For Arab cities, marketplaces have often been seen as public spaces par excellence by exhibiting forms of ethnic and religious diversity that are held together by commerce (Mermier 2011). The figure of the merchant as a nodal point in networks of urban space is also familiar from the cosmopolitanism of Mediterranean cities during the Ottoman era.Footnote 2 Much research, mostly marked by a nostalgia for a period believed to have been a model of community co-existence, has been carried out on these spaces. Such city cosmopolitanism has been described as
a complex urban system open to universal values and the outside world and bringing together different communities that were termed ethnicities, peoples, or nations, according to the places concerned and the vocabulary of the time. The cosmopolitan city offers a variegated social and cultural landscape, which entails a way of living the city and of living in the city. (Escallier 2003)
The inhabitants of the Near East were supposed to embody this condition of “urban cosmopolitanism” thanks to their remarkable adaptive capacity.
Today, this “Mediterranean of cities” has disappeared as a result of the growth of nation-states and nationalism, the marginalization of former urban elites, and the movement of rural populations to cities. In the eastern Mediterranean, this was a form of life most often associated with the countries of the Levant, including not only Lebanon and Syria but also Jordan, Palestine, parts of Turkey, and, for some, certain cities like Alexandria and Smyrna (Mansel 2010). This “Levantine society” only finally disappeared with the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975, which Robert Ilbert called “the end of an urban order” (1991). Writing of Alexandria’s cosmopolitanism at this time, Ilbert adds that the “coexistence of communities having different languages, cultures and religions living in the same space” (1992, 171) contributed to a “community of interest imposed by a Levantine bourgeoisie of fluid national links underpinned by a communitarian system that reserved the most important place to notables” (1992, 185).
The anthropologist Jean Métral employed this idea of “urban order” in an article on public space in the cities of the Levant, particularly Aleppo and Beirut, in order to identify three types of cities that could be seen to characterize the period between the early nineteenth century and the end of the Second World War. These cities included Mediterranean ports such as Istanbul, Thessaloniki, Smyrna, Beirut and Alexandria “in which there flourished a particular form of cosmopolitanism”; cities of the interior such as Ankara, Aleppo, Damascus and Cairo “where nationalism grew and was consolidated”; and, finally, desert trading centres that served as the “home of tribal patrimonialism” (1995, 263). The cosmopolitanism of the port cities was rooted in a form of urban life that depended on community belonging, but this did not mean that any one community dominated others. It was a cosmopolitanism based on exchange, a shared urban culture and belonging, and centered on the souq, the public space par excellence of the city.
For Sami Zubaida, cosmopolitanism is not so much a matter of cultures and nationalities mixing (as often happens in big cities) but instead certain ways of living and thinking. As Zubaida puts it, such styles of life are “deracinated from communities and cultures of origin, from conventional living, from family and home-centredness, and have developed into a culturally promiscuous life, drawing on diverse ideas, traditions and innovations” (1999, 15–16).
The idea of cosmopolitanism as a mosaic of communities living side by side can once again be traced back to the traditional elitist model of communities led by notables. It plays down the forms of exclusion that may have contributed to the growth of nationalistic feeling or the outbreak of civil war, as took place in Lebanon between 1975 and 1990, even if it could be argued in the case of Beirut that the civil war that incontestably reduced the presence of foreign communities in the city pushed Lebanon as a whole “into the avant-garde of a new wave of globalization … As a result, Lebanon paradoxically emerged from the civil war with a notably efficient networked economy that was connected to the ‘global village’ that the world economy had in the meantime become” (Corm 1998, 16–17).
Zubaida rightly remarks that nostalgia for this type of cosmopolitanism fails to link it with the European imperialism of the time and the forms of segregation that prevented the “natives” from going into certain social spaces (1999, 26). However, two cities of the interior, Aleppo and Cairo, experienced significant forms of cosmopolitanism at this time. Though partially characterized by the presence of Europeans, both cities also saw the coexistence of other communities from the region. The Syrian-Lebanese community in Cairo, for example, or the Turkmens and Kurds in Aleppo, still make up a significant proportion of the populations of these cities. What was until recently the mixed composition of the population in Baghdad is another case in point (see Bader 2014).
Yet the idea of an “oriental cosmopolitanism” linked to the ports of the Levant is too narrow to be used analytically except as a way of fleshing out the familiar idea of Mediterranean cities as exhibiting values of openness and tolerance that were opposed to nationalist attempts at closure. This stereotypical opposition between city and nation holds, even today, a strong ideological charge.
