Rushdie Was Right Then, He’s Right Now

When Sudanese author Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North was published in 1969, it was described by Edward Said as one of the ‘finest novels to be written in Arabic.’ Among other things, the story is a sarcastic retelling of Heart of Darkness: A man leaves his home, goes ‘native,’ and suffers the consequences, except this time, the journey is to the heart of Europe, where the narrator experiences violence and betrayal. The novel offered an alternative take on the issue of colonialism, and is probably one of the most important books of fiction to be published in the wider Arab world. It was banned in the Sudan for a long time.

Before poet and novelist Reinaldo Arenas managed to leave Cuba in 1980, he had tried on three separate occasions to smuggle a manuscript of Farewell to the Sea out of the island without success. While he was serving a prison sentence for the ‘crime’ of being homosexual, a guard burned Arenas’ manuscript right before his eyes. Arenas finally succeeded in publishing Farewell to the Sea, a lament on the lack of freedom to be, freedom to love, freedom to speak in post-revolutionary Cuba. He died before his book could be published in his native country.

Iranian novelist and feminist Shahrnush Parsipur was jailed shortly after the 1989 publication of her novel Women Without Men, which offered a frank depiction of women’s sexuality to a society that wants to repress it. It wasn’t the first time that Parsipur had been sent to jail for her writing. Despite the commercial success of some of her fiction works, all of Parsipur’s books have been banned at one point or another in Iran. She now lives in exile.

I am able to tell you these things because, as a citizen of a free nation, I have access to the works of these fine writers in translation. For this to be possible, someone had to buy the rights, get the books translated, edited, published, and distributed.

If these three books were to be written today, they would all but be banned in the United States.

While the new rules put in place by the Office of Foreign Assets Control at the Treasury Department do not (yet?) criminalize publication of books from countries under embargo (Iran, Sudan, Cuba), they prohibit U.S. publishers from editing, translating, or otherwise providing any ‘services’ to the authors. What OFAC is saying is that these authors should have had the forethought of being native speakers of English. And just because these people risk life and limb in their native countries for the right to speak doesn’t mean that they should be free to publish here in the States. After all, there are innocent American readers that need to be protected from evil-doer authors.

In a characteristically American response to this ridiculous situation, a lawsuit has been filed against OFAC by the Association of University Presses, the Association of American Publishers, Arcade Publishing, and PEN American Center. The text of the lawsuit contains a declaration by PEN’s president, Salman Rushdie, an author who knows all too well the price of freedom of speech.

And perhaps that is the biggest indication of how low we have sunk as a nation. That the man who, in 1989, had to defend his right to free speech from religious zealots, should in 2004 have to defend others’ right to free speech from OFAC zealots.

Stand with Rushdie, again.

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