A Palestinian author says he is unable to go home to the occupied West Bank after authorities there confiscated copies of his latest novel and issued a warrant for his arrest.
Abbad Yahya, 29, who is currently on a visit to Qatar, says he learned of the warrant and the banning of his novel, Crime in Ramallah, through the official Palestinian news agency while abroad.
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He fears he will be jailed if he returns.
Speaking to the AFP news agency, Yahya said: “I don’t know what to do. If I go back, I will be arrested, and if I stay here … I can’t stay far from my home and family.”
Yahya, who lives in Ramallah, has been accused of including “sexual terms” in a provocative work that tackles issues considered taboo in Palestinian society.
Themes explored in the book include politics, religion and homosexuality.
Morality and public decency
Ahmed Barak, Palestine’s attorney general, said Crime in Ramallah contained “indecent texts and terms that threaten morality and public decency, which could affect the population, in particular, minors”.
The decision “does not violate freedom of opinion and expression”, Barak said.
The novel, Yahya’s fourth, was released two months ago and charts the lives of three young men who work in a bar where a young woman is murdered.
The book goes on to show how the incident affects each man’s life.
Incidents portrayed in the book seek to symbolise the Palestinian national movement and what Yahya sees as its failure to secure independence from Israeli occupation.
It also criticises Palestinian leaders and touches on the complexities of modern Palestinian culture.
“Like all societies in the region, our society is seeing the growth of fanaticism and extremism and is reproducing social conservatism,” said Yahya.
“These trends appear in the society in a mixture of religious and national slogans.”
Yahya’s book, and the reaction to it, has set off a wide-ranging public debate in Palestine.
The writer said on Tuesday that the decision to ban his novel was an “unprecedented” attack on freedom of expression, and that he doubts that authorities have fully read it.
‘Reader should judge’
According to Yahya, his editor and distributor, Fuad al-Akleek, was arrested on Monday and released on Tuesday morning after interrogation.
“The police seized all copies in bookshops from Jenin to Hebron,” he said.
Speaking to local news media, Yahya challenged the effectiveness of the ban, saying that people who wanted to find a way to read the book would be easily able to.
He said that Palestine had a long line of intellectuals, writers, poets and artists, and that the ban could destroy what they had accomplished for Palestinian society.
Had the person who ordered his novel banned read them, perhaps their work would have been banned, too, Yahya said.
Adel Osta, a professor of literature, has joined several writers in criticising Yahya, saying he “went too far in crossing the red lines of Palestinian society”.
‘Job of the writer’
Murad Sudani, the head of the Palestinian Writers Union, said he wrote a “silly novel that violates the national and religious values of the society in order to appease the West and win prizes”.
“The job of the writer in our occupied country is to raise the hope and enlighten people – not to break the national and religious symbols,” Sudani said.
“My freedom as a writer ends when the freedom of the country begins.”
While Yahya’s Facebook page has been inundated with messages of support, he said several people had left threatening messages conveying their intention to harm him and his family.
Some in government, though, commended both Yahya and his novel.
Ehab Bseiso, Palestinian culture minister, said in a Facebook post that he was interested in reading the book.
He also urged the attorney general to repeal the book ban and Yahya’s arrest warrant.
The cultural department of the Palestine Liberation Organisation has condemned what it calls an “unjustified” decision that opened the door “to abuses of brutal censorship”.
“To use the term public decency is a form of manipulation and unacceptable justification because it has no legal or logical definition. It opens the doors for an endless censorship, which violates freedom of expression and right to creative writing,” it said in a statement on Tuesday.
Human rights organisations in the West Bank have called on the attorney general to reverse the ban and withdraw the charges against Yahya, saying that the actions violated international law.
“It is not a crime to distribute a book,” Akleek, a novel distributor, said. “The one who judges a novel and author is the reader.”