April 1, 2004 Special Dispatch No. 688

Israeli Arab Intellectual and Poet on Illiteracy in the Arab World, ‘Backward-Looking’ Islam, and the Complex of Arab Secularists

April 1, 2004
Special Dispatch No. 688

In an interview with the Jerusalem weekly Kol Hair on the occasion of the publication of his first book of poetry in Hebrew, Salman Masalha, an Israeli Arab intellectual and poet, speaks of what he sees as the problem of illiteracy, and thus thought, in the Arab world, of the fixation with the past in the Arab world, of the importance of educating women, and of the role of doubting and asking questions in the development of society and culture.

Masalha, who refused to serve in the Israeli military, holds an MA and Ph.D in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, and taught in the Arab Literature Department of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The following are excerpts from the interview : [1]

Illiteracy in the Arab World is Over 80%

"There's a serious problem today with the Arab youth, in expressing themselves in Arabic."

Question :"Why?"

Salman Masalha: "Because of the language, that great rift between colloquial and literary Arabic. In order to explain a complex idea, you need high language, not the language of the souq. You can't express a complicated idea using the language of the souq. If you take young people, let's say eighth-grade Arab [children], and their French, or Jewish Israeli, counterparts, you will discover the discrepancy in self-expression. Because he does not know the language of thought, the Arab pupil runs into a big problem. Thus it is in the entire Arab world.

"The Arab world does not read. According to various reports, the Arab world is largely illiterate. Illiteracy in the Arab world is not 50% like it says in the reports. I say that it is over 80%. Practically speaking, even those defined as not illiterate because they completed eight years of schooling, I consider illiterate. In this century, anyone who finishes elementary school can't really read.

"A book selling 5,000 copies across the Arab world is a rare achievement. The average book published in Israel sells more copies than a successful book in the entire Arab world. This also has to do with the economic situation. Reading books is a privilege for people who have spare time and money. The poverty that sweeps the Arab world leaves the individual struggling for survival his whole life. How is he supposed to read a book? He must bring food for his children, his family."

Question: "So why not switch the approach and start writing in colloquial [Arabic]?"

Salman Masalha: "Impossible. We don't talk about theater, films, or television series. It's impossible to write research [about] art or history in the colloquial. You need the literary [language]."

Question: "Is the situation of the Arabs in Israel any different?"

Salman Masalha: "I think it's similar. There are 200 readers, no more, among Israel's Arabs."

Question: "Do you mean readers of poetry?"

Salman Masalha: "Poetry and literature and all languages. No more than 200 readers. Also, high-school literature teachers don't read books, and thus they create another generation and yet another generation of ignorant pupils."

Question: "But there are more than 200 writers."

Salman Masalha: "Of course there are more writers than readers. There are more than 200 poets alone, according to what I see in the Arabic press. The literary sections [in the press] are so ridiculous it's unbelievable. The texts and poems published in the Arabic press are on the level of children, not particularly developed."

Question: "How do you explain this?"

Salman Masalha: "Some of the newspapers are party [papers], and there they publish things by anyone who supports the party, regardless of what he writes. The editors don't care. And there are of course the commercial papers, and there's not much to say about them. Today there is only Masharif, which has a kind of editing [that is] open to the world of Arab and Hebrew literature, and only there is there any kind of editing, so that not every text gets in. Regarding what happens in the rest of the so-called newspapers, irresponsible editors and gangs of the infantile are in charge."

Question: "What about publishers?"

Salman Masalha: "In Israel there are no Arabic-language publishers. The more serious problem is that there are no bookstores. I am not talking about libraries, but bookstores. In Nazareth, there is one bookstore, and even there the selection is very limited. You go to Cairo and bring back sacks of books without even thinking.

"The only way for the Arab living here who is interested in following literature in the Arab world is the Internet, and for that you need people who are interested and know how to obtain this information. There are some good sites through which you can follow literature in the Arab world and get updated on publications."

The Arabs "Need to Bring in Western Culture"

Masalha, who was born in a Druze village in the Galilee, lives today in west Jerusalem. He is critical of Israeli Arab MPs such as Ahmad Tibi and 'Azmi Bishara who live in east Jerusalem and pay for their housing with their Knesset housing allowances.

Salman Masalha: "What's the difference between them and a settler? In my view, everything done beyond the 1967 lines was done by the force of the occupation. Everything. From A to Z."

"If your position is that there must be two countries for two peoples, you cannot be part of the occupation and live in the occupied territories, or even live in an Arab neighborhood. As far as I'm concerned, there is no difference between an Israeli Arab who lives in an Arab neighborhood and a settler."

Question: "Did you have problems in Jewish neighborhoods?"

Salman Masalha: "I personally have never had a problem. That doesn't mean that others don't have problems of this kind, but no problems happened to me, and I don't have the energy now to invent a story so as to say that I am a discriminated-against Arab. Life in the city is different than life in the Arab town. Ultimately, we live in apartheid. There is separation between Jews and Arabs – [Jews] in their towns and [Arabs] in theirs. Among the Arabs in Israel, there is a very big problem when addressing the concept of homeland. The homeland in effect becomes the village in which you were born – and more accurately, an [area within a] small radius in the village in which you were born. A homeland that forms circles of extended family or the tribe, then the neighborhood, then the village. There is no transition at all from place to place. Five kilometers from Magar [where I was born], I'm already regarded as a stranger, a refugee."

