The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia. Gnu Free documentation License

Italian version

The Greco-Roman soul is intimately tied to Egypt and North Africa.

We are all Mediterranean. Food, plants and plenty of traditions are similar. On a long-period perspective we belong to the same historical stream, to the same sea from which some of the first civilizations have germinated on this side of the planet.

Of course there are differences though we are not so dissimilar as someone might (or liked) to think plus our same religions, apparently dividing us, are in reality loving the same God.

It is not by chance that these north-African regions are considered diverse and almost European by Sub-Saharan black people. They are in fact very different from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Another interesting point is that during the whole Middle Ages north Africans were the most powerful, civilised and wealthy among all Mediterranean (and European) folks.

Wealth has move to the North

Wealth has now moved to the North shore.

The Northern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean tend to exchange their roles.

Tunisia conquered Sicily for 400 years. Today it looks at Sicily (and Italy) as a beloved guiding light and its greatest inspiring model (“les Italiens pour nous sont comme des dieux”, “Italians are like gods to us”, a Tunisian manager once told me). While we, in our narrow-mindedness, do not even notice it.

Italians (especially those who travel little) do not know how much they are loved within the entire Mediterranean area.

Even when we landed on its islands as occupants, together with the Nazis, we were accepted with affection by the local populations because they felt us as close relatives. How many memories, traditions and bonds we do share with them.

Many villages in Southern Italy – or in so many Greek islands, not to mention Spain, who was under Arabic rule for so long – look Arabic or belonging in any case to the deep South Mediterranean: take Ostuni, in Apulia, or Sperlonga, in the south of Latium; then cast a glance at Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia (see picture above:)

They are almost identical, belonging to a very similar culture, whether we like it or not, because during the Middle Ages the winning model came from the South Mediterranean coasts, where civilization (and power) lay.

Needless to say, when a Roman – even more a Neapolitan (not to mention a Sicilian) – hears an Arabic melody he feels hidden strings vibrating in his soul.

Death of Dido, by Augustin Cayot (French, 1667-1772). Public domain

Going further back in time let us conjure up the war to the death between Rome and Carthage immortal Tunisia, again) whose legendary origin – narrated by Virgil’s classical (and beautiful) poem Aeneid – sprang from Dido’s desperate love for Aeneas, our Trojan ancestor of Rome.

This Carthage’s queen, forsaken by the Trojan hero, stabbed herself after predicting eternal hate between Rome and Carthage.

So from love sprang hate; from hate tremendous war (thus says the legend): a moment of history – the historical, not legendary war, this time – that decided whether the Mediterranean was to be dominated by its North or its South shores.

The North (and Rome) won – by a hair’s breadth it’d be fair to say.

Meeting Tunisians
à La Goulette

I was in Tunisia for work and in La Goulette coffee houses – La Goulette is a picturesque district in Tunis, close to the harbour, where incidentally the beautiful Italian-Tunisian actress Claudia Cardinale was born – people still discuss the battles of Roman Scipio and of Carthaginian Hannibal, and they line up beans on tables thus drawing up troops of both armies in order to celebrate Hannibal’s brilliant victories over the Romans, still trying also to understand where Hannibal went wrong in the last fatal battle of Zama.

One of the guys I met there had worked with several Italian movie directors in the innumerable films the Italians shot in Tunisia.

I clearly felt they were all kind and warm to this Italian who showed interest in them. They were drinking beer so I asked them:

“Isn’t alcohol forbidden by the Koran?”.

One of them replied:

Eh bien, nous on fait tout, mais en cachette”, “well, we do everything, though in secret”. And my mind went to Sicily, where secrecy, doing things en chachette, is typical and well ingrained.

Anthony, Cleopatra
(and Octavian)

Getting back to Egypt, let us consider Alexander the Great and his relationship with Egypt and the city of Alexandria, which he founded. And let us consider Cleopatra, descendant of one of Alexander’s generals, as well as her love affair with Julius Caesar, first, and with Mark Anthony, Caesar’s relative, later.

Caesar and Anthony, united by both kinship and their love for Egypt’s splendid civilization. Was Caesar’s love for Egypt sincere, or was it the result of mere political calculations? Hard to fathom, Caesar’s mind, but we are inclined to believe Anthony’s interest for Egypt was not only political.

