At L.A. cultural center, Middle East translates to coexistence, not conflict


LOS ANGELES (JTA) – It’s Friday night, and patrons are sitting and chatting over plates of tagine and hummus waiting for the evening’s main event, a stand-up comedy show.

It could be any nightspot in this city. But a closer look reveals a bolder agenda than just good food and entertainment.

The comedy show, part of a long-running series called “The Sultans of Satire,” features Muslim and Jewish comedians with roots in Iran, Afghanistan and Morocco. The room’s walls, meanwhile, display an art exhibition about the struggles of Native Americans, Irish and Palestinians.

Welcome to the Levantine Cultural Center, a nonprofit arts and culture hub whose modest home in a corner storefront on Pico Boulevard belies its grand ambition to bridge the fault lines of the contemporary Middle East.

Launched in 2001, the center aims to foster cultural understanding through concerts, language classes and discussion panels, serving quite literally as a space for common ground.

“To me, the idea of the Levant has always been these cosmopolitan environments like Beirut and Cairo and Casablanca,” said Jordan Elgrably, the center’s Jewish executive director and co-founder. “Instead of all the Jews in this neighborhood, all the Muslims in that neighborhood, each neighborhood is mixed.”

In pursuit of that goal, the center keeps its space churning with activities.

Over the past month, it has hosted panel discussions on the Tunisian revolution and Islamophobia, a Turkish cabaret, an African music concert and a reception for California Arab and Iranian artists. It is preparing to throw a “hafla” — Arabic for party — to celebrate its 13th birthday.

Show by show and conversation by conversation, Elgrably is seeking to upend common understandings of the culture of the Middle East and North Africa. His goal is to encourage Middle Eastern Jews, Christians and Muslims to see themselves not as warring tribes but as the inheritors of a common cultural heritage that can serve as a model for peaceful coexistence.

Tirelessly spreading that message has become a consuming pursuit for the 56-year-old Elgrably.

“I have yet to meet somebody as passionate as Jordan,” said Bana Hilal, a member of the center’s national advisory board who left Lebanon with her family after Israel invaded in the early 1980s.

Elgrably and the Levantine Cultural Center have carved out a distinctive niche, but after 13 years of existence, the center still struggles to scrape by on an annual budget of about $300,000. It is crammed into its current home, its fourth, and likely will move again soon.

Although the center is just a few blocks east of Pico-Robertson, one of the most densely Jewish neighborhoods in Los Angeles, Elgrably and the center have found themselves very much on the fringes of the city’s Jewish community.

Elgrably grew up in Los Angeles, the son of a Sephardic father from Morocco and an Ashkenazi mother from Chicago who divorced when he was a child. As a young man he lived in France, Spain and South America, writing about the arts as a journalist and working on a novel.

His life turned from writing toward activism in 1996 when an interview he did with the Guatemalan Sephardic writer Victor Perera sparked Elgrably’s interest in Sephardic culture and his own roots.

Elgrably began to work with Sephardic artists and intellectuals across the country to organize events and exhibitions to highlight Sephardic culture. His work was embraced initially by mainstream Jewish organizations, he recalls, but Elgrably soon became disillusioned with what he saw as the boundaries imposed by the Jewish world.

“They were receptive to Sephardic culture as long as it was polite and folkloric,” Elgrably said. “As long as we stuck to the words Sephardi or Mizrahi, they were fine with that. When a bunch of us started calling ourselves Arab Jews, they didn’t like that.”

Elgrably wanted to expand his cultural explorations by bringing in Arab and Muslim friends, but he became convinced that the organized Jewish community was more interested in criticizing the Arab world and defending Israel than in exploring common heritage and interests.

He drifted away from his work on Sephardic culture and turned instead toward founding the Levantine Cultural Center, hoping it could open a new space for discussion. But the issue of Israel has complicated the center’s efforts to build a broader base of support, especially within the Jewish community.

The center’s events about Israel frequently take a critical stance on the Jewish state, regularly featuring anti-Zionist Israelis as speakers.

Karin Attia, an Israel native who worked at the center for several months as an assistant to Elgrably, says she believes that he was genuinely interested in creating an open, balanced dialogue about Israel. But Attia says she was troubled at times that forums meant to explore the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have people representing Israel who were antagonistic toward their own country.

Elgrably says defenders of Israel have not accepted his invitations to speak. He also admits, however, to a deep ambivalence about the notion of a Jewish state.

“Zionism was never well thought out to begin with. It was based on the idea that we can go back to this ancient homeland, and there are no people who are living there, or if there are, they don’t count, and we can just push them aside,” Elgrably said. “If everyone in Israel can have equal rights, I’m all for it. I don’t think that they do.”

For Elgrably, the path to tackling such issues is through culture. Yet he frets that the power of culture may not be enough.

“The arts are necessary, but they’re not threatening to power structures,” Elgrably said. “Sometimes there’s a sense of futility that cultural diplomacy can win the day.”

But Elgrably’s bouts of pessimism alternate with optimistic, even grandiose, visions. He speaks hopefully of finding donors who will give millions of dollars to build a permanent home for the Levantine Cultural Center, of partnering with the city of Los Angeles to create a museum of Middle Eastern culture, even of someday rivaling local cultural meccas such as the Getty Center or the Skirball Cultural Center.

“I feel like I’m standing with one foot in the Arab world and the other foot in the Jewish world, and I feel like I could bring people together,” Elgrably said. “I think that peace is right there. I can feel it, I can taste it, I can see it.”

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