All posts by Viviana Tagliaferri

Anastasia Stratigea and Dimitris Kavroudakis (eds.), Mediterranean Cities and Island Communities: Smart, Sustainable, Inclusive and Resilient (Cham: Springer, 2018)

I approached this book from the perspective of a historian dealing with issues of urbanisation in Mediterranean spaces. The history of the Mediterranean is characterised – and indeed often ‘dominated’ – by the history of its urban communities. Generated by a continuous flow of human beings and multiple culture-contacts, the high level of anthropisation of Mediterranean environments has historically been one of the main challenges for policy-makers in the area. Mediterranean Cities and Island Communities, edited by Anastasia Stratigea and Dimitris Kavroudakis, proposes a different, intriguing approach that focuses primarily on how Mediterranean environments can now be “smartened” through the combined use of new technologies, participatory approaches, and the efforts of policy-makers. Mediterranean regions are seen here as complex environments simultaneously characterised by their liminality, vulnerability and attractiveness. In this crucial hot spot, sustainability needs to be enhanced. The region thus represents a space filled with opportunities despite the severe state of recession that has affected Southern Europe over the past decade.

In fact, while it clearly constitutes a dramatic state of affairs for the majority of the population, the economic crisis is not the only context in which changes are taking place. In the long run, it has also served as an effective stimulus for generating powerful answers to concrete challenges. As one of the authors points out, “in times of scarcity, to share resources and assets means to collaborate for more sustainable ways of living” (p. 284).

The main core of the book concerns how the smartening of urban areas could promote sustainable development. This concept could also be rephrased using the four key-words provided in the subtitle of the book: ‘Smart’ – combined with ‘inclusiveness’ when responding to challenges – goes hand in hand with ‘resiliency’, intended as the capacity to respond to complex issues in a creative manner, often resulting in a new environmental status quo. This synergy then contributes to ‘sustainability’.

The twelve chapters of the book deal, alternatively, with the different aspects of the ‘smart’ triad technology-people-governance, the combined effect of which leads to a different way of improving quality of life, with a less intrusive environmental impact. Contributions are grouped according to their thematic similarities.

The first group focuses on technology and how it can be employed to manage cities in a more efficient, sustainable manner. Chapter 1 presents virtual reality as a tool for testing smart cities. The authors explain how virtual reality can offer a far more complex level of interaction and visualisation with information in ambient intelligence, thereby increasing the capacity to test new solutions linked to urban environments (such as policing, urban planning, and transportation). Chapter 2 describes the experience of ICS-FORTH in designing and implementing an Internet of Things and Open Data infrastructure in the Municipality of Heraklion – the largest city in Crete. The Municipality’s desire to take part in an innovative project to build a smart city ecosystem attests to a long-term investment in fostering intelligent decision making. Optimising the management of large quantities of data with a view to enhancing policy making is another key issue, which is covered in Chapter 3. In this regard, the authors analyse how the migration of services to the cloud could be designed in stages (i.e., in the form of a road-map) and how it could improve governmental processes and services themselves.

The second group of papers sets out different interpretations of the synergy ‘technology-community engagement’. Chapter 4 enquires into the efforts undertaken by the Municipality of Korydallos (Attica) to promote smart, participatory city management during the period 2004 to 2016. The authors also focus on the consequences of the economic crises on the process and the negative effects of the lack of a participatory culture in Greece. Chapter 5 examines how a participatory approach combined with the engagement of public institutions could result in culture-oriented solutions to urban planning. This is the case with the urban walk in Gdansk (Poland), for example, which led to a democratisation of art by bringing it into the public arena. Chapter 6 explores the interaction of artists and the general public, taking the virtual city of Abadyl as a case in point. As part of the People Smart Sculpture project carried out in the cities of Kristianstad and Copenhagen, the project Wanderlost proposed an emotional rediscovery of the urban space. Chapter 7 employs the concept of ‘Integrate Valutation of Ecosystem Services’ to identify specific approaches to territorial tourism in the Italian region of Basilicata. This approach is expected to foster more informed policy decisions, as well as more carefully considered natural and cultural tourism programmes. Sustainable, place-based tourism in a culturally wealthy rural area is also the subject of Chapter 8, which describes the application of a multilevel participatory spatial planning framework in the Cretan Province of Kissamos. The focus here is on how competitiveness can be achieved through the employment of technologies for mapping natural and cultural assets and the involvement of different stakeholders.

The third group of papers deals with resource management. Chapter 9 analyses the positive effects of serious game and gamification techniques for enhancing consumer engagement and awareness of Demand Response in relation to energy supply. The playful interaction between consumers and technology is seen to result in more conscious, flexible energy usage, with a positive effect on future Demand Response programmes. Chapter 10 deals with an attempt to build an integrated participatory approach to Sustainable Urban Mobility Plan in Rethymno (Crete). The case study examined focuses on how to harness the maturity of participatory planning in Greece to overcome the lack of trust typical of the region, in order to foster more active public engagement in mobility plans. Chapter 11 analyses the possible spatial distribution of aeroevacuation vehicles in the Aegean island. The spatial optimisation of helicopter bases and the use of spatial analytics are described as a way of promoting better-informed decisions on such a crucial issue as the provision of health services. Finally, Chapter 12 examines how the sharing economy has changed the tourist accommodation sector in Greece. Through well-known platforms such as Airbnb, the sharing economy is creating new challenges (such as taxation) and trends (such as the peer-to-peer approach) in the tourism sector.

The book is a fascinating collective volume that offers a useful overview of what is feasible at the very local level, adopting an intriguing perspective according to which “mayors can change the world”. However, a strong connective framework, which would establish a coherent place for each contribution, seems to be lacking. For example, the two chapters that deal with non-Mediterranean case studies are not sufficiently connected to the Mediterranean space that is described, from the book cover onward, as the focus of the volume. Furthermore, the papers offer a non-homogeneous fresco of both the problems and opportunities offered by new technologies. In fact, while the problems linked to privacy and data protection in data management are clearly identified in Chapter 3, Chapter 12 fails to report the disastrous repercussions of Airbnb on the long-term rental markets in Athens and on the Greek islands.

Simon Mills, A Commerce of Knowledge: Trade, Religion, and Scholarship between England and the Ottoman Empire, c.1600-1760 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020)

“The traveller observing in the light of the day and the scholar ‘blundering’ in the dark corner of a college library” (p. 2) are some of the protagonists of the ‘commerce of knowledge’ interrogated by Simon Mills in this accurate and elegantly written monograph. These Western characters, however, represented just the beginning of the story of the scholarly discover of the ‘Orient’. A Commerce of Knowledge, in fact, is also a story of the role played in this process by Ottoman agents, a key role of Muslim, Oriental Christian, and, to a less extent, Jewish scholars in all its various facets. The result is a very wide-ranging fresco of the intellectual encounter of East and West in the early modern era, very much practical rather than theoretical, in which the author manages to clear the field of an ideological approach to the debate on Orientalism — nearly without even mentioning it.

Through an ample depiction of the intellectual background of early modern Syria, the reader is led, step by step, through the process of building knowledge of the East as a conversation or ‘commerce’ between “figures such as Huntington and […] Marhib ben Jacob, Europeans and Ottomans, West and East” (p. 11). The mapping of this very concrete intellectual exchange that happened between Ottomans and Europeans in the Syrian fieldwork of Aleppo and its subsequent academic elaboration in Oxford is precisely one of the main cores of the book. The author successfully contends with how the study of Oriental languages and cultures — so crucial in the intellectual life of Europe since the beginning of the 17th century — was not only linked to the directives and needs of scholars far away in their universities in England or on the European continent. It was a field in the making, in which the “experts” were the local Ottoman intellectuals, from whom Europeans learned not only to speak and read the different languages of the area but also to understand the ‘access codes’ to local cultures. The choice of manuscripts to collect, of Arab or Jewish authors to discover, was often a choice guided by local agents and not dictated by Western intellectuals, where Mills succeeds in providing historians a new access to the history of Oriental studies. Departing from the now classic Saidian reading of an East, born as a subject of study as an ideological construction of the West, the author supports his innovative approach through a meticulous philological work that shifts the focus of the entire narration.  In fact, instead of focalising on the theoretical passage and flow of ideas between the ‘Orient’ and the West, Mills shows how this concretely took place in the experiences of the English chaplains serving the British factory in Aleppo between 17th and 18th century — ultimately also stressing the existence of a reverse intellectual movement that went from West to East in the form of printed translations of the Bible.

