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.

Not that these variable notions of the place could or should be ours. Both the British Olivia Manning (1908–1980) and the Egyptian Jewish Jacqueline Kahanoff (1917–1979) were, by their own accounts, the products of highly fraught cultural situations—which made them as much symptoms of those situations as detached commentators on the same. But each approached the Levant with a canny understanding of both her own personal history and the region’s at large.

First published between 1977 and 1980, and recently reissued by New York Review Books Classics, The Levant Trilogy is a keenly intelligent and intensely readable trio of novels that follow a cast of characters and a historical trajectory that the marvelous if underappreciated Manning introduced in her Balkan Trilogy. Known together as The Fortunes of War, the whole panoramic series is ostensibly fiction, but, at least in terms of the female figure at its heart, it hews so closely to the author’s own experience that one might almost think of it as memoir wearing a bit of well-applied makeup.

Written between 1956 and 1964 and also reissued several years back, the earlier Balkan Trilogy unfolds during the initial years of World War II and sends its main British characters first to Bucharest and then scuttling to Athens, the Iron Guard and the German Army close at their heels. The Balkan Trilogy ends with a dramatic escape from Europe, as the uncomfortably matched newlyweds Harriet and Guy Pringle and a ragtag crew of their compatriots flee Greece in a rusty, overcrowded, undersupplied ship while bombs splash down in the Piraeus harbor all around them. After several days, “The passengers had awakened in Egyptian waters and were struck by the whiteness of the light. It was too white. It lay like a white dust over everything. Disturbed by its strangeness, Harriet felt their lives now would be strange and difficult.”

The Levant that the Pringles find once they disembark—as Olivia Manning and her real-life husband, Reggie Smith, did in April 1941—is not a welcoming haven, but a parched and menacing place of last resort. Even as they settle into a tense routine in the midst of wartime Cairo, the setting continues to be for them little more than a haze of flies and filth: “So Egypt was not only the Sphinx, the lotus columns, the soft flow of the Nile. It was also the deadening discomfort and sickness that blurred these sights so, in the end, one cared for none of them.” That “one” does pointed work here, as Manning seems to speak not just for Harriet but for a whole category of displaced and dyspeptic Englishmen, squinting in the Levantine glare.

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It’s tempting to simply write off this account of the sweat and stink of Cairo as Orientalism, boilerplate mid-20th-century Western contempt for a poor, Eastern, mostly Muslim setting. And Manning, for all her worldliness, can often sound utterly squeamish and British. She and her characters make frequent reference, for example, to an unpleasant digestive condition they call “Gyppie tummy”; and when staying at a “Levantine pension of the poorest kind, a place so dark and neglected, everything seemed coated with grime,” Harriet berates Guy for rubbing his forehead after touching a bannister knob, “telling him he might pick up leprosy, smallpox, plague or any of the killer diseases of Egypt.”

The description of the dirty pension as “Levantine” is telling. While over the course of the trilogy, Harriet wanders to Damascus, Beirut, and Jerusalem, she treats the Levant as little more than a geographical given, an alien place where she finds herself stranded. That designation, “Levantine,” meanwhile is meant here as the disdainful Evelyn Baring intended it. In Manning’s prose, the word bobs up almost always accompanied by a knowing sneer whose overtones are vaguely sexual and economic—even faintly whorish.

So it is that the “Levantine ladies” at Groppi’s famous Cairo garden café “came to eye the staff officers who treated it as a home away from home.” One Englishwoman complains that her lover is amusing himself with “some ‘Levantine floosie,’” and a British writer gripes that he’s being cheated by his landlady, “a greedy Levantine hag.” Manning is, to be fair, often recounting what others have said, rather than words she or Harriet might themselves speak—though that line is often smudged. After their stint in Cairo, Manning and Smith moved to Jerusalem, where they lived for three years, and where, in a more explicitly autobiographical 1944 essay, Manning described how “to those of us who had been exhilarated by the Greek fight for freedom, the indifference, waste and dishonesty of the vast, profiteering Levantine population of Cairo was an unending nightmare.”

