to present day,” says Tatsiana Raviaka, adding that the state censors cannot allow free distribution of the views on the literary process presented in Bialiatski’s book. She and her colleagues from Human Rights Centre Viasna are going to appeal the ban.

Ashmiany regional customs office is known for its close attention to “dissent literature.” In April 2013 it confiscated a Belarus Press Photo album, which a court later ruled to be “extremist”.

Ales Bialiatski was arrested on 4 August 2011 and later sentenced to four-and-a-half years in prison. Despite charges of tax evasion, the country’s civil society and the international community see his prison sentence as punishment for his principled stance in support of human rights in Belarus.

Pakistan: debate rages over Malala book ban

Malala Yousafzai opened the Library of Birmingham in September. Now her own book is banned for

Malala Yousafzai opened the Library of Birmingham in September. Her own book is now banned in Pakistani private schools. (Image Michael Scott/Demotix)

“My friend told me Malala is not a Pakistani or a Muslim; her real name is Jennifer and she is a Christian,” said ten-year old Fatemah, conspiratorially. “But I don’t believe her one bit,” she added waving the book “I am Malala”. She is reading the autobiography of Malala Yousafzai, the young Pakistani girl who survived an assassination attempt by the Taliban.

The rather precocious 10-year old went on to say the book “gave me something important to reflect on… That what I had always taken for granted, like education, does not come that easily for thousands.” She found Malala to be a “real hero” for standing up for what she believed in. Fatemah may just be ten but her views are reflective of the debate raging in Pakistan today, especially in the media, after the book surfaced and was subsequently banned in some private schools.

On 10 November, the All Pakistan Private Schools Federation (APPSF), announced the decision to ban the book from member schools for “being against the injunctions of Islam and the constitution of Pakistan”. The book will not be kept in the library of any of its schools and no co-curricular activities, including debates, will be held on it, Kashif Mirza, chairman of the APPSF told Index. Almost 25 million children, 10 million of which are girls, study at the federation’s 152,000 private school. They employ 7,250,000 teachers, 90 percent being women. The book has not officially been banned by the Pakistani government in state schools, but is not part of any school’s curriculum.

Yousafzai has been bagging one award after another internationally. In Pakistan, where the entire nation had rooted for her to win the Nobel Peace prize, the book has led to a slight dimming of that adulation. Having British award-winning journalist Christina Lamb’s name on the cover as co-author hasn’t helped. “Lamb is reputed to be both anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam,” Mirza said.

Dr AH Nayyar, a noted educationist, said the reaction of the private school owners was that of “weak-kneed people” who are more worried about their “business interests” than what “is right and what is wrong”.

Rumana Hussain, a former principal of a private school who has written and illustrated several children’s books, finds it tragic that “the 25 million students who attend private schools in the country will not read the book. The millions who attend public schools, where the book isn’t banned but won’t be taught, bought or stocked, will not read it either.”

She lamented: “All of them will be deprived of the chance to read the account of a young Pakistani girl’s struggle for education – not only for herself but also for every Pakistani girl, every child – and get inspiration from her story.”

“We are not against girls education or against Malala,” argued Mirza. “On the contrary, we are a great supporter of Malala’s mission of girl’s education and have always advocated for liberal, enlightened and empowered women. When Malala was shot, for the first time in the history of private schools, we held a strike and closed all schools.”

Today, however, Malala seems to have lost favour in the eyes of Mirza and many others who think like him.

“I have read the book and find it hard to believe that a child who of just 16 has so much knowledge of international affairs,” he said, implying that the west has used her “confused state of mind” to grind their own axe.

Dr Nayyar finds this argument hard to digest. “The book was written by a non-Muslim. How does her writing make Malala a tool in the hands of the west?”

But what exactly has Malala or Lamb written that has half of Pakistan in a tizzy?

“She has shown disrespect to Prophet Muhammad by not using Peace be Upon Him after his name. She speaks of [former Pakistani president] Zia ul Haq bringing the Islamic law of reducing the women’s evidence to half into the court. She can’t comment on that as it’s in the Quran and no more can be said about it. She also talks about her father referring to Satanic Verses and believing in freedom of expression. We can’t have young impressionable minds reading her, having her as her role model and going astray,” Mirza said adamantly.

What he failed to mention was that all this had happened during her father’s college days when he took part in a debate of whether Satanic Verses should be banned and burned. The Satanic Verses controversy, also known as the Rushdie Affair, was the heated and frequently violent reaction of some Muslims to the publication of  Salman Rushdie’s novel, first published in the United Kingdom in 1988. While few Pakistanis may have read the novel, most have been led to believe that it is an insult to Islam because it disparaged the honour of the Prophet Muhammad.

Malala’s father, while finding the book offensive to Islam had the courage to suggest, to a packed room of fellow students: “First, let’s read the book and then why not respond with our own book.”

Nayyar found absolutely nothing wrong with what Malala has stated. “That minorities are often attacked in Pakistan and that Ahmedis regard themselves as Muslims while the government does not; every word of these statements is true. Even the quoted statement of her father about Rushdie’s book Satanic Verses is praise-worthy; face a blasphemic book with a good book of your own,” he said.

“I think the ban is condemnable even if it applies to a few thousand schools,” said Zohra Yusuf, chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “We should be opening up young minds, not shutting them. Malala’s story should be a great inspiration for students,” she added.

“I did not find anything objectionable in the book itself,” said Farah Zia, the editor of English daily The News’ magazine The News on Sunday section. “The only problem I had was the voice of the book, that switched between a 16 year old and a mature one,” added the mother of two.

While the ban has not been enacted across the board yet, she finds it ridiculous. Still, she hopes the controversy may make many curious enough to pick up the book and read it. On the other hand, she says the “atmosphere of fear being artificially created” may stop publishers from translating the book into local languages.

This article was originally posted on 15 Nov 2013 at indexoncensorship.org