Symposium on Mediterranean Cities: Urban Poetics, Urban (Geo)Politics

Last week I joined a symposium in Istanbul on the changing meanings of Mediterranean cities.

It was an interdisciplinary endeavour with scholars from international relations, architecture, urban studies, history, and postcolonial/cultural studies enriching the discussion on the role of the city in the many problems and possibilities of cultural interface (between Asia, Africa, and Europe) that the Mediterranean region espouses. The symposium was organized by the Netherlands Institute in Turkey, with the support of the Dutch Consulate. And the insightful opening remarks by the Dutch Consul General, Bart van Bolhuis, sketched how urgent a greater understanding of this region and its dynamics and interconnections are for current crises around the Mediterranean.

On the second day, I especially enjoyed the contributions from artists and novelists like Murat Germen and Kerem Eksen, who demonstrated and reflecting upon how the layered history of the city of Istanbul might be narrated in the present. Enno Maessen’s ongoing research on the urban-historical developments in and around the closing down of the old Emek Cinema in Beyoglu was particularly interesting given its discussion of the various layers of nostalgic feelings that the Beyoglu area has been imbued with over the course of its various episodes of change, such that longing for a past that is no more has become entrenched in the collective memory of the neighborhood.

Indeed, even my Turkish Dutch respondents living in Istanbul who have inhabited the city for no more than a few years reproduce this nostalgic sentiment about Beyoglu, as well – the area where several of them live. This made me realize how their narratives of urban change about this area may be based on experiences interpreted through the lens of collective sentiments that have been circulating locally about this neighbourhood for a much longer time than their lives in Istanbul.

Here’s the organizers’ abstract for the event.

“This two-day symposium focuses on the changing geographies of Mediterranean cities today as key loci where the region’s principal challenges, both geopolitical as well as socio-economic and identitary, are most clearly visible.

Through time, the large cities of the Mediterranean have been spaces of co-habitation, complicity and exchange – but at times also of harsh exclusion and the violent drawing of borders. Today, this tension between openness and closure, inclusion and bordering is being continually re-negotiated and the object of political debate: whether in discussions surrounding policies aimed at the reception of new refugee populations, or debates focussing on practices of commemoration and memorialization of urban pasts.

The symposium will engage these changing geographies and their effects through three interlinked topical sessions: the first (‘Visualizing Cities’) focussed on conflicting representations of urban spaces and landscapes, historically and in the present; the second; (‘Narrating the City’) examining the ways in which Mediterranean cities have been re-counted in fictional, historical and anthropological accounts, and the political and geopolitical effects of such representations; the third (‘Cities of (In)Hospitality’) querying the notion of Mediterranean cities as sites of conviviality and intermingling and focussed on divided urban geographies, past and present.”