The Levant, the mankind-old space between the continents, between East and West, between all the different powers trying to build their fortune in this region, may be a hint to the future of mankind, more than it is a mirror to its past. But what do I mean by that?
As Philip Mansel wrote in his brilliant book Levant – Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, „Diversity and flexibility were the essence of Levantine cities. They could be escapes from the prisons of nationality and religion. In these cities between worlds, people switched identities as easily as they switches languages.“ In todays globalised world this is the very essence of much of the great cities that shape the look of our modern civilisation. And so Mansel concludes that „the true heirs of the Levant are some of the richest cities of today: London, Paris and New York – Dubai, Bombay and Singapore.“ This spirit of such major cities is that of free individuals, escaped from all boundaries of tradition, religion or ancestry, at least in its ideally form.
But next to these characteristic benefits there is an inherent instability in this construction. The peacefull daily life between differnt groups has to be managed, and you may argue that it has to be managed from above, underpinned by a strong administrative and military organisation. Mansel saw the reason for the decline of the big levantine ports of the last two centuries in this error. „At certain times Levantine cities could find the elixir of coexistence, putting deals before ideals, the needs of the city before the demands of nationalism.“ But „no Levantine city created an effective police force or national guard of its own. The very qualities which gave these cities energy, freedom and diversity, also threatened their existence. No army, no city.“
The situation we are certainly facing now is that of a backlash against the ever increasing triumphal procession of globalisation. In the aftermaths of the financial crisis 2008 the first critical voices towards globalisation reached the mainstream of western media. It duplicated in the midst of the last decade when populist and conservative politicians gained much ground, from Trump to the PIS, Le Pen to the AFD. And Brexit, of course. The global Covid-19 pandemic was the last piece that showed even the last ones that we have to take certain steps to control this development.This doesn´t mean that the global hotspots have to get more provincial in the future and that they have to agonise the same tragic destiny as the great cities to the Levant, namely Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut. But there are signs that some of them might turn in this direction.
Paris, the unchallenged centre of France and home to more than 10 million people from all over the world, is infamous for its vast areas of troubled neighborhoods in the banlieus, the suburbs of the city. And the atmosphere in the hole country is getting more and more edgy as the elections next year coming closer. Leader of the far-right-wing party Rassemblement National Marine le Pen is one step ahead of moving into the Palais de l´Élysée becoming the next president of the country. It´s hard to imagine that such a presidency wouldn´t cause several riots in the city probably comparable to the Black Life Matter demos in the United States last year. On the other side, the Mouvement des Gilets jaunes represent a similar threat to the inner stability and won´t just disapear neither.
In London, things started to evolve in a different direction. After Brexit, probably the single most important political event during the last decade, the importance of its standing as the central of the european finance-industry greatly declined and stands now, according to new stats, even behind Paris, Amsterdam and Frankfurt a. M. in terms of trading volume in european stocks. With the second hit of the Corona-pandemic the city lost a total of about 600.000 immigrant-workers from all over the world. And the troubles within the United Kingdom may just strengthen this development. While Paris will soon be under pressure by the different ethnic and religious groups and the economic divide between them, London is more likely to slowly fade away as an international hub for business and people.
Is this the future we´re heading towards? Nothing´s certain yet.
Both countries and cities have still a lot to offer, especially in economic terms. But it´s interesting to see how the same problems that cast a shadow over the Levant cities have the abbility to threaten other cities with a similar structure. If we are able to learn the right lessons from their decline (and fall, at times), we may be better suited for the challenges ahead of us in a world, where many people want to be somewhere else, while many people want their place to stay as it is.
Or, in the words of Mansel, there has so much „been written about Westernization of the Middle East that the Levantinization of Europe has been overlooked.“