mondediplo | The Levant means “where the sun rises”: the eastern Mediterranean. Levant is a geographical word, free of associations with race or religion, defined not by nationality but by the sea. The great Levantine cities of Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut were windows on the world, ports more open and cosmopolitan than inland cities like Ankara, Damascus and Cairo. From the beginning Levantine cities were international. They shared defining characteristics: geography, diplomacy, language, hybridity, trade, pleasure, modernity and vulnerability. All are present in today’s global cities.
Levantine cities were trading cities, integrated into the economic systems of Europe and Asia. Like Hong Kong or Dubai today, they were synonymous with enterprise. Smyrna exported figs and raisins; Alexandria cotton; Beirut emigrants to the Americas and Africa. People and business, not monuments, were their main attraction. Thackeray wrote that he liked Smyrna because, having no monuments to visit, it produced no “fatigue of sublimity”.
Ports bring music as well as freedom, and Smyrna created its own sound, Smyrnaika or rebetiko. It was the music of rebels, particularly appreciated by the qabadays (Turkish) or dais (Greek) — the toughs who worked, gambled and fought with each other. Rebetiko songs mixed western polyphony and eastern monophony and described the sufferings of the poor, the torments of love or the pleasures of hashish. As early as the 17th century, according to the French consul, the Chevalier d’Arvieux, Beirut was distinguished from neighbouring ports by “parties of pleasure”. It still is. Beirut has become the capital of Arab night life.
Levantine cities also brought education and modernity. Modern Turkey was born in the Levantine port of Salonika, birthplace of Mustafa Kemal. The Young Turk revolution broke out there in 1908, helped by the protection of foreign consuls and the proximity of foreign states. Latife Hanim, the wife of Mustafa Kemal and the first Turkish woman to be unveiled in public, was educated at a French school in Smyrna.
In our new global age, geography is biting back at history. Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut are now trying to revive their cosmopolitan identities. Istanbul, by the 1970s entirely Turkish, is now a global business city again, the shopping centre of the Balkans and Black Sea. The Arab Spring shows the desire of people in Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Libya and Tunisia to reconnect with the outside world and their Mediterranean past — break out of the prison of the nation state.
Today’s global cities — London, Paris, New York, Dubai — are new Levantine cities. (They have welcomed thousands of immigrants from Smyrna, Beirut and Alexandria.) Global cities share the same international character: increasingly different from their hinterlands, they act as educators, liberators and modernisers. Three hundred and fifty languages are spoken in London, and English is the new lingua franca.
The future belongs to cities with the energy and freedom of cosmopolitanism, rather than to inland capitals dominated by their military-industrial complex: to Beirut not Damascus; Dubai not Riyadh; New York not Washington. States are dinosaurs: cities are the future. The New York Times of 7 January 2012 called China “a thin political union composed of semi-autonomous cities.” We are all Levantines now.