Page last updated at 14:58 GMT, Thursday, 11 June 2009 15:58 UK

Egypt u-turn on publishing Israeli books

By Christian Fraser
BBC News, Cairo

Farouk Hosni
Farouk Hosni has been in charge of Egyptian culture for many years

The Egyptian culture ministry has agreed to publish Arabic translations of two novels by Israeli writers.

The decision comes in the wake of recent criticism of Culture Minister Farouk Hosni, who is bidding to become the next head of Unesco.

When asked about Israeli books in Alexandria library last year, the minister said that if they existed, he would burn them himself.

Mr Hosni later apologised but it was seen as having dented his chances.

The post of director general of the United Nations cultural agency is considered a valuable prize on the diplomatic circuit. The Egyptian government is very keen for its man to be chosen.

But the culture minister and abstract artist Farouk Hosni has come under some severe criticism for comments he made last year to the Egyptian parliament in which he said he would burn any Israeli books that were being held by the Alexandria library.

Mr Hosni subsequently offered his apologies.

'No coincidence'

Now the ministry is trying to put some weight behind his campaign by announcing that it will publish Arabic translations of novels by the renowned Israeli writers Amos Oz and David Grossman - for the first time.

The national translation centre said it was translating books from 27 languages including Hebrew.

The timing of this announcement is surely no coincidence.

A spokesman for the ministry said he hoped to have an agreement signed with their English and French publishers by early July - a good two months before the Unesco decision.

However, they are still refusing to deal directly with the Israeli publishers because they say it would cause a scandal in Egypt and across the Arab world.

Culture chasm

Only two Israeli books have ever been published in Arabic here.

Despite the peace deal signed by the two countries in 1979 Egypt has resisted any cultural integration in protest at Israel's continued occupation of Arab land.

Even Alaa Aswani, who wrote the renowned Yacoubian Building, which was later turned into a successful film, has refused to have his books translated into Hebrew.

Unesco, based in Paris, is responsible for promoting international collaboration through education, science, and culture.

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