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Comparative Literature Studies 39.4 (2002) 360-385

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Depopulated Cosmopolitanism:
The Cultures of Integration, Concealment, and Evacuation in Istanbul

Benton Jay Komins

In many discussions of contemporary culture, the notion of cosmopolitanism features prominently. However, what cosmopolitanism is remains unclear. Indeed, contemporary usages of cosmopolitanism oftentimes diverge from past formulations of what it means to be cosmopolitan. As the critic Bruce Robbins notes, "Something has happened to cosmopolitanism. It has a new cast of characters. In the past the term has been applied, often venomously, to Christians, aristocrats, merchants, Jews, homosexuals, and intellectuals. Now it is attributed, more charitably, to North Atlantic merchant sailors, Caribbean au pairs in the United States, Egyptian guest workers in Iraq, Japanese women who take gaijin lovers." 1 Where cosmopolitan was used as a derisive epithet in the past to indicate separation and difference, today it has become a privileged sign of multicultural eclecticism. "Instead of an ideal of detachment," according to Robbins, "actually existing cosmopolitanism is a reality of (re)attachment, multiple attachment, or attachment at a distance." 2 But what happens when distance is achieved through the displacement of minority communities? When a city has a multi-ethnic past that has been supplanted by a homogeneous population, can its current citizens be properly described as cosmopolitan? In a recent essay, the geographer David Harvey proposes that cosmopolitanism should have a utopian ideal that transcends ethnicity, multiculturalism, or, for that matter, pluralism. "A meaningful cosmopolitanism does not entail some passive contemplation of global citizenship. It is [. . .] a principle of intervention to try to make the world (and its geography) something other than what it is. It entails a political project that strives to transform living, being, and becoming in the world." 3 Can a utopian project of cosmopolitanism [End Page 360] reconcile historic displacements of populations at the discursive level, or must more radical interventions be made to transform the lived experience of homogeneous populations haunted by a cosmopolitan past?

In this essay, I discuss the question of cosmopolitanism in the city of Istanbul, highlighting modes of displacement. Like Alexandria and Beirut, the other historically multicultural cities in the Near East, the ethnic composition of Istanbul has changed dramatically since the demise of the Ottoman Empire. In his introduction to the anthology, Cosmopolitanism, Identity and Authenticity in the Middle East, Roel Meijer states, "Cosmopolitanism has [. . .] become a rare phenomenon, something of the past, when borders had not yet been clearly demarcated and identities had not yet been defined or jealously guarded. In the distant past, the pressure to conform was less, and the opportunities to exist in the communities larger." 4 He elaborates on the specific context of cosmopolitanism in this region,

During the Ottoman period, the Middle East was an open undefined territory in which groups of different religious and ethnic backgrounds intermingled and exchanged ideas and lifestyles. Cosmopolitanist cities [. . .] formed freehavens for cultural exchange. No definite and rigid boundaries had been drawn and the state did not yet exert its power of standardisation or impose its norms on its citizens. 5

After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, European colonial intervention, national wars of independence, and population exchanges, physical and ideological borders began to demark the region ethnically. In this realigned order of nationalism, cosmopolitan experience began to connote the negative character of earlier, "decadent" social formations. "Cosmopolitan eclecticism, that [. . .] bête noire of nationalism," according to Stéphane Yérasimos, "is seen as a perversion of its basic values, its authenticity founded on the ages." 6 With the rise of Turkish nationalism in the republican era, the population of Istanbul began to change. Many Anatolian Turks migrated to the city, while the non-Turkish populations began to depart. The critic Sema Erder argues, "Until the 1950s, ethnicity [in Istanbul] referred to the delineation of difference among the non-Muslim population—a difference articulated at legal and institutional levels. Armenian, Greek, and Jewish populations were, however, seen as integral components of the city constituting the very diversity that made Istanbul cosmopolitan." 7 As I shall show, Istanbul has become...


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