Book Ban Turns Intra-Palestinian Fight Cultural ; Hamas's Ban from Schools of a Book of Folklore Has Fueled Moderates' Concern about Greater Islamist Constraints

Article excerpt

For more than 30 years, anthropologist Sharif Kanaana has been collecting and studying Palestinian folk tales so that people at home and abroad would understand the story of his people.

This week, the Hamas-run Palestinian Authority (PA) added a new chapter: a directive to pull Professor Kanaana's book from school libraries and destroy it.

"I don't want to generalize about all of Hamas - I rather hope it's a unique case, a mistake by an individual," says Kanaana, a scholarly, bespectacled academic who was just heading into semiretirement when he inadvertently became the poster child of the Palestinian divide between liberals and ultra-conservatives. "Unfortunately, it confirmed some of the worst expectations people had for this government."

The decision underscores the struggle for ideological and political hegemony, one that is making itself felt more strongly than ever before.

While literature lovers and others on the more progressive side of Palestinian society see the order to ban the book as an attack on the cultural freedoms, the Islamist Hamas movement and its supporters see the move as a democratically endorsed step toward protecting students from "harmful" influences and "offensive" language, in the words of one leading official here.

"The book was withdrawn because of the problems with offensive language which contradicts our beliefs and morals," says Sheikh Yazid Khader, who is the director-general of the PA's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

Hamas says it's guarding values

Religious conservatives say that they didn't like five stories within the 400-page book of folklore, which includes academic explanations and theory, because of references to body parts or human excretion.

The decision to pull the book "Speak Bird, Speak Again," first published in English in 1989 and later in Arabic in Lebanon, was issued by the education ministry last month in a letter to teachers, who were instructed to destroy it.

"Our society depends on Islamic values and has for hundreds of years," continues Sheikh Khader. "Our most important objective is to make curriculum adhere to our social values."

In his viewpoint, too many Western influences are seeping into Palestinian society, and children must be better shielded from them.

"This new generation is unable to distinguish between what is harmful and what is beneficial, so we have to protect them from these harmful influences," he says. "The Israeli occupation is interested in introducing us to Western values that work to destroy our Arab and Muslim values."

The fresh wave of negative press for Hamas, domestically and internationally, comes at a particularly uncomfortable time for the organization, whose name is an acronym that stands for the Islamic Resistance Movement.

Hamas and Fatah, the mainstream and secular political faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), are moving closer to reaching an agreement that would pave the way for the creation of a national unity government. …