The Ambiguous Legacy of Levantine Culture
In Chapter 2, I introduced Jacqueline Kahanoff and her book of essays, Mi-mizrah shemesh (From the east the sun), and argued that she advocated a creative Levantine cultural synthesis combining the progressive ideas of post-Enlightenment Europe with the refined civilization of Egypt. Kahanoff was a Levantine by cultural and social formation, as were many Mizrahim. But all the parties in the Zionist movement vehemently rejected Levantinism as an element of the modern, Hebrew culture they sought to create. Tzabar culture absorbed many material influences from its Middle Eastern environment—food, music, dance, language, architectural elements, and so forth. But its dominant exponents militantly insisted that the Arabs had no worthwhile ideas or social practices (except perhaps their customs of hospitality) to offer.
Mi-mizrah shemesh was published after Anwar al-Sadat's visit to Jerusalem and the start of the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations, and it is a component part of the literary movement asserting Egyptian Jewish identity in Israel that I have been describing. But only a few readers and reviewers were able to accept its positive portrayal of Levantinism. Yitzhaq Gormezano-Goren's Kayitz Aleksandroni (Alexandrian summer), also discussed in Chapter 2, was a part of this literary movement as well. His “Mediterraneanism” was also rejected by most Israeli reviewers. These works were the first major literary efforts to present a new and more positive view of Egypt to an Israeli audience through the opening created by the peace negotiations. But the reconsideration of cultural orientation they explicitly proposed could not yet be seriously contemplated by most Israelis. These Egyptian-born authors wrote of and from their own memories. Most critics could easily discount their sensibilities as a backward-looking nostalgia for an exilic past that Zionism sought to negate and transcend.
Nearly two decades later, Ronit Matalon, the daughter of Egyptian Jewish parents born in Israel, dramatically revalorized Levantinism in her intricate saga of a Jewish family's past in Egypt and their imperfectly reconstructed lives in Cameroon, Israel, and New York-Zeh ‘im ha-panim eleynu (The one facing us). Matalon reproduced verbatim two of Kahanoff's most distinctive essays, “Childhood in Egypt” and “Europe from Afar” (including the passages I have quoted in Chapter 2) as chapters in her novel. This demonstrative invocation of Kahanoff's authority was aesthetically and politically effective because in the years since the publication of Mi-mizrah shemesh, Kahanoff's work and reputation have gained stature among Mizrahi intellectuals and others searching for ways to integrate Israel into its Middle Eastern location. The publication of Mi-mizrah shemesh marked the launching of a broad Mizrahi cultural movement that amplified the effects of the assertion of the Egyptian Jewish presence in Israel.Zeh ‘im ha-panim eleynu, a complex and highly original novel preoccupied with Levantinism, benefitted from these changes in cultural sensibility and was highly praised by critics in the daily press and literary scholars.
Each chapter of the novel is built around an introductory photograph from the narrator's family album. Some are images of Matalon's actual family; some are random shots taken outside Egypt for which Matalon provides fictionalized captions situating them in Egypt; and some pictures are “missing.” Zeh ‘im ha-panim eleynu is therefore far more than a novel with substantial autobiographical elements. Matalon is aware that she cannot reproduce a complete and historically objective picture of her family's life in Egypt and beyond. Incorporating imperfection and contradiction in a nonlinear narrative style, she poignantly reconnects fragments of individual lives, family relationships, and social situations, evoking the flavor of Levantine culture by liberally sprinkling phrases in French, Arabic, and occasionally English over her highly refined and sophisticated Hebrew text. The family members have idiosyncratic and widely varying attitudes toward Egypt, which Matalon renders empathically without fully endorsing. She avoids the temptation to establish a comprehensive and definitive representation of Jewish life in Egypt, leaving open many possible understandings shaped by personal idiosyncrasies, individual responses to the accidents of history, and the vagaries of human memory.
The novel opens as the narrator, seventeen-year-old Esther, who has just finished eleventh grade in Israel, lands at the port of Douala in Cameroon, where her uncle Cicurel (Jako Cicurel) owns a fishing fleet. Jako and his wife, Marie-Ange, have lived in Brazzaville, Gabon, and Douala since leaving Cairo in the 1950s. “They are sending me there, to Africa, to the glorious uncle so that he might perhaps straighten out my head a little,” she muses. Esther's parents, born in Egypt and living in Israel, thus reverse the common pattern of middle-class American Jewish families who send their teenage children on trips to Israel to secure their Jewish identities and bond with the Jewish state. Most of the first third of the novel unfolds in Douala, giving the reader a diaspora—centered perspective on Esther's family history, despite the fact that most of the family resides in Israel.
Although the social and economic relations of postcolonial Douala continually recall the life of Esther's family in Cairo, she cannot “return” to Egypt. Matalon is quite clear that the colonial world in which Egyptian Jewish life was situated has ended and cannot be recreated. Uncle Cicurel has internalized the racialized hierarchies of the colonial order and lives a life of postcolonial privilege modulated by paternalistic concern for his African workers and sincere respect for their human dignity. But he is not fully European himself, so he resents and fears Europe and chooses to live in Africa. “Through this choice he found a twisted line of continuity of himself and of his world in which there was no real place allotted for national identity, but in which huge expanses were open to nourish any spark of individual human endeavor imaginable.”  The dangers of this world are revealed when Uncle Cicurel is stabbed by one of his workers toward the end of the book. But he does not consider abandoning it, and it is clear that he will recover without permanent damage and remain in Douala.
Like Esther's maternal grandfather, Uncle Cicurel vehemently rejects Zionism as destructive of the spirit of the family. Guided by this spirit, he retains strong ties to his family in Israel, including his sister, Ines, and her husband, Robert—Esther's parents. But he and Marie-Ange have visited Israel only once for forty-eight hours in the late 1950s.
