There is no shortage of books about the Middle East; but almost all of them focus on politics and religion, with a partisan edge and an air of crisis. The Dune’s Twisted Edge: Journeys in the Levant, the new book of literary and personal essays by the poet Gabriel Levin, could not be more different. Perhaps that is because Levin is not writing about the Middle East but about “the Levant” — an outmoded nineteenth-century term for the same region, but one whose connotations of eclecticism and exoticism he happily embraces. He wants to revive the “medley of people and languages once known with mingled affection and wariness as Levantine.” For the Levant — at least, his Levant — is a place where cultures coexist and cross-fertilize, instead of doing battle. And Levin, whose own name chimes with that of his dream, is the Levant’s twenty-first-century spokesman — “a roving free agent in the Middle East, nourished by its layers of myths, its diverse folklores, and its ancient as well as its modern poetic traditions.”
Levin is a Jew who grew up in Israel and America, but he writes in his preface that his parents held Israeliness at a distance: “We lived, so it seemed, in a strange, extraterritorial zone, neither tourists nor full citizens.” The five essays that make up this book are attempts to evoke and map that zone. They excavate the historical and literary roots of contemporary Israeli culture, Jewish and especially Arab, in order to show that today’s entrenched divisions are not eternal.
In “Hezekiah’s Tunnel,” Levin traces the history of his neighborhood in Jerusalem, which was once the German Colony, built by Protestant settlers in the late nineteenth century. Nearby lies the ruins of Khirbat al-Mafjar, an eighth-century palace and bathhouse complex, where an early caliph once led a sybaritic existence. And in the twentieth century, the local kibbutz was home to a mad poet named Noah Stern, who believed himself haunted by poltergeists and eventually tried to murder his neighbor. Weaving together these strands in short sections, Levin sounds like a Jerusalem version of W. G. Sebald, exhausted yet energized by the sheer weight of history in this corner of the world.
A similar collage technique is at work in “Galilean Centos,” which finds Levin exploring an Arab village built on the site of an ancient Greek town, Gadara. A cento is a poem made up of lines from other poems, an apt metaphor for the kind of cultural recycling Levin sees at work in the Levant — “intertextual, syncretic, transgressive.” Gadara was once home to the Greek poet Meleager, author of erotic epigrams; later, a Byzantine empress lived there; the ruins of a synagogue stand nearby, and today it is a village with two names, one Arabic and one Hebrew. Other essays perform a parallel kind of literary archeology, delving into the odes of pre-Islamic Arabic poets and arguing for “the arabesque” as a proto-modernist poetic form. There is always something literary and utopian about Levin’s vision of multiculturalism; but it is reassuring to know that in a land of walls, a poet, at least, is able to cross borders freely.
Is the United States an empire? Conventional wisdom would say yes; but as her punning title suggests, Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman argues in American Umpire (Harvard) that the country has been more beneficent than that. In her review of American foreign policy since 1776, Hoffman writes that American power has helped to spread democratic capitalism and support the rule of law around the world.
The writers Frederic Raphael and Joseph Epstein have never met. But Raphael, a British screenwriter and novelist, and Epstein, an American essayist, have been writing to each other about personal, professional, and political subjects for years. Distant Intimacy: A Friendship in the Age of the Internet (Yale) is a selection of their messages, proving that the Internet need not mean the decline of the old-fashioned literary correspondence.
People used to have nervous breakdowns and take time off from life; today, they are diagnosed with depression, dosed with Prozac, and sent back to work. In How Everyone Became Depressed (Oxford), psychiatrist Edward Shorter explores the history of the idea of nervous illness, and argues that it could still be a useful concept for our stressed-out age.