Mongrels or Marvels:
The Levantine Writings of
Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff
Reviewed by Yael Halevi-Wise
Edited by Deborah Starr and Sasson Somekh. Stanford Studies in Jewish History and Culture. (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 2011) 304 pages
It is a remarkable literary historical event when the work of a superb and influential writer is restored to its original form: Starr and Somekh’s annotated edition of Jacqueline Kahanoff’s essays and stories brings them to an English readership in the language in which they were actually composed. During her lifetime--with notable exceptions such as the London publication of her novel Jacob’s Ladder (1951)--Kahanoff was published mostly through Aharon Amir’s Hebrew translations of her English materials. This collection therefore restores Kahanoff’s work to its original language, including five key pieces whose manuscripts could not be found but were translated “back” into English for this volume.
Such an unusual trajectory of “un-translation” actually fits Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff’s multilingual and multicultural identity quite well. She grew up between the world wars in a bourgeois environment in Cairo, where French-speaking Jews from Arab and European backgrounds mixed with British nannies, Muslim officials, and travelers from different continents. She married young and moved to California with her physician husband, whom she eventually divorced. After studying journalism at Columbia University, and publishing short stories, she moved in 1954 to Israel with a second husband, an engineer named Kahanoff whom she had met in Paris. They lived in the Negev at first; then settled in Tel Aviv, where Kahanoff established herself as a journalist and essayist. She began to write about absorption problems of Jewish immigrants from Europe and Arab lands, reports that grew into the sophisticated articles on national heterogeneity that were commissioned by Aharon Amir for his avant-garde literary magazine, Keshet, where Kahanoff’s influential series on Levantine culture was published.
Much of how we envision Kahanoff’s life and upbringing— for example, the role of British nannies in the home of a bourgeois Cairene Jewish family—derives from her own autobiographical essays and fiction. Hence it is possible that a full-fledged biography will eventually reveal interesting discrepancies between her literary reconstructions and their full historical reality. Indeed, Starr and Somekh’s compilation, along with a number of previous Kahanoff studies,1 do whet our appetite for further research on this writer’s work and background.
Kahanoff’s corpus has become particularly exciting today because of the sensitive manner in which she contrasts different kinds of cultural experiences, bridging between them without invalidating traditional identities or historical contexts. This cadenced multiculturalism resonates with current postmodern and postcolonial attitudes that were not necessarily fashionable in Kahanoff’s day, yet functioned as the main stylistic and ideological backbone of her writing. She attributed this perspective to her cosmopolitan childhood, enveloped by French culture in an Arab city, a multiculturalism later amplified by her encounter with different types of melting pots in the United States, France, and Israel during its foundational years.
My favorite Kahanoff story, “A Letter from Mama Camouna,” recounts the struggles of Mizrahi and Ashkenazi immigrants flooding the fledgling State of Israel in the 1950s. It contrasts the nostalgia felt by Kahanoff’s mother for the extended-family lifestyle she had enjoyed in Egypt with the despair of a Polish neighbor whose entire family had perished in the Holocaust. Within this dual ethnic frame which acknowledges the neighbor’s greater trouble without invalidating the pain of the uprooted mother, Kahanoff subtly introduces the inspiring story of the mother’s stepmother, an illiterate octogenarian who forced her grandchildren to teach her how to spell so she could communicate with them when they dispersed to become highly-educated professionals in America, France, and Israel.
Mama Camouna’s constructive, and even heroic efforts to adopt new means of communication functions here as a role model for both Mizrahi and Ashkenazi immigrants confronting new challenges. It also contests stereotypes of Mizrahi immigrants, clarifying their backgrounds and extending our sympathies. In “To Live and Die a Copt,” to bring another example, Kahanoff leads us to reconsider the ‘Arab’ label so carelessly tossed about as a synonym for Muslims: are Jews from Arab lands also Arab? Are Christian Copts who lived in Egypt before the Arabian invasion, Arab? At one point Kahanoff argues with her now famous childhood acquaintance Edmond Jabès: “You know,” she tells him,
other communities have suffered beyond anything we thought conceivable. But at least they had writers to record their lives. We have nothing, and you, Eddie, tell of our death, not of our lives.… I have tried, written so many beginnings. But something stops me long before I reach the end. (“A Culture Stillborn,” 120)
Ten years earlier, Kahanoff had observed that “although we too would be dispersed in all directions [out of Egypt], we were quite unaware of it at the time. Our wanderings were still bounded by the margins of the Levant, and the routes crossing it were like the corridors that connect rooms in a familiar house” (“Wake of the Waves,” 137).
