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Hamas bans Palestinian book

Says tales contain sexual expressions

Sharif Kanaana, a professor at Bir Zeit University, helped put together the anthology, "Speak Bird, Speak Again," which includes 45 folk tales narrated by Palestinian women. (Nasser Shiyoukhi/associated press)

RAMALLAH, West Bank -- The Hamas-run Education Ministry has ordered an anthology of Palestinian folk tales pulled from school libraries, reportedly over mild sexual innuendo, the most direct attempt by the Islamic militants to impose their beliefs on Palestinian society.

The book ban angered and worried many Palestinians, who have feared that Hamas would use its victory in last year's election to remake the Palestinian territories according to its hard-line interpretation of Islam.

The 400-page anthology of 45 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.

Kanaana said yesterday he believes "The Little Bird," a story in a chapter titled "Sexual Awakening and Courtship," was among reasons the book was banned because it mentions private parts. In their notes, the authors say that the bird in the story is a symbol of femininity and that sexual subjects are a principal source of humor in Palestinian folklore.

West Bank novelist Zakariya Mohammed said he feared Hamas's decision to ban the book "Speak Bird, Speak Again" was only the beginning and urged intellectuals to act. "If we don't stand up to the Islamists now, they won't stop confiscating books, songs, and folklore," he said.

Education Minister Nasser Shaer confirmed that the ministry ordered the book pulled from the school libraries, saying it is "full of clear sexual expressions."

However, Shaer denied the books were destroyed.

A senior ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to discuss the issue with reporters, said 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 more secular Fatah Party, Ashrawi called for creation of an independent body to deal with 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. Some analysts speculated the group was too busy trying to deal with international sanctions and keep its government from collapsing to focus on banning alcohol or other similar measures.

However, in recent months Hamas-controlled ministries have begun forcing women to put on head scarves to enter. And two years ago, Hamas officials in the West Bank town of Qalqiliya sparked fears of a culture crackdown by banning a local music festival, saying the mingling of men and women at such an event was 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. 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 book was first published in English. A French version, published by UNESCO, followed in 1997, and an Arabic edition in 2001, said Kanaana, who lives in Ramallah. After the Arabic edition was published, the Palestinian Culture Ministry requested 3,000 copies and had them distributed in schools, Kanaana said.

Kanaana said another of the 45 tales also contained what some might consider vague sexual innuendo . "This is our heritage; this is our life," he said of the stories.