By: Alex Supko
P is for Palestine is an Alphabet children’s book written by Dr. Golbarg Bashi and illustrated by Golrokh Nafisi. The idea for the book, according to Dr. Bashi’s Etsy page, came from “when she couldn’t find [alphabet books] for her own children and for the school visits she regularly conducts in New York City public schools. She’s in the habit of buying or borrowing books about cities, countries, and artists whenever she and her family are traveling to those destinations. So when Dr. Bashi asked Golrokh Nafisi (who has a impressive body of work painting Middle Eastern themes and children) if she’d be interested in illustrating the book, Golrokh immediately said YES! And thus began our journey in publishing P is for Palestine!”
The book goes through the English alphabet, starting with “A is for Arabic, my tongue, a language that’s the 4th biggest ever sung!” and continues through “Z.” One letter that has created some controversy is the letter “I.” “I,” according to the book, is for “Intifada, Intifada is Arabic for rising up for what is right, if you are a kid or a grownup!”. The page is simple, with the books main character, a child, sitting on the shoulders of a man, holding up a peace sign, behind a barbed wire fence.
To learn the controversy surrounding this, we have to go over some history of Palestine, of how the book was published, and a Synagogues’ reaction.
To start, I am definitely not an expert on Israel-Palestinian history. For a history lesson, see Encyclopedia Britannica’s description as a start. While the definition of “Intifada” in Arabic is literally “shaking off,” it is closely associated with two Palestinian uprisings, the first occurring in the ’80s and ending in the early ’90s, and the second taking place from 2000 to around 2005. While starting as a peaceful protest, it became violent, resulting in more than 5,000 Palestinian deaths and some 1,400 Israelis. These events are largely seen as the departure point from previous peace negotiations to a more hostile atmosphere during talks.
Now we get to the bookstore, Book Culture in New York. The bookstore helped fund P is for Palestine, and invited the author, Dr. Bashi, to give a reading on November 18th at its Columbus Ave location. According to the “About Us” page on Book Culture’s website, the store recognizes that “there is not enough diversity in the representation of books and ideas,” which is a reason they helped fund and carry P is for Palestine. The idea behind this is much in line with what many librarians can support: stories about diverse topics are important. Creating a book geared toward children and parents who want to learn and experience some Palestinian perspective is nothing to be ashamed about.
Three days after the book reading of P is for Palestine, a local Synagogue, the Stephen Wise Free Synagogue(SWFS) emailed the owners of Book Culture, asking that “they publicly rescind their support of P is for Palestine.” Book Culture had been scheduled to participate in SWFS’s book fair on December 7, 8, and 10, and would not be able to participate should the store not rescind it’s support. The Synagogue claims that the book “[glorifies] the Palestinian intifada — a cruel, murderous, and terroristic campaign that purposely targeted innocent Israelis, including children, in restaurants, buses, hospitals, schools and shopping malls. The book states that ‘I is for Intifada, Arabic for rising up for what is right, if you are a kid or grownup!’ The illustration shows a child on her father’s back in front of a barbed wire. The intifada was not “a rising up for what is right.” It was a mass descent into immorality.”
By banning a bookstore from an event for having a publication that it does not agree with, the SWFS displayed a clear attempt at censorship. While in a statement published later the synagogue states that they are not trying to tell Book Culture what books it can and can’t have, this writer sees evidence to the contrary. There is a clear narrative from SWFS’s statement: Sell books we don’t support, and you lose our support.
On Monday, November 27th, the owners of Book Culture and several Rabbis from the synagogue, Book Culture released a statement as follows:
1. We regret that we did not fully appreciate the political or communal ramifications of the children’s book P is for Palestine by Dr. Golbarg Bashi, nor did we anticipate the pain and distress it has caused in our community. We now understand these much better.
2. We oppose terrorism or other forms of violence perpetrated against Israeli civilians during the intifada or thereafter. Any impression from the book to the contrary is not our view.
3. We support Israel’s right to exist.
4. We do not endorse the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS).
The question then arises: Will Book Culture have to go through these talks every time they decide to carry a children’s book by an author that has contradictory ideas? Just because a bookstore might carry books that the synagogue doesn’t support, there is no reason that they would bring these books to the book fair. Bringing the books to the fair, as far as this writer can tell, was never part of the conversation. It seems that the synagogue was trying to make a statement, and create controversy for the author to dissuade the store from selling P is for Palestine.
Dr. Bashi has responded to the events surrounding Book Culture in a statement here. In terms of the controversy around I is for Intifada, Bashi explains: “There are 26 letters in the English alphabet, and in the Palestinian context the letter I most certainly stands for Intifada, as does B for Bethlehem, C for Christmas, J for Jesus, F for Falafel, K for Kuffiya, N for Nazareth and so on.
Intifada means resistance and resilience against the global and the UN condemnation of the Israeli occupation of Palestine—it is a daily component of Palestinian life that is manifested in carrying the signs and symbols of Palestinian life with pride—carrying a Palestinian flag, wearing a Palestinian dress, cooking a Palestinian dish, protecting a Palestinian olive tree from being bulldozed etc are all examples of Intifada.”
Despite the events surrounding the book fair in December, as of this writing Book Culture still sells P is for Palestine on its website. Whether this will play out to be an issue next year, or whether P is for Palestine will continue to have threats and controversy wherever the book is sold, we’ll be sure to find out. Despite everything, the first ABC picture book about Palestine is definitely an important book for people of Palestinian heritage who want to share it with their children.
Alex Supko is a librarian for Baltimore County Public Library in Baltimore, Maryland. He is also a member of Maryland Library Association’s Intellectual Freedom Panel. He believes passionately that everyone deserves open access to the internet, and that your personal privacy is important.