Fascination of the Mediterranean World

By Gaither Stewart – Rome

When as a young man I moved to Italy it was an act of love for this Mediterranean land where lemon trees bloom. The original attraction for me however was not only the Bel Paese, as Italians like to call this truly beautiful peninsula jutting out southwards into the Mediterranean Sea and nearly reaching Tunisia. I also wanted the whole Mar Nostrum, the sea around which our Western civilization developed; I set for myself the secret goal of knowing all the lands surrounding the great sea. The attraction I felt was perhaps the same allure for the succession of peoples and civilizations, which have sought to both control and unite this beautiful and unique world. Though my original love for Italy has faded and waned in the vulgarity of contemporary Italy, not so the magical lure of the Mediterranean World as such.

Historically, the Mediterranean World tends to absorb and assimilate peoples more quickly than in north Europe. I was an adult when I moved here. Yet I have been assimilated here in a way that did not happen in my many years in Germany. However, as compared to my children not completely so, who though born as children of the north, grew up in the city of Rome. Today, even though they have now lived years in the USA, they still consider Rome their “home”. Like other Mediterranean cities, like also New York City, Rome opens its arms and invites racially similar newcomers to join. Racism and religious fundamentalism are new phenomena in the “ideal” Mediterranean World, where common cultural heritage weighs heavier than prejudice and exclusion.

Control of this world has been disputed and fought over by Italy’s own peoples, as well as by invaders from faraway lands. Ancient Greeks conquered Sicily and south Italy where Corinthian Greeks founded the 2700-year old city of Siracusa in the south-east corner of Sicily, a city which became a major power in that world. At the same time, the island of Sicily and the south of today’s Italy became the “America” of Greek colonizers. To Sicily! To Sicily! rang out across the Greek world. Greek (il grico) is still widely spoken in several towns of south Italy.

A look at the atlas shows the big island of Sicily in the dead center of the Mediterranean Sea. The key to control of maritime routes linking East and West, North and South. Every power of the Old World wanted to possess that magical land. Sicily! Truly a land of magic and enchantment. Still today you find there remnants of those variegated old cultures: Greek amphitheaters and temples, Arab mosques, Norman cathedrals, Spanish urban architecture. During the sixty-four years of the golden age of that Norman kingdom in the sun, the land of Sicily, for the first time in history, hosted the three major racial and religious traditions of the Mediterranean littoral and became a kind of bank and clearing-house of the culture and knowledge of three continents: Europe, Africa and Asia.

Time passed. New empires formed. Romans defeated the Carthaginians and ultimately controlled the entire Mediterranean. After the Romans, arrived in the Mediterranean World a succession of foreign invaders—Arabs, Normans, German, Spaniards, French, the Papacy—who occupied parts of what we now call Italy, a geographical spear pointed south, which became a launch pad to the rest of the Mediterranean World.

As Albert Camus emphasized, the recognition of limits has marked the ideal Mediterranean mentality. Excess is negative. The advent on the age-old stage of an America singing “from the shores of Tripoli” has changed such attitudes. The America of excess is not a paradigm for the traditional ideal Mediterranean mentality and culture. In this world, satraps have of course always existed and thrived, though as a rule their fate has been that of today’s Ben Ali, erstwhile dictator of Tunisia, and likewise today, the fate facing Egyptian dictator, Hosni Mubarak, who long ago forgot the traditional Mediterranean quality of moderation and recognition of limits.

The excesses of “Colonel” Muammar Gheddaffi, dictator of Libya, admired by Italy’s Premier, Silvio Berlusconi, are legendary. Gheddaffi’s excesses make him a likely candidate for the same list of failed dictators. In this world, kings and dictators fall. They fall because Mediterranean civilization, though at low tide today, in the long run demands payback. 

A brief look at an atlas confirms the specific geographical unity of that world, into which one enters from the West through the narrow Straits of Gibraltar. From one moment to the next, you seem to step back in time and find yourself in another world. The Mediterranean is lined by diverse peoples, nations and cultures, from Spain and Morocco to Tunisia and Italy, to Greece, Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, interlinked by a common heritage and histories.

The Great Sea, one of the most important maritime routes in the world, encompasses three continents and in the doing also the three monotheistic religions. Not only disputed by its own peoples, its mild climate, its magic, its sorcery have drawn for over two millennia countless non-Mediterranean peoples—conquerors, colonizers, migrants (and today international tourists), often in search of the sun, but as a rule in search of the freedom of a new way of life.

The Sicilian writer, Leonardo Sciascia whom I often met in his home in Palermo, was amused at my complaints that each time I arrived in Palermo it was raining and cold.

The history of the Mediterranean includes the separate though linked histories of the world’s major civilizations: ancient Greeks, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans and Arabs, as well as the three major monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Sometimes at war, sometimes in peace, their common history is both one of prosperity, such as that of the Arabs in Sicily, or one of destruction as during the Crusades and, today, Israeli occupation of Arab lands.

