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Why banning “Arab” authors from US is censorship

Excluding important Arab writers from the literary dialogue also punishes US readers.

Last updated: Oct. 8, 201


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On September 30, Jordanian poet and novelist Amjad Nasser was scheduled to give the inaugural address at the Gallatin Global Writers series.

Nasser is a major Arab poet, whose “A Song and Three Questions” was chosen by The Guardian as one of the 50 greatest love poems of the past 50 years and whose debut novel, “Land of No Rain”, was acclaimed by Ahdaf Souief and Elias Khoury, among others.

Nasser is also a law-abiding British citizen who does not need a visa to take the short flight from London to New York City.

Yet Nasser was still prepared.

According to Gallatin series organisers, the author “was carrying his books and an official letter of invitation from NYU” when he arrived at Heathrow’s Terminal 5.

Jordanian British poet and novelist Amjad Nasser was prevented from boarding a US-bound flight [Peter Money]
But as he got ready to board his British Airways flight, an attendant at the gate handed Nasser the phone. Someone from the US’ homeland security department wanted to talk to him. As Nasser wrote about the experience:

“The strangest ‘conversation’ ensued:

Your name, your father’s name, your mother’s name, your paternal grandfather, your maternal grandfather, your great grandfather, your height, your weight, the colour of your eyes, of your hair … at this point I told the homeland security person: It is turning white now! ‘What was its colour before? Brown?’ he asked. ‘No, black,’ I said.”

At the end of the conversation, Nasser was told that he could not board the departing plane, which in any case had already left.

The faceless homeland security officer would not disclose the reason Nasser wasn’t allowed into the US.

“Just like that?” Nasser asked. “Just like that,” the homeland security officer responded.

Nasser’s talk was still held, via Skype. But Homeland Security did manage to prevent him from the warmth of a personal address, from speaking individually to fans of his work, and from fruitful discussions with other writers.

Not the first

Terse denials of entry like Nasser’s aren’t common, but his was certainly not the first.

In the spring of 2012, Palestinian poet Ghassan Zaqtan was scheduled to tour with Palestinian-American poet Fady Joudah.

Zaqtan’s “Like a Straw Bird It Follows Me“, translated by Joudah, had just been released by Yale University Press.

Joudah put a great deal of work into organising a tour, but, despite urging from the ACLU and PEN America, Zaqtan didn’t receive a visa. Zaqtan’s participation in his spring tour was reduced to a pre-recorded message.

Few Arabophone authors travel to the US to give talks or appear at literary events. Organisers note that the process itself can be a deterrent.

After increasing pressure, and statements of support from a broad range of US writers, Joudah managed to reorganise the whole tour and finally get Zaqtan a visa in the fall of 2012.

Yet despite the relative rarity of rejections, few Arabophone authors travel to the US to give talks or appear at literary events.

Organizers note that the process itself can be a deterrent.

Novelist, translator, and academic Elliott Colla says that he has invited a few Arab authors to the US for events, including a recent talk by Egyptian novelist Sonallah Ibrahim, and has not yet had any trouble. But “the process is intimidating and time-consuming”, Colla wrote in an email. “And it could be that the sponsoring organisations do not have the people-power [or wasta] to pull strings when that needs to happen.”

Arabs aren’t the only authors who’ve been refused visas for literary events.

It took Bulgarian-German writer Ilija Trojanow, a vocal critic of the US National Security Administration (NSA), three attempts in order to enter the US. When he was turned away from a flight last September, he was given no reason, although many presumed it was because of the author’s criticism of NSA spying operations.

Denying entry to writers isn’t new.

Under rules barring “communists and their sympathisers”, the US has denied entry to acclaimed writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda,

and Graham Greene. But visa procedures have tightened yet further in the last decade.

A 2012 New York Times report notes that, because of new difficulties, “requests for the standard foreign performer’s visa declined by almost 25%

between 2006 and 2010″.

During that same period, “the number of these visa petitions rejected, though small in absolute numbers, rose by more than two-thirds”.

Leftists like Marquez, Neruda, and Greene were the previous focus of US exclusions.

