Poets of the Levant by Lee Smith

Part of the Profiles and Positions series.

BOMB 81 Fall 2002
BOMB 081

Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company


A decade ago, with the 500th anniversary of Columbus’s voyage to the New World, a lively academic debate centered on whether the date should be celebrated, or, for all that the New World’s native inhabitants had suffered, remembered in mourning. At least it’s clear that 1492 was a rout for much of Spain’s old world as well: the Jews were expelled from the Iberian Peninsula, and the Alhambra, Europe’s last Islamic outpost, fell to the armies of Columbus’s patrons. It marked the end of a culture that had flowered for close to five centuries thanks to, and sometimes in spite of, the coexistence of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. The sanguine word for that period in medieval history is Convivencia; the name of modern-day Andalusia is derived from the more evocative Arabic formulation for that time and place, al-Andalus—a phrase now charged with alarming political resonance.

“We shall never accept that the tragedy of al-Andalus would be repeated in Palestine,” said a chief Al Qaeda lieutenant, Ayman al-Zawahiri, during one of Osama bin Laden’s widely viewed videotape addresses. “We cannot accept that Palestine will become Jewish.”

Clearly, Convivencia is not the model Islamic terrorists have in mind. “They’re thinking of the golden age of Islam,” says Peter Cole, a poet and translator of medieval Spain’s Hebrew poetry. “They’re referring to the political supremacy of Islam and its cultural achievement, and then the tragedy of usurpation involved in the Andalusian story.”

Indeed, historical Andalusia has always been caught somewhere between an attractive literary ideal of cross-cultural and cross-linguistic interdependence and the reality of three monotheistic institutions constantly vying for political and cultural supremacy. “There was a great deal of ethnic tension and unrest and often bloodshed,” Cole explains. “The Convivencia had many rough edges to it.”

Nonetheless, as Cole himself admits, the ideal is so compelling that it’s hard not to want to see those edges smoothed over and the dream revived. He remembers when President Clinton went to Gaza and spoke about poets and generals and the peaceful coexistence of nations. “He talked about a vision he had of Andalusia,” Cole says. “In a moment of utter delusion I thought he might talk about my books.”

Cole was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1957 and moved to Israel in 1981, but he is something of an Andalusian by temperament and vocation. His books include translations of Shmuel HaNagid and Solomon Ibn Gabirol (both Princeton University Press), 11th-century Spanish-born Jews who were major figures of Hebrew poetry’s golden age. HaNagid, born in Cordoba in 993, was a man of vast culture and political savvy who became prime minister of Grenada and general of its Muslim army. Ibn Gabirol, born in Malaga in 1021, sought and won HaNagid’s powerful patronage—until the younger poet alienated his mentor, perhaps with one of his satires of court life. The pairing was destined not to last long: HaNagid was a public figure, and Ibn Gabirol was inclined to speculative philosophy and mystical Judaism. His work is often colored with resentment of the spectacular gaudery of his times, and his finest efforts look inward, like his best-known poem “Kingdom’s Crown,” a long confessional hymn to his creator. While HaNagid was capable of intimate verse, especially in his erotic poems, many of which are thought to have been addressed to young men, he excelled at verse forms like the boast and the wine song, important genres in Arabic verse dating back to pre-Islamic times. In a brief lyric called “Three Things,” HaNagid writes:

All who’d live by risk
And resistance manage
Three things:
High-sea commerce,
Excellent enemies,
And the company of kings.

Like other Hebrew poets, HaNagid and Ibn Gabirol borrowed liberally from the Arabic tradition, and Arabic poets returned the compliment. The combination of styles and the use of the languages spoken by Andalusians in daily life helped free the European lyric from the church’s universalizing Latin and pushed it toward the various demotic languages of Christian Europe. The Andalusians set the stage not only for Ezra Pound’s beloved troubadors but also for Dante, who without them would have had a duller palette. In his own work Cole draws extensively on that pulsing influence of the Mediterranean’s medieval intellectual climate, as a writer and now as a publisher as well.

