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GHOSTLY LABOR: ETHNIC CLASSISM IN THE LEVANTINE PRISM OF JACQUELINE KAHANOFF'S JACOB'S LADDER

  • Amr Kamal (a1)
Abstract

In her writings, the Egyptian-born Israeli author Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff advocated Levantine cosmopolitanism, which she dubbed Levantinism, as a unique cultural model particular to the Eastern Mediterranean. Through an analysis of Kahanoff's novel Jacob's Ladder (1951), this article questions the nostalgic image often associated with Egyptian cosmopolitanism. I argue that this text provides rare insight into the process through which Levantine culture developed amid several competing imperial and nationalist projects. In particular, I show how the novel's depiction of Levantine spaces documents the marginalized role of the working class in the education of elite Levantine society and its acquisition of cultural capital. My analysis also explores how the construction and sustenance of a celebrated image of the Levantine past depended on the racialization of labor, or what I call “ethnic classism.” Through this latter process, a labor force made up of other cosmopolitan subjects was Orientalized and relegated to the background where it served to highlight a European-like Levantine cosmopolitanism.

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NOTES

Author's note: Many thanks to Olga Greco, Nancy Linthicum, Lina Newton, Elazar Elhanan, Jeffrey Culang, and the fellows at the Faculty Fellowship Publication Program (FFPP) for their valuable feedback and comments.

1 Throughout the article I refer to the author as Jacqueline Kahanoff.

2 Kahanoff, Jacqueline Shohet, Jacob's Ladder (London: Harvill Press, 1951), 180 .

3 For clarity, I have followed the spelling of Arabic names used in the novel.

4 For examples of these memoirs, see n. 19.

5 Genesis (28:11–19). “And he dreamed, and behold a ladder set up on the earth, and the top of it reached to heaven: and behold the angels of God ascending and descending on it. And, behold, the LORD stood above it, and said, I am the LORD God of Abraham thy father, and the God of Isaac: the land whereon thou liest, to thee will I give it, and to thy seed; And thy seed shall be as the dust of the earth, and thou shalt spread abroad to the west, and to the east, and to the north, and to the south: and in thee and in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed.”

6 See Beinin, Joel, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1998), 6089 .

7 Reynolds, Nancy Y., “Sharikat al-Bayt al-Misri: Domesticating Commerce in Egypt, 1931–1956,” Arab Studies Journal, 7–8 (1999–2000): 85; Reynolds, A City Consumed: Urban Commerce, The Cairo Fire, and the Politics of Decolonization in Egypt (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2012), 210.

8 For more on Jacqueline Kahanoff, see Starr, Deborah and Somekh, Sasson, “Editors’ Introduction,” in Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, ed. Starr, Deborah and Somekh, Sasson (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2011), xiii–xv; Hochberg, Gil, “‘Permanent Immigration’: Jacqueline Kahanoff, Ronit Matalon, and the Impetus of Levantinism,” Boundary 32 (2004): 221; and Alcalay, Ammiel, Keys to the Garden: New Israeli Writing (San Francisco, Calif.: City Light Books, 1996), 18.

9 Starr and Somekh, “Editors’ Introduction,” xiv.

10 See Baring, Evelyn, Modern Egypt, vol. 2 (New York: Macmillan, 1908).

11 Halim, Hala, Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism: An Archive (Bronx, N.Y.: Fordham University Press, 2013), 199200; Camp, Maxime Du, Souvenirs d'Egypte (Paris: Hachette, 1892), 118–40. See also the Levantine character of Sabatini in Zola, Emile, L'argent (Paris: Flammarion, 2009).

12 Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff, “Afterword,” in Mongrels or Marvels, 247; Hochberg, Gil, In Spite of Partition: Jews, Arabs and the Limits of Separatist Imagination (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2007), 4550.

13 Shohat, Ella, “Rupture and Return: Zionist Discourse and the Study of Arab Jews,” Social Text 21 (2003): 4952. On the Egyptian context, see Krämer, Gudrun, “The Beginning of the End,” in The Jews in Modern Egypt 1914–1952 (London: I.B.Tauris, 1989), 205–21.