But in the last decade, exclusions seem to be shifting towards artists with Arab names.

Subjected to scrutiny

In 2011, for instance, British theatre director Tim Supple brought a pan-Arab ensemble to Toronto to perform a new version of “One Thousand and One Nights”. The New York Times reported that the company “had no difficulty obtaining visas for Canada and Britain, but an engagement at the Chicago Shakespeare Festival had to be cancelled when nine of the troupe’s 40 members were subjected to the additional scrutiny and time ran out.”

In 2012, the New York Times suggested that many international performing artists were now writing the US out of their tour schedules because of increasingly difficult visa procedures. And that was for non-Arab performers.

What does Nasser’s banning mean for US readers?

They are not prevented from accessing his ideas, as they can certainly still pick up copies of his brand-new “Petra”,

his gorgeous novel “Land of No Rain”, or even an older copy of his “Shepherd of Solitude” .

But author-author, and author-reader interactions are also an integral part of literary development.

Excluding important writers like Nasser from the literary dialogue punishes US readers, reduces their exposure to Arabic writing in translation, and potentially limits American literature.

Marcia Lynx Qualey writes about Arabic literature and literary translation for a number of publications. She blogs daily at


The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Al Jazeera

“A mystic trip”: El Haj, by Ilija Trojanow

Going on haj (pilgrimage) in the Moslem world is not necessarily going to Mecca (in Saudi Arabia) as one of the obligations to be satisfied once in your lifetime.  Most probably, as you started to earn a decent living to undertake this hazardous and expensive trip, you might contemplate this Haj.

The poor Moslems go to local pilgrim places where locally or regionally recognized “saints” are buried.  The pilgrims visit these local places to demand miracles for ailments or improving the livelihood of a family or bringing suitable marriage partners, or even punishing a rival or a wrong-doer.

For example, the city of Mashhad in Iran attracts over 10 million shias a year, while only two million Moslems converge to the Kaaba in Mecca.  Egypt, Syria, Iraq, and Morocco have many “holy” sites.

The early sufi Moslems used to spend their life touring every pilgrimage site in the Moslem world.  For example, Ibn Al Arabi walked from Cordoba (Spain) to Konya (Turkey) and visited Sevilla, Fez (Morocco), Tlemcen (Algeria), Tunisia, Cairo, Jerusalem, Mecca, Medina (the first Moslem city-state), Baghdad, Mosul, Damascus.  He was executed in a most barbaric manner as a heretic because he dared invoke Allah as an intimate friend.

Ilija Trojanow recount his haj to mecca in 2008, the year late king Fahd had distributed over 1,750,000 Korans translated in 19 languages.  The translated Wahhabi versions added many details on how women should be dressed and how they should be controlled and assuaged.

Ilija Trojanow landed at the airport of Jedda in a charter of pilgrims arriving from India.  Tents of the various nations were awaiting the passengers hajis.  Ilija wrote: “We, arriving from India, were dispatched to the Pakistanis tent.  We marched as separate groups as in Olympic games, every nation walking behind its national flag and the back of our vests carrying the names of our provinces and villages for administrative facilitation.”

“We had to wait 7 hours under the tents drinking tea with condensed milk in plastic cups.  All passports were collected to be returned on our departure day from Jedda.  The whereabouts of the journeys of each passport during the 13 days of pilgrimage is complex and many arrived to Jedda and finding out that their passports has been misplaced and lost.

On the way to Mecca, we reached a giant arc of 40 tons representing a Koran opened on a pulpit.  Beyond this arc, everyone must be wearing his “ihram” (a two-piece white cloth:  one piece to wrap around the loins and the other to covering the left shoulder).

It took us 7 hours to arrive to Mecca because of the road controls; in ancient periods, a robust donkey used to make the distance in less than 7 hours.

Our hotel was at walking distance of the Haram Al Sherif or the Grand Mosque.  Grand Mosque has 99 entrance (corresponding to the 99 qualifications or qualities of Allah) and it encircle the Kaaba so that everyone can be facing the Kaaba; it has a surface of 130,000 square-meter.  My guide told me: “At your first look of the Kaaba your wish will be exhausted.  No pilgrim ever forgot the first sight of the Al Kaaba.”