Esther's oldest uncle, Moise, introduced Zionism to the family: “ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir, Le Mouvement, Marcelle Ninio, and all that,” as Esther dismissively refers to it. Ninio was a member of or close to ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir before becoming a spy for Israel. Recalling this connection as Moise's Zionist commitments are related for the first time invokes the images of incompetence, scandal, and betrayal associated with Operation Susannah and the Lavon affair. Like many of the young Jews in the milieu described in Jacqueline Kahanoff's essays included in the novel, Moise believed that “the options before us are very clear…to be a Zionist or a communist.”  He chose Zionism and left Egypt for Palestine in the late 1940s to join a kibutz.
Except for Uncle Cicurel and Esther's father, who died in Egypt, the rest of the family joined Moise some years later. Only Moise and Ines try to adapt to Israeli society, and they do not really succeed. Grandmother Fortuna even seeks to put Esther in a Catholic boarding school in Jaffa so that she will receive a proper education, but Ines will not hear of it. “La vraie Ines, I left her in Egypt,” mumbles Fortuna. She yearns for the refinement of the Arab and Francophone cultures of Egypt and disdains life in both Israel and Douala.
Esther's youngest uncle, Edouard, was raised on Moise's kibutz but leaves Israel to seek his fortune with his elder brother in Africa. Edouard beats the African workers Jako has charged him with supervising. His Israeli upbringing has taught Edouard a racism too crude for Jako to tolerate. Edouard returns to Israel and becomes head of the General Security Services investigation unit in the Gaza Strip. Eventually, he becomes “entirely Arab,” speaks Arabic almost exclusively, and criticizes Moise and Ines for assimilating to Ashkenazi culture and for their moderate attitudes toward the Palestinian Arabs (a political stand commonly associated with Ashkenazim). Moise does not understand where Edouard's embrace of Arab culture comes from. “Where did he see these things at home, all this hoo-hah?” he asks. “Maybe they were there and we didn't know it,” says Ines. “Maybe we didn't see.” 
In the 1960s, Moise asked the kibutz to allow him to study drawing. His request was denied, and Moise abruptly left the kibutz, feeling that he was discriminated against because of his Mizrahi origins. Moise does not abandon his Zionist commitment and determines to retain “only the good in it.”
Esther's father, Robert, mocks Moise: “Your enlightened ones there in the kibutz, the miserable racists who are settling on Arab land, are they good or bad?”  Robert supports pan-Arab nationalism and admires Gamal Abdel Nasser. He is emotionally devastated by Egypt's defeat in the Six Day War. “What did we win? You will eat this conquest until it comes out of your nose,” he proclaims prophetically. Coming to Israel, “a piece of land not worth a spit,” was a nightmare for Robert. He turns his anger over the treatment of Mizrahim in Israel into political activism and runs for a city council seat, raising the issues of “discrimination against Sephardim,” “the permanent lie of security of the state,” and “the hatred of the Orient of the ruling stratum.”  He looses the election to a MAPAI nominee by two votes and, frustrated and depressed, abandons his home and family. Robert is an emotionally unstable character, and his preposterous political commitments (for a Jew living in Israel) ensure that readers will not regard his voice as definitive. But this enables Matalon to express, through Robert, fundamental criticisms of Israeli society with rare clarity.
Robert's sister Nadine lives in New York. He and Esther come to look for her when she becomes mentally ill and disappears. They engage a private investigator, Armando, who asks Robert when he last saw Nadine. Hearing that it was forty-one years ago, Armando mistakenly concludes that Robert is a Holocaust survivor. Robert tries to explain in broken English: “No Holocaust, no camp, mister Armando, understand? EGYPT, you know Egypt? Good life, good people, good country, no Holocaust.” 
Nadine's very Americanized and stereotypically superficial daughter, Suzette (Zuza), comes to Israel to interview Ines for a book about her roots, the breakup of the family, and the breakup of the colonial world. Ines has a brief and simple story: “I can only say that we were very happy. We were all very happy in Egypt, much happier than here. We ate a lot, we played, we did silly things, we laughed at any silliness, Zuza, like children. That's what I can tell you about our lives.” 
Suzette tries to extract more information. “Are you sorry that you left Egypt, tante?”
“Not sorry,” replies Ines. “Longing for it, dying from longing, that yes, not sorry. Our lives there were over, Zuza.”
“But your roots are there tante,” protests Suzette.
Ines closes the conversation, “A person does not need roots, he needs a home.” 
Ines offers a very limited justification for Israel, not as a revival of the ancient Jewish homeland or a site for the creation of the new Jew, but as a necessary refuge when it was no longer possible to continue life in Egypt. This pragmatic, Levantine outlook eschews ideological abstraction. Indeed, no one in Esther's family presents an ideologically coherent solution to his or her condition. Moise's abandonment of the kibutz expresses his disillusionment with the Zionist idealism of his youth, though he will not renounce it. Uncle Cicurel is wealthy and comfortable in Douala but knows he does not “belong” there. Ines is physically secure in Israel but impoverished and socially marginal. Robert is deeply unhappy and psychologically distressed. Edouard lives a schizophrenic existence, adopting Arab culture while working in the repressive apparatus of the Israeli occupation of the Gaza Strip. Nadine is either homeless or has flown into the sky at 6th Avenue and 59th Street in New York (but appears alive and well in the next chapter). Suzette is insubstantial, self-centered, and oblivious to the poverty of her aunt, Ines. Left to make sense of her family's history, Esther concludes only that she is her father's daughter, no matter what. No wonder she arrives in Douala in a state of confusion.