Reviving the Mediterranean’s Lost Cosmopolitanism

Eastern Mediterranean cities that view migration as a threat today thrived on the ubiquitous presence of multicultural societies a century ago. Iason Athanasiadis opens our Reviving Cities series by explaining that the roots of today’s slow-motion refugee “disaster” can be found in the region’s trend towards introversion.

Written by Iason Athanasiadis Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
Top image: Youths walk past a car they set on fire in central Benghazi's oldest neighborhood. The city that was once a major Mediterranean port has been the scene of intense militia fighting since the 2011 revolution. Iason Athanasiadis

TUNIS: When Yannis, the Greek-speaking Ottoman Christian protagonist of Persa Koumoutsaki’s refugee novel Alexandria: Strangers’ Row , arrived on the Alexandrian quay in 1914, the first place he turned to for help was a Greek cafe.

At the time, the Egyptian city was enjoying its belle epoque, still untainted by the religious persecution Yannis had fled in Ottoman Anatolia. Hundreds of thousands of Arabs, Armenians, Jews, Italians, Levantines, Maltese and others lived and worked alongside each other in its port, business districts and expansive markets, during a golden age of Middle Eastern coexistence.

At the cafe, Yannis hesitantly announced his predicament. He needed a new home and a means of restarting life. The patrons immediately chipped in to ensure that he and his family found shelter, employment and a community. Within months, Yannis became a productive member of his adopted society, skirting the most vulnerable phase of adaptation when migrants are most likely to be exploited. As time passed, he and his family became an infinitesimal tile in the mosaic of Alexandria’s greatest social revival since antiquity. It is the best available case study on integration for today’s European politicians anxious to appear humane without alienating their newly dogmatic political constituencies.

How things have changed in the intervening years. In 2014, I met a 27-year-old Moroccan man named Younes who left Casablanca for a job in Libya, traveling across North Africa before heading to southeastern Europe and ending up in Germany. The Mediterranean port cities he traversed were far less integrated into the world. Within a century of Yannis’ arrival in Alexandria, they had become more insular, and infinitely more dysfunctional.

Younes stayed in Tripoli until July 2014, when another spasm of post-revolutionary violence convulsed the capital, forcing him to flee to Alexandria. Unable to find work there and clearly unwelcome, he flew to Istanbul, hoping to cross into Europe. When Younes learned that a wall blocked the land border to Greece, he took a bus to Izmir and joined the human tide floating across the strait in the hope of reaching the nearest Greek island. Throughout his journey north to Germany, he either stayed in crowded hostels or slept rough.

What a difference a century made. When those like Yannis fled to Alexandria in the early 1900s, they encountered people who embraced them and a society open to the idea of the outsider. A hundred years later, Younes struggled, largely invisible in the former havens of multiculturalism, his desperation often ignored or exploited.

A century of nationalist movements had disentangled a formerly diverse cultural tapestry and created a paradigm where the newly formed countries of the East Mediterranean basin now took in populations mainly on the basis of ethnicity and religion.

Ottoman citizens had rebelled against a once virile empire that had gone to seed, fighting wars of liberation in order that they might become Greeks, Egyptians, Armenians, Syrians and Iraqis. But today, these countries have either collapsed or are in advanced dissolution. Post-revolutionary Egypt regressed to being a worse dictatorship than the one its revolutionaries overthrew; Libya and Syria plunged into civil war; Turkey is fighting an insurgency in the southeast as bombs explode in its major cities; and Greece is inundated by economic woes. The nation-state successors of the Ottoman Empire have fared so badly that, today, their best-known exports are refugees and economic migrants.

The roots of today’s migrant crisis reach back to the 18th century, when a particular brand of nationalism wrapped in the Romantic movement gripped an ailing post-imperial space in the Balkans, North Africa and the Levant. Westernized native intellectuals imbibing the European Enlightenment values of self-determination became missionaries for the Westphalian nation-state system. Despite living in a world where a small powerful elite had already monopolized global trade networks, they spared little thought as to how uncompetitive and disjoined the states they strived to create would be. They dreamed of political independence from empire, without considering the consequences of isolating themselves from their neighbors.

The series of liberation wars that followed were deftly exploited by the great powers to rearrange the region. In the process, millions of Muslims and Christians were permanently displaced and rebranded by their nationalities.

This population exchange began a process over the first half of the 20th century whereby cities that were once formidable trading hubs of coexistence saw their ethnic minority populations shrivel. As the multilingual, multiethnic mix drained away, so did flexibility, inventiveness and – ultimately – profit and competitiveness, too. The mosaic that embraced Yiannis was replaced by a hardening homogeneous blandness. The process was completed as minority heritage – the memory of the past – was lost to massive fires sweeping through Smyrna and Selanik; extended construction in Athens, Beirut and Istanbul; war in Benghazi and Aleppo; and neglect nibbling away elsewhere else. Migration of “outsiders” became a threat instead of a natural occurrence that had been ongoing for centuries.

Our failure to coexist set the scene for today’s slow-motion disaster. Creating vacuum-sealed societies whose populations were schooled in repetitive and misleading religious and social orthodoxies has kindled the multicultural demise.

The dawn of the 2011 Arab uprisings in Libya, Egypt and Syria induced nostalgia for a richer past, yet betrayed deeply parochial attitudes. State subsidies were combined with an accelerated demographic growth, substandard education and fatalism, resulting in depressed societies and non-performing economies encased in a pseudo-socialist veneer.

That combustible mix finally erupted five years ago in the Arab Spring with such a momentum of dysfunction that it continues to burn, birthing one of the greatest refugee crises in history.

Seeking to immunize themselves, countries further north have constructed walls and offered Syria’s neighbors money to hold the refugees in a semi-permanent limbo. Meanwhile, cosmopolitan-turned-homogeneous cities like Istanbul are at risk of becoming refugee ghettos. As endless crowds of African, Asian and Arab refugees push against barbed-wire fences along the Balkan route, they will find themselves returning to those same Mediterranean cities they passed through. Upon return, they will either degrade or resuscitate these urban centers.

It is our collective responsibility to shrug off illusions – whether the seductive lies peddled by fascists, or the feel-good fairy tales that politically correct leftists tell themselves about abolishing borders completely. We have no choice but to confront the multiple and linked realities that brought us to this brink. But in order to do that, we will have to equip ourselves with more than a nationalist creation myth to understand our neighbors we stridently ignored for so long. We will also require self-knowledge. These are two things still lacking in our deeply self-absorbed region.

The path we choose will largely determine whether the Istanbuls, Thessalonikis, Izmirs and Alexandrias of 20 years from now transform into bustling revived metropolises or turn into suppurating repositories of rejected souls.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Refugees Deeply.

Our series Reviving Cities will present personal narratives of refugees living in Istanbul, Beirut, Izmir, Thessaloniki and others – how the people and the places are impacting each other’s identities.

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