You access to Kaaba by a tunnel and then you suddenly see this black cube of black marble shrouded in a black veil embroidered with gold strings.  The pilgrim is supposed to walk quickly, chest up and out, for the first three of the 7 tours or “tawaf” around the Kaaba, but it is impossible with this crowd.  At the end of each tour, the pilgrim is to stop, raise his palms toward the sky in order to receiving the benediction and then shout “Bissmillah, Allahu akbar” and then kiss his own hands.

At the call for prayer, a miracle happens:  a silence roamed the place, and concentric files of pilgrims are directed to the Kaaba; mats are shared with anyone close by, joining in the mass player.

The second day, I descended the staircase to Zamzam water well.  The well is now enclosed in a glass where a complex pumping mechanism extract the sacred water.  This water is currently free of charge.  All pilgrims carry on their way back home 10 litres of this water.  More often than not, the planes forget to load the Jeri-cans.

I all my pilgrimage stay, I never witnessed anyone read the Koran or a religious book.  Brochures containing requisite prayers and their translations are most in demand.

The touring of Kaaba and drinking from Zamzam is called the “little haj”. The grand  haj is supposed to start when we have to head toward the desert for purification, sacrifice, and dilapidating satan.   We are now on the eighth day and we are boarding a bus to Mina.  White tents by the thousands have invaded the plain and the hillsides.  The Mosque Khaif serves this town.

Day nine is for witnessing something.  Thousands of Indians and Pakistanis are wearing orange outfits for cleaning the camp ground and arranged in military battalions.

It took us 2 hours to cross 15 km to Mount Arafat.  Trucks followed buses and walkers distributing can juices, water, and oranges.  During Ibn Batouta time in the 14th century, camels charged with water and medicines accompanied the pilgrims.  Technically, the haj is completed and pilgrims can congratulate one another “Haji moubarak.. haji mabrouk”.  Sins were forgiven and you can be called a haji.

The 10th day is for the sacrifice, and we are heading to the town Muzdalifa by Mina.  Many are upset by the disorganization in that town and decide to walk back to their Mina tent.  In that day, half a million cows, sheep, and camels are slaughtered for distribution.  Since pilgrims are technically well-off, they cough up $100 so that meat will be shipped to designated needy countries.

The 11th day is for the great dilapidation of satan.  Pilgrims converge to throw stones at 3 columns representing satan.  Many are trampled to death:  pilgrims are angry at satan and people are punished:  Weeks of peaceful state of mind are ruined in this day where satan always win.

The 12th day of haj is for the rain.  We go back to Mecca and more of satan’s dilapidation horrors are underway.

The 13th day is the last official haj and pilgrims tour the Kaaba.  Many pilgrims visit Medina, the first Islam city-state and they have to suffer more control and harassment just to enter Medina.

During the haj, the pilgrim live an experience of strict rigor not feasible in everyday turmoil. A hadith recommends to paying the worker before his sweat is dried, but in Saudi Arabia thousands of house maids and immigrants are denied being paid, even after 18 months of work:  the immigrant has to stay in order to be paid, otherwise his due rights are cancelled.

Note:  Ilija Trojanow is born in Sofia (Bulgaria) and immigrated to Germany and was raised in Kenya.  He travels with a German passport and participated in many pilgrimage sites such as in India, Cashmere, Africa, Cairo, and pushed forward to the Antarctic.

He writes about his experiences; “A mystic trip” was translated from German to French and talks about the pilgrimage to Al Kaaba (Mecca) and the Maya Kumbh Mela in India.

Maha Kumbh Mela: “A mystic trip” by Ilija Trojanow

Ilija Trojanow participated in 2001 to the pilgrimage of Maha Kumbh Mela in India where over 70 million pilgrims joined the event to get immersed in the River Ganges 4 times a day for three-week.

It is said that whoever gets immersed in the Ganges at a definite hour of a day, for a particular alignment of the sun, moon, and Jupiter, will be liberated from the reincarnation cycle, him and his descendents for 88 generations.