Masalha does not visit the village of his birth often, and when he looks on Arab society in Israel he sees a sad reality: "What is happening to the Arabs in Israel is a process similar to that which happened to the Oriental [Jews in Israel]. They live in an ostensibly Western country, adopt all kinds of garbage from Western culture, and are alienated from their [own] culture. They grasp only the margins of Western culture. In such a situation, every society crumbles, and then the law of the jungle rules. Crime and force rule in all Arab villages in Israel. There is a need to bring in Western culture, not only its margins; Western culture that is founded upon the drive of curiosity, the desire to truly develop, to ask…"

Previous Islamic Periods Showed Greater Openness Than Today

Question: "Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems to me that the poetry of the Abbasid period showed greater openness, enlightenment, and even reference to human rights than what Islam permits today."

Salman Masalha: "This is true. A strong culture permits diversity; a strong culture permits freedom of thought, deviation from the framework. When the Abbasid period was at its height, it became a culture of self-confidence. When there is confidence like this, you permit space and freedom. Lack of self-confidence leads to the lowest cultural point, from all aspects – human rights, women's rights. In the Arab empire, there was more freedom than in the Arab world today."

Question: "Then what do those who call for to return to Islam want – the height of culture and freedom?"

Salman Masalha: "Not at all. The perception today is like that at the beginning of Islam. Actually, Islam tried to unite the Arab tribes in the Arabian Peninsula. The Islamists see the Arab world according to what I read in the scriptures, as if today it is like the Jahaliya, the period of benightedness that preceded Islam. These Islamist movements are trying to revive Islam by uniting in the framework of an Islamic nation. Was it really like that? [The Third Caliph] Muhammad Othman bin 'Affan was murdered and thrown onto the dung heap. Three days he lay there, and a dog ate his foot. This is the golden age to which they want to return?

"There's something in the Islamic perception that drives you crazy, and that is the looking only backwards, not to the future. If the golden age was in the past, your entire vision is rearwards. This causes deterioration. In our mentality as Arabs, there is a poisonous formula that can lead to nothing good at all. There is a need for change in this programming. There is a disk in the Arab mind that must be replaced with another disk, and only this way can change come."

"The Woman is the Solution"

Question: "How is it possible to change?"

Salman Masalha: "First of all, separation of religion and state. [Then] war on ignorance, opening up to the world and to [other] cultures. The Islamic motto of 'Islam is the solution' must be replaced by 'the woman is the solution.' Women must be educated, encouraged, and enlightened. In a home with an educated and productive wife, the children will grow up to be educated and productive. A large part of the backwardness and tragedy of the Arab world lies in its abhorrent treatment of women.

"Islam is in my view a prescription for going back in time, to the pre-Islamic period of benightedness. The solution is to build a liberal and democratic society that places the individual in the center, and more than anything the woman at the heart of this center.

"We Arabs have a problem with self-sarcasm. We do not know how to laugh at ourselves. This is part of our problem. There are many taboos, almost [as powerful as] the living word of God, that must not be transgressed. There is no Arab satire, for example. In [satiric] Arab writing, it is rare to find anything interesting, except perhaps by Emil Habibi. We take the world very seriously."

Israeli Arabs Are More Free Than Anyone in the Arab World

Question:"And this restricts your writing?"

Salman Masalha: "The Arab newspapers do not publish erotica, criticism of Islam, or intimate revelations, not even political expose. For example, there are no new Arab historians. Everything is 'establishment' in the Arab world. We never ask ourselves the real questions. Doubting does not exist. No one doubts the Qur'an.

"Doubt is an essential part of the development of society and of culture. It is of this programming I speak, and of the need to replace it. To begin, for once, to ask about and talk about the most essential things in our lives, in order to find solutions or ways to change this sad reality.

"We here [in Israel], with all our problems, and all the complexity of our situation, know deep inside that we are free, I mean, as far as thinking goes, and as far as the possibility of writing goes. We are freer to think than anyone in the Arab world."

Question: "What about Arab secularism?"

Salman Masalha: "I don't know whether it is possible even to talk about Arab secularism. Is there really any such thing?…

"The problem in the Arab world, as in Israel, is that the so-called secular movements suffer from feelings of inferiority in the face of religion. In the Arab world, anyone who opposes the existing regimes sees one way [out], and that is the mosques, because of the inferiority of these regimes in the face of Islam. [But] my secular values are no less supreme [than religious values]. Secular people must not feel inferior. The whole thing must be turned upside down."

Question: "But there is no other way. Democracy is not an alternative for the average Arab."

Salman Masalha: " This is the greatest betrayal of the intellectual Arabs. Those who dare flee to America or Europe, because they cannot create and write in their own societies. Others, according to reports that are beginning to be published, received over the years envelopes full of dinars from Saddam Hussein. Intellectuals of this kind are the root of the problem.

"Today anyone who may not even have finished elementary school can grow a beard and become an authority and a source of power. People don't know the history of Islam. The moment you have some creation that is absolute truth, it has a representative on earth – and go argue with him. There's no arguing with faith. Therefore, the war on fundamentalism cannot come out of ignorance; it must come out of knowledge – and the Arab world today, as it is, is a world of ignorance.

"What do they have to be proud of? All of Arab history is built on war crimes. There is practically not a single Muslim caliph who was not murdered. I am proud to say that I am a pagan Arab, thank God." [2]

[1] Kol Ha'Ir (Israel), March 19, 2004.

[2] In the Hebrew original, "Baruch haShem."

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