Beirut air connections, 1950s. French Foreign Ministry Archives, La Courneuve

Switch-cities, decolonization, and globalization: Singapore, Beirut, Dakar

In the 1940s-70s, a handful of cities functioned as ‘switches’ — switch-cities, we may say — between multiple recently decolonized countries in one region, and global trade, finance, communication, transport, and knowledge circuits. For instance, for the Arab East (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Iraq) and the Arabian Peninsula, Beirut played this role from the late 1940s; from the 1950s, Dakar did so for West Africa and Singapore for much of Southeast Asia. This was because already by the later nineteenth century, these cities had been (then imperial) hubs, and because they remained in demand even when ‘their’ region’s countries became independent. Fledgling countries needed these cities’ global connections; for example, several Arab countries relied on knowledge managed ­­at the American University of Beirut. Vice versa, actors from outside the region needed these cities for easy access to recently decolonized countries; thus, the global rubber trade depended on Singaporeans’ relationships in Indonesia and Malaya.

This situation helped preserve switch-cities as socio-culturally mixed places. This diversity was rooted in colonial times. Already nineteenth-century Dakar developed an “indigenous civility;” denizens of Singapore envisioned a “local multicultural nation” from the 1910s.*

The multi-ethnic newspaper The Malaya Tribune, founded 1914

And whereas after independence many postcolonial elites sought to homogenize their nation, Beirut’s, Dakar’s, and Singapore’s elites embraced diversity. This was reflected in the urban tissue of these switch-cities. Singapore adopted a vast public housing policy; each bloc preserved a racial mix of Chinese, Malay, Indians, and others, including some Europeans. Beirut and Dakar had mixed quarters like Hamra and centre ville, respectively. More broadly, after World War II, tens of thousands of non-Lebanese Arabs and thousands of Westerners moved to Beirut, which in fact had attracted people from across the Middle East and beyond from the mid-1800s. And Dakar, while mainly Wolof, was home also to a large Lebanese-Syrian community, to some North Africans, to about 30,000 French nationals and other Westerners, and to many more non-Senegalese Africans, including over 1,000 students at West Africa’s first university, Cheikh Anta Diop, as for instance files from the Direction des Affaires Africaines et Malgaches at the French Foreign Ministry Archives in La Courneuve show. Meanwhile, the number of Westerners declined in the rest of West Africa after independence.

Building on that diversity, elites of those switch-cities and many a regular denizen depicted their city as a bridge between civilizations. Singapore, for example, developed a policy of multi-culturalism. It did so not only to depoliticize the fact that it was (and is) a mainly Chinese island in a mostly Muslim Malay region. It also showed the world that it continued to be — and indeed was now more than ever — “the most important communications centre in the Far East … for shipping, … airlines, telecommunications, and distribution of mail” and, hence, the bridge between that entire region and the rest of the world.**

In Beirut, Charles Malek — diplomat, philosopher, and Lebanon’s foreign minister from 1957 to 1958 — stated in a speech in 1970 to the Beirut College for Women that Lebanon’s capital was the “center of the world” and wide open to it. The city, he boasted, linked up the most diverse intellectual and political currents of thought: “Islam and Christianity, … Arab and Western cultures, [and] … Russian communism and Western liberalism.” More than two decades earlier, Michel Chiha, one of Beirut’s leading bankers and politicians and a prolific author and owner of Beirut’s French newspaper Le Jour, argued that “situated at the meeting point of three continents, we” — Lebanese, in particular Beirutis — “are obviously an ideal bridgehead and an observatory of the world,” and that being “bi-lingual (even trilingual, if possible)” is crucial to the ability to keep the world connected.†

Meanwhile, for Léopold Sédar Senghor, a Francophone writer and Senegal’s president from 1960 to 1980, Senegal was a ‘hyphen’ between ‘the black world and the Arabo-Berber world’ and between ‘Europe and Africa’. Senegal was not simply itself. It linked wider realms, was destined for greater things. Dakar was the arena for this situation. Here, Lebanese and North African vendors acted as transnational actors, importing and selling Arabic newspapers and Islamic texts in Dakar. And in 1966, British diplomats stationed in Dakar thought the city’s inhabitants were very well disposed towards the First World Festival of Negro Arts.

