M. Fuhrmann: Port Cities of the Eastern Mediterranean

Port Cities of the Eastern Mediterranean. Urban Culture in the Late Ottoman Empire

Fuhrmann, Malte
XII, 477 S.
€ 93,66
Reviewed for Connections. A Journal for Historians and Area Specialists by
Edhem Eldem, Collège de France, Paris/Boğaziçi University, Istanbul

For years now, Malte Fuhrmann has been working on the life, spatial transformations, material culture and cultural outlook of some of the major port cities of the Ottoman Empire during the last decades of its existence. This book is a synthesis crowning these efforts at pinning down the dynamics of the fascinatingly plural and hybrid world of the Eastern Mediterranean, or, as the contemporaries would have it, the Levant. This is not to suggest that this book is just a compilation of previous work; quite the contrary, whatever previous material may have been used has been rethought and combined with new and original research, and, even more importantly, with a rich discussion and contextualization of the topic in the introduction and in the concluding chapters.

The work presents a remarkably solid structure, built on five major sections, each dealing with a particular aspect of the topic: historiography; space; material culture; ideology; and conflict. As such, it offers the reader a very efficient way of exploring a complex issue. Following a review and discussion of previous approaches to the notions of port cities and urban culture in Ottoman studies (pp. 3–35), the author expands on the thrust for modernity and Europeanization characterizing these cities (pp. 37–92); he then guides us through three particularly festive urban practices: “partying” – from strolling to carnivals and balls –, the stage – opera and theater –, and beer (pp. 93–209). The following chapter deals with the “software” of this urban society, namely some of its cultural bearings, regrouped under the general label of “identities”: education, information, gender, class, and mobility (pp. 211–343). Part V, “The End of the European Dream,” recounts the collapse of this fragile edifice, under the violent attacks of nationalism and war (pp. 347–403), including a digression on prostitution (pp. 372–389). Finally, a short conclusion proposes a leap into the future – our present – to revisit the dire circumstances of the same region today, after the belle époque that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall (pp. 405–415).

Fuhrmann’s achievement is a tour de force. Nothing is more slippery than the topic he has chosen and the material he has worked with; many earlier works on this subject prove to what extent things could have gone wrong. The formula of his success is simple: structure, method, focus, and theory. Rather than indulging in nostalgic accounts of doubtful cosmopolitanism, he maintains a firm and critical hold on a rich and diverse documentation. Instead of lining up attractive descriptions, he forces himself to put together a sound structure with carefully selected cases. To do so, he consciously chooses consistency and relevance over diversity and appeal, thus forcing himself to make substantial – and possibly painful – choices. This is clearly the only way one can control a documentation that inevitably invites dispersion and digression. Thus, the Eastern Mediterranean port cities are in fact reduced to three, Constantinople/Istanbul, Salonica/Thessaloniki, and Smyrna/Izmir, excluding Beirut and Alexandria. Likewise, it takes much focus and discipline to limit the study of the “city’s pleasures” to visits, opera, theater, and beer, and not to give in to the temptation of adding the many other – and well-documented – ways in which this subject could be treated. Perhaps most importantly, Fuhrmann is constantly aware of the need for a theoretical framework to contain, and give meaning to, the overabundance of a lively and colorful documentation. One may argue that he does not really propose a new model for understanding these port cities; but why should he, considering that one of his points is precisely to show how earlier models, from Weber’s to Wallerstein’s, have sacrificed the reality and complexity of these societies and cultures to their essentialist priorities?

That is why I would compare Fuhrmann’s achievement to a challenging, but very successful balancing act. He uses textual sources of a dominantly anecdotal and often subjective nature, but with a rigor that wards off most of the dangers inherent to this kind of material. He navigates back and forth in a period of about a century with some liberty, but manages to maintain the required level of consistency while doing so. He focuses on a number of individual cases and moments in the life and culture of these port cities, yet he also manages to provide them with a theoretical and historiographical framework, which is extremely useful for the readers, especially if they are not familiar with this complex and multilayered context.

Of course, one can always find fault with some aspects of the work. Review authors are often tempted to imagine how they would have dealt with the same topic, which, while understandable, is certainly not fair. Despite this risk, I would like to make a few comments on what I consider to be this exciting book’s rare shortcomings. I have already mentioned its reliance on singular and anecdotal sources, underlining that these were solidly anchored in both structure and theory. Nevertheless, I still believe that the work would have benefited from a number of quantitative references, if only to give the reader a better feel of the material at hand. To give a simple example, population figures for the three cities at hand would have been useful, especially if combined with an estimated size of the “cosmopolitan” communities under scrutiny. Indeed, one of the major characteristics of these communities is that they constituted a small, not to say marginal, portion of the total urban population, probably somewhere between ten and 20 percent, depending on the city. A finer look would probably reveal the existence of concentric circles, ranging from the innermost nucleus of the well-to-do, who could enjoy a French education or a night at the opera, to the much wider outer circle of beer drinkers and strollers by the seafront. After all, it should be remembered that this mixed class of citizens heavily relied on exclusion: social, economic, spatial, linguistic, cultural… Providing the reader with some clues as to the representativeness of the “sample” would have been a good way of avoiding the common misconception that these cities had become havens of Levantine convivencia.

As mentioned earlier, Fuhrmann manages to control and contain the risks caused by the anecdotal nature of most of his sources. But this does not really justify that practically no effort has been made to include serial and quantitative data whenever available or imaginable – with the exception of beer production and consumption statistics. This may be my own bias, given my own efforts to submit as much as possible very similar and contemporary social groups to number crunching, based on a number of variables such as workplace, residence, employment, or even signing practices; yet I do believe that such an exercise would have brought an additional level of focus, proportion, and precision to a dominantly qualitative approach. If anything, it is surprising that Constantinople To-day, the famous social survey published in 1922, should not even appear in the bibliography.

Finally, I feel that the work is somewhat flawed due to a relative underrepresentation of the Ottoman and Muslim/Turkish dimension, in terms of both focus and documentation. This is not to counter the notion that the cultural dynamics of these port cities were to a large extent characterized by their autonomy from the Ottoman state, and by a very limited Muslim/Turkish presence. Perhaps the wittiest comment to this effect was the bon mot attributed – and never documented – to one Greek Orthodox deputy at the Ottoman Parliament after 1908: “I am as Ottoman as the Ottoman Bank.” And yet, as Fuhrmann also observes, the appeal of modernity also worked on Muslims, albeit in smaller numbers. Yet, to prove it, were there really no other examples than the “usual suspects,” such as Osman Hamdi or Fatma Aliye, and no other text than Recaizade Ekrem’s ubiquitous Araba Sevdası? Among the wealth of primary sources used – including the so rarely used Austrian archives – was there really nothing in the Ottoman archives other than the dizzying mass of documents used exclusively to document beer production? As to the press in Turkish, would it not have been interesting to try exploiting other newspapers and periodicals than the already “super-westernized” Servet-i Fünun?

Le mieux est l’ennemi du bien, as they say, and it is indeed unfair to ask for more when there is already so much. Rather than criticism, the last comments above should be taken as suggestions as to what could be done to build on the momentum created by this remarkable work in the areas of late Ottoman cultural and urban history. After all, is that not what one should expect from a successful contribution, namely that rather than wrapping up an issue, it should open it up for further questioning, discussion, and research? If that is the case, Malte Fuhrmann’s Port Cities has brilliantly succeeded in setting a new threshold, with the additional merit of offering much to readers outside of the field, in European, Mediterranean, colonial, and postcolonial studies.

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