Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria etc. Arab Spring Revolutions seen from Rome (1)

Berlusconi and Gaddafi
Berlusconi and Gaddafi. What on earth do they have in common? They were supposed to be ‘friends’. Click for attribution and to to enlarge

It is weeks I wanted to write something about the Arab spring revolutions. It all started in Tunisia, separated from Italy by only 44 miles (Pantelleria) and by 68 miles (Sicily.)

This being not totally fortuitous in my opinion – we will see in any case.

This is a thoughtful Roman blog, not a newspaper, so we’ll talk over such political (and military) crises in our own Roman way 🙂

Talk over literally, since I recently discovered how convenient a microphone can be.

Waves of Revolution.
“Who the Hell Cares”

Image drawn when Gaddafi arrived to Rome (on june 2009?). Our PM welcomed him as a leader and as a personal friend. Click for credits and to enlarge

Disturbance; want of values in new generations; so-close-to-Italy Muslim countries exploding like bombs; the BRIC nations (Brazil, Russia, India & China) about to make our Western asses black & blue.

France, the UK, Germany, the US etc. not being on better grounds than we are; our ineffable PM Berlusconi glued to his chair not giving a damn about his country’s future and claiming ‘communist’ magistrates are the only ones to blame for his HUGE legal problems (read the Guardian, among the rest, any political colour saying the same worldwide) and btw only half-heartedly admitting his friend Muammar Gaddafi is a cruel dictator butchering dissenters with fighters missiles.

By the way, did the two Big Men have fun ensemble with chicks? No evidence that I posses but it’s a given that when Gaddafi arrived to Rome (June 2009?) hundreds of Italian babes flocked to his tent placed in a Roman public (and luscious) garden and, well, rumours say quite a few converted to Islam for 80 Euros (100 USD)!

When asked by journalists (see picture below) – who were staring at their stunning faces boobs (and legs) – why on earth had they converted, they replied:

“Well, ya know, it is so interesting, exploring different religions, really so interesting, isn’t it interesting? Ah ah ah ah ..”

[I am using my words but I heard those chicks’ words on TV; they were no different, at times even worse]

A young Italian showing the Qur’an after meeting Muammar Gaddafi in his tent placed in a luscious Roman public garden. Click for attribution

Let me tell you this whole thing is allarmante, alarming.

And it’s all the more when we realise we are so few to be alarmed – as a Milan’s blogger wittingly put it.

While strolling about Rome I actually notice that in cafés shops and bars no one really gives a damn, with Milan teaming up with us (the two major Italian cities – not to mention the provinces, that probably care even less.)

Instead, Libya and the Rest ‘Do Affect’ Us

Libya with Italy on top. Giolitti in 1911 and later Mussolini deemed its conquest as a natural expansion of Italy in ‘Mare Nostrum’.

Libya and the Arab spring upheavals do affect us instead. We all have Greco-Roman and Mediterranean roots, so South and East shores mattered (and matter) to us.

In 1911 the Italian PM Giovanni Giolitti launched the progressive conquest of Libya, later continued by Benito Mussolini until 1931.

Libya became ‘ours’ because our newly-founded Nation desired to invent her own empire at a time when the real thing, ie the British and the French empires, were soon to fall apart (as Lucio Caracciolo, director of Limes, yesterday observed in the Roman daily La Repubblica.)

Libya's regions, and Cyrenaica

Libya 1911-1931, we were saying. A bloody phase of battles and unrelenting anti-Italian guerilla at the end of which our technologically superior country (morally too?) made use of chemical weapons and poisoned the farmers’ wells to the extent it wiped out 1/10 of the Libyan population (100,000 casualties) – according to the Italian Wikipedia.

Κυρήνη or Cyrene.
Mussolini Amoral
(and Forgetful) Conqueror

One of the toughest & unyielding Libyan regions was Cyrenaica, Eastern Libya (see map above.)

It was so named since 2641 years earlier the Greek colony of Cyrene (Κυρήνη) was there founded and there later flourished. Cyrene soon became a glowing centre of Greek culture. Suffice it to mention:

Callimachus (Καλλίμαχος: 310–240 BCE), of Libyan Greek origin, poet and scholar

Aristippus (Ἀρίστιππος), Socrates’ disciple, who there preached how to enjoy life pleasures “from all circumstances and how to control adversity and prosperity alike;”

Callimachus (Καλλίμαχος) who there had his birth and without whom the greatest Roman poets of the Latin golden age would never have existed (Catullus, Virgil, Tibullus and Propertius;)

Eratosthene
(Έρατοσθένης), also from Cyrene, the first scientist ever capable of exactly measuring the size and circumference of our planet.

Libya’s National Hero:
Omar Mukhtar, a Pious Man

Omar Mukhtar, Libya's great national hero
Omar Mukhtar, Libya’s great national hero, hanged by the Italians in 1931. “For nearly 20 years he led native resistance to Italian colonization.” Wikipedia. Also image via Wikipedia. Click to enlarge

In 1862 CE Omar al-Mukhtar had his birth in Cyrenaica as well (see picture above.)

Omar al-Mukhtar is Libya’s great national hero, a religious and pious man.

For 20 years he led an unrelenting anti-Italian resistance and when captured in 1931 (see picture below) his deep personality “had an impact on his Italian jailers, who later remarked upon his steadfastness” (English Wiki.)

Omar Mokhtar arrested by Italian Fascists
Omar Mokhtar arrested by the Italians in 1931. Click for file source

A sort of Nelson Mandela, one could say, with the difference that deep sage Omar didn’t make it.

It seems the Italians arrested Mukhtar’s court appointed defence lawyer, capitano Roberto Lontano, who took ‘too honestly’ his defence job, which suggests unfairness in Mukhtar’s trial.

“On September 16, 1931, Mukhtar, at the age of 73 years, was hanged before his followers” who were ALL prisoners in the concentration camp of Solluqon. The Italians hopes were that Libyan resistance would end with him.

Omar Mukhtar's hanging in the concentration camp of Solluqon
Omar Mukhtar’s hanging in the concentration camp of Solluqon

Before dying Omar uttered this Qur’anic verse:

“To God we belong. To Him we shall return.”

“His final years – Wikipedia – were depicted in the movie Lion of the Desert (1981), starring Anthony Quinn, Oliver Reed, and Irene Papas. It was based on the struggles of Mukhtar against Italian commander Rodolfo Graziani‘s forces [Graziani born close to Rome was called ‘the pacifier’ by the Italians; the ‘Butcher of Fezzan’ by the Arabs.]

Italians were able to watch this film only a few years ago.

