“Poetic Trespass: Writing between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine” by Little Levy— Finding a Common Tongue

Levy, Lital. “Poetic Trespass: Writing between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine”, Princeton University Press, 2014.

Finding a Common Tongue

Amos Lassen

Israel has always been and will always be problematic in terms of language. Much of that comes from the resurrection of Hebrew, a language that had been dead for thousands of years. In “Poetic Trespass”, Lital Levy brings us the first in-depth study of the relationship between Hebrew and Arabic in the literature and culture of Israel/Palestine. She gives us a captivating portrait of the literary imagination’s power to transgress political boundaries and transform ideas about language and belonging. For example, we meet a Palestinian-Israeli poet who declares a new state whose language, “Homelandic,” is a combination of Arabic and Hebrew. Then there is a Jewish-Israeli author who imagines a “language plague” that infects young Hebrew speakers with old world accents and sends the narrator in search of his Arabic heritage.

In order to present a study of this kind, Levy brings together history and literature and then traces the interwoven life of Arabic and Hebrew in Israel/Palestine from the turn of the twentieth century to the present thus bringing to light the two languages’ intimate entanglements in contemporary works of prose, poetry, film, and visual art by both Palestinian and Jewish citizens of Israel. This is done in a context where intense political and social pressures work to identify Jews with Hebrew and Palestinians with Arabic and she has found  writers who have boldly crossed over this divide to create literature in the language of their “other,” as well as writers who bring the two languages into dialogue to rewrite them from within. As she explores what she calls “poetic trespass”, she brings us new readings of canonical and lesser-known authors, including Emile Habiby, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, Anton Shammas, Saul Tchernichowsky, Samir Naqqash, Ronit Matalon, Salman Masalha, A. B. Yehoshua, and Almog Behar. By revealing uncommon visions of what it means to write in Arabic and Hebrew, Levy’s findings will change the way we understand literature and culture in the midst of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The topic, as it stands is of relevance to scholars but it is written so that it can be read by everyone. We see what it is to write in two languages about a condition of life that is, at once, both shared and separate. Levy’s critical speculations are wise, deliberate and courageous as her own beautiful prose goes back and forth across the borderline of Israel/Palestine while creating a way  of moving toward a solidarity built of pain and survival, failure and hope. Here is a new way to look at ethical and poetic possibilities of a translational dialogue in a war-torn region. Levy writes with elegance and by rethinking the Hebrew-Arabic nexus and positioning Modern Hebrew literature as a field of the study of the ways in which entangled languages affect one another, the book gives a new and an important perspective on the power of literature to  reimagine bilingualism.


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