Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Should UNESCO have named Beirut City of the Book 2009

This year Beirut became the ninth city in the world to be designated as World Book Capital by UNESCO. According to UNESCO:
Beirut was chosen in particular thanks to « its efforts for cultural diversity, dialog and tolerance as well as for the variety and dynamism of its programme »
The Wall Street Journal, in an opinion piece by William Marling, recently questioned that choice.
Just last week "World Book and Copyright Day" was kicked off with a variety of readings and exhibits that honor "conformity to the principles of freedom of expression [and] freedom to publish," as stated by the UNESCO Constitution, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the UNESCO's "Florence Agreement." The catch is that Lebanon has not signed the Florence Agreement, which focuses on the free circulation of print and audio-visual material.

Even a partial list of books banned in Lebanon gives pause: William Styron's "Sophie's Choice"; Thomas Keneally's "Schindler's List"; Thomas Friedman's "From Beirut to Jerusalem"; books by Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Isaac Bashevis Singer. In fact, all books that portray Jews, Israel or Zionism favorably are banned.

Writers in Arabic are not exempt. Abdo Wazen's "The Garden of the Senses" and Layla Baalbaki's "Hana's Voyage to the Moon" were taken to court. Syria's Sadiq Jalal al-Azm was prosecuted for his "Critique of Religious Thinking."......

According to Beirut newspaper L'Orient, any one of the recognized religions (a system known as "confessionalism") can ask the Sûreté to ban any book unilaterally. The Muslim Dar al-Fatwa and the Catholic Information Center are the most active and effective. (The latter got Dan Brown's "The Da Vinci Code" banned.) Even works by self-proclaimed Islamists such as Assadeq al-Nayhoum's "Islam Held Hostage," have been banned, and issued only when re-edited in sympathetic editions (in Syria).
Editorial Comment: Certainly one must question the judgment of UNESCO in honoring the capital of a country which bans so much expression as "World Book Capital". However, in view of the very serious likelihood that Farouk Hosny, an Arab who is on the record as calling for book burning, will be elected Director General of UNESCO in October, one must express concern for the continued commitment of UNESCO to freedom of expression. This would be grave in any organization of the United Nations system, but the defense of freedom of expression is at the very core of UNESCO's charter and purpose. JAD

A university student browses an Arabic novel at a bookshop in Beirut, Lebanon. Source: Emirates Business, May 5, 2009.

The opinion expressed in this posting are the author's alone, and do not necessarily represent those of Americans for UNESCO.
John Daly

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