Ajam Media Collective recently worked with THE STATE, a Dubai-based publishing practice, to make a ‘zine. We provided the words and art while they provided the design to make a wonderful collaborative document. We are also publishing the work on our site, beginning with this introduction. You can also read our articles from Georgia, Iran, and Palestine in this ‘zine.
Throughout Western Asia, religious forms of identification have historically formed a patchwork of identities—sectarian, geographic, regional, tribal—that have contributed to rooted and yet cosmopolitan identities. Within this model, differences abounded, not to be hidden or celebrated or tolerated, but merely a fact of life. Difference was something natural and not particularly noteworthy, and it was this daily lived cosmopolitanism that contributed to centuries of not only coexistence, but also syncretism.
This model of cosmopolitanism thus differs greatly from liberal notions of cosmopolitanism common today, wherein difference is something considered unique and new (often imagined to be a product of immigration to post-1945 Western states) and it must be named, celebrated, and recognized within the scope of identity and identity politics. This self-aware utilization and emphasis on demonstrating visible co-existence, however, is the opposite of quotidian cosmopolitanism. It is recognizably forced and comes directly from the playbook of liberal multiculturalism, in which each of the races and sects is offered a few moments on the podium to “represent” their identity in native costume and prove that the nation as a whole is a welcoming place. These pageants of identity pay lip service to diversity while simultaneously relying on identitarian politics and visible difference for meaning. Throughout Western Asia, it is this same trend towards identity politics that is animating so many of the dramatic changes we are witnessing in this region today.
Lived cosmopolitanisms, however, offer understandings of self and community predicated on long histories of interactions, where syncretism is a given and where differences exist but are not “tolerated.” Instead they are taken for granted as a given part of reality.
In the following three pieces, we intend to explore the shared worlds of cosmopolitanism that characterize and continue to shape the region by focusing on sites of memory. The short essays examine four contested zones: the shared holy sites of Palestine; the Aras River valley between Iran, Azerbaijan, and Armenia; as well as as Georgia’s Old City of Tbilisi and coastal Batumi.
These three sites offer us reflections on the meaning and the relationship of urbanism to identity and identitarianism, and give glimpses into the lived cosmopolitanisms that often persist amid the architecture of a world order with little tolerance for ambiguity. While we do not wish to fall into some of the nostalgic traps I have outlined above, we believe that by illuminating alternative models and understandings of self, of nation, and of identity, it is possible for us to think more critically about those that appear monolithic to us in the present.
Check out the PDF here, or view them as articles at the links below: