Of the many names given the brutal, black-flag-waving entity currently marauding its way across the rubble of Syria and Iraq, ISIL is the strangest and the most ironic. The L in the acronym favored by the US State Department stands for “Levant,” a term that for centuries referred to a part of the world where cultures met, borders blurred, and religions, languages, and peoples cross-bred—for better or for worse.
In English, the word “Levantine” has long been a pejorative, and at a certain colonial point referred to those upwardly mobile non-Muslim Middle Easterners considered contemptible by commentators of various stripes for being neither here nor there, whether socially or ethically. “Among this minority are to be found individuals who are tainted with a remarkable degree of moral obliquity,” sniffed onetime consul general of Egypt Evelyn Baring back in 1908. Yet for those more recent writers and thinkers who have set out to reclaim the term, such hybridity is the key to what has made the region vital. In his groundbreaking 1993 book After Jews and Arabs: Remaking Levantine Culture, for instance, Ammiel Alcalay writes of the “fertile symbiosis” and “dense and intricate interconnectedness” of the “old” Levantine world.
Which brings us back to the irony of that L in ISIL: Whether muttlike menace or commendable cosmopolitan, the classic, shape-shifting “Levantine” seems the very opposite of the rigid young zealot now being enlisted to behead captives, rape slaves, and smash ancient statuary in the name of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s viciously monolithic caliphate.
Also at odds with such murderous single-mindedness is the fact that the precise geographic location of the Levant is notoriously hard to pin down. The Arabic word for it is Sham, a slippery designation that may refer to modern Syria, the city of Damascus, or so-called Greater Syria, which in historical terms is the land that stretches between the Mediterranean and the Euphrates. Etymologically, Bilad al-Sham is the “land of the left hand,” as opposed to the “land of the right hand,” Yemen. Both of these terms place Mecca at the center of their compass. Hans Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic confuses directional things further with a definition of “Sham” that begins “the northern region, the North.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “Levant” indicates the “countries of the East,” specifically “the eastern part of the Mediterranean, with its islands and the countries adjoining.” The English word derives from the French levant, “rising”—that is, indicating the point where the sun comes up. All of which make “the Levant” a genuinely relative term.
That relativity is made palpable by several powerful Levant-focused literary works that have recently appeared, or reappeared, in English. While these books and the material they collect predate by decades the current mayhem near Mosul, the present situation is obviously a product of the region’s longer chaotic modern history. And as each of these authors reckons with that quicksilver thing she calls “the Levant,” she and her work become worthy of our serious 21st-century attention.