Navigate to Arts & Letters section

The Zionist X-Ray

How a secure Israel brought out the best—and worst—of political Arab men of letters

Peter Theroux
January 23, 2020
Photos: Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images; Mohammed Al-Sehiti/AFP via Getty Images; Ulf Andersen/Getty Image.
From left: Abdelrahman Munif, Emile Habiby, and Elias KhouryPhotos: Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images; Mohammed Al-Sehiti/AFP via Getty Images; Ulf Andersen/Getty Image.
Photos: Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images; Mohammed Al-Sehiti/AFP via Getty Images; Ulf Andersen/Getty Image.
From left: Abdelrahman Munif, Emile Habiby, and Elias KhouryPhotos: Anwar Amro/AFP via Getty Images; Mohammed Al-Sehiti/AFP via Getty Images; Ulf Andersen/Getty Image.

A prominent Middle East news correspondent got my attention a few years ago when, on a news panel, she articulated a thought I had pondered for years. Responding to another journalist’s contention that a terrorist, I think it was the PFLP’s George Habash, needed to be taken seriously because he was a doctor, she observed that the news media had a tendency to respect terrorists with degrees in the exact sciences, missing the fact that those disciplines do not develop empathy. It is the arts, she said, that teach our common humanity. It’s easy to find terrorists who have engineering or medical degrees, but perhaps it was telling, she suggested, that terrorists don’t get degrees in comparative literature.

Why hold novelists to a lower standard than terrorists? Acknowledging the world’s only post-Holocaust Jewish state is not an unfair standard by which to measure authorial empathy. But since understanding and acceptance of Zionism might seem an odd axis on which to measure the integrity of Arab novelists, particularly the subset of politically active Arab authors I have translated, let’s add, at a 45-degree angle, another axis: the extent to which authors are embraced by mainstream publishers in the United States. This will enable us to look not just at the authors, but into the mirror.

One icy night in February 2007, I traveled to New York to honor the great communist, Israeli writer and statesman Emile Habiby, who had died about a decade previous. The panel event at Columbia University’s (since renamed) MEALAC—Department of Middle East and Asian Languages and Cultures—marked the publication of Habiby’s novel Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter in my English translation. Panel members included me, the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, and two professors whom I hesitate to name for reasons that will be clear a little later on.

The author with (from top to bottom) Sasson Somekh in Tel Aviv, 1994; Emile Habiby (with his assistant Siham Daoud in the middle) in Haifa, undated; Abdelrahman Munif in London, undated; and again with Abdelrahman Munif (and Suad Munif) in Malibu, California, in 1993 (Photos courtesy the author)
The author with (from top to bottom) Sasson Somekh in Tel Aviv, 1994; Emile Habiby (with his assistant Siham Daoud in the middle) in Haifa, undated; Abdelrahman Munif in London, undated; and again with Abdelrahman Munif (and Suad Munif) in Malibu, California, in 1993 (Photos courtesy the author)

Habiby was the most endearing of men—funny, savvy, and brilliantly versed in centuries of Arabic literature. He had dedicated his life to Arab-Jewish coexistence in his native land and even named his eldest son Salam so that he might be known as Abu Salam, Father of Peace. He explained his lifelong communism to me as follows: In the 1940s, if you opposed British colonialism, Nazism, and religious extremism, and believed in equality and women’s rights, and if you actually toiled for a living, you were an instinctive communist.

Habiby’s workers’ movement included Jews from Ashkenazi and Sephardic backgrounds, Arab Muslims, and Christians, including our mutual friends Tawfiq Ziyad, a poet whose father was an illiterate camel driver and who became mayor of Nazareth, and the great Baghdad-born Israeli scholar Sasson Somekh. Outside Israel, Arab intellectuals who leaned left tended to be the most hostile to Israel, but inside (al-Dakhel, the “Inside,” a common Arabic euphemism for Israel excepting Gaza, Judea, and Samaria) being on the left meant being secularist—providing much common ground with the majority of Jews who disdained both Jewish and Islamic extremism.

While most of my time with Habiby had been spent in Nazareth and Haifa, the last time I would see him was in Morocco. In the optimistic mid-1990s, King Hassan II was sponsoring a conference on Jerusalem and its cultural heritage at the Hyatt Regency in Rabat. Yasser Arafat had recently moved from Tunisia to Gaza. In fact, Habiby had just visited Arafat there as part of an Israeli Arab delegation.

“I told Arafat a joke!” Habiby enthused. “Here it is. The Gazans are getting ready for Arafat to arrive and an officer is explaining to a soldier how to fire a 21-gun salute to welcome Arafat. ‘Not 20 or 22, but exactly 21, you understand,’ the officer orders. “Don’t worry,’ the soldier replied, ‘I’ll hit him with the first shot.’” Habiby roared with laughter.

“Arafat said ‘I don’t get it!’ Ha! Not much he didn’t.”

Habiby got an even better laugh in Rabat, he said, when King Hassan’s speech, read by royal adviser Abdelhadi Boutaleb, greatly irritated much of the Arab audience with its moderation. The speech condemned religious fanaticism and explicitly mentioned the rights of Jews as well as Christians and Muslims in the holy city. Most of the Palestinian audience declined to applaud. “I clapped as loudly as I could!” Habiby recounted happily. “To enrage them!”

Meanwhile, back in New York, I was about to have my own experience of an audience not quite in sync with the speaker: me. The audience of students, faculty, and locals listened politely, or at least silently, as I described Habiby’s complex and beautiful Saraya, which Somekh had characterized in the pages of Haaretz as the first work of Palestinian postmodernism. I told some anecdotes about Habiby and his family, and his fishermen friends in Haifa, and noted his political activism over nearly 20 years as a member of the Israeli Knesset representing the Israeli Communist Party.

