The Hamas-run Education Ministry has ordered an anthology of Palestinian folk tales pulled from school libraries and destroyed, reportedly over mild sexual innuendo, officials said Monday, in the most direct attempt by the Islamic militants to impose their beliefs on Palestinian society.
The book ban angered and worried many Palestinians, who long feared that Hamas would use its victory in last year's parliamentary election to remake the Palestinian territories according to its hardline interpretation of Islam.
West Bank novelist Zakariya Mohammed said he feared Hamas' decision to ban "Speak Bird, Speak Again," a collection of 45 folk tales, was only the beginning and urged intellectuals to take action. "If we don't stand up to the Islamists now, they won't stop confiscating books, songs and folklore," he said.
The Education Ministry declined immediate comment. A senior ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters, confirmed that 1,500 copies of the book had been pulled from school libraries and destroyed.
Hanan Ashrawi, an independent lawmaker and former Cabinet minister, said the decision to pull the book was "outrageous."
"If this is what is to come, it is extremely alarming," she said.
With Hamas slated to retain the Education Ministry under a power-sharing agreement with the secular Fatah party, Ashrawi called for the creation of an independent body to deal with issues related to arts and education.
"Education and culture and social issues should not be handled by anybody that has a closed, ideological, doctrinal attitude," she said. "It should be in the hands of professionals."
Since taking office last year, Hamas, which advocates an Islamic Palestinian state, has largely shied away from trying to force its mores on Palestinian society, as rights activists had feared. Some analysts speculated that the group was too busy trying to fend off international sanctions and keep its government from collapsing to focus on banning alcohol or other measures.
However, in recent months the Hamas-controlled ministries have begun forcing women to don headscarves to enter. And two years ago, Hamas officials in charge of the West Bank town of Qalqiliya sparked fears of a culture crackdown by banning a local music festival, arguing that the mingling of men and women at such an event was "haram," or forbidden by Islam.
In a letter sent to the Nablus school district last month, the Education Ministry said "Speak Bird, Speak Again" must be removed within a week, and asked school officials to notify the ministry once they had complied. The letter did not explain why the book was considered objectionable. Excerpts of the letter were read to The Associated Press by a Nablus school official who spoke on condition of anonymity, for fear of retribution.
The 400-page anthology of folk tales narrated by Palestinian women was first published in English in 1989 by the University of California at Berkeley. It was put together by Sharif Kanaana, a novelist and anthropology professor at the West Bank's Bir Zeit University, and by Ibrahim Muhawi, a teacher of Arabic literature and the theory of translation, the AP reports.
A French version, published by UNESCO, followed in 1997, and an Arabic one in 2001, said Kaanana, who lives in the West Bank town of Ramallah. At the time of the first publication in Arabic, the Palestinian Culture Ministry requested 3,000 copies and had them distributed in schools, Kanaana said Monday.
Kanaana said that two of the 45 tales contained what some might consider vague sexual innuendo, referring to body parts in colloquial Arabic. "This is our heritage, this is our life," he said of the folk tales.
One of Kanaana's neighbors, pharmacist Nabil Nahas, 60, said the book was a treasure, and that he was deeply upset by what he said was Hamas' attempt to silence other opinions.
The author said the stories shouldn't be altered because this is how they were transmitted from generation to generation. He didn't mind having a revised version for young children, but the original should be freely available, as a historic record, he said.
"It's not their right to judge this book," Kanaana said. "It's a scientific, academic book."
The choice of the city of Helsinki is not incidental as the capital of Finland had hosted US-Soviet negotiations on the limitation of nuclear stockpiles in 1969