[The film may perhaps be watched here.]

Lion of the Desert DVD Cover. Click for attribution

PS. I don’t mean here that Italians were worse than any colonizer. I believe instead that every country follows the principles of Realpolitik which “focuses on considerations of power, not ideals, morals, or principles.”

Machiavelli laid the first rules of Realpolitik. It is high time I dedicate a post to this Renaissance Florentine btw, since too many people say: Realpolitik, ok, but Machiavelli, THAT is amoral stuff.

Which needs some clarifying I guess.

Benito Mussolini thought Mukhtar, the Desert Lion, was an obstacle to his colonial conquest. So he got rid of him.

I am not criticizing this [like I’m not criticizing Americans who stopped, no matter how, communism in Greece, Italy or Chile.]

I am criticizing colonialism.

ψ

Who is no sinner may start casting stones.

[to be continued: see next chapter]

PS. Rome and Italy are Mediterranean. Nothing like a wider picture on the South and East shores of such a sea may throw light in our opinion on the Arab Spring.

From this blog:

The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 2

Permanences. Rome and Carthage

Love Words from Egypt

Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1


Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

Folks of the Mediterranean Sea

Tunis, the Port of La Goulette and a White-Bearded Old Taxi Driver

La Goulette, port of Tunis. Wikipedia image

We were here talking on how globalization also had the opposite effect, of reaction and rediscovery of cultural identities. Let me expand on this a bit with a few memories.

[This post has been originally written in Italian]

The White-Bearded Bon Père

I was working in Tunisia at the time the campaign for the second re-election of George W. Bush was about to start. I often wandered around Tunis with a taxi driver, this beautiful white-bearded old man I conversed with on many things, politics, culture etc. He greatly helped me to explore the city since he knew every alley, every aspect of it.

I almost always ate at La Goulette, the main port of Tunis (see an overview above) where many Italians emigrated between 1700-1800 before they even ever thought to leave for America.

An area of the port bears in fact the name of la Petite Sicile. There I enjoyed fresh fish that fishing boats carried almost to the waterfront restaurants.

Ah quel vie, quelle poésie, la francophonie sur la mer de Carthage, la cuisine locale, les vins, le délicieux poisson!

(My table-companions were Tunisian and Italian and we always spoke French. Unforgettable memories)

One of the roads leading to La Goulette. Tunis. Click for credits and to enlarge

One day, while the old man was driving me as usual to the port’s restaurants, I said to him:

“What if Bush had already captured Osama Bin Laden and pulled him like a rabbit out of his hat at the last minute so that his victory in the forthcoming elections would be devastating?”

“They are too intelligent to fall into traps like that,” the old man replied with shiny eyes.

Minaret of the Great Mosque in Tunis seen from an alley of the Medina. Click for credits and to enlarge

Such an answer, given like that, with dreamy eyes, from this dear and good old man whom everyone called le père for his wisdom and who strongly condemned terrorism, puzzled me. I dropped the subject (and perhaps I shouldn’t have.)

Well, I thought later, if this touches the heart of such a wise old man, it is not difficult to imagine what 9/11 may have meant for thousands of young people: a fire, a burst of renewed Muslim pride which swept them and drove them to follow the example (still partly does unfortunately) of the “heroes” of the Twin Towers who sacrificed themselves – for the sake of Allah, his prophet and the civilization they represent – in such an insane, ruthless but also immensely spectacular (to them) way.

Pride Refound and Terrorism

Until September 11 the Muslims had always been badly beaten – the war lost in only six days by their venerable Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, the West always trying to control their oil resources, Israel’s creation as guardian of the Middle-East and champion of the West etc.

At the time of the London bombings (7 July 2005) many had wondered how it was possible that almost adolescent, honest-faced youths had blown themselves up as suicide bombers thus killing dozens of helpless bystanders. Weren’t terrorists wicked, bloodthirsty killers?

Questions such as this show in my opinin a certain lack of understanding – of the human soul, of (fundamentalist) faith and of what the Islamic revolution meant to Muslims and especially to the Muslim youth, from the time of the Ayatollah Khomeini onward.

ψ

A strong but also humiliated culture, Islam, which resists globalization, but unfortunately when reacting with terrorism does the wrong thing totally, giving rise to distrust, hatred (and isolation) all around it.

Tunisians however (not only them) are good and moderate, friends of Italy and of the West. And a great number of them display self-critical attitudes:

Ouvrir les yeux sur soi et sur l’Occident suppose que le monde musulman cesse de se poser en perpétuelle victime. “C’est toujours la faute de l’autre, note Mohamed Charfi: le colonisateur, l’impérialisme, le système financier international, le FMI, la Banque mondiale. Quand amorcera-t-on l’autocritique qui permettra un diagnostic lucide de nos échecs ?”

ψ

Related posts:

Pain in the Heart

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 2

The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean

Tunisi, il porto della Goulette e un vecchio tassista dalla barba bianca

Porto de La Goulette a Tunisi. Wikipedia file

[See the English translation of this post]

Si diceva qui di come la globalizzazione abbia avuto effetti anche contrari, di riscoperta delle varie identità culturali. Lasciatemi esplorare un poco questo tema.

Le bon père dalla barba bianca

Sono stato in Tunisia per lavoro al tempo in cui stava preparandosi la campagna elettorale per la seconda rielezione di Gorge W. Bush. Giravo spesso con un tassista di Tunisi, un bel vecchio dalla barba bianca, con cui parlavo di tante cose, di politica, di cultura. Mi aiutava ad esplorare bene la città perché ne conosceva ogni vicolo, ogni aspetto.

Mi portava quasi sempre a La Goulette a mangiare, il porto principale di Tunisi (nella foto in alto una veduta d’insieme) dove molti italiani emigrarono nel 1700-1800 ancor prima di recarsi in America.

Una zona del porto si chiama infatti la Petite Sicile. Là mi godevo il pesce fresco che i pescherecci portavano fin quasi ai ristoranti sulla riva.

Ah quel vie, quelle poésie, la francophonie sur la mer de Carthage, la cuisine locale, les vins, le délicieux poisson!

(I miei commensali erano tunisini e italiani e si parlava sempre in francese. Ricordi indimenticabili)

Via di accesso al quartiere de La Goulette. Click for credits and to enlarge

Una volta mentre il vecchio mi stava al solito portando alla Goulette gli dissi:

“Stai a vedere che Bush ha già catturato Bin Laden e lo tirerà fuori all’ultimo momento come un coniglio dal cilindro così che la sua vittoria alle prossime elezioni sarà schiacciante”.

