Celebrating ‘After Jews and Arabs’

By Steven Gertz

On November 1 and 2, 2012, the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies along with the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University and the Levant Foundation co-sponsored “After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture 20 Years Later.” Dr. Elliott Colla and Dr. Ted Swedenburg (University of Arkansas), along with CCAS Public Affairs Coordinator Marina Krikorian, organized the conference, which brought together a diverse group of scholars to reflect on the impact of Ammiel Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs (University of Minnesota Press, 1992) on the field of Levantine studies and beyond.

Alcalay began the conference by reflecting on how critics initially sought to discredit his book, short-circuit discussion of it, and to effectively “displace” the book. This was an altogether ironic response to a work that seeks to highlight the displaced people (particularly “eastern” Jews) in the Levant that the West has largely forgotten. But After Jews and Arabs is a book whose reputation has grown with time, and Alcalay’s lament over “memoricide” has challenged many readers to ponder “unimagined communities,” including, even, those native to the Americas who have been displaced by European colonization.

Susan Slyomovics (UCLA) then delivered a lecture on Israeli settler ideology in the 1950s and its attempt to remake the Levant in its own image, focusing particularly on the art of Marcel Janco and the writings of Jacqueline Kahanoff. She showed how each tried to erase the Palestinian heritage from the new country: Janco replaced a Palestinian home with a museum inspired by the European painter Dada and nationalistic settler ideology that reconceived the Levant as a “Mediterranean Israel,” while Kahanoff (who did not herself grow up in the Levant) portrayed Israel as the only “true” Levantine country and called Arabs “cultural hybrids.” This bias Alcalay exposed in After Jews and Arabs, Slyomovics observes. The book was an important work for her in forming her thoughts as she reflected on Israeli settler ideology.

Orit Bashkin (University of Chicago) focused on another “forgotten” people of the Levant in her presentation: the 100,000 Mizrahi (or eastern) Jews who emigrated from Iraq to Israel in the years following Israel’s formation. The Israeli press, she observes, originally caricatured the Mizrahi Jews as violent and disorderly, and quartered them in transit camps to separate them from the more “civilized” Jews who had emigrated to Israel from Europe. Inhumane conditions in the camps drove many of these Jews to demonstrate, in the process sparking Mizrahi empathy for displaced Palestinians. The “Arabness” of these Jews from Iraq meant that the camps developed a distinctly anti-Zionist perspective on Israel, and the Mizrahi perspective on Israel, as Bashkin put it, suggested a “new vision” for Jewish-Arab relations.

Shifting the focus of the conference to the Americas, Ramon Stern (University of Michigan) presented his study of Raduan Nassar’s Lavoura arcaica, a Portuguese novel that inverts the biblical story of the prodigal son and in so doing explores the life of a second-generation Lebanese man living in an unnamed city in Brazil. Stern noted that Nassar’s main character finds inspiration in his “Levantine” or “Mediterranean” heritage, even though he no longer lives anywhere near the Mediterranean. Hints of Arab heritage remain in values he still holds: ṣabr (patience), humūla (kinship ties), and love for the dabka (dance circle). But the only Arabic word to appear in the novel is maktūb (destiny); all other references to Arab culture have been rendered, and therefore hidden, in Portuguese. The result is a story of a man haunted by his ghostly (and stereotypical) “Levantine” past, torn from his roots by space and time.

Returning the focus squarely onto After Jews and Arabs, Anne Waldman (Naropa University) spoke about how the book created a network of people from multiple generations and disciplines. What bound them together was unease over haunting conflicts never resolved (Palestinians in the Levant and Native Americans in the Americas), or other problems such as climate change, AIDS, and the production of chemical weaponry. Throughout the lecture, she reflected on several of Alcalay’s poems lamenting the ravages of war but also critiquing structures of power. She remarked that After Jews and Arabs was no artifact but that “we are all in this zone together.”

Sami Chetrit (CUNY) also paid tribute to Alcalay, saying that After Jews and Arabs gave him the tools to work with in thinking about the Levant. A Mizrahi Jew himself, Chetrit spoke about how the Jews from the Arab world now living in Israel are reinventing themselves; second and third generations no longer know Arabic, but they still retain their Arab heritage in the memories of their parents and grandparents, despite considerable efforts on the part of Israeli society to de-Arabize, de-Semitize, marginalize, and folklorize their Mizrahi culture and heritage. Moreover, Chetrit posited that the Zionist project might in some ways be seen as failing, in that, for example, Mizrahi Jews are bringing Arabic tunes to Israeli music.

Continuing the focus on Alcalay’s book, Dalia Kandiyoti (CUNY) spoke about her first experience with After Jews and Arabs, which along with Edward Said’s Orientalism, was greatly influential in her academic reflection. Like Said’s book, she said, After Jews and Arabs is a “mode of reading” in itself. As Sadi’s book launched postcolonial studies, so Alcalay’s book “set out a particular way of reading even in the Americas.” She also noted that Levantine studies is now shifting as it incorporates discourse about the Americas (which she called “tropicalization”). While she was not interested in comparing the separate Mediterranean and Hispanic literatures, she recognized that the literatures connect to one another through the pivotal events of 1492.

A student of Andalusian Arabic-Spanish poetry herself, Amila Buturovic (York University) moved the focus of the conference to Ottoman Bosnia and her research surveying Muslim and Christian graveyards there. She noted that while cities demarcated the graveyards clearly (grouping them around churches and mosques), those in rural areas sometimes buried Christians in Muslim graveyards and vice versa. There was also considerable fluidity and mixing of religious symbols associated with Islam and Christianity on the tombstones. Buturovic connected her research to the conference’s theme via her interest in identity; while virtually no living trace of the Ottoman remain in some regions in Bosnia, the graveyards remind us of a long enduring presence of Islam in eastern Europe.

Janneke Stegeman (VU University Amsterdam) finished the conference with a reflection on how After Jews and Arabs has helped her in her vocation as a theologian to find “hidden spaces in the margins.” She focused her presentation on a story in the biblical book of Jeremiah (chapter 32), in which the prophet buys some land even while the Jewish nation is about to fall to the Babylonians. Read in the context of Zionism, Israeli settlers argue this passage gives them a right to take Palestinian land, while Palestinian Christians either reject this interpretation altogether or argue that Jews must pay for the land they took from the Palestinians. Stegeman argued these Christians counter the dominant Zionist narrative by offering an alternative view, saying the text is not just Jewish but Christian as well.