But Manning was far too subtle a writer to leave it at that. Harriet may “be” Manning, and vice versa. (In a fine new biography of the novelist, Olivia Manning: A Woman at War, Deirdre David calls Harriet a “barely disguised fictional surrogate” and describes the novelist’s dismay on hearing that Emma Thompson was slated to play Harriet in a BBC adaptation of the trilogies: “Look at my dainty feet!” she’s reported to have said. “Hers are enormous!”) She was, though, also an exacting and self-aware artist with the perspective afforded both by her own unsentimental, firsthand perceptions and the passage of time. The aspiring 36-year-old novelist who wrote that essay in British Mandate Palestine was not the same as the older and presumably wiser Manning who hunkered down in 1970s London to compose The Levant Trilogy, her final work. By then, Nasser had come and gone; Palestine had disappeared; and as she looked back across the decades and narrated the saga of her years in the Levant, Manning was also describing how the sun that always rises in the east had set on the British Empire. When, in the opening pages of the trilogy, an earnest young soldier enthuses to Harriet about everything the English have done for the Egyptians, she laughs at him: “What have we done for them?… I suppose a few rich Egyptians have got richer by supporting us, but the real people of the country, the peasants and the backstreet poor, are just as diseased, underfed and wretched as they ever were.”

In a scene that’s startling not so much for its sexual sordidness as for the unexpected sympathetic shift it achieves, Harriet winds up tooling around Cairo’s red-light district with an odd-lot group of expats. As an “entertainment,” one of the Englishmen, Castlebar, a poet and occasional university lecturer, arranges for a young man to “perform” for the group with a “half-negro woman in a dirty pink wrapper…fat, elderly, bored and indifferent,” who “threw off the wrapper and lay on a bunk, legs apart.” After quickly doing what’s required of him and pulling on his pants, the young man “crossed to Castlebar, smiling his relief that the show was over. He said: ‘Professor, sir you do not know me, but I know you. At times I am attending your lectures.’”

So flummoxed that he can’t utter a word at first, the professor offers him a cigarette and, after an awkward silence, asks if he often gives these performances:

“No.” The young man looked dismayed by the question then, fearing he might seem impolite, excused himself: “you see, we Egyptians are not like you Europeans. We are liking to do such things in private.”

The Levant Trilogy isn’t a novel (or novels) of ideas. Instead, it’s a sharply observed study of the interplay between foreground and background, the personal and the political, as well as a masterfully rendered account of how one rickety marriage evolves over the years and in the shadow of cataclysmic events. That said, it’s a work that does bring alive various vexing questions about the West’s historical role in the East. In theoretical terms, such a critique may feel like old postcolonial hat—and it’s likely that Manning never really did come to approve of those protean Levantines. Perhaps she believed that they shared the blame for exploiting the “peasants and the backstreet poor” with the Europeans who were just passing through. But the way she embodies these familiar abstractions in her flesh-and-blood people lands like a surprise punch in the gut.

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Manning’s gripping not-so-fictional fiction has never received the attention it deserves, though her status as what Deirdre David calls “one of the most under-valued and under-read British women novelists of the twentieth century” seems a function of the usual ebbs and flows of literary fashion.

The relative obscurity of Jacqueline Kahanoff is more complicated. Outside a small, devoted circle of writers and academics, she’s almost entirely unknown in the United States; in Israel, where Kahanoff spent the last 25 years of her life, she enjoyed a serious—if somewhat underground—reputation as a writer’s writer and not-quite-public intellectual. While never a household name, she did exert a strong, quiet influence on several generations of local novelists and thinkers.

Born in Cairo into an Iraqi and Tunisian Jewish family, Kahanoff wrote primarily in English, though until the recent US publication of Mongrels or Marvels, a collection of what its editors call her “Levantine writings,” her work was available only in anthologized English excerpts and in Hebrew translation, published first in journals beginning in the 1950s, then in book form in 1978. The Israeli writer Ronit Matalon featured a character named Jacqueline Kahanoff in her 1995 novel, The One Facing Us, reproducing without comment several lengthy passages from the writer’s essays; another collection of ­Kahanoff’s translated journalism appeared in Israel in 2005. Meanwhile, her own English words have been little more than a rumor: Before now, her only book to appear in its entirety in English was her single completed novel, Jacob’s Ladder, a raw but compelling ­bildungsroman published in 1951 in the United States and England and currently out of print. Mongrels or Marvels, thoughtfully compiled by scholars Deborah Starr and Sasson Somekh, allows English readers at last to assess a generous gathering of Kahanoff’s work on its own intriguing terms.

Kahanoff, neé Jacqueline Shohet, was educated in French schools, spoke English with her British nanny, and was very much a member of that liminal Levantine bourgeoisie for which Manning had such scorn. By her own account, she was “not Egyptian,” though she moved easily around the polyglot Cairo of her day. “When I was a small child,” she writes, “it seemed natural that people understood each other although they spoke different languages, and were called by different names—Greek, Moslem, Syrian, Jewish, Christian, Arab, Italian, Tunisian, Armenian.”

