This post’s really a coincidence. It’s not as if I have Egypt on the mind. It just looks that way, having now run two successive posts on…Egypt. But I just happened to finish Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, and I wanted to say a little something about it by way of recommendation. And I really love these old photographs from the Middle East. They are so clean and bright.
As for Kahanoff. She was born and raised in Cairo, leaving Egypt after the 1956 Suez war. She went first to the United States and then to Israel. Full of light and sea, the book’s essays and fiction present a nostalgic but not uncritical view of the charming, glittery upper crust of Levantine culture once shared in Egypt by Jews, Armenians, Copts, Turks, Greeks, and Italians; and then new, complicated life in Beersheva in the first days of the State.
Kahanoff’s critical view is cast especially around the confining problems of gender, class and caste, the limits of cross-cultural exchange, the destructive inter-dynamics of European colonialism and Arab nationalism, as well as a critique of a Zionist culture of arrogance and aggrandizement prior to and after the establishment of the State of Israel.
I’m a sucker for this kind of stuff. The utopian edge to the book is highly refined, non-radical, and broadly humanist –the reconstitution of a pan-Levantine identity including Jews and Arabs formed as a loose, open, cosmopolitan interface. The religious orientation is cultural, not dogmatic or spiritual. Reading it in our own day and age, I confess to a pronounced sense of sadness and shame.
What I like about the book is, I guess, simple. It’s the sense of an ending and the persistence of culture, the sense of place warped by memory and the world-opening gesture.
I’m going to move on to Ammiel Alcalay and Nissim Rejwan.