 

lupaottimigut1.jpg

The conflict between Anthony and Octavian was again a moment in history that decided whether the Mediterranean had to be dominated by its Northern or South-eastern shores, this time. Again Rome (and the North) won but later, after the fall of the Roman empire, the South and Near East took their revenge, with triumphant Islam and the survival of Greek Constantinople.

Mahfouz, as a conclusion

As a conclusion, the eternal Roman and Mediterranean soul vibrates when in contact with relatives to whom it is tied by both common history and traditions.

Who better than Naguib Mahfouz, the great Egyptian writer (and future virtual guest), can guide us and help us to understand?

In our next post dedicated to the Southern shores of the Mediterranean we will in fact listen to the love words of young Kamal, the main character from the second volume of Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy.

Isn’t the British Trojan Horse a Short-Sighted Animal?

Trojan Horse from ‘Troy’ movie. Fair use

[Update: today 4/9/11 the conversation, about the Britons as EU’s Trojan horse, goes on here together with a few dear blog buds from Canada, the UK and the US]

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Let us consider two articles, one appeared in Newsweek (last Feb 4), another in the Financial Times (March 19, 2007).

I. Newsweek (original article):

The American economy is slowing down (I am summarizing here and there) and while the United States is sneezing, the rest of the world won’t probably catch a cold. In other words, and for the first time, “the rest of the world will cushion America’s slide (…) . The fastest growing big economies in the world – China, India, Brazil – appear set to continue their robust growth – argues influential American columnist Fareed Zakaria – (…) and this will help the United States” also because of the U.S. dollar’s decline which makes American exports cheaper and investments and tourism in America more attractive.
[That is to say, while first the Americans were helping the world in moments of crisis still buying foreign goods thus helping foreign economies, now the contrary is true, this being the first time such a thing happens; Man of Roma’s note].

These and other trends represent a great change in the global economic order. “Power is moving away from the traditional centres of the global economy – the Western nations – to the emerging markets. To put it more bluntly: the United States is in the beginning of a period of relative decline. It may not be steep or dramatic, but the fact that it’s happening is clear. Even if one assumes a slowdown – Fareed Zakaria continues -, the other big economies will still grow at two and three times the pace of the West. Over time they will take up a larger share of the global economy – and the United States and Western Europe will have thinner slices. This is not defeatism. It is math.”

II. Financial Times (whose unsigned comment sheds light on the situation, and relative economic weight, of the European Union; original article):

If the European Union weren’t there “there would be less trade among the nations of Europe, more macroeconomic instability; Spain and Ireland would probably not have achieved their spectacular economic transformation (…) one of the most striking images of European integration is the sight of motorways full of trucks from countries such as Romania and Lithuania. Air travel liberalisation has perhaps contributed more than any other policy to bring the people of Europe closer (…) The EU is currently the world’s largest economy, a position it is certain to lose over the next 50 years due to the rise of China and India. Size in this instance does not really matter. But what would matter hugely is if the EU became so lacking in ambition and purpose that it lapsed into genteel decline.”

The article provides some advices on how to better face future challenges: more economic integration, more globalisation and aperture to emerging markets etc. Strangely enough, a tighter political union – which would seem ideal to get over this pernicious (according to FT) “lacking in ambition and purpose” – is one of the advices not offered (and unsaid) by FT to the Continent … 😉 .

 

Now my question is: in the context of this overall foreseen decline of the West and of these huge transformations ahead of us (India and China alone are maybe 40% of the entire world population), is this divide et impera policy (or divide et vive, divide and survive) towards mainland Europe – traditional in UK and much understandable until a few years ago – still valid today, still forward thinking? I mean, this subtle (not too subtle sometimes) action of hindering at all costs the making of one big European nation, is it still corresponding to the British (and American) interests themselves?

Aren’t the British (and the French) lost in an opiate dream that they can still play a world role of some importance (America being different, of course) and does this dream justify the demolition (or even just the delay) of a European nation? Tending to condone the French – I told you I’m unassuming – not only out of sentimental weakness (they have been a lot pro Europe together with the Germans, after all), and given for granted that the guys at the British Foreign Office are more intelligent than Man of Roma, could anyone then help me to understand why this British Trojan horse isn’t a short-sighted animal?