Utopian as such a genially pluralistic society may sound, the Egypt where she came of age was as stifling as it was diverse; it was also—as she and her peers saw clearly—poised to explode. And that inevitable eruption was one whose causes she understood, but whose results she knew would exclude her. As she would later write: “even though we sympathized with the Moslem nationalists’ aspirations we did not believe them capable of solving the real problems of this [Egyptian] society, and for this they could not forgive us.”

The “they” and “us” here are at once refreshing for their honesty and startling for their paternalism. “We”—that is, Kahanoff and her kind—believed wholeheartedly in Europe and its “civilizing” powers; “they,” for their part, did not. By the time Kahanoff wrote this, in Israel in the late 1950s, her attitude toward her earlier convictions was tinged with a certain darkness, as if now she realized how blinkered she and her privileged Cairene cohort had been. While she was very much the product of her colonial education, she had, over the years—and since leaving Egypt—come to feel decidedly un-European. So it was that she could also write of how, as children, “we learned nothing about ourselves or what we should do. We did not know how it had happened that Jewish, Greek, Moslem, and Armenian girls sat together to learn about the French Revolution, patrie, liberté, egalité, fraternité. None of us had experienced any of these things. Not even our teachers really believed these words had anything to do with our lives.”

Her sense of alienation wasn’t just a function of her role as a well-heeled English- and French-speaking Jew in a poor, largely Arabic-­speaking Muslim society, or as a dyed-in-the-wool Middle Easterner being schooled as if she were une jeune fille in Paree. She was curious and intellectually independent in ways that made life difficult for a girl in the sheltered confines of her particular class.

As was expected of her, she married young, but this was her ticket out: Kahanoff left Egypt for the United States with her new husband in 1940. Seeking refuge elsewhere, she must practically have passed the refuge-seeking Olivia Manning and her new husband in the Alexandria harbor. As Kahanoff would eventually explain in “A Generation of Levantines,” her signature essay cycle: “Perhaps, one day, I would be able to write about this Egypt I both loved and hated, the frail little world, seemingly so perfect, but in reality so rotten that it had to fall apart—to give birth to one of which I might feel a part. But first I would have to assess my generation in search of itself, and this I could only do from afar.” All her most lasting work was written once she was, so to speak, out of Egypt.

* * *

Soon divorced, Kahanoff went to college and studied for a journalism degree at Columbia, wrote fiction, and befriended various European refugee intellectuals in New York. After a short period in Paris, she and her second husband settled in Israel in 1954, moving initially to the isolated, working-class desert town of Beersheba.

Replicating in a striking manner the cultural aloofness of her generation in Egypt—“we were,” she’d write of the muddled verbal milieu of her childhood, “a people without a language”—she never really learned Hebrew; her Arabic was poor. And though she’d chosen to live in Israel, Kahanoff was hardly a card-carrying Zionist. According to those who knew her, the writer’s refined and somehow aristocratic bearing was at distinct odds with her scrappy new surroundings. Her literary sensibility was also peculiar to the context: Her best essays are composed in a belletristic, personal, and—for lack of a better term—“feminine” style whose indirect and graceful tack seems to this day foreign to the tough-talking Israeli atmosphere. While she was certainly engaged in a kind of polemic, the tone of her often memoiristic prose was gentle and contemplative; she didn’t shout. And, most important, she chose to write about the place she had come from (Egypt) and the place where she’d landed (Israel) not as two enemy entities locked in a struggle to the death, but as part of the same geographical and cultural continuum—one that extended, as the medieval trade routes had, all around the Mediterranean.

Mild as that sounds, Kahanoff was proposing something radical for her moment. In many ways, it’s radical now. During the same years that Polish-born, then–prime minister David Ben-Gurion was sternly warning about the dangers of Israel’s “Levantinization” and promising “to fight against the spirit of the Levant, which corrupts individuals and societies,” Kahanoff was attempting to reclaim the L-word and make it a label to be proud of, in all its complexity. There was, she insisted, no shame in mixing, in crossing over, in being in between: Such hybridization was, in fact, Israel’s great and maybe only hope. The country’s Ashkenazi elite should, she wrote, stop pretending that the Jewish state was some fortresslike bastion of Western Enlightenment values, besieged on all sides by purportedly “irrational” societies, and instead embrace its place as part of a wider Middle Eastern expanse.