“Sono troppo intelligenti per cadere in trappole del genere” rispose il vecchio con occhi scintillanti.

Tunisi. Minareto della grande moschea. Click for attribution

La risposta, data così, con occhi sognanti, da questo vecchio buono e caro, che tutti chiamavano le père per la sua saggezza appunto e che condannava fermamente il terrorismo, mi lasciò perplesso. Lasciai cadere l’argomento (e forse feci male).

Se tocca il cuore anche di un vecchio così, pensai in seguito, è facile immaginare cosa può aver significato l’11 settembre per migliaia di giovani: un incendio, una vampata di ritrovato orgoglio pan musulmano, che li ha travolti e spinti (e purtroppo in parte ancora oggi li spinge) a dare la vita imitando gli “eroi” delle Torri gemelle che si erano immolati in modo così folle, spietato ma anche enormemente spettacolare nel nome di Allah, del suo profeta e della civiltà che essi rappresentano.

L’orgoglio ritrovato e il terrorismo

Fino all’11 settembre gli islamici le avevano sempre buscate da tutti, la guerra persa in soli 6 giorni dal venerato leader egiziano Nasser, l’Occidente che ha sempre cercato di controllare le loro risorse energetiche, la creazione di Israele sempre a fini di controllo dell’energia e come paladino dell’Occidente ecc.

Quando vi furono le bombe di Londra, il 7 luglio 2005, molti furono sorpresi. Come è possibile che dei ragazzi poco più che adolescenti e con la faccia pulita si siano fatti esplodere come kamikaze uccidendo decine di passanti indifesi? Non erano i terroristi degli assassini assetati di sangue?

Domande che mostrano una certa incomprensione dell’animo umano, della fede (fondamentalista) e di che cosa abbia potuto significare la rivoluzione islamica per i musulmani e soprattutto per i giovani musulmani, dall’epoca di Khomeini in poi.

ψ

Una cultura forte ma anche umiliata, quella islamica, che resiste alla globalizzazione, anche se purtroppo quando reagisce con il terrorismo lo fa in maniera completamente sbagliata creando solo odio, diffidenza (e isolamento) intorno a sé.

I tunisini però (e non solo) sono brava gente, moderati, amici dell’Italia e dell’Occidente. E molte tra essi le voci autocritiche:

Ouvrir les yeux sur soi et sur l’Occident suppose que le monde musulman cesse de se poser en perpétuelle victime. “C’est toujours la faute de l’autre, note Mohamed Charfi : le colonisateur, l’impérialisme, le système financier international, le FMI, la Banque mondiale. Quand amorcera-t-on l’autocritique qui permettra un diagnostic lucide de nos échecs ?”

ψ

Per chi vuole saperne di più:

Pain in the Heart

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 2

Themes from Man of Roma

The Roman Forum. Click for credits and larger image

I’d love to know
How things got to be
How they are.

[Marilyn Monroe]

Ψ

Here is a first selection of themes from Man of Roma. Each link leads to pages with excerpts from our posts that illustrate the chosen themes. I couldn’t get much into the conversations kicked off by the posts for lack of time. You can have a look yourself since lots of additional materials are in the comments area of the linked posts.

This page is meant for those interested in finding their bearings in the ideas of this blog. You will notice leitmotivs that circulate and I have also chosen themes related to one another.

Another theme selection – to be published not immediately, I don’t want to lose all my readers – will regard the relationships between South and North Europe, Europe and North America, East and West, Great Britain and the Continent and much more.

Ψ

The Human Mind is Like a Museum
The human mind is like a museum since it contains almost infinite traces of past conceptions, from Stone Age onwards. Words, language are an important portion of this museum, but lots of things are there that go way beyond words. In short, a huge disorganized archive we have in our heads and that we should inventory. It’s the activity of this blog, a little bit.

The Legacy of Rome
Rome is the city of the soul (as Byron and Victor Hugo put it,) of our authentic Western soul, since Europe and the West were shaped here, and Rome’s legacy is greater than we think.

Folks of the Mediterranean Sea
The Italian and Roman soul is intimately tied to the folks of the Mediterranean. We are all related. Food, plants and plenty of traditions are similar. On a long-period perspective we belong to the same historical stream, to the same area from which some of the great civilizations have germinated on this side of the planet. Of course there are differences among us, but we are not so dissimilar as someone might (or likes to) think. Many behaviours, defined for example as Islamic, actually belong to the ancient past of Mare Nostrum, the context and stage of all that made us the way we are.

Influences of the Classical World
The Greco-Roman classical civilization has moulded the world we live in today. Influences and survivals can be seen in behaviours, arts etc.

Sex and the City (of Rome)
An exploration of Greco-Roman sexuality and of what is left today of such different mores. I have dedicated a series of 5 posts (out of 105) to this theme but the series is always in the ‘top posts’ list on the right column. I wonder why.
I have tried to understand how alien Greco-Roman sex can be vis-à-vi contemporary sexuality, and why things have changed so much since then.

Dialogue Among Civilisations
Some communication has occurred with non Western people, very enriching though not always easy. Great civilizations tend to close-up a bit – noble gases, Ashish, one witty commenter of this blog, called them –  they being like complete in themselves. We had good connection with the Indians. Their good English has helped. Rediscovering one’s heritage doesn’t exclude others, quite the contrary. It means having something peculiar to transmit, in order to be able, in our turn, to receive.

“The deeper one goes into one’s own experience – argued Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan – […] the more does one’s experience have in common with the experiences of others […]. The most unique is the most universal. The dialogues of Buddha or of Plato, the dramas of Sophocles, the plays of Shakespeare are both national and universal. The more profoundly they are rooted in historical traditions, the more uniquely do they know themselves and elicit powerful responses from others.”

Survivals of Roman Religion
When talking about religion it is important to understand that history and faith, science and theology fly on different planes and shouldn’t be confused. By Roman religion we mean any cult that was followed in ancient Rome, also foreign ones. As an example, the cult of the Anatolian Kybele, the great mother-goddess, was established on the Palatine Hill in 210 BC, according to Livy. To the historian, anthropologist etc. the number of Roman religion survivals is impressive.

Crisis of Values in Affluent Countries
We all here in the West must encourage a totally new different attitude which can enable us to better face both our present crisis of values and the radical changes ahead which might cause our swift decline. In Europe especially religion is waning and people sometimes embrace weird beliefs (see below Neo-pagan underground temples in Northern Italy.) Rich countries should be full of happy people, all the requirements for happiness (or serenity) being present. Nonetheless one has the impression that often void rules and that people don’t know any more which are the right choices in everyday life.

