- Memories of Our Future: Selected Essays, 1982–1998
In nearly twenty years as a poet, critic, editor, and activist, Ammiel Alcalay has worked to broaden our cultural and literary perceptions of Arabs and Jews in all their vicissitudes, including the perceptions common in the Hispanic world. Collected in Memories of Our Future are Alcalay’s reports and disquisitions from the field. All exhibit uncompromising passion. About half of them deal with Sephardic civilization.
Born in Boston to Jewish immigrants from Yugoslavia, Alcalay, author of After Jews and Arabs, promotes a compelling view of what he perceives as the past unity of Mediterranean culture. The volume contains pieces devoted to Arabic literature [End Page 169] in general and to Naguib Mahfouz in particular. Others address the war in Bosnia and the siege of Sarajevo. Indeed, in the section “On the Home Front: for/Za Sarajevo,” Alcalay casts Sarajevo as the new Granada, in which peoples claiming citizenship in the land in which they dwell have suffered another tragic blow. But the fate of Levantine civilization feels more certain when he discusses Jewish topics, such as the work of Edouard Jabès. Since the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment that began around the time of the French Revolution, Sephardic culture has remained anomalous and enigmatic, Alcalay argues, ghettoized in a “Golden Age” of Spanish Jewry that prevents that culture’s inclusion in the dominant Ashkenazic society. Drawing his inspiration from the philosophy of Maimonides and Jacques Derrida, Alcalay traces the plight of Sephardic civilization, which was first excised from Spanish history in 1492 and was later ignored by Israel’s nation builders. Spanish novelist Juan Goytisolo emphasizes this view in his introduction: “The European-Ashkenazi literary canon imposes a critical reductionism that negates and excludes.”
Not surprisingly, such themes are seldom embraced by critics at large. The opposition Alcalay faces is highlighted in “Behind the Scenes: Before After Jews and Arabs,” an essay in which he quotes his detractors extensively to demonstrate the stiff resistance he has encountered from the guardians of national literature who prefer to maintain borders between Jews and Arabs. This is a pattern in Israel, where the reigning elite of European Zionists has created a national Hebrew literature and culture at the expense of its Arabic counterparts, be they crafted by native Palestinians or by mizrahi Jews. Alcalay proposes restoring the multicultural citizenship of pre-1948 Palestine: “It seems to me that the only chance for Hebrew culture is to grow backward: to bring to bear all the power and richness it can muster from the past by losing the fear of reaching the point of freedom it takes to be ‘traditional.’”
Intensely personal, most of these essays acknowledge the extent to which Spain is in Alcalay’s heart. One gets the impression, however, that he has given up hope that the Iberian Peninsula will ever be reconciled to its Semitic past: “The idea that Spanish culture might, for instance, be the result of an intense struggle, for, between and against the memory and reality of its Arabic and Hebrew past, rather than the ‘self-evident’ ‘national’ outgrowth of a particular ethnic group, is rarely taken as an initial assumption.”
In this book nostalgia is the ticket to a past that appears less fragmented than the present. But was it, really?