What’s more, Eastern Jews like Kahanoff and the hundreds of thousands of other recent arrivals from Morocco, Iraq, and other nearby lands could, she insisted, serve as a kind of bridge or model—as natives of the region and heirs to a developed tradition of cultural symbiosis. For now (the year was 1959), these “oriental Jews” suffered from what she described as a form of internal colonialism: condescension and discrimination at the hands of the country’s “well-established old timers.” The “Levantinization” that Kahanoff advocated would work to spread power more equitably within Israel itself and to bring the new nation into a more dynamically integrated relationship with its surroundings.

A great deal of history has lumbered by since Kahanoff wrote, and some of her ideas seem hopelessly rosy or reductive when one thinks of the current bloody state of things both within Israel/Palestine and throughout the Middle East. Given her sophisticated reading of internal Israeli politics, she could be blind to other critical local dynamics. After 1967, she put forth unsettlingly patronizing notions—for instance, about how Israel’s presence in the West Bank and Gaza might benefit Arab farmers by teaching them “new techniques of agricultural production.” Her refusal to wrestle more critically with the way Israel controls Palestinian land and lives, along with her idealized call for a Levant that might exist beyond the predictable rhetorical realm of “the conflict,” have unfortunately made it possible in recent years for certain Israeli intellectuals to adopt (and, I’d argue, twist) her ideas and see them as an invitation to avoid the hard questions—that is, forget the Occupation and ignore the Arabs. According to the proponents of this weirdly wishful brand of Levantinism, Israel might most comfortably find its place as part of a sun-dappled, wine-sipping Mediterranean idyll that includes pristine Greek beaches and pretty Italian ports, but not Gaza, with its siege, its sewage, its suffering.

Kahanoff is no longer here to see how things have evolved and to speak for herself, but it’s hard to imagine a writer as clear-eyed and lucid as she was averting her gaze or pocketing her pen in the face of such difficult realities. In a way, her “soft” style and her emphasis on the important role played historically by the region’s minorities have made it easier for such evasions to take hold in her name.

Yet however dated or wrongheaded some of her ideas now seem, the core of her thinking is still startling and apt. While Eastern Jews now wield much more power than they did in Israel’s early years, and a good deal of “mixing” of the sort Kahanoff urged has taken place within the country’s Jewish population, certain very basic prejudices persist in the realms of high culture, higher education, religious norms, social welfare, and national self-definition. Never mind how much cheerfully syncopated “Eastern” music pours forth from the radios of Tel Aviv, or how many plates of hummus the average Dimona-dweller consumes monthly; when it comes to how the Jewish past is taught in schools and perceived at large, the Holocaust and the early “heroic” years of European Zionism figure much more centrally than do several millennia of rich and varied Eastern Jewish literature, philosophy, and social history. The “us or them” rhetoric of Ben-Gurion’s era has come to pervade every aspect of Israeli life. Unabashed racism against Arabs within the country is rampant, as are more subterranean forms of what Sephardic intellectual activist and cultural commentator David Shasha calls “Arab Jewish self-hatred.” By this, he means the tendency of so many Eastern Jews to adopt Ashkenazi frames of reference and suppress their own multifarious cultural past. Sadly enough, some of the most aggressive bigotry against local Arabs comes from Israeli Jews whose grandparents spoke Arabic as their mother tongue. The idea of Israel’s integration into a kind of open Middle Eastern union seems less likely now than ever, and not only because of the bunker that Israel has made of itself. Throughout the wider Levant, violence, repression, extremism, and fear of any sort of other—Yazidis, Assyrians, Kurds, Copts, members of the Muslim Brotherhood—are of course raging.

Which may be exactly why it seems more important now than ever to reckon with Kahanoff’s words and her basic vision of the region as a place that is “not exclusively Western or Eastern, Christian, Jewish, or Moslem.” While there still flickers a chance to save or even just honor something of the abundantly variegated cultural reality that has existed there for thousands of years, it’s worth considering her own definition of the Levant, which “because of its diversity…has been compared to a mosaic—bits of stone of different colors assembled into a flat picture. To me,” as she put it in one of the last essays she wrote before her death, “it is more like a prism whose various facets are joined by the sharp edge of differences, but each of which…reflects or refracts light.” In these dark days, as monomaniacs on all sides attempt to shatter that prism, we can at least stop and try to absorb what remains of the light.