"The holy Torah tells us regarding Ishmael that
he is a 'pere adam,' a wild beast of a man. It is known that our Torah
is eternal, and if it says about Ishmael that he is a wild beast of a man,
then Ishmael will remain forever a wild beast of a man."
Special Dispatch - Reform Project
March 31, 2004. No. 688
Israeli Arab Intellectual and Poet on Illiteracy in the Arab World,
"Backward-Looking" Islam, and the Complex of Arab Secularists
In an interview with the Jerusalem weekly Kol Hair on the occasion of the
publication of his first book of poetry in Hebrew, Salman Masalha, an Israeli
Arab intellectual and poet, speaks of what he sees as the problem of illiteracy,
and thus thought, in the Arab world, of the fixation with the past in the
Arab world, of the importance of educating women, and of the role of doubting
and asking questions in the development of society and culture.
Masalha, who refused to serve in the Israeli military, holds an MA and Ph.D
in pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, and taught in the Arab Literature Department
of Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The following are excerpts from the
Illiteracy in the Arab World is Over 80%
Salman Masalha: "There's a serious problem today with the Arab youth, in
expressing themselves in Arabic."
Salman Masalha: "Because of the language, that great rift between colloquial
and literary Arabic. In order to explain a complex idea, you need high language,
not the language of the souq. You can't express a complicated idea using
the language of the souq. If you take young people, let's say eighth-grade
Arab [children], and their French, or Jewish Israeli, counterparts, you will
discover the discrepancy in self-expression. Because he does not know the
language of thought, the Arab pupil runs into a big problem. Thus it is in
the entire Arab world.
"The Arab world does not read. According to various reports, the Arab world
is largely illiterate. Illiteracy in the Arab world is not 50% like it says
in the reports. I say that it is over 80%. Practically speaking, even those
defined as not illiterate because they completed eight years of schooling,
I consider illiterate. In this century, anyone who finishes elementary school
can't really read.
"A book selling 5,000 copies across the Arab world is a rare achievement.
The average book published in Israel sells more copies than a successful
book in the entire Arab world. This also has to do with the economic situation.
Reading books is a privilege for people who have spare time and money. The
poverty that sweeps the Arab world leaves the individual struggling for survival
his whole life. How is he supposed to read a book? He must bring food for
his children, his family."
Question: "So why not switch the approach and start writing in colloquial
Salman Masalha: "Impossible. We don't talk about theater, films, or television
series. It's impossible to write research [about] art or history in the
colloquial. You need the literary [language]."
Question: "Is the situation of the Arabs in Israel any different?"
Salman Masalha: "I think it's similar. There are 200 readers, no more, among
Question: "Do you mean readers of poetry?"
Salman Masalha: "Poetry and literature and all languages. No more than 200
readers. Also, high-school literature teachers don't read books, and thus
they create another generation and yet another generation of ignorant pupils."
Question: "But there are more than 200 writers."
Salman Masalha: "Of course there are more writers than readers. There are
more than 200 poets alone, according to what I see in the Arabic press. The
literary sections [in the press] are so ridiculous it's unbelievable. The
texts and poems published in the Arabic press are on the level of children,
not particularly developed."
Question: "How do you explain this?"
Salman Masalha: "Some of the newspapers are party [papers], and there they
publish things by anyone who supports the party, regardless of what he writes.
The editors don't care. And there are of course the commercial papers, and
there's not much to say about them. Today there is only Masharif, which has
a kind of editing [that is] open to the world of Arab and Hebrew literature,
and only there is there any kind of editing, so that not every text gets
in. Regarding what happens in the rest of the so-called newspapers, irresponsible
editors and gangs of the infantile are in charge."
Question: "What about publishers?"
Salman Masalha: "In Israel there are no Arabic-language publishers. The more
serious problem is that there are no bookstores. I am not talking about
libraries, but bookstores. In Nazareth, there is one bookstore, and even
there the selection is very limited. You go to Cairo and bring back sacks
of books without even thinking.
"The only way for the Arab living here who is interested in following literature
in the Arab world is the Internet, and for that you need people who are
interested and know how to obtain this information. There are some good sites
through which you can follow literature in the Arab world and get updated
The Arabs "Need to Bring in Western Culture"
Masalha, who was born in a Druze village in the Galilee, lives today in west
Jerusalem. He is critical of Israeli Arab MPs such as Ahmad Tibi and 'Azmi
Bishara who live in east Jerusalem and pay for their housing with their Knesset
Salman Masalha: "What's the difference between them and a settler? In my
view, everything done beyond the 1967 lines was done by the force of the
occupation. Everything. From A to Z."
"If your position is that there must be two countries for two peoples, you
cannot be part of the occupation and live in the occupied territories, or
even live in an Arab neighborhood. As far as I'm concerned, there is no
difference between an Israeli Arab who lives in an Arab neighborhood and
Question: "Did you have problems in Jewish neighborhoods?"
Salman Masalha: "I personally have never had a problem. That doesn't mean
that others don't have problems of this kind, but no problems happened to
me, and I don't have the energy now to invent a story so as to say that I
am a discriminated-against Arab. Life in the city is different than life
in the Arab town. Ultimately, we live in apartheid. There is separation between
Jews and Arabs - [Jews] in their towns and [Arabs] in theirs. Among the Arabs
in Israel, there is a very big problem when addressing the concept of homeland.
The homeland in effect becomes the village in which you were born - and more
accurately, an [area within a] small radius in the village in which you were
born. A homeland that forms circles of extended family or the tribe, then
the neighborhood, then the village. There is no transition at all from place
to place. Five kilometers from Magar [where I was born], I'm already regarded
as a stranger, a refugee."
