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Towards a Glorious Levantine Impurity: An Interview with Ammiel Alcalay
By Kim Jensen
Translator, poet, and critic, Ammiel Alcalay is the author of several books, including “After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture,” “The Cairo Notebooks,” and “Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing.” His most recent book, “Memories of Our Future,” is an eclectic collection of essays written between 1982-1999 (see review in Al Jadid, issue no. 33).
Alcalay, a Sephardic Jew whose family hails from the former Yugoslavia, is deeply involved in re-thinking the cultural and political boundaries between Jews and Arabs that have become tragically ossified as a result of political Zionism. In his first book, Alcalay traces the long history, dating back to the Andalusian era, of cooperation and cultural exchange between Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultures in the East. One of his arguments is that an exclusivist Jewish state betrays that rich history of religious co-existence and interdependence.
Alcalay gained a degree of notoriety throughout the 1990s when he began translating literary and political dispatches from Bosnia, which was then under siege. Some of the books that he translated, edited, and published here in the US include: “Portraits of Sarajevo” by Zlatko Dizdarevic, “The Tenth Circle of Hell” by Rezak Hukanovic, and “Sarajevo Blues” by Semezdin Mehmedinovic.
While he was at StanfordUniversity this winter for a brief teaching stint, I had the opportunity to meet Alcalay at several Bay Area cultural events, including his own poetry readings. We conducted this brief exchange via email, after his departure for New York City, where he lives and teaches in the Classics department at QueensCollege.
KJ: I’ve just written this introduction for our interview. Do you agree with my synopsis of your work? If not, what would you change?
AA: I would add that everything I do involves rethinking political and cultural boundaries. As a first generation American with roots in Southern Europe, Spain, and the Middle East, how does the European extermination of Jews or the destruction of Palestine affect my thinking about Native America, for instance? To reduce my work to a critique of political Zionism is to accept its either/or terms. You have to consider the changes from empire to nation/state; colonialism; the shift in power to Europe after World War I; the detrimental effects of various strains of Arab nationalism, particularly for Palestinians; and dozens of other things.
KJ: Yes, you’ve filled in some of the obvious blanks. Of course, Zionism itself is the product of a multiplicity of factors, including most of those that you’ve just mentioned. Which strains of Arab nationalism, to your mind, have been the most detrimental?
AA: Major Arab poets, take Buland al-Haydari, Nizar Qabbani, and others, wrote their most important poems as damning indictments of the bankruptcy of various regimes that, under the banner of nationalism and Arab unity, actually exploited and suppressed their own populations and manipulated the Palestinian issue to their own ends. We can see this in the poetry of Palestinians like Mahmoud Darwish. The other victims of this, of course, were Arab Jews, the most prominent and long-standing minority in the Arab world who found themselves between a rock and a hard place in the collusion between Zionism and various Arab regimes.
KJ: A large percentage of Jews from these embattled communities then emigrated to Israel. You are personally very active in promoting this Sephardic/Mizrahi Israeli culture. In fact, your book “Keys To the Garden” is devoted entirely to bringing Mizrahi writing to an American public. What are your reasons or purposes for engaging in this work?
AA: When I went to Jerusalem for the first time in the late 1970s, the politics were instantly clear to me. I never had to go through the euphoria and disappointment many Jews seem to pass through. There was a lot of social turmoil then and one of the pioneering Mizrahi political groups were the Black Panthers, so there was no confusion, for me, about where to go for connections. When I got to know the people and culture better, I found in it a way of bursting the bubble of consensus and false consciousness that characterizes mainstream Israeli and Zionist culture. Many of the works in “Keys to the Garden” are extremely painful and personal. This pain expressed by Mizrahim, in addition to the protests and social movements, was one of the first substantial alternatives to official Israeli history and it allowed people to get beyond official culture and to see where the real power relationships are located.
KJ: Yet the Mizrahim, as a group, suffer from what Frantz Fanon described as the psychology of the oppressed. This means that they tend to victimize whoever is lower on the hierarchy. In Israel, this is the Arabs. The Mizrahim are known to vote Likud, to vote for Occupation. You have said in “Memories” that the Mizrahi loyalty to Zionism is only skin-deep. Doesn’t this kind of viewpoint ignore people’s heartfelt (hawkish) beliefs?
AA: This is not a question of belief but of social position, relating to the class structure of Israeli society and its ethnic hierarchy. Mizrahim only moved up the Israeli social ladder after the occupation of 1967. Basic patterns of internal migration and upward mobility force most Mizrahim into certain physical and economic roles in relationship to Palestinians and the territories. So when middle-class Ashkenazi Israeli liberals and Palestinian elites talk about “peace” with no mention of social or economic justice, Mizrahim naturally get very nervous because they realize that this translates into a step backwards on the economic ladder. We are also talking about third generation Israelis who, although still Mizrahim, have very different experiences and educations than their parents and grandparents. They have been subjected to the Israeli reality, media, and educational system.