Italian version

A Novel in the Hands of the Killers

Reagan assassination attempt. Public domain

Before getting to the killers let us be patient and consider the concept of literary improvisation. I know I am terribly boring but I promise a lot of blood blood blood in this post – plus the relationship between literature and social life being complex we’ll have to wander a bit before we finally dive into base butchery 😉 .

Literary improvisation is not far from musical improvisation, a topic we have talked about in a previous post. We will not define the concept, being it self-explanatory.

(Can James Joyce’s stream of consciousness be in some way related to what we have said above – literary improvisation, not base butchery, in case you don’t get it wrong 😉 ? Hard to say. I don’t believe it to be very far from it. It is to be noted though that writers at times cleverly build what seems spontaneous, and in literature what counts is the final result: things do work or they do not).

Connecting literary improvisation with digression we will mention again that nice passage by J. D. Salinger where Holden, the adolescent protagonist in The Catcher in the Rye, narrates how he had to undergo the oral expression lesson which consisted in letting a student speak of any topic, and each time the student didn’t stick to the point all the boys in class had to yell “Digression!!” at him (you can read this passage in a former post of ours). Holden instead liked speeches full of digressions and the novel itself, if not very similar in its structure to the above said stream of consciousness, is nonetheless so rich with digressions, facts within facts, ideas within ideas, that it creates an overall effect of chaotic freshness memorably depicting an adolescent mind definitely undisciplined and even disturbed (Holden is disturbed in some way) although so vivacious and sparkling.

(Here again everything seems spontaneous and improvised but I am sure Salinger’s text resulted from a good mixture of intuition and clever construction).

Salinger’s novel has been a classic not only of the American literature (and his language is present in most dictionaries of US slang) but it has inspired the beat generation as well as numerous drop-outs who joined the utopian movements of the 1960s up to the present day.

Personally I read it by mere chance when I was 18 (I had it in inheritance from a boy who was leaving an apartment we shared in Ireland) and I was deeply impressed by it. Coming just out of adolescence I probably recognized in there plenty of the insecurities I was living in those days. But young Holden went beyond, to the extent of almost hating all the surrounding world and it was a bit worrying for people (like me), who enjoyed the book so much, to read on newspapers that David Chapman, the person “who assassinated John Lennon, was carrying the book when he was arrested immediately after the murder and referred to it in his statement to police shortly thereafter.” Also “John Hinckley, Jr., who attempted to assassinate US President Ronald Reagan in 1981, was also reported to have been obsessed with the book.” (From Wikipedia: The Catcher in the Rye).

Lennon’s assassination announced. Fair use

Well, that doesn’t mean that the novel is murder inspiring though certainly by effectively describing the difficulties of a tormented adolescence it is not illogical that some disturbed individual identified himself with the Holden character, finding comfort and inspiration in it and thus feeding his vision against everything and everybody (and refusing to stick to the point naturally becomes a symbol of anarchic revolt against order and self-discipline).

However, also the non psychopath teenager identified himself/herself with Salinger’s character. So the novel became a classic for an entire generation, whether protesting against order and law or not, since adolescence is a more or less difficult period for everyone.

There is, we repeat, a subtle link between digression and the previously mentioned themes of utopia & musical improvisation. Digression as well, going against rationality, can in fact lead to inconclusiveness, i.e. to nowhere, thus unstructuring the logic of discourse – utopia is a Greek word made of ‘ou’(= no) and ‘τόπος’ (= place), so its meaning is actually ‘in no place’.

Summarizing, improvisation is the thin link among the present post and these earlier ones, Digression vs Sticking to the Point and Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian.

Improvisation has been a myth of the counterculture of my generation and of the generations who followed. The idea of improvisation in art (music, literature, theatre etc.) is somewhat connected to social behaviours appeared in the counterculture of the last 50 years. A relationship, in fact, between mental and social anarchy cannot in my view be denied (like I guess it cannot be denied that there is some relationship between the crystalline clarity of Julius Caesar’s writings and his rational conduct and self-control, of which you can read something in this post of ours as well).

