Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Deals Before Ideals

A few readers have noted that it might be useful to describe exactly what I mean by the terms Levant and Levantine. It may seem clear to anyone who has lived in the region, but others may find the reference a bit obscure. This post discusses just two of the cities in this broad region.

The Levant is as much a state of mind as it is geography. The geography is the loosely defined arc that stretches from Thessaloniki in northern Greece, down the Aegean coast to Turkey, around the corner to the eastern Mediterranean coasts of modern Syria, Lebanon, Israel and Egypt. Holy men and armies have marched across these dry deserts, fertile valleys and wide rivers for thousands of years before Christ. Odysseus, Darius, Alexander, Belasarius, Saladin, Richard the Lionheart, and Selim would recognize all too well the bloody conflicts still raging in the region. Moses, Jesus and Mohammed would most likely shake their heads in sadness at the follies committed in their names.

The ‘state of mind’ is a bit more complex. In his masterful new book Levant Philip Mansel says “The Levant was also a mentality. It put deals before ideals.” He goes on to say that diversity and flexibility were the essence of Levantine cities. At its best the Levant was, and in some cases still is, a rich, dynamic, intoxicating mixture of peoples, languages and religions common to many port or frontier cities. At its worst it was a cauldron of seething ethnic and religious tensions that frequently erupted in violence and bloodshed as one group or other took out its perceived injustices on another group. The region was never the proverbial melting pot of romantic fiction. It was rather like a lumpy stew where the bits and pieces never quite coalesced into a unified whole.

Modern Turkish politicians often refer to the Ottoman era as an example of how different races and religions in the empire lived side-by-side in harmony. Not quite. They may have lived side-by-side, but the alleged harmony was often mere resignation to a political and military situation the groups couldn’t change. This illusion of ethnic amity was often shattered by cynical governments seeking to exploit the differences or by one of the groups who saw an opportunity to gain from a perceived shift in status quo.

A book written by a Greek and published in Turkish and French gives fascinating detail of the Levantine complexity of the port city of Thessaloniki in the latter years of rule by the Ottoman Turks. Relying on Ottoman documents, Meropi Anastassiadou gives an indication of the complexity of the city as shown by the 1905-1906 population. There were 44,331 Jews, 24,950 Moslems, 10,594 Greeks, and a few hundred assorted Armenians, Bulgarians, and Catholics. The founder of the modern Turkish Republic, Ataturk, was born there in 1881. Many of the Turks left when the Ottoman Empire retreated in 1913 and the Greeks took control of the city for the first time in more than 400 years. Today, after more than 100 years of wars, fires, Nazi genocide, population transfers, the Jewish population has been all but erased and only a few traces of the Ottomans remain. Despite all the changes you can get a sense of the old days by walking up the hill past Ataturk’s house into what is still called the Turkish neighbourhood with its narrow streets and overhanging balconies. Close your eyes, exercise your imagination, and you can still hear the echoes of bygone days with its colourful babble of different languages and dress.

The best work in English on the poignant and turbulent evolution of the city from 1430 to 1950 is Mark Mazower’s Salonica, City of Ghosts. Readers who would like a fuller treatment of the Jewish community in Greece should turn to K.E. Fleming’s Greece, A Jewish History.

The modern Turkish city of Izmir, formerly Smyrna, was known as the Paris of the Levant. It was a rich, vibrant multi-national city that attracted adventuresome businessmen from almost every country in Europe. Families like Giraud, Whittal, Aliotti, d’Andria and many others played key roles in the business life of Smyrna. A fascinating glimpse of how the true Levantines operated in constantly changing economic, political and social conditions can be found in the wonderful privately published Three Camels to Smyrna by Antony Wynn. This is the story of how the Oriental Carpet Manufacturing Company, established by a few European families, came to dominate carpet manufacturing throughout Turkey and Iran and distribution into Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The indigenous Turks were not all pleased with the cosmopolitan nature of Smyrna which they caustically referred to as Gavur Izmir, Infidel Izmir. From time to time in the 18th and 19th centuries this displeasure would break out into bloody riots. The end of cosmopolitan Smyrna came with dramatic suddenness in 1922 with the total defeat of the Greek forces that had disastrously invaded Turkey in 1919 hoping to expand Hellenistic culture into the ancient heartland of Asia Minor. Much of the Greek population was literally driven into the sea, and many others suffered in the ensuing massacres and fire that all but destroyed the once beautiful city.

The capstone on 2,000 years of Greek history in Asia Minor was the exchange of populations that saw more than a million Greeks from Turkey resettled in an impoverished Greece, and several hundred thousand Turks return from Greece. Bruce Clark in Twice a Stranger, and Renee Hirschon in Crossing the Aegean give clear pictures of the personal as well as the national tragedies involved in the expulsion of entire cultures from one piece of geography to another. At the time it was seen as the best, perhaps the only, way to maintain peace. But now, one wonders. Both Greece and Turkey seem somehow poorer for the mutual disappearance of these communities from each country.

Izmir’s independent and entrepreneurial character has not been completely eradicated, however. The city remains a defiant beacon of the secular, socially liberal nature of the Turkish Republic as it consistently votes against the conservative, Islamic tendencies of the ruling Justice and Development Party, many of whose members still use the term Gavur Izmir to describe the city. It is one of Turkey’s thriving economic centres, and most of the country’s foreign trade goes through the port of Izmir. One can only hope that with the gradual defrosting of Greek/Turkish relations the peoples of both countries will realize they have much to gain by recreating some of those ties that have been lost over the years.

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