This metaphor of languages and relationships crossing each other like travel routes along the “corridors…in a familiar house,” encapsulates Kahanoff’s vision of the Levant as an open space where complex identities can positively transform each other. Citing previous studies on Kahanoff’s special brand of Levantinism, Starr and Somekh emphasize that she “‘caused a revolution in the term,’” changing it “‘from a shameful word to a possible description of honor for people who exist in dual cultures.’”2 But since Kahanoff did this to validate “hybrid cultural identities” like her own (xxiv), it is also important to underscore that the Levantine identity that she envisioned was as modern and Europeanized as it was native. In “Europe from Afar” she insists that a modern Levantine identity must be a post-colonial Europeanized attitude, otherwise “the end of colonial occupation solved nothing fundamental unless Western concepts were at work in this awakening world, transforming its very soul” (107).
Unlike radical platforms from the right or the left—whose multiculturalisms either exaggerate cultural differences or flatten them out by selectively dismissing historical contexts—Kahanoff’s multiculturalism validates complex identities, giving her own group of Europeanized North African Jews a voice without disproportionately ignoring other experiences. In “Ambivalent Levantine” Kahanoff intimates that “human suffering, whatever its cause, weighs with equal heaviness on all of us” (194, but elsewhere, as in her argument with Jabès, she judges her own experience through proportionate comparisons with that of others. My emphasis here is on proportions as well as difference, a subtle balance that Kahanoff maintains by insisting on a complex picture of intersecting historical and regional identities.
We may sometimes wince when she baits us with ironized fantasies such as this young girl’s utopianism: “The Messiah would surely usher in a time when there would be no Christians, no Moslems, and no Jews, no white, black, brown, or pink people, and no princes who rushed by in their big red cars, so hardened by the thick crust of their wealth that they could not see, hear, or smell the poor who crouched by the gates of the Qasr al-’Aini hospital” (“Childhood in Egypt,” 5). Yet the naiveté of the girl in the story still lures us into a reconsideration of what these categories stand for—Christian, Muslim, black, white, rich, poor, Messiah—whether they are true and useful categories, and if so, for whom. “My father’s parents,” she describes, “were the only people I knew who were in total harmony with themselves, inwardly and outwardly, who accepted themselves as they were and did not want to be other than they were” (4). These Arabic-speaking Jews from Baghdad resettled in Cairo and continued to live traditionally while their children adopted modern customs. “What were we supposed to be when we grew up,” the narrator worries, “if we could be neither Europeans nor natives, nor even pious Jews, Moslems, or Christians, as our grandparents had been?” (8). Kahanoff’s positive conception of a modernized Levant is a solution to this crisis of eroded boundaries. Her Levantinism is therefore not a regression but a search for a more comfortable modernity.
Such a redefinition of the term Levantine—from negative images of lazy Orientals reclining in tents, to a constructive agenda where East and West join into a vibrant culture based on mutually respectful attitudes—is perhaps not so different from the hopes of nineteenth-century German-Jewish intellectuals who idealized Andalusian convivencia as an environment in which Jews, Christians, and Muslims coexisted nicely (most of the time) within relatively autonomous communities during the Islamic rule of Spain in the Middle Ages.3
From yet another cultural angle, our understanding of Kahanoff’s Levantinism could also profit from detailed comparison with the equally regional, yet anti-traditional and anti-Zionist ideology of the “Canaanite” intellectuals (about whom Aharon Amir quipped that he was an Aharon to Yonatan Ratosh’s Moses—Ratosh being their leading ideologue and poet). However, in contradistinction to Ratosh, Kahanoff did not construct her identity out of a negative devaluation of her own people and its heritage. Instead, she emphasized humane contacts among various cultural groups in her immediate environment and beyond it, an attitude associated today with the Zionist left, including literary lights such as A. B. Yehoshua and Amos Oz, who were themselves first published in Amir’s Keshet during the ‘50s and ‘60s, as Starr and Somekh note. The influence of Kahanoff’s brand of Levantinism on these and other Israeli writers has already drawn some scholarly attention, notably Gil Hochberg’s analysis of Ronit Matalon’s conversation with Kahanoff in Matalon’s extraordinary novel, The One Facing Us (1995).4
However, I would argue that as interesting and influential as Kahanoff’s ideas have been, it is her inimitable style more than her ideas themselves which makes it hard to put her down once we have picked her up. Nothing proves this better than the handful of “un-translated” pieces that Starr and Somekh have included in their compendium—those five items whose original manuscripts were lost and had to be translated back into English from surviving Hebrew versions. Twice-removed from their author’s control, these English translations of Aharon Amir’s Hebrew versions help us appreciate the power and singularity of Kahanoff’s style. They are perfectly adequate translations, but the words just don’t take off from the page as they do through Kahanoff’s original writing. First of all, this makes one wonder whether new Hebrew versions may be in order, now that the ancient language has had a few more decades to round itself out into a living language; above all, the distinctiveness of Kahanoff’s style reminds us how crucial it is that literary scholars continue to develop the critical tools essential for linguistic and generic analyses of the aesthetic objects we study.
