Levantism Finds Its Place in Modern Israel

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

Hers is not a name that is terribly well known today in Israel, but Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff was and remains an influential figure here. As an Egyptian-born Jew who grew up in Cairo when it was still a cosmopolitan world capital that welcomed a variety of cultural and religious groups, Kahanoff (1917-1979 ) left during World War II, well before the 1952 revolution.

She spent time in New York (earning a journalism degree at Columbia University ) and in Paris, before settling in Israel in 1954. Here, she encountered a society dominated by a European-Jewish cultural and political elite that seemed almost embarrassed by their brethren arriving from North Africa and the Middle East.

Jacqueline Shohet KahanoffCredit: By permission Josette Shohet d’Amade. All rights reserved

Kahanoff became convinced that Israel would never find peace until it recognized that it was in the Middle East, and understood that its Mizrahi citizens could serve as the cultural bridge to the Arab-Islamic world. Her philosophy, which she termed "Levantinism," earned a following among other intellectuals and writers in Israel, and remains relevant today, perhaps more than ever.

Which is why a new collection of essays and stories, "Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff" (Stanford University Press, 269 pages, $60 ), is a welcome addition to current discussions about Israel's national and regional identity. The volume was edited by Sasson Somekh, professor emeritus of Arabic literature at Tel Aviv University, himself personally acquainted with Kahanoff, and Deborah A. Starr, associate professor of modern Arabic and Hebrew literature and film at Cornell University. It includes an introductory essay by the two, providing both a brief biography of Kahanoff and an analysis of her legacy. Haaretz spoke with Deborah Starr by phone from Ithaca, New York.

Why should we be interested in Jacqueline Kahanoff's work today?

She was a writer before her time. There have been efforts over the years to publish a book like this, but the interest wasn't there. Now, there's a great deal of concern with issues of multiculturalism and cultural exchange.

There is also interest in the cosmopolitanism that existed in the Middle East through the middle of the 20th century. And at this particular moment, in this period of revolution and of rethinking of state and civil society in a broad swath of the region, it is important to listen to voices talking about relations between majority and minority cultures. Today, it's mainly between Muslims and Christians, but Jews at least were a part of that conversation a generation back.

How did you personally become introduced to Kahanoff's work?

I first became interested in writings of the next generation of Egyptian Jewish writers in Israel, particularly Ronit Matalon and Orly Kastel-Blum, who is actually the child of Egyptian Jews, though it's not nearly as central to her writing.

As a graduate student writing about their work, I was directed, through Ammiel Alcalay's research, to take it back a generation and look at Kahanoff's writings as foundational texts for their work. Kahanoff's essays really opened up a whole world for me.

It was through that trajectory that I found my way to my research on literature by and about Jews of Egypt, and further into the literature and film of cosmopolitan Egypt.

Let's talk a little about Levantinism. How would you define it?

"Levant" originated as a geographical term, referring to the part of the Mediterranean where the sun rises. The term "Levantine," in both English and in French, arose as a disparaging term to refer to people of the eastern Mediterranean. It came to mean, in the context to which Kahanoff is responding, people from the region who are not clearly identifiable.

They have one foot in the local culture and are somewhat oriented toward Western culture. Many, like Kahanoff, had a French or British education, and also spoke many languages. Levantines were not necessarily easily characterized by someone who was not intimate with the culture.

So European travelers would see these people they couldn't identify as Christians, Muslims or Jews. And they didn't know if they were Turkish or Arab. Because of this slipperiness of their identity, their unidentifiability, Europeans found Levantines vaguely threatening. That's also how it got translated into the Israel context, with the mass emigrations in the 1950s of Jews from the Arab-Islamic world. The category of "Mizrahim," Arabized Jews, were looked down upon. Those who were from the educated elites in some ways posed a greater threat to the Zionist project - particularly the socialist-Zionist project.

They came in with these bourgeois notions, and were neither Western, in the way that the Zionist leadership saw itself and the state as Western, nor were they entirely Eastern, and they posed this threat of trying to bring some of these Eastern characteristics into mainstream Israel society. That's precisely what Kahanoff embraces, the possibility of bringing these cultures together.

Is there something perhaps naive or romantic about her view of Levantine culture, a longing for good old days that may not really have been so good?

