NYT Columnist Blames Writers Union for Refusing to Publish Book in Israel

Alaa al Aswany fails to explicitly reject charge he said he would donate royalties to Hamas

Alaa al-Aswany / AP

A controversial New York Times columnist is pushing back on accusations that he tried to block his novel from being published in Israel but failed to explicitly reject the charge that he said he would donate his royalties to Hamas if the book was published.

Egyptian writer Alaa al Aswany has been criticized for refusing to allow Israeli peace activists to publish a Hebrew translation of his novel The Yacoubian Building in 2010.

However, Aswany told the Washington Free Beacon that his objections were not personal and he was just following the rules of his Egypt-based writers unions.

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"[R]ejection to deal with Israeli publishers was not from my side," Aswany said in a written statement submitted through his book agent, the Wylie Agency. "I am a member in the Egyptian Writers Union as well as the Arab Writers Union and both unions have issued restrictions on all members to deal with any Israeli publishers, and if this occurred there are legal penalties to any writer that disrespects those regulations."

Aswany said he has asked the Wylie Agency to accept any requests from Europe-based publishing houses that would like to translate his book into Hebrew.

"Where I stand when it comes to translating my works to any language is consistent and unchangeable, and I gladly agree that my works would be translated to any language, for any author should have readers who speak all languages, and of course Hebrew is no exception," said Aswany.

Aswany refused to allow the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information to publish a Hebrew translation of his book in 2010, the IPCRI’s co-chairman said last week.

"I met [Aswany] at the Gothenburg book fair in Sweden, and introduced myself, and gave him a letter … asking for permission to translate [The Yacoubian Building] and to pay him for the royalties," said IPCRI co-chairman Gershon Baskin. "He responded that he would refuse to have it published in Israel."

Baskin said he was later told that during an interview with a Ph.D. student, Aswany threatened to give Hamas any book royalties from the translation.

"He started yelling, and said ‘if it’s published in Israel, I’ll give the royalties to Hamas,’" said Baskin. "When I heard that, I said, excuse my language, ‘fuck him’—and we’re going to make it available to people as an educational service."

Aswany declined to discuss the alleged Hamas comments.

"I do not count it worth commenting on, as anyone who has read even one page of my writings would instantly realize that I am against all sort of violence, and I am also against all forms of political Islam as an ideology in the first place," said Aswany.

After the IPCRI made a Hebrew translation available online for free for a limited time, Aswany threatened legal action, the Agence France-Presse reported in 2010.

"What the centre and the translator did is piracy and theft, and I will be complaining to the International Publishers' Association," he told the news agency.

He also told the AFP that he was opposed to "normalization" with Israel, a reference to supporting the Arab world’s cultural boycott of the Jewish state.

"My position has not changed regarding normalization with Israel. I reject it completely," said Aswany at the time.

The Wylie Agency and Aswany did not respond when asked to clarify his current position on normalization.

Aswany is one of Egypt’s most prominent conspiracy theorists, according to Egypt experts.

He has alleged that a "massive Zionist organization rules America" and that "[President Barack] Obama is not able to go against Israel’s desires," wrote Eric Trager, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in the New Republic in October.

The Wylie Agency and Aswany did not respond to inquiries about the alleged Zionist conspiracy.

Aswany did, however, emphasize his support for tolerance and diversity in his statement to the Free Beacon, noting that "the core of writing is respecting all humans [and] all humane values, regardless of what religion they believe in."