Sha’bi cosmopolitanisms

There is very little that is original in this post, but I want to put it down anyway, because the affects of this moment are lovely; something that I want to remember when I think about so much that is functional, or dry, or frustrating, or riven with anger, power asymmetries and exploitation.

What strikes me again and again is the sha’bi (or popular; or from-below) cosmopolitanism of port cities in the global South.  This cosmopolitanism occurs because of longstanding ties across the sea (including the trade in humans and in indentured labour). But it also occurs because of mercantile relations that long predate stories of modern capitalist “globalisation” (I put that term inside scare quotes because I find it such an inadequate term for the kinds of transformations we see in the world; now or historically).

I have a profound awareness of the ways in which cosmopolitanism is problematic.  David Harvey’s book on the subject has a thoughtful recapitulation of the critiques of cosmopolitanism, including the most devastating postcolonial critiques.  But the kind of cosmopolitanism I want to celebrate is not cosmopolitanism as an ethics or ethos. Nor is it some sort of liberal Kantian ideal that demands global structures of power.  It is not even a universal or universally recogniseable value.  This kind of cosmopolitanism just is. It is neither an injunction nor something that can be created or reproduced on command.  It is not global and doesn’t look the same everywhere.  It is something grounded and specific.  Something that even in its rootlessness has a geography, a history.

This cosmopolitanism is an everyday cosmopolitanism or conviviality of a port city.  This is of course classed, and always already taut with tensions of history, memory, power. But there is also a port city’s openness.  Its proximity, accessibility, to those who escape or arrive.  It is the survival of languages, of pidgin forms of communication, or hybrid or mixed foods, hybrid or mixed styles of life.  It is walking through Souq Mubarakiyya in Kuwait and hearing a distinctly Kuwaiti-accented Farsi in the mouth of people whose ancestors migrated to Kuwait several generations back.  It is to see meyveh (dried fish mixed with herbs and spices) being sold not as an Iranian condiment, but as the thing eaten by Kuwaitis, spelling it in distinct ways, preparing it differently than Iranians do.

Again, I don’t want to romanticise this kind of cosmopolitanism. If Dubai has neighbourhoods where one can speak to Filipino and Filipina people on city squares it is because global structures of labour have pushed these people to abandon their homes and come there to support their children’s lives and education.  If there are Iranian merchants selling a distinctly Kuwaiti version of Iranian foods it is because they were pushed out of their towns on the Iranian coast by rapacious or venal state powers consolidating their forces of coercion on the backs of marginal people of Khuzestan.  If sailors and their worldliness are features (one would say almost clichéd) of ports, the thing that makes ports ports all over the world, it is so because of a life of graft and loneliness and tedium aboard ships, released or erased momentarily when on shore.  I recognise all of this.

And yet. And yet.

Ports are worldly places.  They have convivial histories, ways of muddling through.  Of looking to the sea and seeing in it not just the metaphysics of being, or a source of income, but also a route of escape, a place of arrival.

I find it interesting that of all the port cities on the Arabian Peninsula, it is Kuwait that has invoked this kind of strange and perhaps sentimental reaction in me to the worldliness of sh’abi cosmopolitanism.  But it is perhaps not surprising.  Every nation-state tells its citizens a kind of mythology about its origins.  I find it interesting that Kuwait’s myth of origin is so bound up with seas, with ships, with water being brought over in water boums from Basra.  That the city seems to longingly look to the sea that is this strange fluorescent blue here. That the bread that is broken, the unctuous dates covered in sesame seeds, the flavours of the fish and of the citrus borrows as much from across the sea as it does from the forbiddingly arid hinterland.  And that in the squares at night the convivial voices speak in the languages and dialects of this region, tightly bound by histories of trade.

I also wonder how much this sha’bi cosmopolitanism has left its grooves as a kind of ghostly permanence of route-making in the sea itself. I suppose part of my project is to discover how much these grooves determine the subsequent geography of the ports of arrival and departure.  How much does the spectral echoes of history shape the structures of today’s stories.  And how much of the worldiness and conviviality of these sha’bi cosmopolitanisms survives the onslaught of war and capital.

This entry was posted in capital accumulation, labour, Middle East, ports, the sea. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sha’bi cosmopolitanisms

  1. nev says:

    I grew up in the north east coastal town of South Shields. At first glance the town appears like any other typical northern white working class towns but if you look a little deeper you’ll find a rich cosmopolitan character / history from an era which relied much more on its seaways.

    People from “Shields” are known locally as “Sand Dancers” the name given them because of its Arab/Yemeni community, which settle in the town way back in the late 19th century. The community lead to the UK’s first ever mosque (made famous by Mohammed Ali who wed there in 1977) the UK’s first ever race riots (the Arab riots during the 1930’s) and is said by many to be the start of British multiculturalism. And there’s probably no coincidence that the town has more “Asian” restaurant per sq. foot than anywhere else in the world (according to Wiki). I wonder if there’s a district in Aden of “Sand dancers” who travelled the other direction to sell battered “gulfie” fish and chips?

    There are so many stories of great “Sand dancers” during that era, who took to the sea looking for an adventure; one of my fav’s is the story of the Anzac hero “Jack” Simpson Kirkpatrick who seems to sum up the character of the town (yet is almost unknown in his town of birth). Another story I like to tell is the story of how my parents met, but that’s probably best told over a cuppa 😉

    Sadly Tyne dock has been in terminal decline since the depression of the 1930’s but its rich cosmopolitan history still echoes on….well to me anyway.

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