Neo-pagan stunning temples secretly carved out below ground in Northern Italy. Click for source file (Daily Mail)

The Greco-Roman Roots of the West
Similar to the ‘Influences of the Classical World’ but seen from a different viewpoint.

Traces of Paganism in Italians
Sometimes Italians, especially from the South, are considered superstitious. Whatever we mean by this word, these superstitions seem often remnants of the Greco-Roman past. Italians were highly civilized long before Christianity arrived (9-10 centuries earlier,) while many Northern Europeans became civilised together with, and thanks to, Christianity. This couldn’t be without consequences.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Is Homophobia in India an Alien Legacy of the Victorians?

Indian gay activists

[See 2009 and 2013 updates at the foot of this writing]

Why sex, one of the joys of life, – lived with some freedom in the Greco-Roman world or at the time of the Indian Gupta empire (just to name two civilizations considered somewhat classical) – became in later centuries something to be ashamed of? Was it in the West because of the switch from Paganism to Christianity? And in India, was it because of Muslim or British Victorian influence, or of both?

(We make known to minors that one picture following may offend their sentiments)

Since I have been musing on these questions in my series Sex and the city (of Rome) – thanks also to a good discussion with two Indians, Ashish and Falcon – I was struck recently by all the commotion regarding the Victorians & homophobia thing in many ex colonies of the British Empire, and especially in India.

We are also at a time when French President Nicolas Sarkozy has just proposed to the UN to decriminalize homosexual acts all over the world, and all 27 European nations have agreed. The Church of Rome is instead strongly against it. The topic seems hot.

ψ

Same-sex love was accepted, it is well known, in Ancient Greece and it was sometimes a bit frowned upon in Rome but basically widely tolerated (Julius Caesar for example was probably bisexual: a future post on Caesar will also mention that. We also mentioned some possible female homosexuality in the secret rites of the Roman goddess Bona Dea).

As far as the ancient Indian civilizations I guess it was pretty much the same (see the image below at Khajuraho) although I need someone with more knowledge than I have.

Khajuraho Temple scene

Today India gay activists accuse “Britain of exporting homophobia during the 19th century when colonial administrators began enforcing Victorian laws and morals on their Indian subjects [the Independent].” Homophobia, they say, is something alien to the original Indian civilizations.

The organisation Human Rights Watch has recently published a 66-page report describing “how laws in over three dozen countries, from India to Uganda and from Nigeria to Papua New Guinea, derive from a single law on homosexual conduct that British colonial rulers imposed on India in 1860.”

Under accusation is the Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which punishes “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal” with imprisonment up to life. In short, it punishes same-sex love.

India’s Ministry of Home Affairs defends the Indian code:

“The law does not run separately from society …. Section 377 … responded to the values and mores of the time in the Indian society.”

2013
Indian Gay Rights protester. Courtesy of Aljazeera. Click for source file

“This is sheer amnesia” answers the Report:

“Section 377, at its origin, did not respond to Indian society or its “values or mores” at all. British colonial governors imposed it on India undemocratically. It reflected only “the British Judeo-Christian values of the time.”

A ruling is expected soon by the High Court in Delhi, following a “years-long case seeking to decriminalize homosexual conduct there.”

Nita, Indian blogger and journalist, observes:

“We are squarely to blame if even 61 years after independence we are incapable to seeing which law is reasonable and which one is not. The British have moved on, and have liberal laws on homosexuality today.”

ψ

Sex. Always a complex topic in any society.

I need a higher authority on what is happening in the sub continent and elsewhere. Any Indian (or non Indian) take?

Ψ

Readings. Here some of Nita’s recommendations on the subject:

Calling gays criminals and moral policing by the police
Our reactions to people who are different (Amit)
Transgender issues discussed on Tamil Television
Gay parents and heterosexual parents – any difference?

A post from this blog on the possible causes of sexual repression (Romans, Indians, Victorians):

Sex and the City (of Rome). 1

A very well balanced post by IssuesBeyondBorders:

Legacy of British Constitution in Independent India and Section 377

Emblem of India

2009 UPDATE. With an historic ruling the Indian High Court has decriminalized homosexuality on July 2 2009The Court has found that Section 377 was against the Indian tradition.

2003 UPDATE.  The Supreme Court of India has overturned the 2009 Indian High Court ruling that decriminalized homosexuality. Archaic anti sodomy ruling is back.


Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 2

Cloister of the Monreale Cathedral, Sicily
Cloister of the Monreale Cathedral, Sicily. Click for attribution

The Contribution of Islam

In the previous installment we have spoken of the Egyptian society described by Naguib Mahfouz and of the Tunisians. We have also mentioned Italian Naples and Sicily (see the splendid Monreale cloister above). We wanted to emphasize the mutual influences between the North and the South shores of the Mediterranean and at the same time show how many behaviours – defined as Islamic, such as the patriarchal control of women – belong in reality to the endless past of the civilizations.

The Muslims influenced not only Italy but Spain, Greece and other Mediterranean areas as well. In truth they influenced almost the entire world since between the VIII and the XII centuries AD Islam stretched from the Atlantic in the West (Spain) to large portions of Asia. For the very first time in history more than 3000 years of experiences were accumulated from civilizations the most various – Sumer, Egypt, Greece, Rome, Syria, Persia, China and India.

Most importantly, all this was re-transmitted by them to the rest of the world: forgotten Greek texts and medicine, Indian numerals (called Arabic since that time), Chinese papermaking and thousands of other innovations. This whole wisdom and refinement was concentrated by the way (and for a long time) in the city of Baghdad, that same city whose historical treasures were looted and destroyed because of the present foolish Iraqi war.

It is hence fair (and a bit uncomfortable) to remember that Europe – which during the Middle Ages had forgotten a lot – was gradually given back by the Muslims not only large portions of its classical culture but also something that went well beyond the confines of the Greco-Roman civilization. The big leap Europe was about to make at the end of the Middle Ages was possible also because of this contribution.

More than We are Willing to Admit

North Africans and Islamic countries are linked to Europeans more than we are willing to admit. If the Turks want to enter the Euro zone it is also because they feel somewhat part of our world. Southern and Northern Italians (think of Venice), Spaniards, Greeks etc. received many elements from the Oriental cultures.

Hard-to-deny connections. This might though disturb some reader (of this devil’s advocate) 😉

Why? Because Muslims are not well seen today. A post by Nita, an Indian journalist and blogger (and an excellent source of knowledge on India), provides statistics from the Pew Research Global that show how “while more and more Muslims are turning away from the extremists, more and more people are turning away from Muslims.”

