LEVANTINE CULTURE I.

I’ve just started what promises to be a slow and fascinating read, Ammiel Alcalay‘s After Jews And Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture. I have long been interested in “Levant” as an archaic term (for the eastern Mediterranean lands) that still carries a freight of complicated meanings, and Alcalay disentangles many of its forgotten legacies and relates them to the present and the medieval past. I have a feeling I’m going to be making a number of entries based on the book as I read it; at the moment I’ll just say that any book that mentions Osip Mandelstam, one of my favorite poets, on the second page and Janet Abu-Lughod, one of my favorite historians (for her book Before European Hegemony), on the third is catnip to this Languagecat. And when I found a reference to Ella Shohat at OneMansOpinion (an interesting blog I discovered through Stavros), I somehow knew she’d be in the book, and sure enough, there she was.
I’ll quote a paragraph that will give you an idea of the treasures hidden in After Jews and Arabs:

The examples [of ignored writers] abound: a major figure like Eliyahu Eliachar (a witness, participant, and astute observer who lived through the Ottoman, British mandatory, and Israeli state periods), in addition to not being translated, is not even mentioned, for example, in Stillman‘s The Jews of Arab Lands in Modern Times. The important work of Ya’aquob [Yaakov, father of A.B.] Yehoshua, particularly his six-volume Childhood in Old Jerusalem, has not appeared in English translation. The exuberant and carnivalesque work of Albert Cohen (a Sephardic equivalent of Isaac Bashevis Singer), though once translated, remains out of print. The French works of Shmuel Trigano, perhaps the most important contemporary Jewish thinker after Emmanuel Lévinas, have not been translated into either English or Hebrew. The work of Jacqueline Kahanoff, an Egyptian who studied in New York before moving to Beersheba, ironically remains in print only in Hebrew, despite the fact that she wrote in English. Shime’on Ballas, an important Israeli novelist and scholar of Arabic literature originally from Baghdad and now living in Tel Aviv, depicts a milieu even more unimaginable to conventional expectations than that of Sami Mikhael [whose novels deal "in a highly personal way with the complex relations between Jews and Arabs within the Communist Party in both Iraq and Israel"]. From his first novel, The Transit Camp (1964), to his most recent, The Other One (1991), Ballas has forged a possibility unusual for Hebrew fiction, that of the internal exile attempting to reenact the political complexities of a surrounding world that has been declared forbidden territory. Another younger untranslated playwright and novelist, Yitshak Gormezano Goren, has also depicted a world beyond the reach of constructed assumptions about Jewish life in the Arab world. His novels, set in Alexandria and then Israel, dissect the dissolution of Jewish middle-class life in Egypt and the resultant shock of running aground in the promised land. The work of Samir Naqqash remains, perhaps, the most difficult to classify and the least accessible. Also from Baghdad (like Shime’on Ballas and Sami Mikhael), Naqqash refused to make the transition from Arabic to Hebrew. The only important Jewish writer still writing in Arabic (though one can only hope not the last), Naqqash’s work is better known and more available in Cairo and Morocco than Tel Aviv or New York. The recalcitrant response to such work is due, in part, to the very fact that the experience of these writers—transformed into art—disrupts many of the convenient assumptions about the world they come from as well as about the ability of “natives” to speak for themselves.

And I thought I was a cosmopolite because I’d read Abdelrahman Munif! I deeply envy anyone able to toss off a paragraph like that, and I wish I could read all of those authors. In the meantime, I look forward to reading more of Alcalay; I’m still on the Introduction.

Comments

  1. catnip indeed…and this isn’t fair, because you are swelling my already gargantuan reading list. (After looking through this entry, though, I think maybe it’s “Cities of Salt” that I should read next.) So what does Alcalay say about Mandelstam??

  2. So far: “Just as maps interpret and redefine terrain in the image of their makers, readings can yield both past and prospective orders: in the Crimean port of Theodosia, not far (in mind) ‘from Smyrna and Baghdad,’ Osip Mandelstam wrote of a “bookish earth” and dreamt of a place that, within the inherited wisdom of its people, embodied an allegiance to words. Sentenced to internal exile, Mandelstam placed the form of his vision and the memory of his biblical ancestry in a Mediterranean world in which Spain and, even more specifically, Andalusia was central: sowing dormant seeds, he unearthed his own genealogy.”
    And by all means, read Cities of Salt!

  3. I am going to recommend After Jews and Arabs to my Afro-Lebanese wife … does it talk about Lebanon — surely Lebanon counts as Levantine?

  4. Sure, Lebanon is about as Levantine as it gets! Some of the chapters are: “1938: Beirut to Jerusalem via Damascus/An Itinerary for Edmond Jabès,” “Beirut: Setting the Standards,” and “Beirut and the Poetics of Disaster.” (And as for the Afro- part, Alcalay was just quoting Zora Neale Hurston a couple of pages ago.) Let me know how she likes it!

  5. Ammiel Alcalay says:

    hi,
    a friend of mine spotted this & referred me to it – it’s always a pleasure to see one’s work beibng enjoyed & used! i’m very happy you encountered it – there’s a lot more where that came from & you might be interested in having a look at a piece i wrote about the reception of after jews & arabs (i.e. its publishing history) in a book of mine called memories of Our Future: Selected essays:1982-1999.
    ok – that’s it – best wishes,
    ammiel

  6. Hi Ammiel — I’m very interested in reading the piece and will definitely look for the book; I’m glad you told me about it. Thanks for dropping by, and I hope you keep visiting!

  7. while i was reading this entry, the music i was listening to was: “Lalezar–Music of the Sultans, Sufis & Seraglio, Volume IV: Ottoman Suite” (on Traditional Crossroads).

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