This event may be unique because people from all religious denominations in India and around the world can participate.  The principle is that people come with enough respect for other faiths in order to profit of the sacred rituals.

Ilija Trojanow participated in many pilgrimage sites such as in India, Cashmere, Africa, Cairo, and pushed forward to the Antarctic.  He writes about his experiences; “A mystic trip” was translated from German to French and talks about the pilgrimage to Al Kaaba (Mecca) and the Maya Kumbh Mela in India.

The Maha Kumbh Mela sacred ceremony  is celebrated every 12 years in one of four cities Allahabad, Haridwar, Ujjain, and Nasik and the event is rotated among these cities.  The four cities are located on the confluence of the Gange, Yamuna, and the Saraswati (no longer flowing); this area is called Pra-Yah or the “best place for offering a sacrifice”.

Kumbh means pot, Mela means nectar of immortality.  The four immersions are Makar Sankranti, Mauni Amavasya, Basant Panchami, and Magh Purima.

In the Hindu treatise Aitareya Brahmana, it is written:

Who never takes a trip cannot be happy.  The feet of the traveller are like a flower:  His soul grows and gather fruits; his efforts consume the sins.  Thus, leave!  When you stop, your benedictions also stops and they rise when you get back on the road.  God is the friend of the traveller on foot.  Thus, leave!”

History abound with accounts of famous pilgrims, Sufis, dervishes, and sadhu who kept on the march most of their active life and never slept more than once in one location.  The voyage is the ritual that must lead to a life experience and illumination; the trip to discovering other fellow people:  their faith in their God can transform our lives.

The pilgrims are not to drink alcohol, eat eggs, or meat.  Every camping ground is organized by an ashram and a guru is selected to administer the invocations; the guru can be a schoolmaster, a chaman, or a confessor.

There are gurus for all tastes and social classes Muniji is delivering his lesson:

“The darkness we are chasing out are ignorance, egocentric, and duality.  Our world is made of illusions focusing on our ego, separating the You from the Me.  It is time to paying off your debts to the poor and the suffering, and aiding them with opportunities that you had.”

All the ascetic sects and yogi schools existing in India are represented at the Maha Kumbh Mela:  It is a moment for discovering the self in order to surmounting the “I”.  Musicians make the rounds of tents and sing frenetic “bhajans”.

People from Chattisgarth in the Rajasthan sing a mantra “Sitaram, sitaram, sitaram ramram” 24 hours a day; thus, they come in groups so that 3 people will maintain the mantra for two hours.  The other mantra bawled the strongest is “Shan-ti…. Ooooom” for peace and silence.

In India medieval age, horses were the preferred sacrificial animal (ashwamedha) because horses symbolized the sovereign power of the king; thus, the priests were translating the humiliation of the vanquished into the glorification of the victor.

Most of the sadhu have no spiritual vocation:  They might be fleeing the poverty of their villages, the police, or are plainly mentally ill.  Once they are converted to sadhu they know that they don’t have to worry about all their previous problems and difficulties with the law.  They can go around begging for their food and not remaining in the same location.

Seven of the 13 kinds of “akharas” or ashram welcome naga sadhu or hermits.  A thousand years ago, akharas were grouped in military formations as reinforcement troops; thus, they trained manipulating and handling arms (shastra) and teaching the sacred writings (shaastra).

The grand tradition of the Veda instructed that the more you use your soul, the vaster it grows:  It is the power of enchantment.  Nowadays, the little tradition of the Hindu priests is to teaching by commandments of “do that, don’t do this, offer sacrifices…” and that trend lead to the 1991 catastrophe:  The World Hindu Organization (VHP) destroyed the Moslem mosque in Ayodhya in order to replace it with a temple dedicated to Ram.

Those extremists and ignorant Hindu followers figured out that if they reverse the course of history then, history would change accordingly.  It is the same behavior and ideology applied by the Wahhabi sect in Saudi Arabia and the Zionist Jews.