In 1997, along with his wife, essayist Adina Hoffman, and another poet and translator, Gabriel Levin, Cole founded Ibis Editions, a small Jerusalem publishing house specializing in English translations of Levant-related literature. Their most recent list features a volume of poems by the great scholar Gershom Scholem, translated by Richard Sieburth and edited by Steven Wasserstrom. (Several poems from this collection appear on pages 86-87 of this issue.) Writing poetry wasn’t Scholem’s major accomplishment, Cole notes, but he wrote verse his entire life, and the poems articulate and illuminate the major themes of Scholem’s literary and philosophical concerns. Some of the poems are addressed to other writers and friends such as Walter Benjamin, Hans Jonas, Ingeborg Bachmann, and S. Y. Agnon. The catalog also includes a volume of poems by Esther Raab, the first native Israeli woman poet, and the collected poems of Avraham ben Yitzhak, aka Abraham Sonne, the first Hebrew modernist poet and a mysterious figure (revered by Elias Canetti) whose opus consists of only 11 poems. Also forthcoming is a translation by Peter Theroux of Palestinian novelist Emile Habiby’s late masterpiece, Saraya, the Ogre’s Daughter.

To date, Ibis’s small, handsome paperbound editions are best known in the United States and England. “Publishing in English puts you on the margins here,” says Cole. Ibis is starting to get some attention in Israeli literary circles, but the idea was always to make that world available to others. Ibis’s first list comprised fellow Jerusalem writers that Cole, Hoffman, and Levin thought deserved a wider audience. These were mostly poets associated with their Jerusalem circle, writers and intellectuals like Harold Schimmel and Dennis Silk, both of whom Saul Bellow described fondly in To Jerusalem and Back. “What was interesting about the Jerusalem circle,” says Cole, “is that their work constituted a kind of anthology. It has all these ripples that go out and all come back to this place.”

“That pluralistic tradition has existed for hundreds of years in this region,” explains Levin, a French-born English-language writer who’s lived in Jerusalem since 1972. “The Bible is an anthology of different cultures. And modern poets were excited by the mixture of cultures, Arabic and Hebrew, Greek and Coptic. That’s what we mean by the Levant.”

The Levant, Hoffman points out, is another loaded concept. “Israel is often spoken of as part of the Levant, which is a way to connect it to, say, Greece, and to blur the lines between Europe and Israel. Implicit is the idea that Israel is not connected to the Arab world,” she explains. “We are doing the opposite.”

Thus Ibis’s list is culled from a range of sources and eras. Revealment and Concealment: Five Essays is a selection of prose from Haim Nahman Bialik, who is usually considered the greatest modern Hebrew poet and whose work is virtually synonymous with the founding of Zionism. Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story is the first book-length translation of a leading Palestinian poet, Taha Muhammad Ali; Cole and Levin translated it themselves with their friend and former Arabic teacher, Yahya Hijazi. And, finally, perhaps Ibis’s signature volume, Michael Sells’s Stations of Desire, includes selected translations of Ibn ‘Arabi along with Sells’s original poems, influenced by the Sufi mystic. The legacy of Ibn ’Arabi, born near Murcia, Andalus, in 1165, reaches beyond that diverse branch of Islamic mysticism called Sufism and across the Islamic world. He is not popular, however, with Islamic fundamentalists. “Ibn ’Arabi has a profound critique of religious intolerance,” says Sells, a professor of religion at Haverford who has written extensively on Ibn ’Arabi. “He believes that the divine is found in every form and belief. To worship it as your own is to deny its appearance elsewhere. He is always open to the religious other.”

And yet for all the timely relevance of their project, Cole and his colleagues are careful to discount Ibis’s political impact. “It’s mostly tacit,” says Cole. “To talk about the hybridization of culture is, in this context, well, radical; it’s by no means a given in this part of the world right now.”

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Originally published in

BOMB 81, Fall 2002

Featuring interviews with Jane Hammond, Walid Ra’ad, Martina Kudlacek, Mahmoud Darwish, Jeffrey Eugenides, Steve Reich, Beryl Korot, and Christopher Shinn

Read the issue
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