November 1, 2010

Israeli group encourages cross-cultural understanding by stealing Egyptian writer’s book

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Alaa al-Aswany, who studied dentistry in the US, shown at work in his old office in the Yacoubian Building

Alaa al-Aswany, who studied dentistry in the US, shown at work in his old office in the Yacoubian Building in Cairo

Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany says he’s taking legal action against the Israel-Palestine Center for Research and Understanding after it translated and published his novel The Yacoubian Building and offered it to readers for free — entirely without his permission.

The group says it asked al-Aswany for permission to do so, but that he refused, so it went ahead and did it anyway. According to an Agence France Presse wire story, the Center sent out “an email to supporters” saying it was “offering its Hebrew readers the rare privilege of reading a bestselling Egyptian novel,” in order to “expand cultural awareness and understanding in the region.”

The AFP report adds, “The email includes a link to a PDF file of the book, the first page of which warns against the reproduction or commercial use of the translation.”

One reason for the Center’s interest may be that the book, as described in a Reuters wire story, “offers a scathing critique of Egyptian society in the 1950s.” It has been translated into “32 languages and distributed over 100 countries.”

But as the AFP report notes, al-Aswany supports a cultural boycott of Israel — as do “virtually all of [Egypt's] artists and intellecutals … because of its treatment of the Palestinians.” And he says the publication represents a clear case of “intellectual theft.”

“This is a severe violation of my copyrights,” he tells Reuters. “The Yacoubian Building was translated, published and distributed for free without my permission.”

“Intellectual property of Arab writers is not up for grabs. Israel radio has broadcast Egyptian songs without paying royalties. Songs of (Egyptian singer) Umm Kulthum are broadcast every day for free on Israeli radio without respecting copyrights. This would never happen to Frank Sinatra songs.”

Dennis Johnson is the founder of MobyLives, and the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.

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