My Funny Levantines

Two new novels offer angles of vision into Jewish experience in the pre- or non-Israeli parts of the modern Middle East.


Observation
June 21 2018
About the author

Michael Weingrad is professor of Jewish studies at Portland State University and a frequent contributor to Mosaic and the Jewish Review of Books. 


Two novels of notable interest by Israeli authors of Middle Eastern descent have recently become available to English-language readers. The better-known author is Orly Castel-Bloom, whose An Egyptian Novel won Israel’s top fiction prize in 2015; it was published last year in a translation by Todd Hasak-Lowy. More recently, Moshe Sakal’s The Diamond Setter, ably rendered by Jessica Cohen, became the first of this novelist’s books to appear in English.

Castel-Bloom’s parents immigrated to Israel from Cairo; Sakal’s grandparents came from Cairo and Damascus. Their novels, apart from their qualities as works of fiction, provide an opportunity to consider two very different sets of attitudes toward the large, fascinating, and still imperfectly understood topic of Jewish experience in the pre- or non-Israeli parts of the modern Middle East.

 

Until the middle of the 20th century, more than a million Jews lived in North Africa and the Middle East, in communities distinguished both by their ancient roots and by the variety of their modern forms. Before the mid-1950s there were 80,000 Jews in Egypt; in Iraq, Jews constituted more than a third of the population of Baghdad. This was Jewish territory, geographical and cultural, upon which the Holocaust impinged only indirectly but that was instead acutely affected by the Islamic world’s ambivalent (not to say tortuous) encounter with Western modernity. In that encounter, the educational, occupational, and political habits of the Jewish middle class were shaped as much by European influences as by Arab and Muslim ones.

Indeed, readers of Egyptian Jewish memoirs like André Aciman’s Out of Egypt (1994) and Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit (2007) will quickly recognize the Cairo-born parents and grandparents of Castel-Bloom and Sakal: Jews more comfortable in French (or English, or Italian) than Arabic and struggling to fashion an identity at a time when so many identities—Arab, Egyptian, British, French, Zionist, Communist—were on offer, with such frequently dangerous consequences.

The second half of the 20th century saw the extinction of these Jewish metropolises, roiled by anti-colonial upheaval, violent Arab nationalism, anti-Jewish persecution, the constant boil of the Arab-Israel conflict, and the appearance of new totalitarianisms from Baathism to Islamism. The more recent attempts by Islamic State and various dictatorships to eliminate religious, ethnic, and linguistic minorities were preceded decades ago by the erasure of the millennia-old Jewish presence in much of the region outside of Israel.

 

How to remember these communities is a topic of frequent debate, especially today as the last Jews to have experienced growing up in that older Middle East are aging and dying. The Israeli writer Ronit Matalon, who passed away at the end of 2017, and who like Castel-Bloom was the daughter of immigrants from Egypt, explored in her novel The One Facing Us (English translation 1998) the ambiguities of memory and identity in one such family. One of the novel’s characters, an American journalist, is writing a book, convinced that her family story has “dramatic potential” and is “a clue to where she’s come from, who she really is.” But when she interviews her Cairo-born aunt, the older woman is puzzled and suspicious. “Why does all this interest you,” she asks. “People live, they love, they leave, they die—what’s so special about it?”

A similar wariness marks Castel-Bloom’s An Egyptian Novel. Castel-Bloom broke onto the Israeli literary scene in the late 1980s with her first collection of stories and a notoriously twisted debut novel, Dolly City (1992). Not until An Egyptian Novel did she undertake to write about her family history—although, in a recent interview, she disclosed that the idea had been on her mind since at least 1996 when, receiving a literary award, she was urged by one of the presenters to “return to your Sephardi roots!”

Hence this book, whose title in Hebrew is The—not An—Egyptian Novel. The definite article signals her intentions: ostensibly this is to be the work in which Castel-Bloom finally returns to her roots and tells us (in Matalon’s ironic words) “where she’s come from, who she really is.” Yet anyone familiar with Castel-Bloom’s work knows that she’s never met a sacred cow she hasn’t proceeded to barbecue, including the cow of nostalgia.

So what is the—or at least an—“Egyptian novel”? The answer is deliberately elusive. Most of the book recounts events from different times, told from different perspectives, but all connected with a family who emigrated from Egypt to Israel. The book begins with the 1950s kibbutz wedding of a couple, Vivienne and Charlie, both of whose families had belonged to a sub-group of Cairo’s middle-class Jews. Their little cadre had moved to Israel as members of the left-wing Zionist Hashomer Hatsa’ir movement, but will soon be expelled from both the movement and the kibbutz when they are slow to parrot the twists and turns of the now-Stalinist, now-anti-Stalinist party line.

Subsequent chapters are told from the perspective of Vivienne and Charlie’s older daughter, who functions as Castel-Bloom’s alter ego. In desultory fashion, we learn about her experiences in elementary school, her childhood friendship with a schoolmate from a right-wing family, her interactions with a nameless convenience-store clerk, and her own son’s induction into the army.

