Gabriel Levin's essay collection on the Levant weaves together literature, history and geography in an effort to sketch the sensibility of the whole region, writes Kanishk Tharoor
Book review: essays on the Levant an elegant collection
A travel writer typically ventures to far-flung lands and returns with fresh visions and understandings of places remote from his readers. Occasionally, the same feat can be accomplished by journeying into time. The poet and translator Gabriel Levin is the kind of traveller who might use ancient texts as guidebooks to the present. The past is not a foreign country for Levin - it is the only country worth visiting. In The Dune's Twisted Edge, his collection of essays on the Levant, Levin weaves history into rich and immediate descriptions of place. When among the Bedouins of the Negev, he quotes the sand-swept verses of the pre-Islamic poet Imru Al Qays. He searches for traces of the Byzantine empress Eudocia and the Greek poet Meleager in the hotsprings of the Galilee. Traipsing around the desert in Jordan, he studies ancient rock inscriptions and reads them for meanings that can bridge the centuries.
At the core of these meandering essays is the almost impossible aspiration of sketching the sensibility of a whole region, the Levant. "How to speak of the imaginative reach of a land habitually seen as a seedbed of faiths and heresies, confluences and ruptures … ruin and renewal, fault line and ragged clime, with a medley of people and languages once known with mingled affection and wariness as Levantine?"
His elegant collection offers less of a direct response to this question and more of a delicate sketch in its sifting of the literary history of the Levant. It also traces Levin's own intimate relationship to the region, where he found "the exhortation to make something of his life." Conventionally understood as the countries bordering the eastern Mediterranean, the Levant has a much more intimate and transcendent meaning for Levin. Etymology in this case tells a rather lyrical story. The term Levant has its origins in the French verb for "to rise" - a reference to the rising sun, and hence the east - but Levin takes pleasure in the additional French homophone of le vent, "wind", which stirs in him a romantic mood. "In my imagination," he writes, "the wind, the sunrise, and the Levant were all one and the same." The wind and the rising sun are full symbols for a region so much at the crossroads, a land so desired and so contested.
The essays in the collection range from exercises in literary criticism - an exploration, for instance, of Mesopotamian narratives of the journey to the underworld - to vivid and impressionistic accounts of Levin's visits in the Negev, Jordan and the Galilee, to experimental poetry. Their direct connections are at times tenuous, but the various efforts here are linked by Levin's warm style and sensitivities, the relentless claims that nature and history have on his imagination.
One cannot help but feel that Levin is a romantic in the increasingly rare, almost nostalgic 19th-century romantic sense. His experience of the joys of rural settings and vistas is as visceral as it is earnest. His own poetry (of which he has published four collections) is rife with tremulous descriptions of the natural world, especially the desert and its human and animal inhabitants. The essays in The Dune's Twisted Edge invariably focus on areas outside the crowded bounds of towns and settlements: ancient wadis, ramshackle desert outposts and hot springs in the hills. In his deep fascination with present-day and historical Bedouin nomads, he reveals a very modern, urban longing for pastoral life. He seeks a kind of communion with the eternal, timeworn patterns of human movement and contemplation. No wonder then that he claims that both ancient Hebrews and ancient Arabs "must have had their best thoughts while herding their livestock".
Levin also has an antiquarian's fondness for old inscriptions and graffiti, the casual scrawls of other times. "Why is it," he asks, "that whenever we step into the ruins of an ancient site our eyes immediately seek out ephemera peeking out from the broken columns and crumbling masonry?" In Jordan, he lovingly traces rock inscriptions in Nabatean and Thamudic script, and marvels at their scattered significance, "scant vocables dispersed across the desert's vast theatre like the archipelagos of a fractured syntax". In the Greco-Roman town of Gadara in the Galilee, he brings his Arab guide into the ruins of a bathhouse to examine a verse by the Byzantine empress Eudocia cut into a wall. He marvels elsewhere at the Greek inscription left by a Muslim caliph. And he savours the "shepherd's graffiti" of the ancient Arabian peninsula that announced both the mundane ("And this is Hadir, drowsy because of illness") and the sordid ("Z'g and Zufray have committed adultery. / And this deed stinks worse than a stinking fart"). For Levin, texts are not simply those preserved in archives and libraries and handed down through the generations; in the most basic way, texts live in the world.