Ilija Trojanow wrote: “You may try all religions and have faith in one, at least once.  It is a great experience to be at the confluence of all traditions and be transformed.  It is proper to discover a fragment of the Divine in every ritual.  There is this sacred mount of Shatrunjaya in the Gujarat province in India near the main location of the Jain sect in the city of Palitana; you have to climb 15,000 steps.  At the summit, you discover 867 temples and tens of thousand of marble columns richly decorated.  You feel transformed.  God is but the cumulative fantasy of all living mankind”

Note:  Ilija Trojanow is born in Sofia (Bulgaria) and immigrated to Germany and was raised in Kenya.  He travels with a German passport and participated in many pilgrimage sites and described the events.

A mystic trip or voyage of pilgrims to sacred destinations requires a long preparation.  For Moslems, to be eligible for undertaking the haj to Mecca and Medina, he must have paid off all his debts; he must have reconciled with his neighbors; he must have put in order his relationship with the members of his family and business. 

A Moslem must have satisfied his civic duties; for example, be married and preferably with children, and earning a good living: not many people can afford going to pray at Al Kaaba.  If the neighbor or a member of the family is in distress then, it is sufficient cause to postponing the haj.

Before going on haj, a Moslem must have memorized all the required prayers during the 13 days of haj, have exercised the proper ways to the “zikr” or how to focus and meditate repeating the words and sentences “There is but one God Allah”, bismillah Allahu akbar, soubhan Allah for over an hour.  The goal is that on reaching the 10th level of zikr you should be thinking of God with every breath you take and go on with business as usual while God is present in your dealings.

The haj purifies you of all sins committed, but it does not necessarily render you a better person:  If you go to the haj a hypocrite, you return a hypocrite; if you go a scoundrel you return a scoundrel unless you prepared well for the haj.  The haj is not a goal in itself: a haj done with bad preparation and without proper piety is worse than not going to the haj.

A Moslem, regardless of genders, going to the haj must leave enough money to his family and leave no debts:  Thus, only the well-to-do can afford the expensive trip to Mecca.  When you board the plane, you are already dressed in the “ihram”; the ihram is a two-piece of white cloth with no sewing; one piece is wrapped around the loins and the other covering the left shoulder.  The ihram could be used to covering the dead body.  Many Moslem friends ask you to think of them in your prayers:  Prayers done on behalf of others (the sick and elderly) are more efficient for people in distress.

The most repeated chant is:

“Labbayka la homma labbayk (Here I am facing you my Lord)

“Labbayka la charika laka labbayk (You have no associate)

“Inna le hamda wa niaamata laka wal molk (To you praise, grace and sovereignity)

“La charika lak (You have no associates)

The first day of the 13 days of haj starts by the “tawaf” or walking around the Al Kaaba seven times and then drinking from the well Zamzam.  This is the mini-haj.  The greater haj is done in the desert to Mina, Muzdalifa, Mount Arafat, dilapidation of Satan with stones (and the consequent deaths by trampling), and then back to Mecca for more tawaf.  Many resume their trip to Medina,which requires more control to getting into that first city-state of Islam.  (The next part will describe in more details the haj).

When I hear people going on pilgrimage to a “sacred location” I assume that they know the consequences of being trampled and submitted to all kinds of humiliations in foreign lands.  It is normal human behavior to snap in a “sacred environment”, for example a football field, believing that whatever you do during the ceremony is holy and sins are forgiven.  When amid a crowd of million, there is high probability that many will snap, stab, rob, hurt, or trample people.

I prefer that every Moslem State build its own local copy of Al Kaaba for the pilgrims not able to afford this expensive and long pilgrimage to Mecca.  The local cube Kaaba will be shrouded with the black veil without the gold strings and tents erected all around the kaaba for an overnight sleep, at most.  Thus, the poorer Moslems and citizens of other religious denominations will be walking around the local kaaba, pray in their tents facing the Kaaba, and not having to stone any columns representing satan.  Since no sandals should be lost then, no sandal merchants should be allowed in the vicinity.

The only requirement for pilgrims is to sign an affidavit that, on returning from this mini-haj, they should return the favor to those kind-hearted people who were of service to them, instead of hating them.  If they insists on being called “haji” then, a certificate of “national haj” could be delivered, at no cost to the tax payers.




December 2022

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