The Coastal History Blog 7: “The tolerant coast”

In his TV series The Shock of the New, the art historian Robert Hughes remarked that politicians don’t like port towns.  They are too colorful and ungovernable.

He made this statement while discussing Brazil’s decision to build a futuristic capital city from scratch. Brasilia, by implication, was a rejection of Rio de Janeiro.  Next, Hughes mentioned the design of postcolonial New Delhi.  As an Australian he was, no doubt, also thinking of the creation of Canberra.  We can extend the list: Ataturk despised Istanbul and moved the capital to Ankara; the capital of the Soviet Union would be Moscow rather than St. Petersburg.

It’s possible to read too much into this. For example, the construction of Washington, D.C. was a pragmatic compromise resulting from negotiations between northern and southern states, not a fear of ports as such.  Anxiety about malaria surely played a part in some decisions to locate capitals inland.  And for all his talk of Istanbul’s degenerate culture, Ataturk the Gallipoli veteran must also have been thinking about how difficult it had become to defend the Dardanelles and Bosphorus regions from assorted foreign aggressors.

Hughes’ remark gets at something bigger, though.  When Ian Buruma writes that he identifies with the “Europe of the ports”, not “continental Europe,” or when red state diehards complain about Americans with “bicoastal personality disorder” that dismiss them as “flyover people,” we aren’t puzzled. [1]

The tacit assumption that ports or coasts are natural spaces for openness and innovation may also have informed the planning decisions behind two of the world’s newest coastal developments, China’s “New Territories” of the 1980s and the cutting-edge cities of the GCC, best represented by Dubai. [2] In an odd way, these last two examples turn Hughes’ assumptions on their head: If ambitious bureaucrats notice their country is missing a dynamic waterfront city, they may just create one by administrative fiat.

Israel’s Mediterranean Moment

I was reminded of Hughes while reading Alexandra Nocke’s book, a study of Yam Tikhoniut—Mediterraneanism—in Israeli thought. [3] Nocke, who is based in Germany, did fieldwork in Israel, Lebanon, and Egypt in the period 2000-2002. She acknowledges that her interviews already sound rather dated; the ideas she discusses flourished in the optimistic period associated with the Oslo Accords.

Yam Tikhoniut was a sensibility that spanned music, cuisine, literature, and politics. Words associated with it include: relaxed, flexible, non-ideological, multicultural.  Braudel was translated into Hebrew and some of his readers speculated about a post-Zionist future in a longue durée perspective.

At the end of Amos Oz’ In the Land of Israel—a sort of Israeli Road to Wigan Pier—Oz comes to rest in the port town of Ashdod. [4] For Oz, the atmosphere is exhilaratingly open and restful after his verbal sparring matches with Palestinians and West Bank settlers.  “A bright sea-blue washes over the broad avenues… A ship bellows from the direction of the port and the birds answer… Ashdod is a city on a human scale on the Mediterranean coast.”

Perhaps echoing this celebrated passage, advocates of Yam Tikhoniut sought out the cosmopolitan “Levantine” heritage of the region, resurrecting the essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff, in whose writings “the luminescent example of Alexandria is mentioned time and again as a symbol for the open Mediterranean.” [5]

Nocke interviewed Fawwas Traboulsi in Beirut, who retorted: “Why shall we, alongside with Israel, all of a sudden become ‘Mediterranean,’ just for Israel to feel more welcomed in the region? We are Arabs and we will stay Arabs!” [6] Fair enough. However, as Fouad Ajami has shown, the attractions of a Mediterranean identity are not confined to Israel; in the wake of the defeat and disillusionment of 1967, Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian intellectuals showed considerable interest in pre-nationalist and even pre-Islamic role models. [7] Nocke notes a publication, La Revue Phénicienne, charting out a Phoenician future for Lebanon as early as 1919. [8]

It is possible to acknowledge a port effect without creating unrealistic expectations.  Beirut is a port town.  So is Belfast.  Who has written the book about cosmopolitan port towns as utopias for the post-nationalist age, I wonder?



[1] Ian Buruma, Anglomania: A European Love Affair (New York: Random House, 1998); this was published in the UK under the title Voltaire’s Coconuts.

[2] See, for example, the discussion of Shenzhen in James Fallows, “China Makes, the World Takes,” in The Globalization Reader, 4th ed., ed.  Frank J. Lechner and John Boli (New York: Wiley, 2012), 156.

[3] Alexandra Nocke, The Place of the Mediterranean in Modern Israeli Identity (Leiden: Brill, 2009).

[4] Amos Oz, In the Land of Israel, trans. Maurie Golberg-Bartura (Orlando: Harvest, 1993).  I used the Kindle edition, but the Ashdod chapter is entitled “At the End of that Autumn: A Midwinter Epilogue.”

[5] Nocke, Place, 221.

[6] Nocke, Place, 247.

[7] Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey (New York: Vintage, 1999).

[8] Nocke, Place, 211.




Comments are closed.

Discover more from Port Towns and Urban Cultures

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading