Identifying with Nationality studies how the residents of Alexandria were affected by the new laws that redefined their national identities and regulated their interactions in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Hanley examines identity papers, the census, money, and marriage as the principal means through which more rigid and exclusive forms of (national) identity were gradually imposed on Alexandria during the nineteenth century. To be sure, these tools were not invented at this juncture. Not only had they been in existence for a long time; they had also supported the very cosmopolitanism that the national categories were now seeking to undermine. Hanley shows that as these tools acquired a new meaning and purpose, each one of them became a site of contention. Imperial subjects had to defend their status against an increasingly intrusive state intent on disrupting cosmopolitan flows and relationships.
In describing the conditions that made Alexandria an exceptionally open and dynamic port city during most of its history, Hanley uses the term vulgar cosmopolitanism, distinguishing his approach from the more common, elite-centered discussions of cosmopolitanism. Vernacular or everyday might have been a better choice of adjective, but the point is well taken. What made sites such as Alexandria special is the degree to which most of their population, not just the elites, had been intricately linked to the outside world, creating fluid lifestyles that combined aspects of different identities.
One of the consequences of imposing increasingly more precise and rigid definitions of national identity on cities like Alexandria was the disappearance of entire categories of people and the language used to describe them. Descriptors such as Ottomans, locals, foreigners, or protégés became increasingly irrelevant along with the actual communities that they reflected. Hanley’s description of how various people who belonged to these groups responded to the changes that surrounded and consumed them are among the most original parts of his book. “National” identities prevailed in the end, but not before the wholesale marginalization and physical removal of entire categories of people following World War II. Until that point, the residents of Alexandria had defended, and had managed to preserve, aspects of their everyday “vulgar” cosmopolitanism, making this transition all the more fraught and complicated.
Identifying with Nationality is based on solid and comprehensive research in several archives in the region and in Europe. It also includes a thorough reading of the printed and secondary material about its complex subject matter. Hanley’s rich analysis and his insights make original contributions to several strands of literature, including the study of the transition from empire to nation-state in the Middle East and the broader issues of nationalism. Although previous works may have provided a clear sense of how nations and national identities were conceived and formalized on the level of states and international relations, they rarely lowered their sights to everyday relations and interactions to see what happens when such legal concepts are actually applied. With its close and textured descriptions and analysis, Hanley’s book also sheds important new light on the social history of an important port city.
The only flaw in this outstanding book is its failure to address sufficiently the contextual changes behind the developments that it traces. What exactly caused the shift toward an increasingly exclusive and rigid nationalism in the region during this period? Regardless, anybody who is interested in late Ottoman Egypt will find it impossible to ignore this book.