Natacha Atlas, Not Your Typical Levantine

On an interview with the singer that barely took place, on the complex cultural perspectives offered by essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff, and on the death of this writer’s father.

Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
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Natacha Atlas. “Something in me changed.”
Natacha Atlas. “Something in me changed.”Credit: Ilan Assayag
Eyal Sagui Bizawe
Eyal Sagui Bizawe

It was supposed to be a regular, in-depth interview with the singer Natacha Atlas, from Belgium, about whom I’d already written before her concert at the Mediterranee Festival in Ashdod this past May. Our meeting was put off time and again because of her crowded schedule in Israel. Finally, we managed to set a time to speak on her last evening in the country. But as God, fate, the stars on high and other natural forces would have it, a few hours before the meeting, my father was hospitalized, in serious condition. I knew I was going to lose him within a few days, and I had no idea what to do with all that pain.

My immediate thought was to cancel the interview with Atlas. But then I thought that maybe it would offer a slight distraction. And then I thought that I would not be able to concentrate in the interview, so what was the point. Then I thought that doing the interview would be preferable to sitting idly at home and probably going out of my mind from my dark thoughts.

And then I thought it wouldn’t be proper or respectable to do work while my father lay on his deathbed. Then I remembered that he would certainly want me to interview her. Then came more and more thoughts and hesitations, and the hospital asked me to leave, because visiting hours were over. The time for my meeting with Atlas drew near.

In the end, I did not cancel, but I didn’t actually conduct an interview, either. I arrived exhausted. I didn’t take out a tape recorder or a phone to record the conversation, nor a pen and notebook, not even the list of questions I’d prepared. All I wanted to do was talk. Just a plain human conversation. Something simple. Without sharing what my family was going through at the moment. Just to listen; even try to be attentive. But my father was there. Not only in my thoughts and feelings. He was there also in the few things that Atlas herself said to me, and especially in her manner of speech.

We conducted our introductory remarks in Egyptian Arabic, but she replied to the interview questions in English. “My two first languages are English and French,” she said. “I was born in Brussels, my mother is British and I lived most of my life in England. The Arabic was always there, but it wasn’t until later that I invested in it and learned how to speak it better. I can give an interview in Arabic, but it will be easier for me in English or French.”

Arabic was my father’s first language – he was born in Cairo and moved to Israel at age 18 – but all his schooling was in French, which became a kind of second mother tongue for him. There were subjects about which he preferred to speak Arabic, others in which he opted for French, and later also Hebrew.

“Levantinism” was the term the Jewish-Egyptian writer and essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff used to describe this cultural mélange between East and West, between Europe and Arabia. Born in Cairo in 1917, Kahanoff was a Jew of Tunisian and Iraqi descent who lived in a Muslim and Arab country, had an Italian nanny and an English tutor, and attended a French school. She knew only a little Arabic (thanks to the Arab servants in her childhood home), and French became her mother tongue. She learned Hebrew when she arrived in Israel in 1954, but still preferred to write her essays in English. They were not, however, originally published in that language but were translated into Hebrew and appeared first in the literary journal Masa, edited by Yitzhak Bezalel, and afterward in the journal Keshet, edited by the poet and translator Aharon Amir. (The original English-language versions are available in Kahanoff’s “Mongrels or Marvels,” published by Stanford University Press.)

In that period, Kahanoff needed plenty of courage to declare of herself, “I am a Levantine.” In the 1950s and 1960s, her main years of activity, there was probably nothing that frightened Israel’s leaders more than the country’s possible “Levantinization.”

The term “Levant” itself had a long history, originating as a geographical description of the inhabitants of the Near East. Its source is the French verb lever – to go up – that is, the place from which the sun comes up. In modern Hebrew, it quickly became a term of opprobrium; according to the authoritative Even-Shoshan Dictionary, for example, a “Levantine” was “a person with a superficial education and purely external manners, lacking true culture and void of spiritual stability.”

This approach toward “Oriental Jews” was also espoused by the heads of the Zionist movement and Israel’s leaders. Already in the 1930s, Nahum Vilensky, a Jewish Agency envoy who visited the Jewish community in Cairo, wrote to the agency’s director, Moshe Shertok (later Sharett), that “the rot of the Diaspora has been aggravated in Cairo by the rot of Levantinism.” He also warned Zionists in Palestine: “Preserve your spirit of battle, your inquisitiveness, and avoid any change that is liable to turn you into Levantines. Because it is clear today to every objective observer that the Levantinization of the Land of Israel will symbolize the final failure of Zionism.”

By the 1950s, as large waves of Jews from Islamic lands streamed into Israel, the Levantinization of society seemed to pose a far more tangible threat.

“We do not want the Israelis to become Arabs,” David Ben-Gurion stated at the time. “It is incumbent upon us to struggle against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies, and to preserve the authentic Jewish values as they coalesced in the Diaspora.”

Foreign cultural influences, a mélange of languages and a multiplicity of identities: These were the enemies of the national idea in general and of Zionist ideology in particular. The Zionist movement sought to forge a “pure” identity, Israeli and Jewish, in this country, in which the dominant influence would of course be that of Eastern European Jewry. Whereas Kahanoff, the Oriental woman who had just arrived in the country, dared to write, “I find in this cross-fertilization, called disparagingly in Israel Levantinization, an enrichment and not an impoverishment.”

In the face of the “Palmach generation” – referring to the elite strike force of the pre-state Jewish militia – and the “generation of 1948,” Kahanoff had the audacity to posit her generation of Levantines, the members of the minorities who lived in Muslim countries and were educated in European culture. In the face of pure identity, supposedly free of outside influences and of hybridization, she offered one that was “stained,” open to the surrounding world, Arab and Western alike. In the face of a monolithic, rigid Israeliness, she proposed a more fragmented and fluid way of life, one that is deconstructed and reconstructed at every given moment.

