I love the word. The way it rolls of the tongue. How it sounds old, like it came from and got left behind in a different era. That it is a part of my story and the hope that it carries for this present moment. Let me explain.
Derived from the French word “Levant” (rising sun), Levantine seems a pretty harmless word on the surface. It was first used roughly 500 years ago to refer to people living or working near the Mediterranean Sea who often mediated in business dealings between the East (then the Ottoman empire) and the West (Europe). Cultural exchange flourished. Art, literature, languages, and foods were shared, and as a result, new culture was formed.
Threatened by the merging of Eastern and Western ways of life, people were labeled Levantine for straddling the cultural boundary. Neither fully European nor Middle Eastern, Levantine people were cast as culturally impure and devoid of tradition, authenticity, and a singular national heritage. This not only applied to those from the East who, no matter how hard they tried to assimilate, would never be seen as fully European. It also referred to Europeans who were seen as sacrificing European cultural values and norms as Eastern ways of life started to push in.
Wait. Then why would I choose for my business name to be rooted in this derogatory word?
The more I learned about the history of the word Levantine, from its benign roots to recent efforts to reclaim the word from its racist and colonial undertones, the more it resonated with my own story and the story of my family. When my great-grandparents were living in Syria, they were just a chapter in the long story of peaceful coexistence that had existed for thousands of years between Jews, Christians, Muslims, and other religions. Obviously, conditions and relationships changed. My only living grandparent, Grandpa Chabetaye, left Syria for New York over 60 years ago. My parents were born in the U.S. I was born in the U.S. But my connection to my grandparents—their stories, their particular Jewish customs, and the food they brought with them—has always left me living in between cultures. I appreciate all of the different parts of me—my Middle Eastern background as well as the culture I have inherited from living in the U.S.
As the slow march toward a growing nationalism, isolationism, and racism continues, reclaiming the essence and spirit of the word “Levantine” is so important. Naming my business “The Levantine Kitchen” is a small act to celebrate the countless ways in which different cultures make our world more beautiful. Levantine food has been touched by every corner of the globe, and its influences are countless. It is hummus, sure, but it is so much more. I look forward to sharing this unique and rich food culture with you.
Thank you to Gil Hochberg and Jacqueline Kahanoff for deepening my understanding of the word Levantine and its ever-changing history.