A PewResearch table cited by Nita

In the Wikipedia’s entry on Sicily I was reading yesterday that in a “recent and thorough study the genetic contribution of Greek chromosomes to the Sicilian gene pool was estimated to be about 37% whereas the contribution of North African populations was estimated to be around 6%.”

True or not, I read between the lines – I may be wrong – like a desire to prove that Sicily and Southern Italy have little to do with North Africans. Even if so, hasn’t genetics – as far as I know – little to do with cultural transmission? One can be mostly Greco-Roman genetically though subject to multi-layered cultural influences coming from no matter where.

Ψ

We will end up this second (and last) part of our journey with two notes.

Marble head of a veiled Greek Woman
Marble head of a veiled Greek Woman. Late 4th century BC. Click for source

Veiled women. As far as the veil, to think of it as Islamic is incorrect because it was widely used by the Assyrians, Hittites, Greeks (see the picture on the left), Romans and Persians. In medieval Europe (and in Anglo-Saxon England) women were dressed more or less like Muslim women are dressed today.

In Judaism, Christianity and Islam “the concept of covering the head is or was associated with propriety. All traditional depictions of the Virgin Mary, the mother of Christ, show her veiled.” (Wikipedia).
I remember my mother always wearing a veil in church. It was a common practice in Catholicism (but not only) until the 1960s.

Sexual jealousy. It seems to be present in Islamic societies and in all those patriarchal societies obsessively concerned for true paternity. In today’s Islamic forums there is a lot of discussion (and more or less condemnation) about jealousy.

It is said that Sicilians and Calabrians are usually more possessive than other Italians. Some cultural connection with Islam in this respect may be possible. It is to be noted that honour killings were easily forgiven by law in Italy, France and other Mediterranean countries until recently.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1
Permanences. Rome and Carthage

The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean
Love Words from Egypt
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1

Sicilian old men. 2008

Secrecy & Omertà

At the end of an earlier post we had invited Naguib Mahfouz (see picture below), the Nobel-prize Egyptian writer, to help us to understand the ancient world of the Mediterranean. Let’s consider today how the charming characters in his Cairo trilogy do tons of forbidden things: they drink alcohol, they cheat and eat pork, but all is done in secret and keeping up the appearances.

Two daughters of Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad – this Egyptian patriarch par excellence and main character of the trilogy – quarrel and one of them angrily denounces her sister’s husband to her mother: “He drinks wine at home without hiding!”

Which reminds us of some Tunisian people who were drinking beer in a coffee house in Tunis and who confessed: “Nous on fait tout, mais en cachette” (we do everything, though in secret).

It is irresistible not to think about Sicily, where doing things in secret is well ingrained (Sicily was under Tunisian rule for 400 years). And what about omertà, which makes defeating Mafia so difficult?

Omertà is a code of silence that seals the lips of men even when innocent and protects mafiosi in Italian southern regions like Sicily, Calabria and Campania. We’re sure there is some connection between the said secrecy behaviour and Mafia’s omertà.

[By the way, is all this so remote from that omertà that protects Osama bin Laden in territories where everybody is so capable of keeping secrets? A weird association? Hard to say. Back to Mahfouz and to the Mediterranean]

The Power of Man on Woman

Naguib MahfouzAnother element is the power a husband exerts on his wife. That same angry sister tells her mother about the other sister’s misdemeanours: “She drinks and smokes, acting against God and with Satan.”
Her disconsolate mother replies: “What can we do? She is a married woman, and the judgement of her conduct is now in the hands of her husband…” (I am freely summing up the text).

This is Islamic society, one could say. Ok, but this patriarchal power is much older than Islam and was present both in ancient Greece and Rome (although from the late Republic onwards Roman women – especially within the upper classes – gained a wider freedom). So it is a misconception to think of all this as Islamic. Many Muslim societies (not all of them) simply stick to ancient traditions widespread in the Mediterranean and elsewhere much before Islam arrived, which doesn’t mean we like women to be submitted to man’s power, no, no. And this is certainly not Italy’s contemporary life, even though in the South something of a more ancient patriarchy still seems to survive.

The honour of the family

Speaking of patriarchy, the honour and dishonour of the family falls upon the father or husband. Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, called by his daughter’s mother-in-law because of his daughter’s misconduct, thus reproaches her: “Nothing that was raised in my house should be stained by such behaviours! Don’t you realise that the whole evil you are doing brings dishonour to me?”.

Again it is tempting to think about Neapolitan Eduardo De Filippo‘s Natale in casa Cupiello, a delightful comedy in which Luca Cupiello (Eduardo), exasperated with is wife Concetta, cries aloud: “La nemica mia! La nemica della casa!” (This enemy of mine! This enemy of the house!), where he clearly considers himself to be THE house, in such a funny and masterly way, because Eduardo and the Neapolitans are so refined and adorable (the Greek cousins of Rome) despite all the problems now Naples is facing.

Naples. The castle and the Volcano

And again it is clear that patriarchy is prior to Islam, Naples, Sicily etc. It was previously present in Rome, Greece, Carthage etc. And it existed in Mare Nostrum and elsewhere long before these civilisations arrived. Records of it seem to be as far back as the 4th millennium BC.

We have tried to explore some Mediterranean traditions with the help of Naguib Mahfouz, and we have mused about some possible influences between the North and South shores of this sea. It seems clear to us that every study of present ways of thinking (European, Islamic, Sicilian, Neapolitan etc.) is not wholly understandable without looking at the endless past of the civilizations (see also the concept of the mind like a museum in the last section of our post Knowing Thyself).

(to be continued)

Ψ

Other related posts:

Permanences I
The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean
Love Words from Egypt
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

Decline of the American Roman Empire

Louvre, Paris, photo by Guillaume Blanchard
Osiris, Isis and Horus. Louvre, Paris. Photo by Guillaume Blanchard

I didn’t want to talk about politics too much in this blog, desiring rather to deal with our Western (Mediterranean, Roman) roots, with ancient habits still surviving today, with Rome past and present, philosophy, history, arts etc.

Three recent discussions though brought me into global politics again:

  1. One occurred in the Canadian Commentator’s blog, also indicated by Theresa from Arkansas in her blog and dealing with the possible decline of the American Empire.
  2. Another discussion took place here in my blog and dealt with a tighter European unification (which I see as a good way of fighting against Europe’s decline): a really LONG discussion among Alex and Andy (two nice Englishmen living in Milan, Italy) and Man of Roma.
  3. Finally, a third discussion among Rob and MoR (in his and in MoR’s blog, 1 & 2) and Indian Ashish and Falcon. It dealt with this void here in the West which we perceive as far as morals and values, plus a lot of other stuff.

