Hamas Backs Down on Folklore Book Banning

From the AP:

The Hamas-run Education Ministry on Saturday rescinded its decision to pull an anthology of Palestinian folk tales from school libraries and destroy copies, reportedly over mild sexual innuendo, following a widespread public outcry…Some 1,500 copies of the book were destroyed – the most direct attempt by the militant Muslim group to impose its beliefs on Palestinian society.

The restrictions on the book (whether the copies were actually destroys appears to be a matter of some dispute) had appalled many Palestinians, and the Christian Science Monitor reports that the Palestinian public may be getting fed up with Hamas:

“We can say now that Hamas is being revealed to the Palestinian people,” says [Yahya] Yakhlef [the former minister of culture]. “I think the popularity of Hamas has dropped.”

The Monitor also quotes the reasons given for the banning:

“The book was withdrawn because of the problems with offensive language which contradicts our beliefs and morals,” says Sheikh Yazid Khader, who is the director-general of the PA’s Ministry of Education.

…”Our society depends on Islamic values and has for hundreds of years,” continues Sheikh Khader…”The Israeli occupation is interested in introducing us to Western values that work to destroy our Arab and Muslim values.”

Interestingly, Sheikh Khader has himself been on the receiving end of attempts to suppress writings: he was formerly the editor of the Hamas newspaper, and in June 2006 he was attacked in his office by Fatah gunmen.

The book, Speak Bird, Speak Again, was compiled by Ibrahim Muhawi and Sharif Kanaana, and the English-language edition has a foreword by the late Alan Dundes. A substantial chunk of the text can be read here (one footnote mentions a mouse who “dangles his penis in the water”). The book was reviewed in American Ethnologist by Dwight Reynolds back in 1990, and this gives us some clues as to why Hamas might have found it so subversive:

All of the narratives presented in Speak, Bird, Speak Again were recorded by the editors in 1978-80 on the West Bank, in Gaza, and in the Galilee…Most of the narrators are older women,…for the Palestinian folktale tradition…is primarily a women’s tradition (in opposition to the public recitations of epic and romance dominated by men). Women are the major transmitters of folktales and often constitute a large portion of the audience. All of the female narrators are housewives, none of whom are literate, of both Muslim and Christian cultures.

The prominence of women, both as narrators and as heroines, may be surprising to many readers. In seeming contradiction to the restricted public role of women in real life, many of these tales concern women who act, who decide, and who wield power. At times the heroines of the tales act openly as women, and at times they do so disguised as men. Several of the tales deal explicitly with sexual conflicts and the problematics of gender roles including the “feminization” of male spouses and lovers by the female heroines…and the incestuous desires of fathers…More than one tale is remarkable for the bluntness with which sexual issues are presented or parodied. The tales are not direct reflections of Palestinian Arab norms, of course, but rather represent a traditional discourse which wrestles with and negotiates the strictures of female public modesty and subordination. They are tales which, after all, are heard and appreciated by male as well as female children as they grow up, and even at times as adults.

Meanwhile, in the USA school pupils in New York have recently been suspended after saying aloud the word “vagina” while reading from the Vagina Monologues, and Christian conservatives in Michigan (in the form of the Livingston Organization for Values in Education) have been trying to have a school board arrested on obscenity charges over assigned readings that included such “pornographic” material as a book by Toni Morrison.

Name variation: Yazeeb Khader