The chaplains are the central junction from which all the narrative and documentary threads of the book unfold. The volume is divided into three sections, which explore in different ways the cultural brokering carried out by the chaplains. The first section identifies the figure of the chaplain in Aleppo, from its origins to the end of the period analysed. The Levant Company’s practices in employing its minster, the characteristics required by the job, and the average duration of the employment, as well as the influence that such a role could have on the chaplain’s subsequent ecclesiastical and academic career, are outlined. The stage on which his role is played, Aleppo, is then described, a place of encounter and commerce with a long history of European merchants at work — originally mainly Venetians. Mills notes that Aleppo is also crucial in intellectual transmission due to the important presence of manuscript sellers and book auctions. In the second section, the history of the building of libraries as a consequence of collecting manuscripts by chaplains and its influence on the advancement of oriental studies in Europe is traced. Through the two differently exemplary experiences of Edward Pococke and Robert Huntington, two different types of approach to the Syrian cultural and intellectual space are in place. In both cases, however, the author convincingly emphasises the importance of the interaction of British chaplains with Oriental Christians and Jews in the process of manuscript collecting. The types of texts collected mainly belong to three categories: liturgical texts of the Eastern churches in Arabic or other local languages (such as Mandaic or Armenian); books from the rabbinic and Hebrew literature; and “Arabic-Islamic literature, with a substantial number of books on history, theology, philosophy, poetry, astrology, medicine, and grammar and lexicography” (p. 96). In this process, it becomes clear that the pre-existing dependence of the chaplains’ interests on European scholars is complemented by the interests of their intermediaries on the ground, the Ottoman scholars. The role, for example, of Marhib ben Jacob and of the Maronite patriarch Istịfān al-Duwayhī thus become the pivot around which the chaplains’ research interests are directed and then “exported” once back to Europe. The third section sees the chaplains engaged in more adventurous activities, such as visiting the ruins of ancient cities like Palmyra or making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, while exploring “English attempts to produce and to distribute Reformed liturgical and polemical texts in Arabic” (p. 4). Here Mills identifies the exchange with Catholic missionaries or the link with the Greek Orthodox church. The encounter with Catholics, who have been present in the area for a very long time, is ambiguous. On the one hand, it is presented as an opportunity for the chaplains to draw on the know-how that the Catholics have acquired over its centuries-long presence in the Middle East. On the other hand, the distribution of Reformed texts is an attempt to contest this primacy, giving support to the Greek Orthodox Church against the Uniate movements supported by the Catholics themselves that led to the schism of the Orthodox Church in Syria in the 18th century.

The closing chapter of the book — while drawing together its various themes — offers a perspective on the relationship between trade and culture, framing it into first the Levantine and then the Asiatic experiences of the British factories in the second half of the 18th century. Mills traces the shift of scholarly interest from the Middle East to Asia as an effect of the change of the centre of gravity of British commercial interests that happened after 1761. In this context, the author argues how — on the micro scale — the knowledge produced by ‘Orientalists’ did not serve the interests of the Levant Company, while the presence of the Company itself furthered the knowledge of the Orient. Similarly — on the macro scale — the opening and strengthening of the Asian space made the East India Company not only a powerful political body but also promoted the birth of new academic curiosities. In this context, the expansion of new knowledge into Asian subjects “exploited fully the new opportunities for communication brought about by expansion of English commerce in Asia” (p. 262). Overall, the book is a fascinating example of how the confluence of commercial, religious, and scholarly interests could utmostly sustain the creation of new knowledge on different cultures.

Philip E. Phillis, Greek Cinema and Migration, 1991–2016 (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020)

With this engaging work on the contemporary filmic representation of migration by Greek cinema, Philip Phillis enters significantly into the hotly debated the issue of migration en masse to Europe of the last decades, doing so with an approach that is both artistic and historical. In focusing on the border crossings that have particularly affected the geopolitical space of the Greek peninsula over the last thirty years, the author succeeds in proposing a thorough outlook to the migratory question through the analysis of its cinematic portrayals by Greek filmmakers or filmmakers active in the Greek area from 1991 to 2016. In fact, through a sensitive and intelligent operation, Phillis sets issues of a purely cinematic nature alongside an eminently political analysis, developing these in parallel throughout the book. This dual nature of the discourse is masterfully held together through the careful — and never superficial — descriptive analysis of the films covered and the ability to compare the poetics of the various directors with the need to re-give voice to migrants and refugees. In fact, Phillis, while praising many directors in his book, seems never to lose sight of the fact that “Greek immigration cinema is produced from a hegemonic position of enunciation since relevant power structures empower indigenous filmmakers rather than the migrants represented on film” (p. 11).

