Anna Iltnere: Cosmopolitanism


From a manuscript of the Four Gospels in Boharic Coptic and Arabic, copied in Cairo in 1205. Source:

What do you think “cosmopolitan” means in the contemporary world? I asked five writers and one artist from multiple backgrounds, with roots spreading across different parts of the world. If I could travel in time and ask Diogenes of Sinope in ancient Greece, he would most probably repeat what he famously said around 2400 years ago: “I am a citizen of the world (kosmopolitês)”.

Traveling back to 2019, novelist Chloe Aridjis reminds us that animals too are citizens of the world. Artist Ganzeer describes a cosmopolitan place without a single culture forcing itself as the hegemonic umbrella, while memoirist Jessica J. Lee highlights the strong power inherent to connecting distinct ways of being. Scholar Helen M. Rozwadowski warns against a cosmopolitanism that misses the multiplicity among cultures, peoples, and environments. For Youssef Rakha, editor of тнє ѕυℓтαη’ѕ ѕєαℓ, a cosmopolitan space is the only space to be, while for writer Fernando Sdrigotti it’s a chance to forget oneself for a while while one is lost in difference.  


Chloe Aridjis, London-based Mexican novelist and writer, born in New York, author of Book of Clouds (2009) and Sea Monsters (2019).

For me the notion of cosmopolitan would no longer apply simply to an individual who is able to navigate different places and cultures with ease; I would now include a solid recognition of the animal kingdom, and say that a truly cosmopolitan person is someone whose advanced sense of interconnectedness includes the other life forms that inhabit this planet. Animals too are citizens of the world. Boundaries don’t only affect humans, of course; every line drawn through a landscape, be it geographical or ideological, affects hundreds of species apart from our own.


Ganzeer, Egyptian artist who became famous in Egypt and abroad following the Egyptian revolution of 2011, and is among Egypt’s highest-selling living artists today. He has lived in Cairo, New York, Los Angeles, Denver, and finally Houston – where he is now based.

A person can be described as cosmopolitan, and so can a place. A cosmopolitan person is likely a polyglot with an excellent command of multiple languages. This allows him or her to become equally immersed in an array of cultures by way of literature, music, art, food, cinema, fashion and all manner of a people’s being.

A cosmopolitan place on the other hand is a location that allows for the convergence of cultures on an equal footing, without a single culture imposing itself as the hegemonic umbrella for it all.


Jessica J. Lee, the Berlin-based writer, was born in London and grew up Ontario, Canada. She edits The Willowherb Review, an online journal on nature writing, publishing emerging and established writers of color. Jessica J. Lee is author of Turning: A Swimming Memoir (2017) and Two Trees Make a Forest (2019), where she seeks to piece together the fragments of her family’s history as they moved from China to Taiwan, and then onto Canada.

Cosmopolitanism, for me, is deeply tied up with questions of home: as a child of immigrants and an immigrant myself, I’ve come to terms with a sense of profusion rather than displacement, that I can be connected to many places. Even as borders and nationalisms harden themselves once more, there’s such a strong power in people whose identities are hyphenated and multiple. Hyphens are connectors. That seems to me the very substance of what cosmopolitanism means now: not an erasure of multiplicity, but a finding of tools to connect distinct and sometimes  incommensurable ways of being.


Youssef Rakha, the Egyptian novelist, poet, essayist, literary critic, journalist, photographer, was born and raised and is based in Cairo. His Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars was published in English in 2014. 

I was once accused of evincing “the Crisis of the Cosmopolitan Intellectual”, whatever that is. I had expressed the hope that Egypt might one day get past religious and ideological hangups. Here in Cairo, the narrow-mindedness and insularity of “the revolutionary” position is such that “cosmopolitan” (like “Enlightenment”) is a slur, and the person who used this expression to describe me did not mean it kindly. So, partly as a tongue-in-cheek response to the “accusation”—like the site’s logo it is intended ironically to evoke belle epoque Cairo—but mainly because the debacle reminded me of how important this was, I decided to give тнє ѕυℓтαη’ѕ ѕєαℓ the slogan “Cairo’s coolest cosmopolitan hotel”. To my mind a cosmopolitan space is the only space to be. Unlike a “multicultural” or “diverse” construction, it is a place that combines languages and legacies without turning them into identities that atrophy the subject while pushing others away. It is a way to embrace difference, to change others and be changed by them, and it works because it allows this to happen spontaneously and voluntarily, not by force of law or for the sake of profit and not by having to erase our individual being for the sake of the group. When we take a cosmopolitan attitude we do not victimize ourselves, we do not make a philosophy or a profession out of taking offense, we do not become contiguous minorities in a hierarchical structure. Instead, we presuppose a lateral space that includes others as well as ourselves, we seek out the substance and meaning of what strikes us as unfamiliar, and we allow what is effortlessly true in our being to come through. On however small a scale, that’s what I’m hoping тнє ѕυℓтαη’ѕ ѕєαℓ can do.


Helen M. Rozwadowski, founder of the University of Connecticut’s Maritime Studies Program, teaches history of science, environmental history, and public history as well as interdisciplinary and experiential maritime-related courses. She is the author of Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea (2005) and Vast Expanses: A History of the Oceans (2019), and coeditor of Soundings and Crossings: Doing Science at Sea 1800–1970 (2016).

Homo sapiens numbers among the most cosmopolitan species on the planet. It remains to be seen whether we will exhibit the sophistication to admit to the complexity of our world. Danger lurks in a perspective that focuses on the global and the widely distributed. Cosmopolitanism risks effacing difference in its search for familiarity over vast spaces. An international view can miss the multiplicity among cultures, peoples, and environments. A better cosmopolitanism might, perhaps, involve simultaneous and overlapping perspectives: regional in addition to local and global, variety and exception alongside widespread distribution. Getting there might be eased by the eponymous cocktail…


Fernando Sdrigotti, London-based Argentine writer, translator, and cultural critic. Author of Tríptico (2008), Shetlag, una novela acentuada (2014), Dysfunctional Males (2017), Shitstorm (2018), Grey Tropic (2019, co-authored with Martin Dean), Departure Lounge Music (2019), and JOLTS (forthcoming in 2020):

I moved to London in 2002, having lived the first twenty-five years of my life in a place where everyone more or less looks and sounds the same (even if an Argentinean is almost always a mongrel of some kind).

Cosmopolitanism is for me the chance to never stand out awkwardly because everyone stands out in their own —unique— way. The chance to forget myself for a while while I get lost in difference.