As hard as it is to believe, the “18th-century cities of the Levant” were liberal, libertine and prosperous. The secret to the successful, vibrant life in the Levant is detailed in a book by Philip Mansel, which traces “the story of how first Smyrna (modern Izmir), then Alexandria and then Beirut emerged to prominence, and how they waxed in wealth, power, beauty and influence over the 19th and 20th centuries.”
The Levant then was without the top-down, punitive, forced integration which is the hallmark of the 19th-century nation-state. Enforced across the Anglo-American and European spheres, this integration compels the founding peoples to prostrate themselves before minorities, each and every one of whom is said to suffer from historical wounds and claims to match their eternally suppurating wounds:
The reviewer reveals a thing or two about multiculturalism in these cities.
“The cities of the Levant were never a melting pot of peoples, rather a grid of self-governing communities, enforced by separate schools, places of worship, hospitals, burial grounds, clubs, charities, newspapers and libraries. Internal schisms – between Catholic and Orthodox, between Nestorian and Monophysite, between Sunni and Shia, between Ashkenazi and Sephardim further subdivided the urban tribes of Greeks, Jews, Syrians, Armenians, Turks, Franks and Egyptians. Trade, fame and the pursuit of pleasure alone brought the citizens together, and with it came a natural multi lingualism, so that it was not uncommon for a Levantine family to be fluent in half a dozen languages and scripts, or to use ‘farabish’ a slang-like fusion of Arabic, Italian, English and French. And because the divisions between the communities were so absolute there was a remarkable spirit of tolerance within a Levantine city. Noone felt that their children were in danger of being submerged by another culture and so there was a propensity for sharing, knowing and acknowledging the various festivals and rituals of the different faiths. This arose not out of any interest in a multi-faith fusion, but as neighbours with a taste for being amused by different dishes, street processions, dances and tunes.”
Levantine loyalty structures started with family, then progressed out to ethnic community with a light gilding of urban pride before drifting on outwards via thin personal connections (however faint or imaginary) to other trading cities and the court of the ruling dynasty. Nationalism was startling absent from the 18th-century Levantine mindset, as was any concern, kinship or sense of responsibility for the parochial hinterland. The laboriously constructed contract of 19th-century nationalism – duty, obedience and sacrifice (duty to pay tax, obedience to the heirachy of state servants and readiness to fight for the fatherland) was in almost comic opposition to the Levantine mindset. For the Levantine was a natural free-trader, if not a smuggler, a deal-maker, a tipper of minor officials and a hoarder – who would migrate rather than fight for a distant state, but also perish rather than witness the break-up of family. Mansel creates a mantra to help us translate the smiles of welcome, the immaculate tailoring, the charm and the intoxicating scents of the Levantine: Deals before Ideals, City before State, Trade before Politics.
UPDATE: “Deals before Ideals, City before State, Trade before Politics”: This quote from the review above is especially germane for those of us who champion the locality as the proper repository of conservative loyalties.