February 2008

Sarah Burke

features

Geo-graphy: Ibis Editions Reprints the Levant

1.

Several years ago I traveled in Tunisia with a friend. We felt pretty cool: we avoided the resorts, took local transport, ate local food, practiced our languages. One day we rolled into a town by the edge of the Sahara that is the starting point of many coordinated journeys into the desert -- camels, sunset over the dunes, dinner cooked on a fire, etc. We had compared the reviews of several tour agencies in Lonely Planet and Rough Guide, volumes stored like talismans in our respective backpacks. As we emerged from the shared van into this new town, a man approached us and began talking about the agency he represented. It was the best, he said, the number one agency for trips into the desert. When we looked at him skeptically, he produced his own copy of the latest Lonely Planet and opened it to the page that said exactly that: his agency was the best. He flipped to the page that held a map of the town and indicated the best route to their office. Then he offered to take us to the best hotel and showed us exactly where that was on the map. He left when we persuaded him that we needed something to eat before we could make up our minds. (Or, more likely, he realized we weren’t worth his while). My friend and I ended up looking at one another over chicken and couscous, totally embarrassed. 

We suddenly saw just how many of our decisions -- where to stay, where it was even worth going -- had been made on the basis of the maps in those books. And here somebody (whose career relied on the rites of tourism being performed in his backyard, rites to which we’d come as pilgrims) had demonstrated to us that maps were not neutral. A map is not the distilled truth of a landscape. It’s an impression, a narrative. Which is not to say that maps aren’t occasionally indispensable to navigation. But a map can be most interesting when we look at it as a story of human interaction with the world.

2.

Ibis Editions does not publish maps. Rather, they publish story after story about the same region; the result is something like those archaeological maps in which transparencies can be layered to show the different permutations of a site through time. Ibis was founded in 1998 and is currently run by Adina Hoffman, Peter Cole and Gabriel Levin, all residents of Jerusalem. Hoffman and Cole, both born in America, are married; they are writers, and Cole has published important translations of medieval Hebrew poetry. Levin, born in France, is also a poet and translator. Ibis publishes poetry and literary prose related to the Levant, which means translations from Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, French, and other regional languages (the Levant is, more or less, the curve of land from Egypt to Turkey). The three editors do a majority of the work, and they take no salaries. In an e-mail exchange, Hoffman and Cole described their project as “somewhere between a kind of community service and literary activism.” Their passion shows in the finished products. The books are reliably exciting and fresh, often preceded by an elucidating introduction giving a brief biography and an idea of the author’s milieu. They span centuries:  Ibis has published translations of medieval poetry (Ibn 'Arabi’s Stations of Desire, Yehuda Halevi’s On the Sea), in addition to writing from the 20th century and today. 

Although American readers will recognize few of their names, many of the authors are famous in the Middle East. For some, Ibis has produced the first English translation. The books are usually well under 150 pages, a format suitable for poetry. But the series really shines, in my opinion, in its publication of imaginative -- “belletristic” is a word the editors like to use -- works of short prose that wouldn’t fit into a traditional publishing format. One of my favorites is Marcel Cohen’s In Search of a Lost Ladino: Letter to Antonio Saura, an epistolary work about the historical movements of his Sephardic Jewish ancestors. Ladino (or Djudyo) is a form of medieval Spanish that has picked up words as its speakers moved from country to country; it thrived in the Ottoman Empire but has almost disappeared since the Holocaust. Cohen writes: “I’d like to write to you in Djudyo before the language of my ancestors is completely extinguished. You can’t imagine, Antonio, what the death agony of a language is like. You seem to discover yourself alone, in silence.”

Cohen proceeds to introduce us to lost places and lost turns of phrase; time and space compress to create a lived-in nostalgia. Of the 1492 expulsion of Spanish Jews he writes: “If you remember, Antonio, we left Spain on a Friday.” The short book is part Proust, part Sebald, totally readable, utterly unique.

Sometimes when well-meaning people try to represent a multiplicity of literary voices they end up with a lot of bad writing. This is not the case with Ibis Editions. In such a densely and diversely populated part of the world as the Levant, a criterion such as talent -- which is neither ethnic nor political -- is bound to result in a fascinating mix of perspectives. In her introduction to Samih al-Qasim’s Sadder Than Water, Hoffman describes al-Qasim as “at once Palestinian, Israeli, Arab, Druze; he has been an Arab nationalist, a Palestinian folk hero, an internationally minded Communist, an articulate spokesman for Arab-Jewish coexistence.” His identity defies identity politics. And he describes the painful loss of home in a way that anyone can understand:

And you stand in the doorway of the will,
your voice trickling, your silence bleeding,
extracting bullets from the family portraits,
following the missiles’ path
into the heart of your household things…

Ibis Editions’s most political gesture is the decision to publish people whose stories and ideas complicate the oversimplified image of the Middle East to which many ascribe. 

3.

The Ibis mission statement reads:

“Ibis is motivated by the belief that literary work, especially when translated into a common language, can serve as an important vehicle for the promotion of understanding between individuals and peoples, and for the discovery of common ground.”