Masalha does not visit the village of his birth often, and when he looks
on Arab society in Israel he sees a sad reality: "What is happening to the
Arabs in Israel is a process similar to that which happened to the Oriental
[Jews in Israel]. They live in an ostensibly Western country, adopt all kinds
of garbage from Western culture, and are alienated from their [own] culture.
They grasp only the margins of Western culture. In such a situation, every
society crumbles, and then the law of the jungle rules. Crime and force rule
in all Arab villages in Israel. There is a need to bring in Western culture,
not only its margins; Western culture that is founded upon the drive of
curiosity, the desire to truly develop, to ask..."
Previous Islamic Periods Showed Greater Openness Than Today
Question: "Perhaps I am mistaken, but it seems to me that the poetry of the
Abbasid period showed greater openness, enlightenment, and even reference
to human rights than what Islam permits today."
Salman Masalha: "This is true. A strong culture permits diversity; a strong
culture permits freedom of thought, deviation from the framework. When the
Abbasid period was at its height, it became a culture of self-confidence.
When there is confidence like this, you permit space and freedom. Lack of
self-confidence leads to the lowest cultural point, from all aspects - human
rights, women's rights. In the Arab empire, there was more freedom than in
the Arab world today."
Question: "Then what do those who call for a return to Islam want - the height
of culture and freedom?"
Salman Masalha: "Not at all. The perception today is like that at the beginning
of Islam. Actually, Islam tried to unite the Arab tribes in the Arabian
Peninsula. The Islamists see the Arab world according to what I read in the
scriptures, as if today it is like the Jahaliya, the period of benightedness
that preceded Islam. These Islamist movements are trying to revive Islam
by uniting in the framework of an Islamic nation. Was it really like that?
[The Third Caliph] Muhammad Othman bin 'Affan was murdered and thrown onto
the dung heap. Three days he lay there, and a dog ate his foot. This is the
golden age to which they want to return?
"There's something in the Islamic perception that drives you crazy, and that
is the looking only backwards, not to the future. If the golden age was in
the past, your entire vision is rearwards. This causes deterioration. In
our mentality as Arabs, there is a poisonous formula that can lead to nothing
good at all. There is a need for change in this programming. There is a disk
in the Arab mind that must be replaced with another disk, and only this way
can change come."
"The Woman is the Solution"
Question: "How is it possible to change?"
Salman Masalha: "First of all, separation of religion and state. [Then] war
on ignorance, opening up to the world and to [other] cultures. The Islamic
motto of 'Islam is the solution' must be replaced by 'the woman is the solution.'
Women must be educated, encouraged, and enlightened. In a home with an educated
and productive wife, the children will grow up to be educated and productive.
A large part of the backwardness and tragedy of the Arab world lies in its
abhorrent treatment of women.
"Islam is in my view a prescription for going back in time, to the pre-Islamic
period of benightedness. The solution is to build a liberal and democratic
society that places the individual in the center, and more than anything
the woman at the heart of this center.
"We Arabs have a problem with self-sarcasm. We do not know how to laugh at
ourselves. This is part of our problem. There are many taboos, almost [as
powerful as] the living word of God, that must not be transgressed. There
is no Arab satire, for example. In [satiric] Arab writing, it is rare to
find anything interesting, except perhaps by Emil Habibi. We take the world
Israeli Arabs Are More Free Than Anyone in the Arab World
Question: "And this restricts your writing?"
Salman Masalha: "The Arab newspapers do not publish erotica, criticism of
Islam, or intimate revelations, not even political expose. For example, there
are no new Arab historians. Everything is 'establishment' in the Arab world.
We never ask ourselves the real questions. Doubting does not exist. No one
doubts the Qur'an. "Doubt is an essential part of the development of society
and of culture. It is of this programming I speak, and of the need to replace
it. To begin, for once, to ask about and talk about the most essential things
in our lives, in order to find solutions or ways to change this sad reality.
"We here [in Israel], with all our problems, and all the complexity of our
situation, know deep inside that we are free, I mean, as far as thinking
goes, and as far as the possibility of writing goes. We are freer to think
than anyone in the Arab world."
Question: "What about Arab secularism?"
Salman Masalha: "I don't know whether it is possible even to talk about Arab
secularism. Is there really any such thing?...
"The problem in the Arab world, as in Israel, is that the so-called secular
movements suffer from feelings of inferiority in the face of religion. In
the Arab world, anyone who opposes the existing regimes sees one way [out],
and that is the mosques, because of the inferiority of these regimes in the
face of Islam. [But] my secular values are no less supreme [than religious
values]. Secular people must not feel inferior. The whole thing must be turned
Question: "But there is no other way. Democracy is not an alternative for
the average Arab."
Salman Masalha: "This is the greatest betrayal of the intellectual Arabs.
Those who dare flee to America or Europe, because they cannot create and
write in their own societies. Others, according to reports that are beginning
to be published, received over the years envelopes full of dinars from Saddam
Hussein. Intellectuals of this kind are the root of the problem.
"Today anyone who may not even have finished elementary school can grow a
beard and become an authority and a source of power. People don't know the
history of Islam. The moment you have some creation that is absolute truth,
it has a representative on earth - and go argue with him. There's no arguing
with faith. Therefore, the war on fundamentalism cannot come out of ignorance;
it must come out of knowledge - and the Arab world today, as it is, is a
world of ignorance.
"What do they have to be proud of? All of Arab history is built on war crimes.
There is practically not a single Muslim caliph who was not murdered. I am
proud to say that I am a pagan Arab, thank God."(2)
(1) Kol Ha'Ir (Israel), March 19, 2004.
(2) In the Hebrew original, "Baruch haShem."
Dr. Aaron Lerner, Director IMRA - Independent Media Review and Analysis