Finally, two longer chapters, one at the midpoint and one at the end, serve to punctuate the novel. The first relates family lore about how its ancestors wound up in Egypt after the expulsion of the Jews from Spain and about how one branch, having returned to Spain as crypto-Jews, became financially dependent upon their pig-herding daughter: a parable of guilt, shame, and wayward children. The second, concluding chapter isn’t directly connected with the family but tells instead of a Muslim Egyptian who in the 1980s wins a fellowship to study for a year at Tel Aviv University, later becomes the manager of the Cairo Zoo, and against the backdrop of the Arab Spring has an affair with one of Cairo’s last Jews—an episode as inconclusive as is the novel as a whole.

In fact, Castel-Bloom’s Egyptian Novel is less a novel than a collage of disjointed family snapshots filtered through the characters’ sometimes muddled recollections. As in much of Castel-Bloom’s writing, major events are brought level with and often submerged by banal and minor details like which bus Vivienne should take to her wedding. This flattening of the moral and psychological scale into one register—deadpan—can sap a reader’s interest.

Yet it is also the means by which Castel-Bloom shines a strong and occasionally withering light on human action and motivation. Throughout An Egyptian Novel, waves of rose-colored longing for the urban, cosmopolitan world of pre-Nasser Cairo crash on the drab, gray stone of the kibbutz’s spartan agrarianism. (Required to hand over her elegant French suitcase to communal use, one character balks “as if [the suitcase] were gold and there was no socialism in the world.”) And the deflation continues after the group’s expulsion to the apartments of Tel Aviv, where Castel-Bloom sets their abstract political debates among lovely but pointless details about the design of folding chairs, plate patterns, and 1950s décor.

Ultimately, what Castel-Bloom distrusts is not left-wing utopianism specifically but any kind of explanatory narrative that ignores the often random reasons for how we got where we are. Her middle-class Cairo Jews with their varying political commitments wind up in Israel or France or elsewhere as much because of love affairs and accidents as because of Communism or Zionism. At the same time, however, a certain poignancy surrounds these characters, arising from their deep embeddedness in family relationships. Denying her alter ego a name, Castel-Bloom refers to her throughout as “Older Daughter” because “she always saw herself as a piece of the family—a piece that in general was not easy to separate from the whole.”

This seemingly contradictory mixture—the irreducibility of family combined with skepticism toward family tales—has long been a theme for Castel-Bloom, from the opening story of her first collection to An Egyptian Novel. For this author, family really is the most all-inclusive explanation for who we are and how we got here—and also the most arbitrary and intractable of mysteries.

 

Moshe Sakal, who began publishing a decade after Castel-Bloom, is a different case. In a 2015 essay in Haaretz, Sakal turned to the experience of his Syrian- and Egyptian-born grandparents as a model for a “New Levantine” identity that would transcend both the sterile binary opposition of Mizraḥi-versus-Ashkenazi identity within Israel and, no less, the tribal and national divisions of the Middle East as a whole. “In a world in which borders are etched more and more deeply in the flesh,” he wrote, “it seems there is nothing stranger than the Levantine spirit, indifferent to borders, carrying its languages and customs and cultures from place to place like the breeze carrying fertilizing pollen from flower to flower.”

In resurrecting the term “Levantine,” Sakal was surely inspired by another writer, Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (1917-1979), whose literary ghost may be thought to preside over all of these latter-day novels, and who’s worth a brief introduction here.

Born in Cairo, Kahanoff spent the 1940s in the United States and then moved to Israel. A talented journalist, essayist, and fiction writer, she is best-known today for her 1951 novel Jacob’s Ladder and for a sequence of English-language essays on Levantinism—“Levantine” being a term, deliberately chosen by her, that in colonial European discourse conveyed a not so faintly deprecatory attitude toward the “natives.” In recent years her work, translated into Hebrew decades ago, has undergone something of a rediscovery.

Kahanoff’s essays reflect on her Cairo upbringing, and particularly on the discomfort and perplexity felt by Jews isolated from both the Muslim masses among whom they lived and the colonial powers whose languages they spoke and with whom they were supposed to identify. As she wrote in 1959 in the first essay of her Levantine sequence:

We did not know how it had happened that Jewish, Greek, Muslim, and Armenian girls sat together to learn about the French Revolution, patrie, liberté, égalité, fraternité. None of us had experienced any of these things. Not even our teachers really believed these words had anything to do with our lives.

Kahanoff observes that this sense of outsiderness (which, it should be pointed out, characterized much of the modern Jewish condition altogether) drove many in her generation to revolutionary politics—or at least revolutionary poses—as a way of trying to overcome the contradictory nature of their existence. Through revolution and Marxism, she recalls, “We would no longer be what we were, but become free citizens of the universe.”

By the end of her essay cycle, however, Kahanoff shifts gears, using the term “Levantine” no longer to describe her Egyptian past but to limn a positive cultural-political model for the Israeli future. The young Zionist state, she warns, is too concerned with seeing itself as an outpost of Western, European culture, thereby missing the opportunity to birth a genuine fusion of east and west:

Israel is in the unique position of having this process of mutual influence and transformation take place within the same country, . . . due to its geographic location between East and West and through the very mixture of its people. It can thus reconcile its two main component groupings into one dynamic, creative unity which, because it must fit together and fuse conflicting elements, can strive toward universality, as did the great Levantine (Byzantine and Islamic) civilizations of the past.

