Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Levantine vs. Mandatory

I thought Avishai Margalit's review of Hadara Lazar's Out of Palestine: The Making of Modern Israel in the NYRB was entirely too soft on the British mandate in Palestine. But I thought Margalit's recollection of post-Mandate, post-1948 and what "Levantine" and "Mandatory" meant was very interesting:

After the war we moved to a neighborhood that used to be the stronghold of the British civil administration. Our next-door neighbors looked familiar, in their shorts, blue shirts, open sandals, and deep suntans. They were part of a commune of kibbutz members serving as “missionaries” in one of the socialist youth movements at the time. But the Jewish neighbor next to them looked different, utterly different. He wore a suit and a tie even on the hottest days of the year and his collection of suits was wide and varied, but his collection of gloves was even more astonishing. One day I overheard two of the kibbutzniks nattering about our exceptionally well groomed neighbor. He is a “Mandatory type,” said one. Yes, yes, totally “Levantine,” said the other. 

I rushed to my mother for a social gloss. She gave a sanitized account of these two expressions. Well, she said, he is from Halab (Aleppo) and Halab is, so to speak, the northern capital of the Levant so that’s why he speaks such good French and, needless to say, Arabic. So much for the “Levantine.” As for the “Mandatory type,” she added, on top of French and Arabic he speaks English fluently, and already worked as a chief receptionist at the King David Hotel during the Mandate. This explains the way he dresses. Finally, she said, the kibbutzniks probably meant that he is not an Undzerer. My mother could never refrain from inserting into her Hebrew this Yiddish expression, which means: he is “not one of us.” From very early on, therefore, I had to grasp that “Mandatory type” is, in the exasperating cliché of today, “The Other.” 

Of course, as Jacqueline Kahanoff and Gil Hochberg among others have shown, a "Levantine" in Israel (especially one who spoke Arabic), was not Undzerer either. It wasn't so much a matter of a suit, tie and gloves.

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