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VCU Menorah Review Summer/Fall 2005
Number 63
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

Beginnings Departures Endings

‘Our Place in al-Andalus’: Kabbalah, Philosophy, Literature in Arab Jewish Letters by Gil Anidjar. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
A Review Essay by Kristin Swenson

Intriguing and provocative, Gil Anidjar’s book is at once both difficult to read and difficult to stop reading; “fascinated” seemed the best term to describe my reaction to reading ‘Our Place in al-Andalus.’  I was fascinated by Anidjar’s ability to sustain, with clarity and precision, a highly sophisticated intellectual inquiry of language and place. I do not know if I “got it,” but then again, I don’t know if there is an “it” to “get” except insofar as “getting it” is somehow bound up in both the not knowing, as a once seemingly singular “it” reveals itself as many. I invite you to read this review as an experiment of experience, the experience itself as translation of text and idea — Anidjar’s book, ‘Our Place in al-Andalus.’

How to begin to review a book of ending — and of beginnings — that grow out of such ends? What does it mean to begin, what to end?  At this writing, Rosh Hashanah is underway — a new year — and I am still without electrical power, over a week after a hurricane pummeled Richmond and surrounding areas in Virginia and North Carolina. Novelty and chaos, disorder and simplicity.  Anidjar observes of beginnings that there is “no one point of departure” (179) and of endings (quoting Derrida): “If the end is near, it’s nearing … has already become an indication of ‘something else,’ a future, ‘the event of a coming or of a future advent,’ …” (3). In other words, words reflecting Anidjar’s interest in the place and the translations of language, “The ends are … not only rhetorical, they are also the beginnings of rhetoric and its enabling conditions” (5).

Perhaps I should begin, then, where Anidjar does, with a sentence describing the book in general. This first sentence begins simply enough before complicating assumptions that his readers may have had about history, context and even reading. Anidjar writes, “This book offers a reading of texts that raise a historical question, namely, how to read when contexts disappear, when the notion of context itself becomes historical” (1). Intriguing as it is, and appropriate for the beginning of a review of the book, it may be argued, however, that this first sentence is not actually the beginning of the book. Rather, the book’s first section begins with epigraphs — one from Jacques Derrida questioning boundaries of time and space, and one from Avital Ronell telling the inclination of people to seek a finality.

So, start there. But the first section really begins with its title: “Introduction: Declinations of Context in Arab Jewish Letters,” a title that begs commentary and indeed introduces key terms and ideas for the book. Then again, the book as a whole begins with a quote from Emmanuel Levinas, “Le language se définit peut-être comme le pouvoir même de rompre la continuité de l’être ou de l’histoire,” which Anidjar translates, “Language is perhaps defined as the very power to break the continuity of being or of history.”  Surely this introduces well Anidjar’s inquiry of disappearing context as a condition that gives rise to the place, al-Andalus. But to claim that Levinas’ quote is the beginning of the book is to deny that it is preceded by Anidjar’s acknowledgments (which suggest beginnings before the book was even written), and that by the Table of Contents, dedication page, copyright, title page, a page of Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “On the Last Evening on This Earth” printed in Arabic (and translated at the “end” of the book, at the beginning of the Notes), a page noting the series and editors and, finally (or really the first page “itself”), the page that simply tells the title.

Should I, then, begin here by noting that the title of Anidjar’s book, ‘Our Place in al-Andalus’ comes from Maimonides, who actually spent much of his productive life outside of the Spain that comes to be called al-Andalus?  Perhaps, because the implications of “place” (as site and/or context, geographical and/or linguistic), ours, “in al-Andalus” (a term that implies a particular period in Spanish history) together lie at the heart of Anidjar’s book, or at least at the heart of what begins his inquiry. He writes, “‘Our Place in al-Andalus’ leads me to a reconsideration of what is meant today by al-Andalus as a literary and cultural object of Arab Jewish letters, and to a reconceptualization of its limits and divisions” (3). In the process of this reconsideration, which takes into account philosophical, mystical and literary texts, Anidjar proposes that “al-Andalus is a rhetorical event to be read, a language that maintains but also negotiates and disrupts the localizations and divisions established by the end” (7). Asking how to read an event, then, may be a good place (“place” as inquiry) to start the review.

But what does it mean, “to read an event”?  Is this not to mix categories?  After all, “to read” requires text, and “an event” is a historical occurrence. But this is precisely Anidjar’s point, or some aspect of one among others: that text “itself” may be event and inscribe place/one’s space. Despite the fact that the texts he considers closely (Maimonides’, Ibn al-Astarkuwi’s, Kabbalah and the Zohar) came out of and/or reflect a common time and place, Anidjar explains, “they are hardly locatable in a common space of some nature. The only feature they share, rather, is that al-Andalus — the general set of circumstances from which they are thus said to ’emerge,’ in other words, their context — disappears or has already disappeared” (2). So perhaps I should begin by describing the manner in which Anidjar discusses matters of context, language, movement and place. Indeed, just as Anidjar tends to beginnings late in his book, within his discussion of the Zohar’s several possible beginnings, we find that accounting for a variety of beginnings could actually take us to an end … before we have even begun.

