Of borders and other divisions

Thirty years ago I was crossing the Jordon River from Israel to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordon to interview King Hussein, the father of the present monarch.

I passed over the Allenby Bridge from Israeli control, displaying blue and white Israeli flags, to the Jordanian side, where most pretended that Israel didn’t exist.

In those days you could not have an Israeli stamp in your passport if you wished to enter Jordan, and foreign correspondents stationed in Israel routinely had two passports: one for Israel only and another for the rest of the world. I put my Israeli-only passport, with its Israeli resident visa and entry-exit stamps in my pocket, and took out my rest of the world passport to show the Jordanian authorities.

As it happened my last posting had been Southeast Asia, and I still had a Laotian visa in my passport. “Ah Hah!” said the Jordanian immigration official. “An Israeli stamp!” I was ordered to return to the entity from which I had come.

I tried to explain that the stamp in question was from Laos, a tiny country unknown to the official, and that the writing was Sanskrit, not Hebrew.

He was having none of it. He knew Hebrew when he saw it, and that was clearly a Hebrew stamp in my passport, he said. I explained that I had an interview with the king that afternoon, and would he call the palace, but no.

In frustration, I pulled out my Israel-only passport and showed him what Hebrew writing really looked like. His face expressed horror as he urged me to put it away, as if he had seen the devil himself. He quickly waved me through.

Today, of course, there are diplomatic relations between Jordan and Israel and such nonsense no longer plagues the Allenby crossing. But in other Arab countries such strictures remain. 

I was reminded of all this when William Marling, a visiting professor at the American University of Beirut, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that, in Lebanon, “The Diary of Anne Frank” is banned — a special irony given that Beirut has been named as UNESCO’s 2009 “World Book Capital City.” Beirut celebrated “World Book and Copyright Day” in “conformity with the principles of freedom of expression and freedom to publish,” according to Marling.

 Marling also reported that all books portraying Jews, Israel or Zionism in a favorable light were banned, including “Schindler’s List,” Thomas Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” William Styron’s “Sophie’s Choice,” as well as books by Philip Roth, Saul Bellow and Isaac Singer. Even films starring Jane Fonda were banned because Fonda had once visited Israel in support of her then-husband Tom Hayden’s run for the U.S. Senate.

It reminded me of when Lee Griggs, a reporter for Time Magazine, took up his post in Beirut more than 40 years ago. His household goods were held up at customs because of a Yale glee club record album. The seal of Yale University features Hebrew writing which, in the 18th
and 19th centuries, was considered a language of learning, like Latin and Greek. Griggs had to come down to the customs office and convince the authorities that the record was not composed entirely of Zionist music. He played the album for them, including “for God, for Country, and for Yale.” They reluctantly allowed him to keep the record, but confiscated the dust jacket with its offending Yale seal.

Arab authors are not excepted from censorship either. Abdo Wazen’s “The Garden of the Senses” and Layla Baalbaki’s “Hana’s Voyage to the Moon” were taken to court too, according to Marling.

The sadness is that the Arab world was once a great repository of learning, keeping the heritage of ancient Greece alive when Europe sank into dark ages, and adding much of its own to the world’s body of knowledge. Then the Arab world began to shrink its horizons, translating and publishing fewer and fewer books from abroad, becoming more and more narrow and in-grown, as illustrated by its reaction to Yale songs, Sanskrit visa stamps and “Sophie’s Choice.”

I can think of no other comparable national or civilizational silliness, lest it be China’s reaction to anything to do with the Dalai Lama. I don’t remember an American visa stamp or an American passport preventing anyone from visiting the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, nor Mao’s China if the authorities granted you permission to enter.

One can refuse to extend diplomatic relations to Israel, as a matter of national priorities until Israel does such and such, and so and so. But to ban the work of Jewish writers or books about Jews is a societal self-mutilation which the Arab world, with its great traditions of knowledge, should put behind it. Like it or not, the Jews are as much a part of the Middle East as the Arabs and all the banning in the world will not refute that.

More dispatches by GlobalPost columnist HDS Greenway:

Hitting the 'reset' button

Bukhara on the Potomac

History repeats itself