The goal of common ground cannot be entirely figurative in a part of the world where literal ground is so often disputed. The Levant has seen more than its fair share of history. Since the Bronze Age it has been a crossroads where travelers from the Middle East and Asia met their counterparts from the western Mediterranean. Empires, the Crusades, etc.: the Levant is littered, both physically and figuratively, such that the past often seems to obscure the present. Ibis Editions books all engage with the hills, the wadis, the villages, cities and ancient ruins of the Levant. Esther Raab, the first female poet raised in the state of Israel, spent her youth on farms and communes. In Harold Schimmel’s translations it is her line breaks and rich vocabulary -- often marked by very specific compound nouns -- that impress. Her botanical vocabulary feels intimately honest. In a poem like “Forgotten Summer Landscapes,” for example, we believe she speaks with knowledge of scabiosa, a blue flower that blooms briefly in dry conditions:

A dusty grey fig tree
that burst forth from the crevice–
aridity-of-leaves-folded in thirst,
a hard wrinkled unripe fig falling on a rock
     with a thud.
Straw-scabiosa hiss, scratching
stone by the wayside
and a sandal’s beat on a lost path.

Many of the authors engage with not only the landscape but also its memories. When I asked them about this, Hoffman and Cole mentioned Guy Davenport’s essay “The Geography of the Imagination,” but then inverted the phrase to describe their interest in “the Imagination of Geography” or “the imagination that has both shaped and emerged from a very specific and actual place, the Levant or Middle East.” Taha Muhammad Ali, for example, returns repeatedly in his writing to Saffuriya, the village of his childhood that has not existed in a form recognizable to him since 1948. There is so much more to a place than the immediately visible, he seems to tell us. A place holds all the structures that have stood there and the memories of things that happened there. A place holds the people moving towards and away from it through time. In his poem “Warning,” Ali inserts rifles into a poem with terms -- lovers, a fawn, a partridge -- that could be ghosts from early Arabic ghazals.  The entirety fits on one page:

Lovers of hunting,
and beginners seeking your prey:
Don’t aim your rifles
at my happiness,
which isn’t worth
the price of the bullet
(you’d waste on it).
What seems to you
so nimble and fine,
like a fawn,
and flees
every which way,
like a partridge,
isn’t happiness.
Trust me:
my happiness bears
no relation to happiness. 

4.

In closing, let me tell you what you will notice first about these books: their packaging. Not for some time have I taken so much pleasure in holding a book in my hands, turning it over and over, touching its cover, flipping its pages just to hear the sound they make. The books each measure about 5 by 7 inches, no deeper than a few centimeters. They are bound in thick card stock that’s folded in to make a perfect bookmark of each cover. This stock is pale matte brown -- approximately the color of tea with a splash of milk -- with slight horizontal ridges that become more apparent if you allow the book to rub against other objects in your backpack for a few days. (It is also the color of certain sun-baked landscapes, of soil cut with sand. In other words, a geographic color.) Within a thin black border the book’s title is printed in a dark, colored ink -- the color varies -- and everything else (the author’s name goes above the title, the translator’s below) is printed in black. The publisher’s logo is also on the cover, at the bottom center: a small tablet on which an ibis strides from right to left. In ancient Egypt this bird represented Thoth, god of magic and writing, the divine scribe. In fact the visual effect of each cover is of something antique, a grave stele maybe, or a column of text on a papyrus roll.

The paper on which the books are printed is high quality, smooth and thick, a creamy ecru. The font is Goudy Old Style (titles are in Trajan). The size of the page allows for only a few inches of text, so each page looks fragmentary. This compels you, dear reader, to keep reading, as if reading were the only way to assure that words would continue to appear on subsequent pages. And so you will read each book quickly, at least the first time through. Each book looks like every other Ibis Editions book and unlike everything else on the bookshelf. Each book feels special, like the only one printed, preserved for years in a dusty corner, now fallen by chance into your hands. The reality is less rarified and more interesting. Hoffman and Cole describe making these books as a series of interactions with contemporary Jerusalem:

“…[M]aking a single Ibis book entails dealing with just that hands-on, not particularly tidy reality (not some idealized version of it) and it also involves interacting with all kinds of actual Levantines: everyone from the Russian-born designer to the Palestinian and Moroccan Jewish printers to the Ashkenazi postal clerks to the writers and their representatives themselves -- Arabs, Greeks, sufis, secularists, French-speaking Egyptians, German-speaking and Baghdadi Jews. It's important to us that our reimagination of the landscape takes shape in this grounded way.”

These books are elegantly simple. But their contents attempt to do justice to the complicated region of their origin. By showing us a Levant that is imaginative, beautiful, alive, and diverse, Ibis Editions is -- on a small scale -- asserting that reality. In our e-mail exchange, I asked Hoffman and Cole if they were a) attempting to create a new geography or b) trying to show the outsider a geography that’s already there. I realize now that these are not necessarily opposite concepts. Because, as anyone who’s ever used a map knows, what we see of a place is often what we’ve determined to look for.