Tragedy of Beirut, last bastion of the true Levant
My friend Faris Aractingi bears a striking resemblance to his ancestor, Assaad Khayat, who impressed Princess Victoria (the future Queen Victoria) when he accompanied three Persian princes on their visit to London in 1836. “He speaks many different languages, and amongst others English, very well; he is extremely handsome, and has a most interesting countenance,” she wrote in her journal. Khayat later became the first British Consul in Jaffa, where his daughter Mariana married Antoun Aractingi and where a hill still bears the family name.
Faris, now living in Beirut, was born in Baghdad and sometimes, when he speaks, words come out with the Mosul accent of his mother. In his award-winning movie “Heritages,” Philippe Aractingi, who is from another branch of the family, traces his roots to Adana in southern Turkey, with his grandmother’s family leaving the port on a boat in 1922 and heading to Damascus, which his father left for Beirut. The artist, Willy Aractingi, from yet another branch, was brought up in Cairo before moving to Beirut in the 1950s.
There are many people like the Aractingis, who were attracted to Beirut throughout the 20th century. Some came as refugees from Turkey or Palestine; others were driven out of Egypt, Iraq or Syria by the wave of homogenizing nationalism that gradually prevailed in the region or when their businesses and properties were nationalized.
They brought with them a rich history and a great cuisine, as inheritors of a type of Levantine Ottoman culture that had gradually eroded from the perimeters of the Mediterranean, and of which Beirut was the last station. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was Europeans who came to Egypt to find jobs instead of the other way round.
In Beirut, the financial expertise that built the Suez Canal, managed the Khedival debt and facilitated international trade coexisted with the remnants of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria and the soirees of Aleppo on the trade route to India via Mosul and Baghdad. Much has been written about the Levantines, who are often described with nostalgia as people who came from everywhere and belonged anywhere they could maintain the cosmopolitan culture that connected the globe.
Beirut in 1947 had barely half a dozen financial institutions, but by 1963 it was a trade and finance hub, with more than 90 banks. It developed by absorbing the remnants of Levantine culture, while its banking sector was the distillation of centuries of trade and financial expertise from the region, with its global networks.
Hamra Street in west Beirut was largely built after 1950 by people who had moved there from Haifa. The fact that people in the Achrafieh area east of the city spoke French had little to do with the legacy of colonialism. French was the lingua franca of the Levant trade and people who moved there from Jaffa, Aleppo and Egypt found it to be the common unifying language, rather than their various Arabic dialects.
The Levantines are often described with nostalgia as people who came from everywhere and belonged anywhere they could maintain the cosmopolitan culture that connected the globe.
Beirut is now under threat of losing its character, as many are leaving or thinking of doing so. Cities and nations rise and fall, some survive major crises and re-emerge, while others never recuperate. The city of Smyrna, which was once called the “Eye of Asia,” rivaled Istanbul as a port and in the 19th century was one of the largest, richest and most international cities in the Mediterranean. In 1922, any cosmopolitan character it had was extinguished by a great fire and it never recovered.
Alexandria took at least a decade to lose its diversity after having had a continuous presence of Greeks since the days of Alexander the Great. Some of its European and Levantine population smelt the coffee due to the 1952 Egyptian revolution and left immediately, while others waited until 1956 and the confiscation of foreign property. The most resilient stayed on, but today there is hardly anything left of that Levantine culture.
Nostalgia for the diversity and cosmopolitanism of Levantine cities is very much on the rise. In discussions on the reconstruction of Mosul and Aleppo, the restoration of their Christian and Jewish populations, as well as their ethnic minorities, are seen as indispensable for the recovery of these cities. Empires rule over many nations and this is reflected in the demographic diversity of their cities, their culture and their food. Nation states, meanwhile, strive for a homogeneous population with a common identity and this often adversely affects diversity.
There is a heated debate over the merits and dangers of multiculturalism in the West, where cities like Paris, London, Brussels, Berlin and Amsterdam have developed such a mix through immigration. This was a factor in the rise of the far right in many European countries and it threatens the very unity of Europe. While the West has fundamentally aspired to homogeneity since the treaties of Westphalia, the East has always seen diversity as part of its fabric and countries like the UAE have recently celebrated it and adopted it as part of their brand.
The crisis in Lebanon threatens the very identity that the country has developed over the last 100 years. If Beirut is on its way to becoming another Gaza — isolated, under siege and in a constant state of war while being ruled by a militia — then it will lose its cosmopolitan character.
The tragedy is that, after Beirut, there is nowhere to go: It is the last refuge except for the option of blending into the anonymity of Western, particularly North American, suburbia. It would be a big blow for the whole region to lose the Levantine spirit, which has been part of its fabric for centuries.
The story of the Aractingis is similar to those of many people in the region who made Lebanon their home. A family tree built by Farid Aractingi illustrates how the family was scattered all over the Levant in the last couple of centuries, during times when people and goods moved freely. Philippe Aractingi ends his movie just like it started, with his family on a boat leaving Lebanon after the 2006 Israeli invasion, pledging to come back. He recently told me that his main ambition is to be buried in the same country in which he was born.
- Nadim Shehadi is executive director of the LAU Headquarters and Academic Center in New York and an associate fellow of Chatham House in London.