Questions have been raised regarding the extent to which social practices in these cities conformed to this conceptually problematic notion of cosmopolitanism. Henk Driessen, for example, has rightly pointed out that the idea of cosmopolitanism has been used to describe a huge variety of historical situations from ancient Greece to today’s post-modern “multicultural” metropolises. At the very least, he says, the use of the idea as an anthropological concept runs up against certain epistemological obstacles, its ambiguity coming from the attempt to “reconcile difference with equality and universal with pluralism” (Driessen 2005, 137). Cosmopolitanism has also had a close relationship with power, having been used at different times by various elites to entrench their cultural domination. It has existed in different forms in different historical epochs, closely associated with the notion of tolerance, with all the ambiguities that this implies (Driessen 2005).
Will Hanley, a historian of Alexandria, has also drawn attention to the fact that research on the cosmopolitanism of the “Middle East” has in general been reluctant to draw on theoretical work. As a result, he writes in an incisive article (2008), research on cosmopolitanism has just as often been used to obscure reality as to illuminate it, having the effect of hiding reality behind a thick cloak of nostalgia. The recognition that cosmopolitanism comes in many forms as well as taking into account popular cosmopolitan practices would, Hanley continues, allow much of the research carried out in this “cultural area” to rid itself of the elitist prism through which reality is often viewed and strip away obsessions with identity. The historian Edhem Eldem has also made a convincing case for seeing the Ottoman cosmopolitanism that developed from the second half of the nineteenth century onwards as a sort of Levantine cosmopolitanism. This was above all a form of “social praxis” characterized by the spread of a particular French cultural model into certain districts of Istanbul and by a particular capacity to move between different social and cultural worlds (Eldem 2013).
The upshot of such considerations is that ethnic, religious and linguistic diversity are not sufficient for labelling the cosmopolitan character of a city without taking into consideration how diversity is constituted and experienced. The big cities of the Arabian Peninsula today, characterized as they are by pronounced ethnic and spatial segregation, should not be seen in the same way as the port cities of the Mediterranean during the Ottoman period or twenty-first century Beirut or Cairo.
The cosmopolitanism seen in Manama in Bahrain, for example, is built on a spatial segregation that applies to all the communities in the city, whether native or foreign, and is a model that characterizes all the cities of the Gulf (Gardner 2010). The type of cosmopolitanism that characterizes the Gulf, in fact, is a version of the “communitarian cosmopolitanism” identified by Francesca Trivellato in her study of community relations in sixteenth-century Livorno (2009).Footnote 3 The cosmopolitan of contemporary Gulf cities emphasizes segregation because, having been built on a system of ethnic stratification based on nationality, it intends to maintain the superior status of “nationals” over immigrants.
However, ethnic stratification has had different characteristics in different societies, these being a function as much of the individual history of the society concerned as of the methods used to “manage” difference and openness to globalization. The position of each city in the region to which it belongs is also important – the Gulf cities, for example, are part of regional circulation systems like the Arabian Peninsula and the wider Arab world. This regional positioning affects social spaces and forms of sociability as well as professional, cultural and leisure activities in different ways, which means that these cities are part of a larger inter-urban space where local differences support and complement each other.
Moreover, the nostalgia for colonial cosmopolitanism can also serve to reinforce pretensions of cultural superiority when the loss of the political status of a city in a larger national unit has led to political or economic marginalization. This has been the case in Yemen, where Aden has lost out to the capital, Sanaa. The memory of the Antonin Besse family, forced to leave South Yemen after the nationalizations in 1969, is still alive today among Aden’s intellectual elite, for example. This elite has reacted to the marginalization of Aden by mourning the loss of its former cultural and political dynamism, which was paradoxically linked to the British occupation. By contrast, the nostalgia felt by some residents of Alexandria for the cosmopolitan vestiges of the past does not have the same political content; instead, it is kept alive by rivalry with Cairo, where the country’s political power and cultural institutions are located. The intellectuals around the magazine Amkina (Places) in Alexandria are far removed from their Aden counterparts, who gather around the newspapers Al-Ayyam and Aden al-Ghad. While they may not have heard of one another, these intellectuals are linked by a shared desire to rehabilitate a cosmopolitan past. This is all the more attractive in the case of Aden as a way of fighting against the marginalization of the city and its former elite.