Ψ

Ok. What these three discussion had in common? Well, such minutia as the possible decline of the West, also vis-à-vis new emerging countries. I was also being asked by both Theresa and the Commentator to try a comparison between the Roman Empire and the Empire of the United States.

Ok, I’ll try, but:

  1. Allow me to expand it to the entire West (America + Europe) instead of dealing with US decline only and …
  2. allow me to restrict it to the possible effects such Western decline is having on culture, ideas and beliefs of the people involved.

Will this mean I’ll get back to my blog’s track? I do not know, really, but here we are, here is global politics again (though my own way) 😉

Spiritual Désarroi

The heat is getting so appalling in here that thoughts become weird and erratic. I’m typing with sticky fingers, ants invading my human space in search of cooler air. Wondering if all this can be an extra motive why I accepted this topic again and why I feel like musing on ideas of decline…

Well, actually what we see here in Europe and America are all these people turning towards oriental religions, Hinduism, Buddhism, or doctrines like Scientology, or even Neo-pagan movements growing in Anglo-Saxon countries and probably originating from a disappointment towards Christianity and its different varieties (above, an image of the Neopagan Goddess and the moon).

A woman, a friend of mine, is starting to adore some crazy coloured stones she always brings along wherever she goes. Amazing, no doubt. And what about this person very close to me who turned to Sathya SaiBaba, the Hindu saint, long ago? Or this relative of mine who, once relocated in France, embraced the Muslim religion? (my mother never got over it, I’ll confess).

Many Muslims, vis-à-vis such Western spiritual crisis (and relativism), react in different ways, from a total acceptance of consumer society values up to forms of moral rejection or even active reaction (which unfortunately also lead to terrorism). But that’s another story. Let’s stick to the point.

As the Roman Empire. An Analogy

Referring to Western contemporary societies, numerous commentators and artists have talked of a decline-of-the-Roman-Empire type of situation. It is an interesting analogy, since in those old days the official Roman religion wasn’t so attractive any more and innumerable oriental cults were spreading among the different classes of the Roman society.

Italian Archaeologist Rodolfo Lanciani ( 1846 – 1929 ) for example unearthed the remains of the Temple of Isis in Rome, who was imported by the Romans from Egypt and set on the banks of the Tiber, the sacred river of Rome. We have also mentioned in a previous post how Egyptian rites and culture fascinated the Romans at the times of Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony (and in other times).


(Ants are now walking on my keyboard. I HAVE to make a pause and gently push them away….)

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Since among all those foreign cults the final winner was the Christian sect, would it be totally absurd to wonder if once again there will be a winner? We mean – and it might be the heat – is it possible that again some faith (new or old) could profit from today’s Western void (which seems to affect Europe much more than America)? Italian Oriana Fallaci feared Islam would be the winning belief about to conquer Europe…. Well, we do hope that no Abrahamic religion (Christianity, Islam and Judaism) will prevail, for a number of reasons, some of which we can mention in the next post …

(ants and heat allowing… I need to buy AC, good also for mosquitoes, no doubt about it)

A fascinating depiction of Western void is offered by the acclaimed movies Le Déclin de l’empire américain (The Decline of the American Empire, 1986) and Les Invasions barbares (The Barbarian Invasions, 2003) by the outstanding French-Canadian director Denys Arcand, both illustrating in an eloquent way this emptiness affecting at least two generations.

by Denys Arcand

(to be continued tomorrow; we will associate this topic with Buddhism, science and the Dalai Lama. See you tomorrow then.)

Western Values, Again (2)

Relativism, Yes

The commentator thus commented my first comment to Rob’s post, saying: “Was the above (specifically regarding our values versus terrorists) a defence of moral equivalism?”. Well – apart from endorsing Islamic terrorism, which of course I don’t – if being a relativist means (as I think it means) not believing in absolute truths valid forever and outside any historical and social context, yes, I am a convinced relativist. Also democracy to me is relative (I can see many readers jumping up in their chairs).

Separation of state and religion, ok, I like it a lot, but this is not enough to proclaim our superiority over other civilizations (such as the Islamic) plus why should secularism be an absolute truth? As regards democracy, it doesn’t seem in my view the ideal solution for some people, plus it is not granted, as many analysts now start to recognize, that economical growth automatically will lead to more democracy. The case of Russia and China is often indicated as instructive from this point of view. And I believe it really is.

This reminds me when all the world applauded (me included) when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev started to swiftly democratize the Soviet Union. At the same time all the world protested (me included) when the Chinese students asking for more democracy (hence imitating the Russians) were crushed by the military in the Tien An Men Square in 1989 (watch above a famous movie regarding that tragic episode).

But then, what the heck has happened? Who the heck was right? The Russians (who accelerated democracy) or the Chinese (who hindered it because they thought it would tear down a country of 1.5 billion people)? I have lived almost one year in Russia (in the year 2000) and I have witnessed the almost TOTAL collapse of a society and all the terrible consequences that ensued (this country now pulling itself together thanks btw to its new Caesar, or Tzar, Mr. Putin: can this be by mere chance?).

I know Anglo-Saxons are very sensitive about this democracy thing. They use it as a propaganda weapon, not many doubts about it, but there is something deeper. If democracy was invented by the ancient Greeks, only the British and the American people in modern times were capable of creating truly great democracies (plus, isn’t the Indian democracy – the biggest in the world – somewhat derived from Great Britain as well? I hope Falcon won’t be upset 😉 ).

We admire the Anglo-Saxons for what they have achieved, for this great contribution and influence in all this. But if they do not really try hard to understand the rest of the world, especially those very old civilizations so different from theirs (and ours), and if they do not get out of their mental schemes, I am afraid their decline (and ours, unfortunately) will be swifter than expected. They (especially the Americans) cannot expect they can export their political solutions (that took so many centuries to develop, from Magna Charta on) to totally different historical and social environments (like Iraq or Afghanistan) which might embrace these solutions in the long run, who knows, although it is not granted at all, I am sure it is not granted at all, not many doubts about it. In any case, I am for democracy, that’s for sure. I just wanted to add some elements of reflection.

The Ugliest of Tyrannies

I know almost nothing about Professor Norman Geras’ thought but in your quotations, Rob, he condemns the:

“apologists for terrorism, the mumblers and rootcausers, the people seemingly capable of understanding everything except the need for drawing a clear line between those who uphold the politics of democracy and those dedicated to their destruction. The left today …is a loose movement which is able … to mobilize … to oppose conflicts fought by the Western democracies against the ugliest of tyrannies and/or reactionary social and political forces…”.