Curiously, ancient Rome ruled and exploited the Middle East in true imperialistic style, while Islam ruled over Spain and Sicily and made major cultural contributions to the world at large.

It is no accident that some of the greatest world cities mark the Mediterranean World, originating in times when the locations of cities were studied and planned. For many centuries, Athens, Rome, Alexandria and Marseille have been centers of world trade and culture. Doubtless the history of our entire world would have been vastly different if not for the shifting around of continents and bodies of water in pre-historic times which resulted in this incredible geographical unity.

Middle East in flames. Revolution in the Arab world. Away with the dictators. Such words ring positive and long overdue. But, Democracy! Democracy! Freedom! Freedom are something different! The ring of the last two words is false, deceitful, if not hateful. These words, echoing across Egypt today, are at the same time words of excess on the one hand, and on the other euphemisms masking real events. Who stands behind such slogans and events? Some slogans ring too familiar for comfort. For who in his right mind can imagine a revolt against Islam? The word is not in the cards of Eastern sorcerers or necromancers. Lawrence of Arabia is long since gone. Dervishes and magic remain.

So what else remains? That is the question one must pose. What alternatives remain? I did not intend this essay as a comment on the Egyptian enigma. Yet, today, one can hardly write about the Mediterranean World without turning to the ongoing revolt now reaching from Algeria to Tunisia to Egypt.

I view Egypt today from an Italian perspective. Italians know well that Egypt is a major repository of Mediterranean heritage. Rome with its big Egyptian population. Its pyramids from Egypt. Sharm el Sheik on the Red Sea is Italian territory. Nile cruises to Luxor. The pyramids. The great library in Alexandria. Places every Italian traveler knows.

But Mubarak? Egyptian politics?

According to a recent Italian TV reportage, informed Americans know more about the mystery of power in Egypt than do Europeans. And so they should, after thirty years of Washington’s economic-political support for that dictatorship. Yet I doubt the claim. In general, the most prevalent response to the Egyptian conundrum is indifference. As if eighty million Egyptians were of little import. 

Conspiracy remains alive at every latitude. One fundamental question echoes across the Mediterranean from Egypt to Rome: Why the sudden withdrawal of U.S. support for Mubarak after thirty years of support and the annual billions of American tax dollars? Why? A qui bono? Cui prodest? Is this another CIA mafia-like maneuver, to change things so that nothing changes? Has Washington suddenly awakened to the fact that its support of corrupt regimes is turning against its own interests?

Conspiracy? But against whom? Muslim Brotherhood a threat? Muslim Brothers, a CIA asset? A mystery. Does the answer lie in Israel? The echo of the conundrum of power in Egypt arrives also in Rome, but it goes largely unheard.

Just as Sicily in the Old World, Egypt is a regional kingpin today. Though the “bread revolt” in Tunisia made a model for the Egyptian rebels, Egypt with its eighty million people is another dimension. For decades Egypt has been considered the guarantor of regional stability. The first Arab State to sign a peace accord with Israel, in 1979, for which Israel has defended Hosni Mubarak’s iron-fisted reign. Israel and the USA have relied on the Islamic Sunni Bloc led by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan to thwart religious domination by Shia’a Iran. Is that pact at an end?

Many aspects of U.S. international relations pass through the Middle East. Therefore, through Egypt, and that because of the decades-long priority for Washington of the State of Israel and Middle Eastern oil. That is one explanation of why billions of U.S. tax payers dollars have gone to Mubarak’s Egypt. And that also explains Washington and Europe’s caution about the Egyptian uprising: first the West defended the right to protest, followed then by timid demands for “peaceful transition to democracy.”

Europe like the USA prefers “friendly despots” to “inimical democrats.” Washington wants to have its cake and eat it too. The dilemma for the West is that a too cautious policy toward the Egyptian uprising can be interpreted as complicity with the corrupt regime, while explicit criticism of it will weaken a precious ally. Support for dictatorships in exchange for stability and good business affairs is not only short-sighted, but today is at the end of the line. For years the European Union has followed the dictates of Washington; today it too speaks of “orderly transition” in even more cautious terms than the USA.

For thirty years Mubarak has deceived and deluded everyone—Europe, USA, Israel and Egyptians themselves—with the dilemma: Either I, Mubarak, or the Muslim Brotherhood. The dictator has performed in true dictator style, offering rewards to Western friends who in turn have granted him the title of “moderate” and his regime as a moderate one. The millions of Egyptians on the streets today do not agree.

Camus is right about excess and limits. The time of contemporary Mediterranean dictatorships is over. Metaphorically, one might say, the Mediterranean Sea has risen against excess. And today the Old Sea demands recognition of limits. A lesson, perhaps, also for western lands far beyond the Old World of the Mediterranean Sea.

– Gaither Stewart is a novelist, reporter and essayist on historical and cultural topics. His observations, often controversial, are published on many venues across the web. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com.

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