Philip Mansel was in Hay Festival Beirut 2013 to speak about 'Was Beirut a Levantine city?'

Philip Mansel on Beirut: we must cultivate our cities as well as our gardens

I am a historian from London and lived in Beirut in 2001-5, while researching my history of the Levantine cities of Smyrna, Alexandria and Beirut, Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean (London 2010, New Haven 2011, Istanbul 2011, Athens 2012). I heard Hariri’s motorcade being blown up, and joined in the demonstrations, which were a foretaste of the Arab Spring. For me Beirut is the dream Mediterranean city, radiating joie de vivre, living on the edge, vulnerable, challenging and multi-cultural. I return when I can.

For many people, including myself, Beirut has had an effect similar to Berlin on Christopher Isherwood. He wrote: ‘always in the background was Berlin. It was calling me every night and its voice was the harsh, sexy voice of the gramophone records… Berlin had affected me like a party at the end of which I didn’t want to go home’.

Cities have often defied or ignored states and had greater impact.  Cities can subvert the call of the minaret, the pulpit and the kalashnikov. Cities also challenge clichés about nations and national character.

I have written on Paris and Constantinople, and Beirut and other Levantine cities mixed the two. Beirut is an ideal field of observation on how to mix Christians, Sunni and Shia, secular and religious, in the same city. It is an experimental laboratory for the future of other global cities. This trilingual city with 37 universities shows the global impact of French culture, and suggests that French can survive as a world language. I love the variety of people, universities and bookshops in Beirut; the sense of freedom from the weight of the state, increasingly oppressive in the West; the  sea at the end of the street.

Today Beirut shines  like a beacon of sanity compared to the horrors in Aleppo,  Damascus and Baghdad. After the ‘unmixing’ of Smyrna, Alexandria, and Aleppo, Beirut is the last great Levantine city. As we approach the ‘universal cosmopolitan existence’ prophecied by Kant in 1784, hopefully global cities will be  less vulnerable than their predecessors. If they are supported by states, if armies and police forces continue protecting rather than attacking or ignoring the inhabitants, the future belongs to mixed cities with the energy and freedom of cosmopolitanism, rather than to inland capitals dominated by their ‘military-industrial complex’: to Beirut not Damascus; Dubai not Riyadh; New York not Washington. States are dinosaurs: cities are the future.

Let us remember the prophetic words of a great French historian, Camille Jullian.  Here the nineteenth century speaks to the twenty-first, across the nationalistic nightmare of the twentieth. In his great history of Bordeaux, published in 1899, – and Bordeaux shared many characteristics of Levantine cities – he suggested: ‘today in face of an absolute and monotonous State, in face of even colder and more despotic international ideas, the municipal spirit can become, in the same way as family life and love of the soil, the safeguard of human liberty and dignity’. We must cultivate our cities as well as our gardens.