14 Shohat, Ella, “Dislocated Identities; Reflections by an Arab Jew,” Against the Current 8 (2003): 1 .

15 Shohat, , Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (London: I.B.Tauris, 2010), 106–7.

16 Ibid., 9. Shohat provides a survey of Israeli films in which “ethnic/class division is presented . . . as natural and inevitable.” Arab Jews are Orientalized and presented as either domestic help or humble workers, while Ashkenazi Jews are portrayed as leaders and intellectuals. Quote from pp. 119–20. On the same subject, Ammiel Alcalay, quoting Trinh Min-ha, explains: “In Israel, the Jewish labourer is Oriental despite the fact that he was born to parents who in all likelihood were not employed as labourers . . . He is Oriental because . . . [he] is representative of his ‘race’—the ethnic group as a whole.” As quoted in Alcalay, Ammiel, After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture (Minneapolis, Minn.: University of Minnesota Press), 26.

17 Starr and Somekh, “Editors’ Introduction,” xii.

18 Kahanoff, Jacqueline Shohet, Jacob's Ladder (London: Harvill Press, 1951), 247.

19 Alcalay, Keys to the Garden, v–vi.

20 For recent documentaries produced in Egypt on Egyptian Jews and foreign minorities, see Salata Baladi, directed by Nadia Kamel (Cairo: Women Make Movies, 2007); Jews of Egypt, direted by Amir Ramsis (Cairo: Session, 2012); and That Alexandria, dir. Sherif Fathi Salem (Alexandria, Spot1tv and Aljazeera Documentary Channel, 2013). See also the Egyptian television series Harat al-Yahud, dir. Mohamed Gamal El Adl and Mahmoud Zahran (Cairo, El Adl Group, 2015). For novels from Egypt, see Meguid, Ibrahim Abdel, No One Sleeps in Alexandria (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2006); and Fetiha, Moʿtaz, Akhir Yahud al-Iskandariyya (Cairo: Oktob, 2009). For books on Cairo and Alexandria's urban history, see Ilbert, Robert, Alexandria 1860–1960: A Brief Life of a Cosmopolitan Community, ed. Ilbert, Robert, Yannakakis, Ilios, and Hassoun, Jacques, trans. Colin Clement (Alexandria: Harpocrates, 2007); and Raafat, Samir, Cairo, the Glory Years: Who Built What, Why and for Whom (Alexandria: Harpocrates, 2005). From Israel, see Sakal, Moshe, Yolanda, trans. Valérie Zenatti (Paris: Stock, 2012); and Matalon, Ronit, The One Facing Us, trans. Marsha Weinstein (New York: Holt, 1995). For novels from France, see Jacques, Paula, Gilda Stambouli souffre et se plaint (Paris: Mercure de France, 2002). For further examples, see n. 24.

21 I draw on Ann Laura Stoler's analysis of the “politics of memory” in the memoirs of elites from colonial Java, which often represent domestics in a romantic, nostalgic light. This representation contradicts the account of the actual workers who served in colonial houses. Stoler, Ann Laura, Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule (Berkeley, Calif., and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2002), 24.

22 See, for instance, Starr, Deborah, Remembering Cosmopolitan Egypt: Literature, Culture and Empire (London: Routledge, 2009); Starr, “Drinking, Gambling, and Making Merry: Waguih Ghali's Search for Cosmopolitan Agency,” Middle Eastern Literatures 9 (2006): 271–85; Hochberg, In Spite of Partition; and Levy, Lital, Poetic Trespass Writing between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2014), 4 .

23 Fahmy, Khaled, “The Essence of Alexandria,” Manifesta Journal 14 (2009): 6572; Halim, Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism, 8; Mabro, Robert, “Nostalgic Literature on Alexandria,” in Historians in Cairo: Essays in Honor of George Scanlon, ed. Edwards, Jill (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2002), 251; Deborah Starr, Remembering Cosmopolitan Egypt; Miccoli, Dario, Histories of the Jews of Egypt: An Imagined Bourgeoisie, 1880s–1950s (New York: Routledge, 2015), 54 .

