Lives Against the Lines
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Michael Vatikiotis is the author of, among many other books, Lives Between the Lines: A Journey in Search of the Lost Levant, which was published last year by Weidenfeld and Nicolson. A specialist on East Asia and a former editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, he wrote his latest book on the lives of family members in the Middle East. His father was the prominent historian P. J. Vatikiotis, who grew up in Palestine, while his mother, Patricia Mumford, came from a Sephardic Jewish Italian family from Livorno that had moved to Egypt in the 19th century. The book is an extended meditation on a cosmopolitan world now largely gone, which makes him write, “Yet as a polyglot and, more specifically, a genetic by-product of a lost age, I feel threatened by singular identities and bullied by racial difference.” Diwan interviewed Vatikiotis in early November to discuss his book.
Michael Young: Last year, you published a book, and can I add a very moving book, titled Lives Between the Lines: A Journey in Search of the Lost Levant. Can you describe what it is about and what motivated you to write it?
Michael Vatikiotis: The book is outwardly a journey in search of my family’s origins in Egypt and what is today Israel. My mother came from a family of well-off Italian Jews born and raised in Egypt; my father was born in Jerusalem and grew up in Haifa, the son of a Greek Palestinian railway official. They spent their early years growing up along opposite banks of the Suez Canal. For me personally, the book is an exploration of a unique identity, a lost era of cosmopolitanism that permitted refugees from Europe to thrive and prosper in the late Ottoman period. This lends the story a wider significance, given the contemporary perception of the Levant as a bottomless pit of migrants fleeing war and communal strife—mostly to Europe. It’s an important history to recover: It revives and restores the notion of a region connected by language and culture, a greater awareness of which could help define a path to peace, security, and prosperity.
MY: Your father was the prominent historian P. J. Vatikiotis. As we read your book, we realize that he is someone who suffered from the ills of nationalism—first, when his family was forced to leave Palestine after the establishment of Israel in 1948, and later when he was caught up in the venomous divisions of the Middle East studies field. Can you explain this, but more importantly also tell us where your father tended to situate himself when it came to his identity?
MV: As I discovered reading his personal papers (he died in 1997), my father regarded himself as a Greek from the Holy Land, with roots in the Hellenized mixed communities of the Levant. He spoke fluent native Arabic and had the sensibility of a well-educated Palestinian of the Mandate era. His best friends at school in Haifa were founding members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He sympathized with their cause, yet always considered himself an outsider. I believe this feeling of being an outsider was more of a defense mechanism than a conviction—he cared and felt deeply for the Palestinians and secretly tried to help their cause.
MY: Your mother, on her mother’s side, came from the Italian Jewish Sornaga family from Livorno. Yet at no point do you mention how she felt about the establishment of Israel or Zionism. On the contrary, you suggest that her departure from Egypt was the end of a golden period for her and her family. What does this tell us about the world in which they lived, and what does this tell us about your mother specifically?
MV: Many Italian Jews in Egypt, perhaps the majority, were not practicing Jews. They considered themselves nationalist Italians first, and later sympathized with Benito Mussolini’s fascist royalist regime. My mother’s family intermarried with Catholic Italians, and in fact my mother was raised a Roman Catholic. How Levantine is that? As a result, they were agnostic about Zionism, even if some members of their family were persecuted in Italy. The major driver of their exodus from Egypt was Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalism after 1952. Afterward they regretted not integrating more successfully with Egyptian society. Under Britain’s “Veiled Protectorate” the Italians were encouraged to remain apart, serving the colonial economy, even as they were interned by the British government during World War II on suspicion (often well-grounded) that they were Axis sympathizers.
MY: In your book you make the startling, if also interesting, suggestion that had the European states not disposed of the Ottoman Empire, whose pluralistic structure helped give rise to the cosmopolitanism in the Levant that is the main theme of your book, this cosmopolitanism might not have disappeared. Yet much of the period you describe, when cosmopolitanism thrived in Egypt, takes place under British rule. Can you explain this paradox?
MV: The British imperial project used mimicry to great effect. It adopted Ottoman practices, much as it copied aspects of Mughal government in India. Thus, the Ottoman capitulations, which protected non-Muslim minorities, evolved into the Mixed Court system, under which foreigners could not be prosecuted under local law. The British maintained the system until the mid-1930s, a full decade or more after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. What the British did not mimic, however, was the Ottoman practice of defining communities, socially and culturally, as “millets”—or as protected religious minorities—which permitted a high degree of interaction and mingling. Rather, the British were fond of drawing lines, thus separating and dividing the different components of colonial society. This line-drawing introduced an element of alienation and potential conflict over land, most famously captured by the Balfour Declaration.
MY: I found your use of the term “Levantine” somewhat restricted. Absent from your account, for example, are those Arabs, mainly from minorities, who moved from Syria and Lebanon to Egypt, the cosmopolitan magnet of the region, and who would often refer to themselves as “Levantine.” Why did you limit the term to foreign communities originating in Europe, while ignoring Arab cosmopolitans?
MV: That’s a fair point. In hindsight, my argument would have been enriched by broadening the scope of the journey, especially into Syria and Lebanon, where I also in fact had distant family members. As well as Arabs from other parts of the Ottoman realm, the Armenian exodus from Anatolia also greatly enriched the Levantine world. My focus was on Greeks and Italians who lived in Cairo, Port Said, Alexandria, Acre, Haifa, and Jerusalem. But I could have told a similar story in Aleppo, Beirut, and Damascus.
MY: Finally, this Levantine world you are describing collapsed in the post-World War II period, a process that had begun earlier. Yet it is a world that many people today would consider idyllic, in which identity was more fluid and people could adopt many simultaneous identities and facets in their lives, whether cultural or national. Do you think a return to such cosmopolitanism is possible in a world that is seemingly embracing ever more divisive identities?
MV: We have to hope that this is possible. The Levant has suffered from more than two generations of endemic conflict; its once related and connected communities are today divided by political and sectarian enmity. Twenty years ago, people in Amman could drive to Damascus for lunch and return by early evening. There is a strong desire to restore these connections. In today’s world of climate change and water scarcity, people’s livelihood depends on the sharing of resources such as water, food, and energy. Recovering the social and cultural foundations of the old Levant will go some way to establishing a basis for closer cooperation over what this region of 70 million people will need to survive a drier, hotter world.
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