She described herself as “a typical Levantine in that I appreciate equally what I inherited from my Oriental origins and what is now mine of Western culture.”

That sentence is one of the most quoted from her writings. In my view, however, despite all the charm of the harmonious fusion between East and West and between Europe and Arabia, and with all the temptation that lurks in the option of being “both one and the other,” this is not the essence of Kahanoff’s perception of Levantinism. It is not by chance that the writer Ronit Matalon – in my opinion, the only Israeli observer who has truly delved deeply into Kahanoff’s writings and grasped the complexity of her ideas – noted that “the possibility of being everything often means to be nothing in the Levantine context.”

Indeed, it appears that Kahanoff ultimately did not feel that she belonged fully to any of the identity categories with which we are familiar today, and did not feel “at home” in any of her various domiciles. She did not feel 100-percent Egyptian when she lived in Cairo, or French when she resided in Paris, or American when she lived in Chicago and New York, and ultimately in this country, too she felt that she remained outside Israeliness.

So much to explain

Like Kahanoff, my father, too, did not feel 100-percent Egyptian, even though he was born in Cairo, and lived there until the age of 18. His culture, too, was primarily French, and he set his sights on Paris, although after living there for a few months he felt like an outsider. And as with Kahanoff, Israel, too – whose Zionist ideology led him to make his home here and to believe in the rightness of the existence of this national home – was ultimately foreign to him.

For years, I tried to decipher my father and explain him to myself. Yet, how can I understand someone who espoused right-wing views but voted for Uri Avnery when he was considered a radical-left traitor? And how can I explain that my father was essentially a socialist who at times voted Likud? How can I explain that he was fed up with the Ashkenazi left whose members were the readers of Haaretz, while he himself subscribed to the paper continuously, beginning in the early 1950s? How can I explain to myself why the only time he ever hit me was when I pointed at an Arab boy in the street – despite his infuriating suspicion of our neighbors? How can I understand the grating, often racist remarks he made to me about “the Arabs” and “the Muslims,” when he himself valued and respected every Arab and every Muslim he met, and virtually adopted my good friend Jamila and considered her a daughter? How can I extract his “ideology” from all that? And, indeed, what sort of political stance does all this reflect?

For years, my mother forbade the two of us from talking about political or social issues, as we would quickly get into a raucous, heated argument. Only when we were both more relaxed were we happy to discover that we did in fact agree on certain basic matters. Then, and only then, was I able to see that my father, like Kahanoff, was genuinely unable to put forward one sweeping ideology that ostensibly always works and always serves the person who espouses it. The existence of one single, ultimate, rigid truth, and the sabra straight-shooter style, and roiling style of speech were, finally, crude in his view – at odds with conceptual flexibility, the ability to cast doubt, the subtlety obliged by the Levantine context.

After years of trying to understand my father, I found that Kahanoff articulates his posture better than either he or I could. In my view, no quote better describes the generation of Levantines, as formulated by Kahanoff herself, than her remark that they were always decent and knew well that “a person, however worthless, counts more than principles, however sacred.”

For years, I implored my father to accompany me on my visits to Cairo. But he consistently refused. “I have nothing in common with them,” he told me, his face expressionless. “We lived together, it was good, thanks, we parted, and since then I belong to this camp, Israel.”

He often related how, on the day his family left Cairo, their Muslim neighbor woman threw a pitcher of water from the balcony, an act symbolizing expulsion: Go and don’t come back. “And on that day,” he would tell me, “I swore that I would never [again] set foot in Egypt.”

But when an Egyptian friend, who worked in his country’s embassy in Israel, visited him and asked him about his last day in Cairo, my father broke into tears. It was the first time I’d seen him cry, and I waited for him to tell the story about the neighbor and the pitcher of water.

Instead, my father told the visitor about the concierge, who embraced him as he left the building with his suitcases and asked him to stay, whereupon the two cried on each other’s shoulders. I’d never heard that story before, certainly I had never seen my father get so emotional. When I asked him where the story about the neighbor and the pitcher of water had gone, he told me that both events had occurred. But you have to know which story to tell when and to whom.

“For years,” Natacha Atlas told me, “I boycotted Israel and refused to perform here. But when I met a Palestinian fellow who’s married to an Israeli Jewish woman, something in me changed. Suddenly, this chance personal acquaintanceship made me think that maybe there should be another way. There’s nothing easier than to boycott and say that I don’t want to see Israel or meet Israelis or come here and perform. But then what? Where does that get you?”

And, like a typical Levantine, she summed up, “There is something rigid and uncompromising in that posture, which I doubt serves the goal.”

Two days after I met with Atlas, my father died – the last Levantine in my life. I did not accept all his opinions when he was alive, and still don’t. But I know I will always be grateful to him for one thing: for teaching me that there is “on the one hand” and “on the other hand”; for imbuing me with respect for people whoever they are, even if I don’t agree with them; for making it possible for me to recognize the existence of partial truths and to contemplate them; and, in short, for implanting in me – together with all his contradictory ideas – the little Levantinism that’s required to know that human life is worth more to me than any principle.

As I write, with the land rocked by turbulence and every word shaking the foundations, it is precisely now that I believe it’s necessary to stop for a moment and try to listen to truths, even if only partial, that are being spoken on the other side, too. Not because they are “anti-Israeli,” but precisely the opposite. Especially in these days as Palestinians are dying in Gaza, and Israelis are exposed to missile fire. Because human lives, so I believe, are worth more than any principle.

Eyal Sagui Bizawe studies Egyptian culture and film, writes a column on culture in Haaretz Hebrew Edition, and works as a deejay.

Kahanoff. Offered an identity that was “stained,” open to the world.

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