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This article is taken from PN Review 84, Volume 18 Number 4, March - April 1992.

On Being a Levantine Shulamith Hareven

I AM A LEVANTINE. Born in Europe, I spent my time there, in an obscure impatience, as if it were all a mistake, a confinement, like a wretched marriage - till I first saw strong light on the rocky hedges of a mountain, a stooping summer olive tree, a well carved in stone - and I knew that was it. I had arrived at something deep, palpable, ancient, the womb of the world, in which virtually everything has been and will be created. This was the right light, the right smell, the right touch. 'A taste older than meat, older than wine. A taste as old as cold water' - as a famous Irish Levantine, Lawrence Durrell, once wrote about the flavour of olives.

Levantinism is a slowly acquired trait. Not everything Mediterranean is Levantine. Lebanon, for example, as a real Levantine from Cairo once told me, behaves like scores of European tribes in the sixth or seventh centuries, and heaps ignominy on our region.

One can be an excellent Levantine, or one who does not do the profession proud. At his worst, the Levantine is one of Eric Ambler's unheroic characters, a petty smuggler, a crook, madly intelligent, with the moral principles of an alleycat, who lives in perpetual hope that the Law will acquiesce, if not by bribery, then at least in deference to a good joke. At his best, the Levantine is a kind of retired diplomat, seasoned, with an incomparable cultural ...


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