24 Gudrun Krämer, The Jews in Modern Egypt, 8–67; Mabro “Nostalgic Literature on Alexandria,” 238.

25 See, for instance, Aciman, André, Out of Egypt (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994); Jacques, Paula, Lumière de l'oeil (Paris: Mercure de France, 1980); Teboul, Victor, La lente découverte de l'etrangeté (Montréal: Les intouchables, 2002); and Mahfouz, Naguib, Miramar (New York: Anchor Books, 1978). Mahfouz describes Zohra, a rural woman who works in an Alexandrian bed and breakfast, as an embodiment of a modern Egypt coveted by the different hotel guests.

26 Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of Theory of Practice (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977), 7879 .

27 McCLintock, Ann, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Context (New York: Routledge, 1995), 5254. McClintock introduces the concept of “commodity racism” to analyze the connection between consumerism and the representation of race and gender. She also analyzes the portrayal of the English and Irish working class and its representation as colonial subjects to be civilized.

28 Ibid., 36.

29 See, for instance, Anidjar, Gil, The Jew, the Arab: A History of the Enemy (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2003), xii–xvii. Anidjar delineates the different colonial legal strategies of classification that distinguish between native and nonnative colonial subjects.

30 My notion of “ethnic classism,” especially the connection to the civilizing mission and the ambiguous representation of labor in metropole and colonial subjects, draws and elaborates on Ann McCLintock's concept of “commodity racism” and Mona Domosh's idea of “flexible racism.” For the latter, see Domosh, Mona, Commodities in an Age of Empire (New York: Routledge, 2006), 181–94. Domosh explores the connection between 19th- and early 20th-century racial representation in American society and consumerism, as evidenced in the commercial advertising created for international markets which promoted the idea that the use of American products embodies the promise of becoming “white through consumption.” Domosh, Commodities, 189.

31 Stoler, Ann Laura and McGranahan, Carole, “Reconfiguring Imperial Terrains,” in Imperial Formations, ed. Stoler, Ann Laura, McGranahan, Carole, and Perdue, Peter C. (Santa Fe, N.Mex.: School of Advanced Research Press, 2007), 8 .

32 These complex connections have been at the center of recent studies on Egypt's colonial history. See, for instance, Jacob, Wilson Chacko, Working out Egypt: Effendi Masculinity and Subject formation in Colonial Modernity, 1870–1940 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2011), 6; and Fahmy, Ziad, Creating the Modern Nation through Popular Culture (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2011).

33 Stoler and McGranahan, “Reconfiguring Imperial Terrains,” in Imperial Formations, 8.

34 Krämer, The Jews of Modern Egypt, 38.

35 Ibid., 9.

36 Stoler, Ann Laura and Cooper, Frederick, “Between Metropole and Colony, Rethinking a Research Agenda,” in Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, ed. Stoler, Ann Laura and Cooper, Frederick (Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press, 1997), 6.

37 Kahanoff, Jacob's Ladder, 3. A ḥabāra is a traditional veil worn mostly by elite and middle-class Egyptian women during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

38 Ibid., 14.

39 Said, Edward, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 112 . Said invokes Benjamin Disraeli's novel Tancred to expose the collusion between the ethnic representation of Jews and Arabs: “Arabs are simply Jews on horseback, and all are Orientals at heart.” See also Anidjar, Gil, Semites (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2008), 28 , 33. Anidjar elaborates on what he terms the “Semitic hypothesis,” that is, the European creation of the ethnic marker “Arab” and the religious marker “Jew.” He demonstrates how in these particular classifications of the Semitic race, ethnic and religious markers collide.

40 Kahanoff, Jacob's Ladder, 4.

41 Stoler, Carnal Knowledge, 133.

42 Kahanoff, Jacob's Ladder, 22.

43 The connection between the store and French material culture is based on Kahanoff's memory of her grandparents’ actual department store in Cairo, Chemla frères. Like many similar establishments in Egypt, Chemla frères contributed to the celebrated, Francophone and cosmopolitan Egyptian lifestyle. The actual Chemla store was built in “a “fin de siècle French style.” Having an office in Paris, the store imported and produced Parisian style goods. Reynolds adds that “The Chemlas’ status as French subjects and their familiarity with French culture and commerce traced back to their origins in French-occupied Tunisia.” Reynolds, A City Consumed, 58–59.

