Levant: Splendour and Catastrphe on the Mediterranean - 2010, Philip Mansel, pub. John Murray
Review by Görkem Daşkan October 2011
Philip Mansel’s ‘Levant’ is a bittersweet journey to the urban histories of the three prominent cities of the Eastern Mediterranean – the Levant: Alexandria, Beirut and Smyrna (modern-day Izmir). Once part of multi-ethnic empires and later in the modern times having succumbed to nation-states, these three cities have always had more than a few in common. First of all, all three of them were among the most spectacular port cities of that part of the world that prospered and flourished throughout the ages of mercantilism and free trade. For centuries they served as crossroads of immense flows of capital, people, information and technology coming from overseas and the hinterland ages before the term ‘globalisation’ was invented. At the turn of the last century, these cities were wealthy enough, arguably, to become sovereign entities themselves if the world order of the time had allowed that. And that was actually when, they had to live through their latest if not the greatest tragedies rather: “Smyrna was burnt, Alexandria Egyptianised and Beirut lacerated by civil war”, as put by the author. Three examples from the palette of “the age of extremes” as another historian called last century.
Obviously Mansel takes sides with the city per se, when it comes to its defeat by any kind of force including the legitimate ones. And by the ‘city’ one must understand the well-being of its inhabitants regardless of their race or religion, and of all the visible forms and aspects of the civilisation(s) created by the various groups of people that lived there side by side. According to the ‘Levant’, the notions that guaranteed such cityscapes were that of multilingualism, multiculturalism and hybridity, modernity, joy of life, liberty and the power of diplomacy, the latter of which with no doubt secured the rest for the advantage of the privileged if not for anyone else. (Yet we don’t know very well to what extent the less privileged or poorer segments of Levantine societies in particular contributed to or benefited from the Levantine way of living, for poorer people wrote less as Mansel rightly indicates in one of his interviews. Though let us remember the remark by Edward Said on the “extreme wealth and poverty” available in Beirut – p. 321). The multilevel diplomacy between the consuls, merchants, local officials and in some cases central authorities that accelerated after 1535 (a milestone date for the kick-off of the alliance between the French and the Ottoman empires that would last for three centuries and the dominance of French culture in the area that the author finds altogether very important in that France -and her allies- played a huge role in the emergence of these cities as the agents of Western modernism and very powerful players in the world economy) and the following complex system of trade concessions favourably known as the ‘capitulations’ granted to several other European powers after France, enabled the formation of such unique Levantine cities that fascinated travellers from both abroad and within the empire in the way that each city appeared to many very much like the ‘Paris of the Orient’. The Levantine living, or the term ‘Levantine’, for that matter, has to be noted that is used throughout the book with the broadest meaning of the word (i.e. anyone who lives in or is from the Levant), and the historically leading political and ethno-religious groups from these cities are largely done justice by their share in the telling of the early modern and modern histories of the cities together with various emphases put on the defining moments and facts of their respective community histories.
Having said that, I believe a new interpretation of the term ‘Levantine’ (or Levantinism) originates in this book, which is somewhat a ‘state of mind’, not necessarily bound with religion and ethnicity but with an embodied set of cultural capital that accumulated in an economically and politically liberal, multilingual and heavily literate environment. It seems to be crystallised and presented in full in the example of Kind Fouad of Egypt whom Mansel calls a “true Levantine”, or in the primordial case of Muhammad Ali: “Clearly he was playing with his variety of identities and loyalties -imperial, religious and national- in a way characteristic of the Levant.” (p. 84) Ali’s case also suggests a very strong regional (an Alexandrian one) identity and that is a common one for the three cities in the sense that it had its replications in Smyrna and Beirut over the years. It can be claimed that the repercussions of a Levantine characteristic as such still circulate in Smyrna (in the form of self-othering and opposition to religious conservatism as observed in the subtext of the phrase “Gavur Izmir” – Infidel Izmir) and in Beirut (in the form of nostalgia or perhaps city nationalism – How many sad Fairuz songs are there that mention Beirut?) However, despite the historical presence of a massive resistance to central governments and the conservatism of the hinterland, these cities never really enjoyed robust local administrations that could overcome the malicious effects from the outside world. Mansel, in this respect, sees the lack of autonomous armies in these cities, unlike in Renaissance Florence or revolutionary Paris where radical changes were being undertaken at respective times, as a threat to their protection, therefore a contribution to their ‘vulnerability’ – another notion these cities had had in common and that adds to the other notions mentioned above.
One success of the book is that it incorporates some of the previously unpublished diaries, letters and personal interviews of the survivors of the belle époques and catastrophes of these cities. An interesting remark is that while those people were not very enthusiastic about talking about the past, the new generation youths in these cities want to learn more of it. The will to discover the past and revive the heritages of these cities and the will to walk away from them (as in Beirut and in Izmir) walk hand in hand and create new spaces of identity. It is possible to take another look at the current revolts in the Arab world from this perspective as well as to the Levantinisation of western metropolises like London and New York, in the Levantine context that the book suggests, and that’s not all about the book that speaks to the mind of the 21st century reader. References to the examples of popular and high culture ranging from the Western view of the region and mindset by the likes of E. M. Forster and Lawrence Durrell to the works of local artists like Youssef Chahine, Giorgos Seferis, Naguib Mahfouz, Stratis Tsirkas, Halit Ziya Uşaklıgil and Amin Maalouf makes the book all the more an enjoyable read. You almost hear an ecstatic and at the same time tearful rebetiko or Asmahan song play in the background of your head while going through the pages, or want to get lost in a black and white film by Togo Mizrahi. ‘Levant’ makes the reader rethink today’s world and history, and ask questions with plenty of answers in a subtle way.
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Flyer for the book signing with the recent launch of the Turkish edition of ‘Levant’.