The library she went to as a youngster, she said, “stops in the Soviet Union, because the intellectuals were part of the Communist Party. So you see Dostoyevsky, Lenin and Marx. The whole library is so yellow. There’s nothing new there.”
Ms. Azaizeh said she started the book festival at Fattoush, a cavernous restaurant, bar and performance space in Haifa, in 2017 because she had been bringing books into Israel from Jordan and Egypt herself, but realized that many Arab citizens lacked a way to gain access to important or popular literature, poetry and nonfiction without traveling.
“People don’t feel this, because they’re not used to having good books,” she said. “If you deprive society of something for long enough, they will not feel the loss.”
Israel applies the same ban on importing books from “enemy states” in its occupation of the West Bank, said Sawsan Zaher, a lawyer and deputy director-general at Adalah, the legal center for Arab rights in Israel.
A decade ago, Adalah represented a Haifa bookseller who had been importing books from Lebanese and other forbidden publishers under a special Israeli license — until the state abruptly canceled it. But when Adalah sued, the state resumed giving the bookseller his license, and the lawsuit was dismissed, short-circuiting any chance of overturning the policy, Ms. Zaher said.
The import ban is particularly crippling for Israel’s Arab readers because both Beirut and Damascus, at least before the Syrian civil war, were long known as the publishing capitals of the Arab world, Ms. Zaher said. Books by Arab-Israeli authors are readily available to Arab citizens of Israel, “but they’re interested to read the books that everyone is talking about, the best sellers in the Arab region,” she said.
“You’re hungry for the culture you know you’re part of, but you cannot access it,” Ms. Zaher said.
Obstacles to book distribution are nothing new across the Middle East. In Jordan, some books are banned outright, while others are only permitted to be sold after phrases or whole sections are deleted. During last year’s Amman Book Fair, the Iraqi author Sinan Antoon wrote that two of his books had been banned, while Israel prevented Jordanian publishers from participating in the Palestine Book Fair in Bethlehem, according to Jordan’s official news agency.