She bases her vision of Levantinism on her memories of cosmopolitan Egypt, a particular bourgeois experience. Although she spoke some Arabic, she was educated in French, and was raised speaking English by English governesses. She was part of a cosmopolitan society that was largely sheltered from the significant trends taking shape in Egypt and the Arab world at the time.

So when she arrives in Israel and uses that as a social model of a Levantine ideal, it's grounded in a problematic view of the society from which it is drawn. There is a naivete to her idea of Levantinism, but I think that nonetheless, hers is a significant voice in late 1950s Israel.

Her vision diverges from the mainstream at that time, and I think it has had such lasting impact because of its uniqueness. But when she reflects on Israel's relationship to the surrounding countries, that's when the shallowness of her understanding and the limitation of her exposure to Egyptian Arab society is most evident.

It's interesting to be reading the book at a time of such regional tumult. Would Kahanoff have welcomed the Arab Spring?

I think that - if you go back to the early coverage of the [recent] uprising in Egypt, specifically, when there was very visible mutual support of Muslims for Copts and Copts for Muslims - guarding each other during prayers in Tahrir Square - that kind of coexistence and vision of the revolution, and of what Egypt could be in the face of interfaith or interethnic violence, I think it is very much the kind of thing that Kahanoff is writing about.

I think that, in Egypt, and this is something that I've written about, while I wouldn't necessarily categorize it as a movement, there have been some literary and film works that have looked back to Egypt's cosmopolitan era as a possible model of where Egypt could have gone. There is a certain kind of nostalgia, but viewed through the lens of colonial experience.

In the middle of the 20th century, foreign minority communities were identified with the colonial powers. These works that begin appearing in the late 20th century look back and recognize the distinction between the foreign minority communities that are no longer present in Egypt and the colonial experience. Of course, this revival of interest in Egypt's cosmopolitan past occurs after Kahanoff's death. But, I wanted to point to the presence of a certain amount of nostalgia within Egyptian culture under the Mubarak regime, an effort to re-imagine other trajectories Egypt could have taken, and I think perhaps one could even optimistically say, a future direction that it could take. I think the one novel that goes the furthest in that direction is "The Yacoubian Building," by Alaa Al Aswany. It represents a future for Egypt that emerges in part out of the cosmopolitan past.

Kahanoff writes about herself and other Levantines as people who didn't fit in where they were born and didn't really belong in the place where they resettled. Do you think she was a disappointment to herself?

I think she felt that she hadn't found her natural audience, and she talks about that with some regret. Still, she was well-connected with other writers and intellectuals in Israel, and during her lifetime she was known and appreciated by those who traveled in the same circles, including some important Israeli writers. My co-editor, Sasson Somekh, was part of that circle later in her life, in the 1970s.

I think her biggest personal disappointment was not being able to complete her second novel. Her journalistic work is how she earned her living, and her intellectual essays were certainly very influential, but I think she imagined herself as a novelist. She had one success, with the novel "Jacob's Ladder," in 1951, and for rest of her life continued to work on a second novel, "Tamra," but she said that she always felt like her family was looking over her shoulder, and she was concerned about ways that she might portray people or the culture in ways that would offend.

How did you and Sasson Somekh actually put this book together?

Sasson and I first began working together in Cairo in 1996, when he was director of the Israel Academic Center there, and I was a graduate student, casting about for a dissertation topic. Kahanoff was an important figure in defining my research agenda. That's how I started thinking about the cosmopolitan era in Egypt and its literary representation. Sasson and I started bandying about the idea for this book in 2000 or 2001, and we started seeking funding to make it happen. We spent a lot of time together, all over the world. I came to Israel on several occasions, we also met in London to work on the book. I met with Kahanoff's family in Paris. Sasson and I went through the materials together, and followed up leads, and went to the national library, looking up articles in journals. Even the introduction was written in a very collaborative manner.

How does your interest in Kahanoff connect to your teaching work at Cornell?

I teach a range of courses about contemporary literature and film in both Arabic and Hebrew, as well as in translation. My interests lie at the intersection between the two. I have taught a course called "Jews and Arabs in Contact and Conflict." Obviously, it deals with the Arab-Israeli conflict, but we start by looking at intercommunal relations prior to the dispersion of the Jewish communities in the Arab world. Last year I was approached by some students who wanted a course in which they could read texts in both Hebrew and Arabic. With their input I developed a course on literature by Palestinian Israelis.

David B. Green