Language, Voice, and the Poetics of Trauma in Modern Levantine Literatures: A Yiddish-Arabic Dialogue
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Language, Voice, and the Poetics of Trauma in Modern Levantine Literatures
A Yiddish-Arabic Dialogue

Defining Trauma, Defining "Levantinism"

As a geographical and cultural region, the Levant has been fractured by intense political violence, with the result that its literature is rich with themes of loss and dislocation. These ethno-national, political, and religious fractures and attendant literary themes have frequently been examined through a postcolonial lens, with scholars rejecting the imposition of regional categories on literature (i.e., "Middle Eastern literature" or "Commonwealth writing") as a perpetuation of Eurocentric attitudes and colonial rule that saw territory being carved up and parceled out among the European powers.1 Postcolonial theory has been instrumental in sketching out alternative literary geographies through its acute sensitivity to language, which is "central to the colonial and postcolonial experience. . . . Language became an instrument of control and command, and anticolonial resistance therefore necessarily included as one of its dimensions resistance to the colonizer's language."2 However, despite this sensitivity to language, postcolonial terminology in itself is unable to fully convey the cumulative impact of war, population displacement, and military occupation on cultural and artistic life. As Ammiel Alcalay writes, "To speak of a 'postcolonial culture'—no matter what kind of intellectual gymnastics [End Page 1] are involved and despite the term's reference—obscures the fact that people are still colonized, albeit in new and different ways."3 Recognizing the need to develop a still more nuanced language that remains sensitive to the ongoing forms of colonial violence, this article examines the potential for trauma theory to enrich the conceptual vocabulary we use about contemporary Levantine writing and consequently to refine and reconfigure our understanding of the context from which this writing has emerged.

The term Levant is itself contested due to its colonial past, but from the 1990s it began to gain currency in academic circles as a positive descriptor, with scholars such as Alcalay using it to describe a fertile "contemporary cultural space" rather than as a toponym.4 Its potency as a postcolonial term is derived from the sense of the Levant as "defined by categorical transgression and restless mobility . . . a discursive category of alterity . . . [that] does not represent the Oriental Other a la Said, but rather Mary Douglas's ambivalent unclassifiable."5 The term Levant has been reclaimed for the postcolonial lexicon through attention to the same notion of hybridity and its liberating power that distinguishes Homi Bhabha's work. This shift was foreshadowed in the work of the Egyptian Jewish writer Jacqueline Shohat Kahanoff, who envisioned the Levant as "a prism whose various facets are joined by the sharp edge of differences, but each of which, according to its position in a space-time continuum, reflects or refracts light. Indeed, the concept of light is contained in the word Levant as in the word Mizrah, and perhaps the time has come for the Levant to re-evaluate itself by its own lights, rather than to see itself through Europe's sights."6 Her concept of the Levant was informed by her own transplantation from Cairo to the nascent state of Israel and is distinguished by rupture and stratification—"the fracturing [of the region] into stubborn local subcultures and the multi-layered identities of the Levant's peoples."7 Rupture holds an equally central place in trauma theory, leading Michael Rothberg to comment: "It is difficult for me to imagine trauma as not involving dislocation of subjects, histories, and cultures."8 Such dislocation, while traumatic in nature, possesses a fertility that is epitomized by the richness of contemporary Levantine writing, several examples of which are examined by Gil Hochberg in her work on the limits of the separatist imagination in Israel/Palestine.9 The connection between creativity and dislocation is pithily captured in the Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti's [End Page 2] description of a meeting with an Israeli soldier: "His gun took from us the land of the poem and left us with the poem of the land."10 Attuned to the significance of dislocation in both Levantine writing and trauma theory, in choosing texts for analysis in this article I have turned to one of the...