Levantism reminds us how places can be enriched by coexistence

The Lebanese capital shows how cosmopolitan cities can thrive, writes Michael Young

An over view shows a part of west Beirut seen from the Holiday Inn hotel in the Lebanese capital. The diversity of Beirut is both an attraction and a strength, writes Michael Young. (AFP PHOTO/JOSEPH EID)
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At a time when societies are increasingly mistrustful of admixtures, religious or ethnic, it merits looking back at cities that once thrived because they were not outposts of uniformity. Nowhere was this truer than in those of the Levant, places of commerce where myriad communities coexisted.

One of the final Levantine exemplars is Beirut. Despite its innumerable problems, the city remains invigorating because it is a place of interaction for Christians and Muslims, Arabs, Armenians, westerners and others. Though Lebanese sectarian divisions are rising, the country still retains reflexes of diversity.

In a book titled Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, published in 2011, author Philip Mansel looked at three cities to make his case in favour of the Levantine ideal. While the book had flaws, Mansel's argument was sound: places of ethnic and cultural homogeneity, while they may allow for more stability, also tend to lack the vivacity and richness of societies with multiple, simultaneous identities.

This simple message is one that is just as applicable to an American electorate – itself very varied – that is worried about Muslims in its midst as to European societies profoundly uneasy with the arrival of more migrants. Yet even in Arab countries where religious and ethnic diversity was once common, countries are now characterised by conflicts in which sectarian and ethnic cleansing have become widespread.

More and more, people seem to have a notion that only living “with one’s own” brings security. In fact that can be misleading. In most parts of the Middle East where there are mixed populations, distinct communities tend to live with or next to one another. Security often depends on the goodwill of the other and separation usually comes through violence.

As Mansel showed in his book, one should not solely idealise Levantine cities. The three he chose to make his case – Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut – all suffered from terrible communal antagonisms. A similar path of bloody divorce was pursued in other mixed cities, from Sarajevo to Mostar to Nicosia. All lost from this and only Beirut revived itself as a place of multiplicity.

A reality of all these stimulating cities is that their multifarious identities, when they became incompatible, turned into a source of discord. That is why an essential feature of the Levantine spirit has to be the establishment of mechanisms of compromise – easier said than done. A rare country that tried doing so, Lebanon, hardly has a flawless record of concord.

However, Lebanon’s wars did show Lebanese the ills of not coexisting. Often accused of having embarked on their post-war reconciliation with amnesia, Lebanese have shown during the past decade, as sectarian tensions have risen, that they deeply fear new wars. When possible, they have favoured dialogue.

An essential aspect of the Levantine ideal is that it rests on a foundation of minorities. Where there are minorities the tyranny of a majority is more difficult to impose and formulas or conciliation are required to govern relations.

In Alexandria and Smyrna coexistence ended when majorities, each for its own reasons, swept away the fragile veil preserving cohabitation. In Beirut, where everyone is part of a minority, no such alternative was possible. As a consequence, there was no choice but to continue living together.

This imposition packed tremendous power and appeal. Simply put, it is stimulating to live with what is different. Places are enriched by paradox, by an individual’s need to constantly think in manifold ways different than what he or she is used to, to be familiar with different codes of conduct and cultures, and when necessary to speak in many tongues.

As societies have become more exclusive, cosmopolitanism has lost its attraction. Everywhere, it seems, the populists’ message of intolerance is making headway. As the Dutch writer Ian Buruma has argued, at the heart of populism is a notion that “liberal elites are to be blamed for all our ills and anxieties”.

The characteristic of such elites is their ability to navigate miscellaneous worlds, to embody, absorb and gain from differences in their own lives and work. Yet in many places this flexibility is viewed with disquiet, as a betrayal of authenticity.

While such a mood leaves little space for the Levantine ideal, in a globalised world, as Mansel observed, Levantinism is in the vanguard. For the Middle East in particular, it speaks to a time, and possibilities, far more stirring than we have now.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

On Twitter: @BeirutCalling