Well, first of all I do not consider myself belonging to the left any more, hence many things he says here and elsewhere do not regard me much; secondly, I see in his words some hypocrisy, sorry to say that, exactly like in Tony Blair’s words (but I may be wrong and I’ll try to read more of his writings).

The thing is I am not blaming America for being a superpower and for fighting (sometimes badly, I’ll admit) for her interests. I love and admire America. And I believe she is a true democracy. But – as I said – I also believe that empires and powers (such as the Romans, the Turkish Ottomans, the Victorians, the USA etc.), are not ruled mainly by idealism or ethics; they are rather ruled most of all by Realpolitik, namely by practical considerations regarding their interests.

So, according to Norm, as you call him, am I an apologist of terrorism if I say that a democracy like America now says she fights against “the ugliest of tyrannies” (it is still to be proven for which reasons) while, at the times of Henry Kissinger, she fought for “the ugliest of tyrannies” (Greek colonels, ruthless dictators all over South America etc.)?
My opinion is that this passage by Norm is a bit abstract and apologetic, not to mention a few apparent doses of historical amnesia.

All the best,

Man of Roma

Western Values, Again (1)

This post originates from a debate I had with Falcon, Ashish and especially Rob and regarding: values, the West, the Islamic extremists etc. First Rob replied to a comment of mine saying I raised too many issues so it’d be too arduous to fully accept the challenge. But the same I can say of his post (an even more complex reply to my comment lol), so I’ll just consider some topics mentioned by him (plus Ashish’s and Falcon’s remarks) and will talk freely without too much organization, being a bit tired after a long work trip (and hoping I won’t say too many silly things lol).

Is Decadence Advancing (or Just Old Age)?

Western leaders are talking so much about values. But where is the line between what they really feel and political propaganda? I am referring to the Tony Blair’s speech quoted by Rob but this of course is not only true of Western leaders. This is also true of almost any leader. Although on the whole I see some decadence advancing in our part of the world, which might correspond to the natural cycle of civilizations, more or less like what happened to the civilization of ancient Rome. I mean, Western leaders can try to propose their societies (and their values) as models, but what are the real ideas we are exporting around the world?

Just an example taken from today’s entertainment field. At least two movie industries are now flooding the world with their films: Hollywood and Bollywood, the former selling all over the world, the latter selling all over Asia (Muslim countries included) but now starting to be appreciated outside Asia as well. I may be wrong but Bollywood moviegoers seem to entertain themselves in a much healthier way, while American movies (not to mention US video games) are now so painted with blood, stupidities and disgusting violence (apart from some technological perfection which in any case is not much influential over the quality of content) that the final educational result on the public tends in my view towards new forms of barbarism (see above a view of the Hollywood boulevard: source).

Blind Hatred plus Moral Disgust?

I abhor the Islamic fascists, as you call them, Rob. And I am not neutral. Quite the contrary. These repugnant people have made the world much worse than it was before, in my opinion. But if we do not understand that many of them are also motivated by some sort of moral disgust towards some ways of the West, we miss an important point.

Take Bali, Indonesia. The islamofascists hit Kuta twice in 2002 and 2005 with some bombs and killed hundreds of people, mostly Westerners. I have been to Bali a few times and I believe it is not by chance they hit the Kuta beach area so much.

Bali is the only Hindu island in a country, Indonesia, mostly Muslim. This was symbolic to them, not many doubts about it, but I think a main point was also they hit right a place in Bali (Kuta) where the Westerners most succeeded in totally corrupting the local people who are now selling themselves in various ways for money, while in other parts of this great island the Balinese retain their unbelievable dignity and their incredibly refined cultural values, yes, so refined that even peasants look like princes (look above at the pure beauty of these two Balinese dancers: source).

Although by this I do not mean the West has no values, and the non-West has. And we are not the only ones to use values as ideological weapons, as I said before. Ashish, this young Indian blogger, puts it very synthetically: “Religion [and any idealism, I think he means, MoR] is merely the vehicle, the true goal is world supremacy. Does the west prevail over the east or is it otherwise? … The bosses only care about the profits [oil for the west, power for the clerics], be it the West or the Middle East. Religion is merely a way to get yourself an army, because nobody fights as ruthlessly as a fanatic!” Very well said indeed.

A comment from another Indian blogger also in his twenties, Falcon, who writes: “Let’s face it, a large no. of Islam followers have their rationality almost blinkered by faith. They may be very humble and polite and would gladly discuss religion and point out its greatness and fallacies but try touching Islam and they get defensive.”

Well, it is true, also some Mulsim students of mine behaved like that. But I remember things were a bit different before September 11. What I believe is that, especially the new Muslim generation is living like a generational wave. That terrible, unbelievable terrorist attack (nothing cannot be compared to it) has unfortunately fascinated too many young minds. Sept 11 is not the only factor, but the development of things in Turkey (once the most secularized Muslim Nation) is very instructive in my view. How long will this woeful wave last? Hard to say. It will none the less pass away, I am sure of it (or is it my hope and ideals blinkering me now?).

Left & Right

You quote intellectuals from the left, Rob, thinking it can make some difference to me. It doesn’t. The left is only my origin and I do not belong to any faction any more. It is a complicated topic not to be discussed here, but I try to reason with my mind only, not caring where good (to me) ideas come from and in my view what really counts has very little to do with this dichotomy.

For example, words such as reactionary elements do not mean anything to me. And they do not mean anything to the new generations. Listen again to Falcon commenting this post of mine: “Could somebody explain to me what exactly reaction mean? What was the action we did that we are facing a reaction?”. He then continues, going maybe towards some sort of relativism: “As long as there will be a feeling, that one set of ideals and values are better than the others there is bound to be a struggle for supremacy. Islam can teach us a lot things, just like any other religion. The only question is: are we ready to learn?”

Man of Roma

(to be continued)

Which are our Western Values?

Rob wrote an interesting post, Support Shiv Malik’s book, regarding various things among which a speech Tony Blair delivered to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council in August 1, 2006. As Rob writes, Tony Blair “called for a complete renaissance on foreign policy to combat reactionary Islam:”

“Whatever the outward manifestation at any one time – argued Blair, then Prime Minister – it is a global fight about global values; it is about modernization, within Islam and outside of it; it is about whether our value system can be shown to be sufficiently robust, true, principled and appealing that it beats theirs. Islamist extremism’s whole strategy is based on a presumed sense of grievance that can motivate people to divide against each other. Our answer has to be a set of values strong enough to unite people with each other.
This is not just about security or military tactics.
It is about hearts and minds about inspiring people, persuading them, showing them what our values at their best stand for.” [italics by Rob]

This is my comment:

“A very good post, Rob. I will only comment on one aspect where we probably are of different opinion.”

