Helena Cobban is the founder of Just World Books (www.justworldbooks.com). This interview was conducted by AMEU’s Executive Director John Mahoney.
You first appeared in the pages of The Link in 1985 when we carried your book on the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 2010 you founded Just World Books, a publishing firm with a strong focus on the Palestinians. What has sustained your interest over the years in that part of the world?
I’ve been involved with the Palestine Question since 1970, the year I first traveled to Lebanon and saw some of the conditions of Palestinian refugees there firsthand. My book on the P.L.O., which was published in 1984, drew together materials I had amassed during my seven years of work in Beirut, 1974-81, as a foreign correspondent for the London Sunday Times, the Christian Science Monitor, etc. Over the following years I authored three more books on the Middle East. I had grown up in England, and after I left Lebanon I came to the United States. I was severely taken aback to discover the degree to which unthinking support for Israel permeated all aspects of the popular culture here. In 1982, when the I.D.F. was besieging West Beirut, no less a figure than the anti-war icon (in the U.S. context) Jane Fonda was proud to be photographed disporting herself on an Israeli tank as it shelled West Beirut. I am happy that attitudes have been changing rapidly in the U.S. in recent years, especially among the young people.
You’ve said that your experience as a journalist has given you a newshound’s addiction to a speedy turnaround. How have you applied that addiction to book publishing?
My previous experience as an author had shown me how frustrating it can be to deal with the very long turnaround times imposed on manuscripts in the traditional book-publishing model—usually considerably more than a year. And when you’re writing about rapidly evolving current events, that can be very hard. So when I founded Just World Books I gave the company the tagline “Timely Books for Changing Times,” and promised authors a much speedier turnaround time. Right now (mid-October) we’re working with Gareth Porter on his important book “Manufactured Crisis: The Untold Story of the Iran Nuclear Scare.” We need to get this book out fast because it pulls together for the first time the story of how U.S. and Israeli officials, working together over the course of some decades, essentially fabricated and then broadly publicized this whole story about Iran having a covertly military nuclear program. We’re planning to have early PDFs of the book available well before Christmas and review-only print copies available shortly thereafter. That way, the book can help to inform publics worldwide (but especially here in the U.S.) about the background to what’s happening in the talks in Geneva.
Laila El-Haddad, the author of two of your books, “Gaza Mom” and “The Gaza Kitchen”, was recently featured on the season’s premier of CNN’s “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown.” That had to make you feel good.
It was exciting for all of us (and for Palestine’s friends everywhere) that Laila was able to do that with Bourdain. He was courageous to devote so much of that show to his visit with Laila to various places inside Gaza. It was also a testament to Laila’s amazing communication skills and her passion for describing the situation of Gaza’s 1.6 million people to people in the west who may not want to hear what she has to say. I am proud to be her publisher.
As you noted, we’re in mid-October, at the start of the gift-giving season. Could you list other books on your web site that we haven’t mentioned that would make good gifts?
Three recommendations: Miko Peled’s “The General’s Son,” Rabbi Brant Rosen’s “Wrestling in the Daylight,” and Amb. Chas Freeman’s “America’s Misadventures in the Middle East.” Three terrific books by three terrific authors!
Have a joyous Christmas—and a busy New Year.