If there is no one place to begin (and “one,” “place,” and “begin” each sustain multiple and disparate possible interpretations), how to get into the book itself, past the point of a beginning?  Perhaps a simple list of key terms that Anidjar translates and uses might move us through the book. In no particular order, partly because many appear in many places, they include: Mashal and matal, al-Andalus, dalala, context, our place, end, Spain, Zohar, unity and dissemination/disruption, Scholem, cultures, Benjamin, silent voice, midrash, conversations and arguments and dialogues, declination, ein-sofZoharpeshat, loss, rhetoric of sadness, originary events and crises, Aramaic, rose, maqamat, poetry and prose, departure, justice. But to cite such a list is of course to say little except as the terms may evoke for review readers a sense of what Anidjar carefully describes and discusses; on the other hand, the terms may lead readers to think something quite other than what Anidjar “means.”  Observing this danger, in general, and hinting at what’s to come, the book begins (that is, at the beginning of Chapter 1) with Maimonides’ observation in The Guide of the Perplexed that when communicating with someone whose language is unfamiliar it sometimes happens that one recognizes a word as similar or even the same as a word in one’s own language “and by accident … that word indicates … in the language of the hearer, the contrary of what the speaker intended” (10).

So perhaps to get past beginnings and represent the whole of the book, I should (re)cite the “Contents” page:  Acknowledgments xi; Introduction: Declinations of Context in Arab Jewish Letters 1; 1 Maimonides, dalala, Midrash 10; 2 “Our Place in al-Andalus” (also written in Arabic) 57; 3 The Silent Voice of the Friend: Andalusi Topographies of Scholem’s Conversations (Mourning Mysticism) 102; 4 Reading, Out of Context: Zohar and/as maqama166; (subsets): Part I (written with an X over the I): Zohar (with subset): Ibn al-Astarkuwi’s maqama “On Poetry and Prose” 219; Part 2: Parting Words 229; Notes 249; Bibliography 307.

But there is a certain nonsense to my writing the contents here. Take the numbers, for example: some refer to pages, some to chapters; and the Roman numeral “I” before the title Zohar is crossed out. Perhaps more problematic is the unfamiliarity of terms and phrases to readers and this unfamiliarity is of more than one kind. Terms such as “declinations” seductively proffer themselves in English, the language necessarily familiar to this book’s readers, while disorienting readers with unfamiliarity. Ironically the term as Anidjar uses it refers to a dissolution-that-gives-rise-to-solution, the “end” of a particular historical/cultural place and period (al-Andalus) and the beginning/foundation of a literary condition (al-Andalus). Other terms in the Table of Contents, such as dalala, are foreign and may be utterly unfamiliar to readers. Again ironically, this term concerns “signification,” and about it Anidjar writes, “the dalala … marks and affects the very knowledge of one’s ’own’ language. It is that language ‘itself’ — assuming such self-identity is still, was ever, possible — which gets in the way and interferes in the gravest manner, leading one to believe that one knows what one has said, or what one has heard” (36-37). Still other Contents items are written in a script that may be unfamiliar, such as the Arabic to the right of (though not after, if one reads the Arabic in the correct direction, from right to left) “Our Place in al-Andalus.”  Finally, references to people, texts, even places that readers may “know,” but discover in reading further that they cannot anticipate Anidjar’s use of them such as Maimonides, Andalusi Topographies, Zohar and Poetry and Prose.

In ‘Our Place in al-Andalus,’ Gil Anidjar demonstrates what he observes. That is, Anidjar draws his readers in to the space of a text, his text, which quickly becomes at once familiar and disorienting. It is a fascinating book that explores the meaning/nature of place and time (history) in relation to the literary and cultural world of language. ‘Our Place in al-Andalus’ is a difficult book that does not revel in difficulty for difficulty’s sake; but neatly demonstrates complexity where it may be least expected — in the discourse of place, “the force of rupture that is always at work in words and contexts” (243). In Anidjar’s “final” paragraph, the last paragraph of the last chapter, that is, he notes how a particular story, an Andalusi maqama, illustrates lack of finality insofar as “this language that defies identify and keeps eluding its localization, occurs as translation. Language displaced onto its place, declinations of contexts, ‘our place in al-Andalus’” (245).

Kristen Swenson is a member of the faculty of Religious Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and a contributing editor.

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