UT's Center for Middle Eastern Studies is in the middle of a political and cultural controversy as it was forced to cancel a book honoring a deceased colleague due to a boycott by some of the project's authors.
The book, "Memory of a Promise: Short Stories by Middle Eastern Women", in the works since 2008, was a project that was supposed to be dedicated to Elizabeth "BJ" Fernea, a UT professor who was passionate about translating popular Middle Eastern work into English. The book was set to feature translations of short stories by Middle Eastern women.
The project recently fell apart when one of the 29 authors, Huzama Habayeb, discovered two of the other authors were Israelis. Being a Palestinian, Habayeb demanded the two authors be removed from the project due to current conflicts between Arabs and Israelis in the Middle East.
"Habayeb was only concerned with the issue of including any Israeli authors in the volume," said Kamran Aghaie, director of the Center of Middle Eastern Studies. "She viewed this as part of a boycott Israel strategy, which is aimed at changing Israel's policies through the boycott of Israel and all Israelis. No other issues were raised."
Habayeb demanded Aghaie to remove the two authors, but he refused.
"For an author to want to censor another author is bizarre," Aghaie said. "I just can't comprehend that at all."
Habayeb eventually left the project, taking an additional 12 authors with her, forcing the center to cancel the book. The center feared the book would not be ethically sound without any Arab authors contributing.
Aghaie is disappointed at the outcome of the situation, but does not regret his decision.
"We pick authors and stories based on the quality of work. We would not have done it any differently," he said. "The process of selecting authors is too complex to explain. We used the typical academic processes we and other academic presses use for such volumes."
The protesters are angry that they were not told about the Israelis' involvement in the project from the very beginning. Aghaie says the background information on all the authors was not on a "need to know" basis.
"The volume covered the Middle East, so that is self-explanatory," Aghaie said. "More to the point, when we do multi-authored volumes, we do not single out any of the authors because of their ethnicity, religion, or national origin, and allow the other authors to accept or veto their own participation."
The center has received a large amount of feedback, both negative and positive, since announcing the cancellation of the book.
"The center has received a barrage of emails from all sides of the issue. Most are supportive of our stance," Aghaie said. "Others started off as critical or hostile, but after they found out what had actually happened, most of these shifted to being supportive, or at least accepting of our stance."
Even with all overwhelmingly amount of responses, Aghaie says he is not surprised.
"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."