Image credit: Sergio Borelli, “Il Festival de Dakar” (1966)

Initiated by Senghor under UNESCO auspices, that massive festival featured black literature, music, theatre, visual arts, film, and dance by 2,500 artists from 30 African, European, Caribbean, and North and South African countries. “It was first state-sponsored festival to showcase the work of African and African diasporic artists, musicians and writers to a global audience.” Participants included dancers Arthur Mitchell and Alvin Ailey and jazz legend Duke Ellington, here stepping off a PANAM flight in Dakar.

Image credit: Sergio Borelli, “Il Festival de Dakar” (1966)

Other famous artists present were singers Julie Akofa Akoussah and Bella Bellow and writers Aimé Césaire, Langston Hughes, Wole Soyinka, Amiri Baraka, as well as Nelson Mandela.†† African-American filmmaker William Greaves and journalist Sergio Borelli produced documentaries for UNESCO and for Italy’s state television channel RAI, respectively, showing that audiences came from different corners of the world.

Image credit: Sergio Borelli, “Il Festival de Dakar” (1966)

As Borelli put it in his film, Dakar’s port is “jam-packed with ships,” and the city “has always been the port of black Africa. Raiders and colonizers, slaves traders and missionaries, all have passed through here. Here started the encounter between Europe and Africa.”

The endeavor, by people from places as distant and different as Dakar, Beirut, and Singapore, to depict their cities as inter-civilizational, inter-continental bridges, can be read as an attempt to carve out a niche in a new, post-war world: to triangulate between the two powerful political blocs of the global north and rising post-colonial nation-states — and to claim doing so in a way that larger nearby postcolonial nation-states such as Syria, Indonesia, and Mauritania could not. The world needs interpreters and meeting places, those people argued — and their switch-cities were ideally positioned to fulfil that function. This was the case doubly because they had from the nineteenth century been French, British, and Ottoman imperial centers. To bypass, or compete with, their massive inherited transport, communication, educational, and cultural infrastructures was difficult for their neighbors, even for capital cities like Damascus, Djakarta, and Nouakchott.

Studying switch-cities like Dakar, Beirut, and Singapore side by side helps us qualify narratives of globalization that frame the 1940s-70s as a period, simply, of slowed globalization, de-globalization, or inter-nation-alization. It suggests, too, that we can read decolonization more forcefully into globalization. From the viewpoint of switch-cities and their self-projection as inter-civilizational bridges, the decline of European empires and the interlinked development of a two-bloc Cold War and of decolonization rendered the world not necessarily less integrated. Rather, the globe became integrated in new ways — though ways that were as uneven and as much filled with tensions and opportunities as in the long nineteenth century. Last but not least, seen from the viewpoint of these switch-cities’ function as links between global circuits and multiple nation-states, they constituted a specific type of global city. Not in the sense of being world-wide leading economic, cultural, or political centres, but rather — to appropriate a line by Saskia Sassen — of being a “construct that allows one to detect the global as it is filtered through the specifics of a place.”‡ As such, they can help to broaden scholarly views of what counts as a global city in the first place. They force us to consider the role of historical contingency in thinking more elastically about such definitional questions. And they drive home how much decolonization formed an intrinsic part of globalization, which is a process that cannot be seen as simply originating in, or being steered by, forces in the global North.


[*] Mamadou Diouf, “The French Colonial Policy of Assimilation and the Civility of the Originaires of the Four Communes (Senegal): A Nineteenth Century Globalization Project,” Development and Change 29 (1998): 671; Mark Frost and Yu-Mei Balasingamchow, Singapore: A Biography (Singapore: National Museum of Singapore, 2009), 202.

[**] W.G. Huff, The Economic Growth of Singapore (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 31, quoting Colony of Singapore, Annual Report 1950, 140.

[†] Charles Malek, “Beirut — Crossroads of Culture,” in Beirut — Crossroads of Culture, ed. Najla Akrawi / Beirut College for Women (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1970), 205; Michel Chiha, Le Liban d’aujourd’hui (Beirut: Trident, 1949), 16, 50.

[††] For the festival, see David Murphy, ed., The First World Festival of Negro Arts, Dakar 1966: Contexts and Legacies (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2017).

[‡] Saskia Sassen, “Foreword,” in Relocating Global Cities, ed. Mark Amen, Kevin Archer, and Martin Bosman (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), x. Sassen, The Global City: New York, London, Tokyo (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991), helped launch global cities studies.