The book opens with a wide-ranging introduction, in which a number of key elements underlying the research work are discussed. First and foremost is the question of identity, Greek and European, and how this has been tested by the phenomenon of migration and is reflected in the nationality of the individual cinematic works themselves. In this regard, Phillis states that one of the main aims of his work is to “closely examine the preoccupation of Greek filmmakers with migration in order to convey the transformation of Greek cinema from national to transnational and to show how Greek films have moved from a more insular model to one that mirrors Greece’s European agenda” (p. 3). The transition from national to transnational takes place for Phillis mainly at the level of regional co-production, which makes him speak of a cinema that is now ‘Balkan’ rather than ‘Greek’. However, he notes has well that the official certification of nationality remains a central element in the life of a cinematic production, as it is the only way to ensure that the various filmmakers can compete in European and other international festivals (p. 57). Indeed, like other cinematic products that could be defined as non-mainstream, festivals remain the main and most important dissemination venue for cinema about migration, which seem to have a very poor reception at the general audience level. Phillis points out that these types of productions remain unattractive, if not unpalatable to Greek audiences, often disturbed by the unattractive portrayal of their own society as xenophobic. On the other hand, the reaction to some films, such as Constantine Giannaris’ Hostage/Omiros (2005) “provide some evidence to the nationalistic conditioning of a segment of Greek audiences, for whom the very thought of a film prioritising the experience of an Albanian migrant is anathema. This is the basic element that separates Hostage from the rest of Giannaris’s filmography, and it brings solid evidence as to the anxieties that migration films can trigger in Greece” (pp. 62-63).

Four major themes can be identified in the book. The first, which is dealt with at length in the first chapters, concerns the role of Albanians in the migration films produced in Greece or by Greek filmmakers. As the first and largest group to cross their borders to get to Greece, the Albanians play a fundamental role in the Greek imaginary and, consequently, in Greek cinema about migration. Phillis investigates in depth the dynamics between the Greeks and this group, the members of which are alternately defined as criminal or hard workers. Nevertheless, in Chapter 5, two films are analysed that manage to go beyond this cultural bias. These are See You/Mirupafshim (Voupouras and Korras 1997) and Eduart (Antoniou 2006), and are considered as “valuable sources of insight on the unsettling potential of cultural difference as they propose nuanced and complex identities and affiliations, contesting xenophobic discourse and simultaneously defying liberal, western views that produce the more painless version of migrant identities” (p. 128). This reflection leads to the second focus of the analysis, the migration narratives. Otherness and its narration, in fact, are usually used in these productions as a mirror for reflecting the otherness by the dominant identity. Here, the author is perhaps the first to criticise the narrative of Theo Angelopoulos — the most iconic and praised Greek director. In fact, Phillis notes how Eternity and a Day/ Mia Aioniotita kai mia Mera (1998) is deeply Eurocentric and paternalistic in nature, providing an elitist discourse on diversity where otherness is meant to serve as a stimulus for the protagonist, usually a white character. This leads directly to the third focal point of the book, that is how migrant agency is represented in these films. The book points out how usually we cannot find any political reflection on the causes of migration, on why people have decided to migrate, and in the case of refugees “systemic violence, which turns citizens into refugees, is disregarded and refugees are revealed in terms of non-agency, loss and death, leaving little room for reflection” (pp. 199-200). There is no control of the other over his or her life, in a tragic vision that is only rarely taken up by the cinema of migration. The last aspect to be analysed is that of documentary production on migration and the rise of xenophobic violence in Greece with the Nazi party Chrysi Avgi. In placing cinematic fiction under the pretence of reality representation offered by documentaries, the book closes the circle on the migration narrative offered by Greek filmmakers. Eventually, the book aims to be a complete and meditated handbook that can guide the reader, even non-specialist, to discover a rich but little-known production.

Kristjan Ahronson, Into the Ocean. Vikings, Irish, and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2015)

In the dialectic between established “certainties” and fundamental ambiguities that characterise north Atlantic islands, Kristjan Ahronson develops the argumentation on the relationships between Scots, Irish, and Norsemen of the early medieval period. The interaction of humans and their environments, as well as peoples’ migrations and the cultural diffusion in the north Atlantic, are the main areas of investigation of a book that is intended to be designed not only for a specialized audience. Popperian theory of science and interdisciplinarity represent the conceptual framework in which the author develops his method or, even better, his crossing of methodologies that are jointly employed to reach a multidimensional pictures of the subjects under inquiry.

Continue reading Kristjan Ahronson, Into the Ocean. Vikings, Irish, and Environmental Change in Iceland and the North (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2015)

Barbara Fuchs & Emily Weissbourd (eds.), Representing Imperial Rivalry in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2015)

This edited book charts the representations of identities of different kinds (religious, racial, cultural) through visual and written expressions in the context of a plural renovatio imperii. In the Mediterranean, the universalism of the empire leaves place for a pluralism of empires that clash in their pursuit for hegemony.

Continue reading Barbara Fuchs & Emily Weissbourd (eds.), Representing Imperial Rivalry in the Early Modern Mediterranean (Toronto: Toronto University Press, 2015)