Books from the Levant
Miriam Anati - 24/04/2007
All Ibis books focus on the ancient and contemporary Middle East. The region is however referred to with the term Levant, a geographic name which better conveys an image of diversity and multi-layered identities.
The Ibis catalogue is an anthology of recent and old literary gems, which in their variety offer a concrete representation of the Levant's rich and complex literature, and humanity. The books have sober light-brown covers and creamy pages, an inviting look giving the reader an instant desire to sit down comfortably, and immerse into them.
Depending on the book one chooses, a literary exploration can start. In Search of a Lost Ladino by Marcel Cohen takes the reader to the forever disappeared world of Jewish Salonica. The book can be read in the Ladino – or Judeo-Spanish - version, or in its English translation. A Levant Journal by Greek Nobel Prize and diplomat George Seferis, due out soon, embarks the reader on a public and intimate tour of the Levant in the 1940's and 1950's.
Baghdad, Yesterday, the upcoming memoir of Sasson Somekh, a renowned Arabist, introduces us to the life of the Jews of Baghdad in the first half of the twentieth century, where Jewish heritage, Arab culture and Western influences melted into one. The works by Palestinian writers Emile Habiby and Samih al Qasim, famous throughout the Arab world and beyond, make us realise that some of the finest literary creation coming out of Israel in the past fifty years is actually written in Arabic.
Adina Hoffman, an essayist and critic, and one of the three editors behind Ibis Editions, sees Ibis' approach as an alternative way of presenting literary works from the region, "not separating authors according to the language they write in: Arab writers in Middle Eastern literature series, Hebrew writers in Jewish literature series etc.. , but reflecting the authors' human experience and their work, which go beyond such boundaries. The books we publish represent the Levant in its multilayered and cross fertilised complexity". "We don't publish much, but what we do publish is of the highest caliber" adds Peter Cole, "and the quality of the translations is as important as the quality of the literary works themselves". Peter Cole and Gabriel Levin, who, with Adina Hoffman, make up the team behind Ibis Editions, are themselves poets and translators. They have translated from Hebrew, Arabic and French several of Ibis' books.
Other translators working with Ibis are renowned for the quality of their work. Among them is Peter Theroux who translated for Ibis Emile Habiby's novel Saraya, the Ogre's Daughter; Michael Sells, who translated a book of Love Elegies by Ibn 'Arabi; and Harold Schimmel, who translated from Hebrew the poems of Esther Raab, considered the first woman poet to write in modern Hebrew.
Ibis Editions' is based in Jerusalem which means that it cannot escape the political situation affecting the place. Still, "we refuse to be defined by politics, or by the market" says Adina Hoffman. "We choose authors based on the quality of their poetic and literary work, and their representation of the region in all its intricate aspects".
This approach is proving to be right, as one example shows. Taha Muhammad Ali, a self taught poet living in Nazareth, is today considered a leading Palestinian poet. His work has been translated for the first time into English by Ibis Editions. Following the success of a tour in the United States, together with Hebrew poet Aharon Shabtai, Ali's work is now published in the US by Copper Canyon Press, and is a best seller.
Ibis Editions, with a gentle voice and limited means, advance the vision of a different Middle East. The Levant Ibis publishes does exist. It is concealed, but is nonetheless alive and waiting to be discovered, in the same way Taha Muhammad Ali was.
it has taken me
all of sixty years
that water is the finest drink,
and bread the most delicious food,
and that art is worthless
unless it plants
a measure of splendor in people's hearts*
Excerpt from Twigs by Taha Muhammad Ali, translation copyright Peter Cole, Gabriel Levin, Yahya Hijazi, from Never Mind: Twenty Poems and a Story by Taha Muhammad Ali, Ibis Editions, 2000.