Then it was professor A’s turn. She noted Habiby’s literary achievements and attachment to Palestine, though she faulted his acceptance of the Israel Prize for Literature in 1992, which advanced the “Zionist project.” She went on for a little longer in the same vein, before concluding to loud applause. Khoury thumped the table with the palm of his hand in approval.

Professor B announced that he would read aloud from something he had composed on the red-eye flight from the West Coast the night previous. He denounced the U.S. government’s detention and alleged torture of al-Qaida terrorists in black sites, as well as the practice of translating foreign works into English (referencing colonialism and, in an anguished tone, “English, the hegemon”). My recollection is that he did not mention Habiby at all. The audience applauded him noisily, and Khoury thumped the table even harder. In fact, Khoury approved so enthusiastically that he did not take his turn to offer remarks, since he said, the last two speakers had spoken for him.

At that time, I was in the middle of translating one of Khoury’s novels for a publisher in Brooklyn, so I knew who he was, but I sat there wearing a wan smile and thinking How fast can I get out of here? Half of the speakers on an academic panel honoring Emile Habiby did not mention his name, and the word Israel went nearly unspoken, except by me.


Elias Khoury, despite being Lebanese, joined the PLO as a very young man. He also edited a magazine in Beirut called Palestinian Affairs. Khoury hates Israel, but to his credit he at least uses the word, and has not shied away from meeting Israelis or being published in Hebrew. He supported the violent intifadas (PLO creations) against Israel.

A man of the left, Khoury opposes dictatorship and colonialism, and in his writings he often displays great nuance and objectivity when reviling the state of the Arab world’s own governments. To his credit, he joined a group of Arab and Arab American intellectuals opposing the great embarrassment of a Holocaust-denying event planned for Beirut in early 2001. To his discredit, he wrote a revealing riposte to Israel’s ambassador to France, Elie Barnavi, who had published a piece in Le Monde “saluting” these intellectuals and expressing his gratitude.

In his response, titled “The Insolence of an Ambassador,” Khoury briefly occupied some moral high ground denouncing not only the Holocaust but anti-Semitism generally, and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, before ceding it as follows:

We are in no way concerned in denying the Nazi Holocaust, or in diminishing the number of the victims. These are issues directly connected to European racism, which produced the horrors of the Second World War, and which is now manifesting itself in different forms, through the enslaving of the Third World, the systematic theft of its wealth and the direct occupation of its lands. The most dangerous manifestation of this racism is its position towards the Palestinian people.

So Israel is erased, being not a country nor a people but an expression of European racism with (he writes a few lines on) “a hunger for someone else’s land.”

Khoury is well published in the United States, with seven or eight books in print. His novel Yalo, published in my English translation in 2008, was reviewed on the front page of the Los Angeles Times Book Review.


One of the Arab world’s best-known authors, the Saudi Arabian Abdelrahman Munif joined the Arab Socialist Baath Party in Iraq as a young man, quit it in his 20s, albeit to resurface (due to his work in the state oil sector) within the structure of the Iraqi Revolutionary Command Council in the late 1970s. Like Khoury, he was a man of the Arab left who distanced himself from politics in favor of literature. The U.S.-led wars against the Saddam Hussein-led Iraqi Baath regime rekindled his radicalism late in life. “Our [Arab] crisis is a trilogy: oil, political Islam, and dictatorship,” he once told an interviewer. Despite his birth in Amman, he concentrated his political and literary efforts very much eastward, in both his politics and literature, on the oil-rich Arabian Gulf countries.

Notice the absence of the Israeli-Palestinian issue from his trilogy of ills facing the Arab world. Unlike Khoury, he did not even try to sneak it in under the guise of European colonialism. Unquestionably, as a leftist of the Baathist cast—who laudably left the party due to Saddam’s rising and murderous cult of personality, but not for ideological reasons—he opposed Israel, but not vocally. He told me that as a student in Baghdad he not only had Jewish friends, some of them were Baathists.

Munif very much shared Habiby’s and Khoury’s left-wing secularism, assuring me in the mid-1990s that the yardstick of whether an Arab society was healthy or not was how well political Islam was faring. “A healthy society fights it off like a virus. In the early 20th century, Egyptian society was strong, and rejected the Muslim Brotherhood. Now Egypt is sick, so Islam is raging again.”

Munif displayed a profound Arab socialist naiveté when, in the mid-1980s, I approached him about translating his novel cycle Cities of Salt, into English. “You’re a risk-taker,” he said. Would American publishers or readers be interested in an Arab work that was so critical of the United States? he asked, referring to the major U.S. support for the Saudi ruling family and its oil fields. He strongly doubted it. “I think you’ll have better luck in Europe,” he advised. (This snobbish strain of Old World solidarity between the Arab and European left and right is not rare.)

Cities of Salt remains in print more than three decades after that conversation.

It probably is no surprise that acceptance, or not, of a secure Israel brought out the best or worst of these political Arab men of letters while providing a kind of quick X-ray of the inner integrity and therefore the lasting qualities of their own work. What gives me pause is how America has embraced them in inverse proportion to their openness toward the Jewish state. Khoury and Munif are Amazon celebrities. Habiby’s great Saraya, the subject of the memorable panel in the Upper West Side? The English translation celebrated that evening was published in Jerusalem, not New York.


You can help support Tablet’s unique brand of Jewish journalism. Click here to donate today.

Peter Theroux is a translator and writer in suburban Los Angeles. After more than 20 years in the U.S. government, he was awarded the Career Intelligence Medal.

Become a Member of Tablet

Get access to exclusive conversations, our custom app, and special perks from our favorite Jewish artists, creators, and businesses. You’ll not only join our community of editors, writers, and friends—you’ll be helping us rebuild this broken world.