KJ: Well, I personally believe that there is no excuse for a vote for Sharon, for dispossession, for an illegal occupation, and de facto apartheid…. Just one more question about this topic. Much of your writing/translating concerns cultures in struggle, in times of war. You obviously have a deep understanding that literature not only emerges from a literal battleground, but also in fact IS a battleground. Conflict is embedded in all aspects of literature from its inception to its reception. With this in mind, what would you say to critics who might see “Keys Of The Garden” as a form of cultural “normalization” with Israel?
AA: You can’t equate rational analysis with justification. Nor can you engage in a struggle and hope to get somewhere without knowing precisely what you’re up against. All of the issues you mention — dispossession, illegal occupation, de-facto apartheid and, I would add, institutionalized torture, have been the hallmarks of all Israeli governments, whether Labor or Likud. To come along and say the Mizrahi vote keeps this structure in place has no basis in reality. The reality is that the legal system condones abuse. The reality is the structure and consensus. The fact is that so-called liberal parties refuse to ally with Palestinian Israeli parties who are out of the consensus.
The history of Arab Jews and the fate, actions, and attitudes of Mizrahim in Israel have remained a taboo subject far too long for most Arab intellectuals. The exceptions, such as the initiative taken by Elias Khoury and others at the commemoration of the Nakba in Beirut in 1998, are crucial to the intellectual and critical health of the Arab world. Too often, Arab intellectuals and Palestinian representatives have sought the wrong interlocutors amongst Israelis, bypassing the majority of the population. We need to look at the Middle East in much broader terms, taking into account class struggles, the manipulation of ethnic and religious identities, the creation of economic elites bound to maintaining control of the region, using resources for their own ends, and so on. Restoring the history of Arab Jews and Mizrahim remains a crucial challenge in the struggle for democracy and pluralistic thinking throughout the region.
KJ: You return in your work, over and over again, to the notion of “a public literary activism.” This phrase describes what you hope you are doing as you try to create space for certain types of marginalized writings. At the same time you have mentioned how “artists who matter” often have “a very small but highly involved audience.” Do these two concepts conflict with each other? And if so, how do you reconcile them?
AA: This gets to the heart of the contradictory kind of work I’m involved in. Our best American poets seldom sell more than a 1000 copies of a book--there is an understanding that such work reaches a small audience, mostly of other artists. “Keys to the Garden” has just gone into a second printing, after selling 3,000 copies. By American standards, these marginalized Mizrahi writers are doing pretty well. On the political level, I am one of a handful of American Jews who holds the kind of political positions I hold but also deals authoritatively with classical Jewish and contemporary Israeli culture. This makes it hard to debate me, so the mainstream just ignores me because they’re afraid to actually engage in discussion. At the same time, my influence is completely disproportionate because people who read me don’t read me casually, they read me as if it really matters and put my work to use. This is what counts, because it is very difficult to consume and, in the long run, it changes attitudes, disciplines and the parameters of knowledge.
KJ: You are deeply involved in the culture and politics of the Balkans, especially in Bosnia. How does this work relate to your work on Mizrahi/Arabic culture? Where are the most specific intersecting points?
AA: There are many parallels, besides my family history. First, Bosnia was one of the few places left, before the war, that maintained the kind of culture that existed in Andalusia — with public, civic, cultural, religious, and secular recognition of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The war was so brutal not because of “ancient hatred,” but because people were so closely intertwined. To tear people like this apart and produce hatred you must use irreconcilable violence. I see very similar patterns in the Middle East, both of closeness, recognition, and violent tearing apart.
KJ: Overall your vision for the future of the Arab World is a dreamy and poetic one. Your hope is that we will one day obviate all the nationalisms in the region to embrace a future of a ‘glorious (Levantine) impurity.’ Until that day arrives — when Israel will transform into a democratic, secular state with a membrane-like border, and when tyrannical pro-Western Arab regimes will dissolve in the shimmering light of a new balance of power…until that day, what new projects will you personally be working on?
AA: It always helps to have a dream beyond the constant and unspeakable horrors so many people are subjected to. My work opens new space to forge alliances, even on a small scale, but with a cold eye cast at the appalling state of things in general. As a critic, activist, writer, translator, and teacher I do have an effect on the way people who encounter me think. It might not be as significant as people in various kinds of life saving professions, but I think it has had an incremental effect in the world.
KJ: Speaking of dreamy poetics, I’d like to finish this interview with an image. This morning, I saw a bird flying across the road with a twig in her mouth. It was the twig she was carrying that let me know that she had somewhere to go, and something important to do. What about you?
AA: One of the twigs I’m trying to get across the road now is a combination of performance with music and text, partly to reach a wider audience. I did a performance, on a small scale, with the Palestinian musician Nabil Azzam in Los Angeles, and I’ve just done a much more ambitious one with another great Palestinian musician, Najib Shaheen, at Cooper Union’s Great Hall in New York. This one was very well received.
Over the years, I’ve seen that some of my most effective work is accomplished when people are confronted by a reality that is not an argument, but rather a challenge to their humanity. Poetry can work this way, to make the political human and the human political. When you add the musical dimension, the combination can be overwhelming and can make people consider things they never would have before.
This interview appeared in Al Jadid (Vol.7, no. 34, Winter 2001).
Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid