UT's Center for Middle Eastern Studies took a blow last week when it was forced to kill an anthology designed to honor a deceased colleague because of a political boycott by some of its authors.
The nearly finished Memory of a Promise: Short Stories by Middle Eastern Women was a project close to the hearts of many at the center. The book was meant to honor Elizabeth "BJ" Fernea, a UT professor who was passionate about translating Middle Eastern works into English.
In the works since 2008, the project fell apart recently after one of the 29 authors found out two other participating writers were Israelis. Fueled by current tensions between Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East, the disgruntled author, a Palestinian named Huzama Habayeb, demanded the Israelis be eliminated from the anthology.
"For an author to want to censor another author is bizarre," says Kamran Aghaie, director of UT's Center for Middle Eastern Studies. "I just can't comprehend that at all."
When Aghaie refused, the Habayeb withdrew from the project, taking 12 other Arab writers with her. Fearing the project wouldn't be ethically sound without Arab contributions, the center was forced to cancel the book. And while Aghaie is disappointed by how things turned out, he's sticking to his guns.
"They don't get to vote on who gets to be included or excluded," Aghaie says. "We pick authors and stories based on the quality of work. We wouldn't have done it any differently."
The protestors, many of whom agreed to participate in the anthology more than a year ago, are angry they weren't told about the participating Israeli authors at the get-go. To that, Aghaie just says simply, "It's just not a veto process."
Since announcing the book's cancellation, the center has received quite a bit of pushback from all ends of the spectrum. Gulf News ran an editorial that read:"There's also a bigger issue—one whereby academics the world over need to ensure that Israel is isolated for its immoral and illegal actions in occupying Palestine and repressing the Palestinian people. The pen is mightier than the sword."
Aghaie says he isn't surprised by the overwhelming response the center has seen in the last week.
"We were expecting to be attacked from all sides, and we have been," Aghaie says. "But I can't control what other people do; I can only control what I do. And when you're dealing with an academic situation, silencing voices is something we won't have a part in at all."