To return now to Sakal, who takes this prophecy to grandiloquent (and platitudinous) heights: his imagined “New Levantine” type, he wrote in Haaretz,

is a minority in the crowd: he may be an exile, or a woman, or gay. And therefore he is weak, and therefore also strong. All places are his place. All times are his time. He is absent from them and present in them all. He is not in this place or that. He is not “Mizraḥi” and not “Ashkenazi.” He is no and no and no and no. And yes and yes and yes and yes. He is everything and nothing.

Sakal mostly avoids such muzziness in his novels, mainly family chronicles of which the most recent, Aoti (“My Sister,” 2016), probes the edges of family identity through the topic of adoption. An earlier one, Yolanda (2013), about a family that arrived in Israel by way of Egypt, is a Bildungsroman based around a young, gay protagonist and his relationship with his Cairo-born grandmother Yolanda; it treats lyrically the ironies of history and identity, how we choose and resist our family inheritance.

In between Aḥoti and Yolanda, though, comes Sakal’s The Diamond Setter, which first appeared in Hebrew in 2014. Although once again a tale about an Israeli family and its Middle Eastern roots, here the focus is on the Syrian rather than the Egyptian side of the novelist’s family. And although the protagonist is once again a young gay Israeli, here any subtlety of characterization is forgone for the sake of making a “New Levantine” statement about the Middle East and the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Diamond Setter follows the wanderings of a fictional fragment of the famous Hope Diamond. In real life, the gem made its way in the 17th century from India to France, thereafter passing among European aristocracy and banking families before landing in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., becoming along the way a staple of mystery thrillers. As for Sakal’s fictional fragment, it passes in the early 1900s from the Ottoman sultan to a family of Damascus Jews who wind up in Israel.

Except that what they actually have is a copy, the real chip having been given to a family of Palestinian Arabs who wind up in Damascus. Decades later, against the background of the so-called Arab Spring of 2010 and the 2011 protests in Israel over housing and economic inequality, a scion of the Arab family makes his way from Damascus to Tel Aviv for a meeting with a scion of the Jewish family. The chip is returned, the true family history is brought to light, a closeted gay man finally comes out to his father, and Jews and Arabs come together in Jaffa to discuss social justice and make the world a better place.

Unfortunately, for the purposes of his feel-good novel about the Middle East, Sakal is forced to omit a few inconvenient details. Although he writes hopefully about the future possibility of peaceful traffic between Damascus and Tel Aviv, neither in the novel nor in an afterword to the English edition does he so much as mention the ongoing enormity of the Syrian civil war. Nor does Arab terrorism exist in Sakal’s fictional world, or Arab anti-Semitism.

But Israeli anti-Arab racism is brought onstage, as is the Israeli government’s reputation for “pinkwashing”: that is, the allegedly devious exploitation of the country’s superb record on gay rights in order to divert global attention from the truth of its essential vileness. Readers will learn about the 1948-9 wartime dispossession of Arabs from Israel, but not why Sakal’s Jewish characters felt it necessary to flee Syria. And, unlike in the real world, the only Arab in the novel who attempts to cross illegally into Israel comes in order to return a diamond, and he is a charming, politically progressive gay man who recites passages from the Thousand and One Nights in his sleep.

There is a word for this, and the word is kitsch. The problem is not that the novel’s politics are leftist but that the writing tumbles into treacle and sentimental fantasy. Thus, at the core of The Diamond Setter is Sakal’s “New Levantine” idea that his grandparents’ generation enjoyed a cosmopolitan and borderless Middle East in which Jews and Arabs interacted freely and happily, and that his own generation must work to recreate that lost Eden. He dramatizes this notion with threesomes: a romantic ménage à trois in 1940s Syria and Lebanon between a Jewish couple and their Arab lover, and a parallel bout of latter-day Jewish-Arab polyamory in 21st-century Tel Aviv.

This conflation of the erotic and the political neatly betrays both human realms. Sakal’s depiction of his characters’ erotic life is strangely bloodless, and their invented political attitudes are manifestly not their own but his.

Nevertheless, Sakal does, however clumsily, at least acknowledge the attractions of cosmopolitanism—or more precisely freedom—Levantine or otherwise, and the benefits of a culture of mobility, sensibility, and openness. This is welcome at a time when identity politics in the United States and even in Israel tends to prize crude and ignorant notions of cultural purity. What he ignores is that such social and cultural expansiveness can flourish only when enabled and protected by certain political and economic conditions.

In the case of Sakal’s grandparents’ generation, those conditions included European colonial rule and the institutions of international trade. Today, they include both capitalism and the sorts of legal protections afforded to citizens by relatively few places in the world—and preeminently, in his neck of the woods, by a certain Jewish nation-state.

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