44 Kahanoff, Jacob's Ladder, 25.

45 Ibid., 23.

46 Ibid., 57.

47 Ibid., 135.

48 On the relation between gender, class, and consumerism in colonial Egypt, see Russell, Mona, Creating the New Egyptian Woman: Consumerism, Education, and National Identity, 1863–1922 (New York: Palgrave, 2004), 79 , 95; Reynolds, A City Consumed; and Jacob, Working Out Egypt. Russell examines the phenomenon and image of al-sayyida al-istihlākiyya, or Mrs. Consumer, and her position within Egyptian feminist and nationalist discourse. Jacob's Ladder, however, presents a different perspective based on the actual experience of a family that worked in commerce and its impact on social and gender roles. It also reveals the ambiguous situation of that family, which, despite its role in recreating the image of the middle class, still found itself in a liminal space between the culture of the colonial bourgeoisie and that of emerging Egyptian nationalism.

49 Kahanoff, Jacob's Ladder, 421.

50 Ibid., 28, 30.

51 Ibid., 116.

52 Bourdieu, Pierre, Distinction: A Social Critique of Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984), 60 .

53 Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper, “Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda,” in Tensions of Empire, 6.

54 Said, Orientalism, 41.

55 Foucault, Michel, Discipline and Punish, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: Vintage, 1995), 231 .

56 Kahanoff, Jacob's Ladder, 180.

57 Ibid., 159–60.

58 Ibid., 209.

59 Ibid., 161.

60 Ibid., 167.

61 Fanon, Frantz, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove, 1967).

62 Dubois, William E. B., The Souls of Black Folk (Boston: Bedford, 1997), 38 . Dubois describes his realization of racial difference as follows: “Then it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like [them perhaps] in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil. I had thereafter no desire to tear down that veil, to creep through; I held all beyond it in common contempt, and lived above it in a region of blue sky and great wandering shadows.” Kahanoff's language and metaphor of the veil strongly resemble those of Dubois. Her likely allusion to Dubois hints at the influence of her educational experience in the United States. See Starr and Somekh, “Editors’ Introduction,” xvi.

63 See McClintock, Imperial Leather, 52. In her study of English printed media, McClintock shows how the Irish were portrayed in a racialized manner to resemble colonial subjects.

64 Kahanoff, Jacob's Ladder, 167–68.

65 Ibid., 170.

66 Ibid., 211. Italics in original.

67 Ibid., 422. Abu-Lughod, Janet, Cairo: 1001 Years of the City Victorious (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1971), 142 .

68 Kahanoff, Jacob's Ladder, 178.

69 As a young woman, Kahanoff and some of her friends volunteered in a clinic in hārat al-yahūd. Most likely she is aware of the neighborhood's human and cultural geography, which is different from Alice's and Miss Nutting's reductive classist and colonial perspectives. See Starr and Somekh, “Editors’ Introduction,” xv; and Deborah Starr, “Sensing the City: Representations of Cairo's Harat al-Yahud,” 26, 138–62. See also the television series Harat al-Yahud (2015).

70 Kahanoff, Jacob's Ladder, 399.

71 Ibid., 400.

72 Ibid., 364.

73 Ibid., 364, 366.

74 Miccoli, Histories of the Jews of Egypt, 70.

75 Kahanoff, Jacob's Ladder, 349.

76 Ibid. Jacqueline Kahanoff alludes here to the French expression “Our ancestors the Gauls” typically used in French history books, and ironically included in the curricula used for Francophone colonial subjects, who obviously cannot identify with that foundational narrative.

77 Ibid., 394.

78 Ibid., 424.

79 Klein, Ernest, A Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language for Readers of English (Haifa: Carta Jerusalem, 1987), 435–36.

80 Kahanoff, Jacob's Ladder, 417.

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