As Starr and Somekh make clear, Kahanoff was a wordsmith who crafted her vision of hybrid cultures into a stylistically hybrid genre known as the “narrative essay,” in which personal reminiscences blend seamlessly with short story forms and expository writing. Starr and Somekh surmise that the “literary form she introduced to the Hebrew-reading public…has not to date been emulated” (xxvi). Yet in fact it was practiced, notably by feminist writers such as Shulamith Hareven and Netiva Ben Yehuda—and one could claim, too, that it continues to be practiced, even if less elegantly by Oz, Appelfeld, and other Israeli writers who favor autobiographically inflected op-eds, essays, and memoirs. In its modernist feminist variation, this genre was popularized in Israel through reviews and translations of Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir, as Yael Feldman points out in No Room of Their Own.5 Since Kahanoff played a key role in the dissemination of these European feminists, it is particularly relevant to situate her within this tradition, and to use it to reconsider the relationship between European and Near Eastern elements in Kahanoff’s own ideology and style.
I wonder, for example, why Kahanoff chose to insert so much of her autobiography into her essays if an “urge for self-expression” conflicted so strongly with a “deep distrust of self-exposure” (as she once explained in an interview, quoted by the editors, xvii). Fiction lends itself more readily to channeling personal experiences into a variety of characters and narrative options, yet Kahanoff excelled in an autobiographical mode of writing, where the narrator’s first-person voice and point of view manages, remarkably, to create an inspiring sense of balance and order among the complex materials she offers. Nevertheless, it is still odd that Kahanoff routinely missed opportunities to develop dialogue and flesh out characters in her more “fictional” stories, while in her narrative essays even minor characters and situations spring to life.
Perhaps this difficulty with the representation of realistic dialogue stems in part from her lack of “a language of her own”—hovering as she did between colonial French at home and school (a second language without a first); English in which she preferred to write; and Hebrew learnt in late adulthood. Unlike her parents and grandparents, Kahanoff did not know Arabic; and unlike Jabès she did not extend her childhood French into a literary language. A projected second novel—from which Starr and Somekh include excerpts—may have grown to liberate Kahanoff’s fictional imagination, but she died before she could see this project through.When I first encountered Kahanoff’s work through Alcalay’s Keys to the Garden,6 I immediately fell in love with it and proceeded to read everything available, amazed that it was mostly preserved in Hebrew translations from out of print volumes at a couple of university libraries. Starr and Somekh’s collection now offers us the core of Kahanoff’s work, reinstated in its original language and surrounded by a thought-provoking interpretative framework. Had she been alive today, I wonder what she would have said about this new development.
1. Notably Yaira Ginossar’s “’Otzmat ha-kfilut,” Iton 77 (May-June 1978): 14-23; Ammiel Alcalay’s After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (Minneapolis, U of Minnesota Press, 1993); Yael Halevi-Wise’s “Ethics and Aesthetics of Memory in Contemporary Mizrahi Literature,” Journal of Israeli History 20.1 (2001): 49-66; and especially Gil Hochberg’s work cited below.
3. For an extended discussion of this issue, see Ismar Schorsch and Jonathan Skolnik’s essays in Yael Halevi-Wise, ed. Sephardism: Spanish Jewish History & the Modern Literary Imagination (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, forthcoming 2012).