After Egyptian culture minister Farouk Hosni lost his bid to run UNESCO last month—in part because of a statement last year promising to burn all Israeli books in his nation’s libraries—relations between the two Middle Eastern countries are again in the spotlight, and one question, posed by BBC News, looms particularly large: “[W]hy is Egypt so opposed to any form of cultural normalisation?”
The Associated Press offers one answer that it sees reflected in the Egyptian media: “Normalization is a dirty word in many circles in Egypt. Journalists in particular feel they must shoulder the responsibility of reminding Egyptians that peace with Israel was forced on them and remains a bitter reality.” Solidarity with Palestinians is another factor. According to the BBC, there are “unwritten rules” governing the enforcement of a cultural boycott. In 1994, playwright Ali Salem decided to see what all the fuss was about and spent several weeks in Israel, documenting his discoveries in a book. Shortly afterward, Salem was ousted from his union and now “no-one will touch his work. Today his plays and movie scripts gather dust amid his tattered reputation.” Hala Mustafa, the editor-in-chief of Democracy magazine, has been ostracized for meeting with Israeli Ambassador Shalom Cohen.
There may be hope coded in the few media voices who don’t think Hosni lost out on the UNESCO because of an Israeli conspiracy, but rather because he is a pawn of the authoritarian government. But even those who work to bring Israeli culture to Egyptians sometimes do so out of bad faith. Says Gaber Asfour, the director of Egypt’s National Centre for Translation, who plans to work with a European publisher to produce volumes by David Grossman and Amos Oz so as to avoid dealing directly with the enemy: “Israel acts with injustice and inhumanity, we have to learn more about them. More than we already know. We have to translate everything.”