Another refrain of this collection are the verses of the pre-Islamic desert poets of Arabia, the writers of qasida or lyric poetry. Most notable among these poets is the sixth-century AD Imru Al Qays, whose work has been translated and to whom he frequently refers. Until the advent of Islam, Al Qays' verses allegedly hung around the Ka'ba in Mecca along with the poems of several other Arabian poets of the sixth century, to form a collection known as the mu'allaqat - "the hanging poems". The rhythms and longings of this poetry are central to Levin's representation of the "poetics" of the Levant. The mu'allaqat evoke heroism, eroticism, and solitude amid the implacable landscape of the desert. Its heroes love, conquer, and mourn across the dunes.
Modern readers will be surprised at the frankness and sensuality of some of these verses, particularly in Levin's translation of Al Qays' romantic escapades. "We crossed the campground and dropped / out of sight in the ribbed hollow of a giant dune, / and when I parted her braids, she leaned forward - / slender-hipped, firm-ankled, slim, egg-white, / her abdomen flat and breast-bones / buffed like a burnished mirror." However tantalising his trysts may be, the poet is at all times aware of the threat of desolation - such is the fickleness of life in the desert, of how quickly the warmth of a nomadic society can fade into the loneliness of the wild. Imru Al Qays laments:
I've trekked across many a wadi
bare as the belly of a wild ass, where the lean wolf howls
like an outcast grubbing for scraps. And I said to him
when he finished his howling, "Aren't we a pair,
the two of us hard up, living on air, and when something comes
our way, it slips through our fingers. Scavengers
will find scant pickings on your parcel of land, or mine."
In this vein, a particularly powerful motif in the mu'allaqat is the poet's contemplation of the abandoned campsite of his beloved. Staring at ashes and the remains of tents, the poet recalls his short-lived tryst. In Levin's interpretation, these moments of reflection have less to do with romantic love than with the Bedouin relationship to space and place. "The ruined abode haunted by the phantom of the beloved undoubtedly served as a memory trace of those ephemeral moments suspended between gain and loss, homecoming and dispersion."
The pre-Islamic poets did not imagine the desert as a trackless expanse, its dunes sweeping undifferentiated to the horizon. Indeed, one of the functions of the qasida was to populate the landscape with markers, from oases to landmarks to "ruined abodes." The qasida both captured the nomadic spirit of Arabia and forged a map of the desert. Heroic poets who traversed the dunes compared their camels to ships; the neck of the camel was like "the prow" of a vessel, while the beasts themselves were akin to the "great schooners" plying the waves of the Mediterranean. Even in the desert, the sea remained an integral part of the Levantine imagination.
If part of the Levantine sensibility can be found in the Arabian Desert - "nourished by the luminous void of the Empty Quarter" - then another part faces west to the Mediterranean. In its "unifying ethos of contrary inclinations", the Levant brings together both the mingled cultures of the sea coasts and the habits of the desert. When he travels to the Galilee in the north of Israel, Levin considers the diverse Greco-Roman imprint on the Levant. He visits the crumbling remnants of the antique city of Gadara, once home to the second century BC poet and epigramist Meleager, whose work and worldview contained strains of various cultures - including Greek, Phoenician and Syrian. Levin ponders briefly whether Meleager was "Greek" or "Syriac" in terms of ethnicity, but the question is impossible to answer. It can be so difficult in the Levant to untangle one identity from another.
Though Levin shows little interest in grappling with politics head-on, one senses his frustration with the national narrative of Israel. Part of the goal of this collection is to find a broader place for Israel in both the present and the past. Other intellectuals have sought, like Levin, to do just this, to conjure "a vision of rejuvenated Hebrew soul rooted in the heterodox pagan cultures of the Fertile Crescent". Levin takes up this task implicitly, if not directly. He does occasionally dwell on minor political issues - for instance, the plight of the Bedouin in the Negev, bound to the paradoxical condition of "sedentary nomadism" - but he does not explicitly discuss the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict and its implications.
This reticence is perhaps in keeping with the real ambition of the collection. Levin lives in a region fissured more than most by strident claims to identity and place in the modern world. To be an Israeli is at once to be the product of the very contemporary process of nation-making and to appeal to an exclusive millennial connection to the land. Levin, whose sympathies would most likely position him on the far left of the Israeli political spectrum, seeks to build an inclusive sense of belonging and place in the Levant. His essays skirt the modern clutter of nationalisms. Through his wanderings, encounters, and reflections, they trace the contours of a broader identity rooted in the shared past of the region.
Kanishk Tharoor is a fellow in the Creative Writing Program at New York University.