What about Levantinization?
This essay was written originally in English but it is only now that it is published in its original form. Kahanoff, born in Egypt to parents from Tunisia and Iraq, was a Western-educated polyglot who saw herself as a child of the Levant. Her article reflects the inherent ambivalence of the Armenians, Copts, Jews, Greeks, and Italians who in the pre-nationalist era regarded, as she did, the entire region as their home. Kahanoff asks why Levantinism threatens Israeli society and Sabra culture, which claims to be authentically indigenous, but in truth was created by relatively recent immigrants from Europe. She exposes the inherent hypocrisy of “authentic” Israeli culture and the Sabra’s fear of “a cultural mutation.”
The Levantines relinquished cultural authenticity because it did not serve them well and adopted modern Western characteristics and values. The price of this survival strategy was a loss of authenticity and of relations with the surrounding hegemonic society. The Sabra’s contempt for the newly arrived Levantines did not prevent them from absorbing the newcomers, which seemed preferable to isolating themselves within the small Jewish community in Israel. The question of cultural mutation as opposed to indigenous authenticity is presented in the essay in a broad historical context, both spatial (the vernacularization of Latin) and temporal (the host of empires that conquered the region and left their mark on its various peoples).
Beyond the Sea of Formlessness: Jacqueline Kahanoff and the Levantine Generation
Monterescu develops the idea of Levantinism as a cultural mutation and draws the discussion toward a conceptual framework of purity and ambivalence. Monterescu sees Kahanoff’s writings as testimony to the cosmopolitan ambivalence of people whose home is the region surrounding the entire Mediterranean; he also argues that their relationship with the hegemonic national society can be framed and understood using Georg Simmel’s concept of the “stranger.” The struggle of the societies in the region against colonialism led to a rejection of everything “non-authentic”—that is, everything foreign or European. The emerging “pure” territorial nationalism juxtaposed the “pure” indigenous inhabitants and the cosmopolitan strangers with connections across the sea: the Greeks, Italians, Turks and the Jews. Following Zygmunt Bauman, Monterescu sees the Levantines as multidimensional strangers who are a part of colonial modernism. Cosmopolitanism and anticolonial nationalism, he explains, are complementary rather than incompatible options. Monterescu supports the call for the creation of a new anthropology of the Levant in which conqueror and conquered are trapped together, and in which the Levantine stranger helps to historicize and deconstruct the very category of indigenousness.
Masquerade and the Performance of National Imaginaries: Levantine Ethics, Aesthetics, and Identities in Egyptian Cinema
Egyptian films from the 1930s through the 1950s reflected the diversity of Egypt’s cities. This article argues that a subtle but notable shift in the semiotics of otherness—from a Levantine idiom to a less fluid construction of ethno-religious identity—occurs over this period in Egyptian cinema. Analysis of the films Salamah fi khayr [Salama is Fine] and al-cIzz bahdala [Mistreated by Affluence], both released in 1937, reveals what the author identifies as a “Levantine” idiom. These films articulate an ethics of coexistence, adopt a visual language of inclusion, and represent identity as fluid and mutable. Postwar “ethnic comedies” such as Faṭimah wa-Marika wa-Rashil [Fatima, Marika, and Rachel, (1949)] and Ḥasan wa-Murqus wa-Kohayn [Hasan, Marcus, and Cohen (1954)], continue to take Egyptian diversity for granted. However, as this article demonstrates, the characteristics that had defined Levantine cinema—ethics, aesthetics, and fluidity of identity—are no longer present. All the films under discussion treat ethno-religious and national identity as performance. However, that being said, the valences attached to the comic appropriation of an identity not one’s own via role play, assumed identities, and sudden, disorienting class mobility shift over time in nuanced but significant ways. In establishing the idioms of “Levantine cinema” and “ethnic comedies,” this article also takes as a counterpoint the 2008 film Ḥasan wa-Murqus [Hasan and Marcus] which draws upon these earlier Egyptian cinematic traditions in constructing its own discourse of coexistence.
Tomer Levi, The Jews of Beirut: The Rise of a Levantine Community, 1860s–1930s New York: Peter Lang, 2012. 230 pp.
Tomer Levi, The Jews of Beirut: The Rise of a Levantine Community, 1860s–1930s. New York: Peter Lang, 2012. 230 pp.
“The Mediterranean Option”: On the Politics of Regional Affiliation in Current Israeli Cultural Imagination
The growing appeal of Mediterraneanism or “the Mediterranean option” (ha-opt’sia ha-yam tikhonit) as it is often referred to in Israel, can be at least partially understood in relation to the Oslo peace negotiations and their promise of replacing Israel’s isolated position in the region with a model of economic, political, and cultural integration. Perhaps it was the apparent difficulties involved in reaching a peace agreement, rather than the promise of peace itself, that drove many Israelis, including key public figures and intellectuals, to embrace the “Mediterranean option.”
This paper closely examines the ideological stakes involved in the intellectual and cultural endeavors of making Israel “Mediterranean.” What, I ask, is the appeal of Mediterraneanism for Israelis at this particular time and juncture? How is it that an ethno-national culture, which for the most part has until recently rejected or ignored the Mediterranean (as both “sea” and “region”) as a site of cultural identification, negating it in favor of ethno-national territorial centrality, has suddenly so embraced the sea and its regional promise? And more precisely, what does this promise entail? How does the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prefigure within it? Finally, and most central to my investigation, is the relationship between yam tikhoniyut as a geo-cultural regional affiliation, and mizrachiyut as an ethnic Israeli-Jewish classification. How are we to understand these different articulations of Israeli/Jewish locality and collective identity, and how are we to further understand their distinct rendition of politics vis-à-vis the Zionist national project?
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