It is simple, after all. Facts (and history) are created by people. And people have a mind. Thence there are connections between what we think, read, write and do, whether in our social environment or in art.

Flowers for John Lennon at Strawberry Fields in New Yorks Central Park. Fair use

[We are not anarchic and we do not belong to the counter-culture – although for a couple of years we sorta did, but that was a long time ago. As evidence of my words, we try in this blog to find inspiration from our ancient philosophies, which exalted wisdom, rationality and self control. Only ….

Things are not in black and white,
the hues of grey (and colours)
being infinite …

Forgive my horrible English poems, it’s one of my manias].

Italian version

Other related posts:

Digression vs Sticking to the Point
Why Musical Improvisation is Utopian

From the two Sides of the Roman Limes

Colosseum in Rome

A few days ago, in a pizzeria very close to the Colosseum, I met a couple from Lübeck, Germany. She was a Catholic redhead with communicative and laughing blue eyes, born in Cologne. He was a colourless Protestant, with meditative and sad eyes of a pale blue, a vague resemblance with pilot Schumacher.

“It is a sort of Little Italy, Cologne, – he said – while I am the Germanic barbarian beyond the Roman border.”

Bizarre how the proximity of the Colosseum makes just any tourist talk history.

We didn’t chat for a while though, each of us minding our own business, kind of reluctant to human communication.

Suddenly, I really don’t know why, I opened up -a full-bodied red wine is to be held responsible? The fizzy Roman air? -, I gave this friendly and sincere look to them and shot these point-blank, out-of-the-world 4 sentences:

“I worship the music of Bach. Bach is sovereign. He is a great honour to German civilization. German music is eternal.”

I am unfortunately aware I must have sounded totally nuts. Four solemn and incautious sentences were now suspended in the Roman breeze.

They looked at me in total amazement:

“Also Italy has created beautiful music, really. But isn’t Bach too heavy, too stern?”

No idea if they meant “too stern for an Italian” or were just talking in general.

“Heavy? Oh no, no, – I said – how can the most magnificent among composers be heavy? Bach is not heavy. Bach is a-l-l.”

His pale eyes, from an initial mistrust, sweetened up. Her smile became even warmer than before. Actually the three of us were a little moved (and probably high.)

Some additional sporadic sentences (she was proud of this German pope … they wanted to know if I was a real Roman …) concluded this little Roman scene. We said goodbye after exchanging our addresses.

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Now I have friends ready to greet me if I ever get to Lübeck, a city to which young Bach arrived, if I am not wrong, after many kilometres on foot, so eager to learn all he could from his idol musician, the organist and composer Buxtehude.

I have to check better. Just found this on the Web:

“Im Spätherbst 1705 reist Johann Sebastian Bach nach Lübeck, um den norddeutschen Komponisten Dietrich Buxtehude zu treffen und von ihm zu lernen.”

Sintetico but enough.

Sorry if I showed off some of my German (no big deal after all lol), but how can one not love this language: of course its difficulty (and the lost wars) didn’t help its expansion.

A German friend once noted, a bit disconsolate:

“Even just the adjective, Deutsch, is difficult both to write and to pronounce. We should have changed it. But we have been stupid. Sometimes we are not as intelligent as people think.”

One last thing.

Bach is a son of un-romanized Germany. Rome and the classical world are not all, of course. But I am asking myself:

Is this diverse historical background somewhat responsible for the fact that Bach’s music lacks sometimes … measure and grace? Is it by chance that many Italians prefer his music played by classicism-oriented performers like American Murray Perahia or, even better, Italian Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli?

I for example adore Bach’s Italian Concert in F major (BWV 971) played by Michelangeli (and other Bach’s works played by him.)

Michelangeli’s magic fingers add grace and brilliance to this austere northern German music, making it sound a little bit like Mozart’s.

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Update (September 21, 2013)

Italian Neapolitan Maria Tipo’s Bach is another example of how Bach can be played (corrected? made more singing etc?) by Italian performers.

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Italian version

Related posts:

Permanences I
Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds
Music, Politics and History
Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli’s Chilly Genius

See also:

How Can Japanese Little Girls Play European Classical Music Perfectly?