Academic journal article The Geographical Review

"Cosmopolitan" Smyrna: Illuminating or Obscuring Cultural Histories?

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

"Cosmopolitan" Smyrna: Illuminating or Obscuring Cultural Histories?

Article excerpt

  Music cafes. You see a random poster there: 5 men and 8 young women   in a new German group. You can guess what sort of show this was. Just   like in  Athens, the music cafes of Smyrna are cramped quarters where   a large and cosmopolitan crowd claps at the cosmopolitan songs of   cosmopolitan singers like themselves. ... When it conies to Turks   and Jews, they prefer to watch Karagoz [shadow plays] in dark cellars   full of cigarette smoke.   --Henri Avelot, 1897 (my translation) 

A French writer in 1896 thus described entertainment life in the Mediterranean port city of Smyrna (present-day Izmir, Turkey). "Cosmopolitan" referred to all elements in the city's music cafes: the audience, the singers, the songs. A destination for new groups touring from Europe, this venue contrasted with Turkish and Jewish hangouts, suggesting a European and/or Christian clientele at the music cafes. Whereas the cafe crowd enjoyed new "cosmopolitan songs" sung by "cosmopolitan singers like themselves7 the local Turks and Jews preferred the traditional Ottoman shadow plays, performed in less sightly and less savory locales. The music cafe resembled those in Athens to the west; the shadow-play stages belonged to the Ottoman mainland and the east.

Perhaps unsurprising for a French perspective at the time, Henri Avelot associated cosmopolitanism with Europeans and their cultural forms, although who actually constituted the cafe crowd was unclear: We know only they were not Turks or Jews. Avelot likewise distinguished the public spaces of musical performances from those of shadow plays. Both venues were cramped, but the latter appeared dirtier, smokier, and poorer. 'Thus, in contrast to that which was Turkish, Jewish, traditional (shadow plays), and lower class, things cosmopolitan were European, Christian, contemporary (songs), and better off. Indeed, contemporaneous residents and travelers alike have referred to Mediterranean port cities like Izmir, Beirut, and Alexandria, as well as certain neighborhoods of Istanbul, as "cosmopolitan" and frequently as a "Little Paris," reflecting a European claim to cosmopolitanism and its attributes.

Historical and changing definitions of "cosmopolitan" in fact emerge from Greek etymology ("citizen of the cosmos"), the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (the natural law of universal humanity), a nineteenth-century European opposition to patriotism, and post--cold war humanistic interests, which acknowledge difference (Malcomson 1998). Despite the term's expansive reach, its usage in this 1896 passage and others like it betrays Eurocentric limits: Avelot linked an exclusively European cultural presence in Izmir to things cosmopolitan, contrasting it with local "tradition" and poverty. Furthermore, in the encounter with, and activity of, the European (traveler, resident, merchant) on "foreign" land, cosmopolitanism becomes strikingly apparent through its mobile practitioners and perceived local antonym. In this way the Passage resonates less with the historical universalism of the term than with a sense of European cultural and economic superiority that contradicts idealistic definitions and reflects the actual imperial and colonial social divisions of the time. As represented above, "cosmopolitan" Izmir was indeed a city divided between the culturally European and the culturally Ottoman, between the implied Christian well-to-do and the abject local Turk and Jew.

Sources such as this French travel account have contributed to scholarly historical perspectives on "cosmopolitanism," derived from and shaped as they are by a similar European cultural, economic, and political lens. Specifically, in the case of Mediterranean port cities, scholarship has often taken the term for granted, leaving it ill defined but redolent with an aura of vibrant urban interculturalism, a global commercial orientation, and a "liberal" Enlightenment worldview. By contrast, recent studies as well as past empirically based research on such port cities as Izmir, Trieste, and Alexandria have either implicitly or explicitly challenged urban historians to consider the link between "cosmopolitanism" and power, specifically how the attribute "is mostly embraced by political, economic and cultural elites as part of their cultural domination" (Driessen. …

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