“This complete “renaissance” on foreign policy to combat Islam fanatics, seen as a global fight about global values … mmmm, nice talk indeed. Tony Blair is a valuable man in many respects and he is not deprived of some greatness. I admired him for example in his last day as a prime Minister, where he showed dignity and courage.”

“But let us face it: how can Mr. Blair think he/we/the West can win this battle for values? Which were the values that provoked the Iraqi war? Finding (non existent) mass destruction weapons? Exporting democracy? Everybody now has a clearer idea why that war was started: for power in the region and for oil. Ok, that is realpolitik. Every power plays its game in the world chessboard. None the less, I am asking myself, are we especially entitled or do we have any special chances to win such a battle on global values? Isn’t there instead a lack of values in the West? Isn’t Blair’s talk you quote hypocritical to a large extent?”

“This war has provoked the death of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians (the number of US casualties being in comparison irrelevant). The Italian Berlusconi government joined the so to say happy bunch, my only consolation being that the VAST majority of Italians were totally against that war.

Best regards,

Man of Roma

“PS
Not that I think the Islamic fanatics have better values. But are we sure our set of values is really much more “robust, true, principled and appealing” that it is so clear that it can beat theirs?”

Pain in the Heart

Near Sorrento

Among my international students (systems engineering courses) the most interesting to me are the Indians, the Chinese and the Muslims. I find they are profound, less globalized (the term here being used in the negative sense) and extremely intelligent. Ok, they are also more exotic to me, but this is not the only reason.

One evening, in a small sweet town of Southern Italy where life is relaxing and food so exquisite, I was having dinner under the pergola of a nice restaurant overlooking the sea together with a group of 4 Muslim students in their thirties (image above: source), all of them affectionate and long-term pupils of mine. One is from Lebanon, quick-glancing eyes, restless, a real Phoenician; one from Afghanistan, elegant and supple, coming from a rich family of land-owners; one from Bosnia, acute light-blue eyes & acute mind; one finally from the Ivory Coast, a sweet good-natured black giant I called my body guard and who spoke very good French.

At the end of this pleasant dinner after a lot of laughing and pleasant chatting (and where unfortunately no wine was tasted) I touched upon the subject of the victim complex many Muslims (in my view) have and of the necessity of rolling up one’s sleeves to really solve problems (this playing-the-victim and always-blaming-the-others type of behaviour, I told them, was also typical of many Italians from Southern Italy, who keep blaming Northern Italy for many of their woes).

They didn’t overreact, but I clearly felt they took it badly. Sympathy among us was not broken, no, but I felt some further explanation was necessary. Unfortunately being already very late we had to separate, and since it was the evening before the last day of course, we didn’t have the opportunity to approach the subject again.

It is a pain I keep in my heart.

Obsessive Engines. How Manias Help Us Shape Our Own Worldviews

Constantine's Roman Basilica in Trier, Germany
The huge Constantine’s Roman Basilica in Trier, Germany, used today as a Protestant church (courtesy of Dulcevisa). Click for source

Spontaneous philosophy

We have said in a previous post that all men are philosophers since everyone in the course of his/her life keeps building a constantly evolving grid of interrelated concepts that shape his/her unique conception of the world.

Therefore ‘philosophy’ is not such a weird thing that pertains only to a specialized category of professionals. It is on the contrary a natural feature of our species, exactly like talking or walking on two legs.

Inner motives help

There is another element I want to point out (since we mentioned it just briefly in the past.)

These concepts and their linking seem (at least to me) related to inner motives each of us keeps inside, unconsciously or not.

Such motives, often of biographical origin, are like filters that highly influence the way we see the world.

Everyone has his/her unique way of going through this thing, the uneducated and the educated alike, the unintellectual and the great pros of thought (traditional philosophers and scientist philosophers.)

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Ancient-Rome fiends, for example, may filter out things accordingly. They can look at a Renaissance façade and notice only the Roman elements that were reinvented by Renaissance architects, the semi-circular (or triangular) arches of the windows, for instance, which they can mentally link to Rome’s Pantheon niches which probably hosted the statues of Caesar, Augustus and Agrippa.

I being one of those maniacs, when within the walls of a Roman Basilica I am seldom hit by religious feelings and am rather inclined to imagine business people and magistrates doing their jobs in ancient Rome. What I tend to see is in fact the public building the Romans utilized for business, markets and legal matters, and not the place of Christian religious cult Basilicas were converted into (when they were not created from scratch for this purpose by the followers of the new religion.)

[See above the huge Constantine’s Roman Basilica in German Trier, used today as a Protestant church (courtesy of Dulcevisa)]

Obsessions, themes, leitmotivs

What I mean is that we all have our obsessions, themes, leitmotivs. They not only greatly influence our view of things, on my opinion, but also tend to provide our ideas with some kind of order, thus helping us to become little or great philosophers.

Well, let’s face it, these manias may energize our ideas though this doesn’t automatically translates into real philosophical consistency, something one can reach only through toil (which is the work of the pro.)

These themes are evident in people we know well – close friends, family members, colleagues. We are aware of their fixations, which sometimes bore us to tears. It can be a father (or mother) figure obsession, a pervading mental escapism that comes out in many comments or behaviours, it can be anything.

Such leitmotivs are also present in the works of writers, musicians, scientists etc., although they are more complex to detect and it is the big part of a critic’s job to probe their works in search of elements which make the stylistic imprint of an author.

Had Rachmaninoff
a crush on a Muslim girl?

Just as an example, one reason why a melody by Russian composer Sergei Rachmaninoff is recognized as his and only his is this bizarre Arabic-scale leaning he had and that may related to some profound experience in his life.

It’s because he had Tartar ancestors? Was he desperately in love with a Muslim girl? I have to check – it might be for both reasons. I read somewhere he was in love with a Muslim girl and that he lost her for some reason. I may be wrong (plus I may sound mushy) but I couldn’t check this information in the books I have or in the Internet.

ψ

Let us in any case listen to one of Rachmaninoff’s orientalizing melodies from Piano Concerto N. 2, III, Allegro scherzando.

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

Related posts:

Sex and the Search for a Method

Books, Multimedia, E-learning
(though outdated in some parts it is much to the point)

Locking Horns with a Young Roman

More recent:

Devouring Passions

Rome. Stepmother or Alma Mater?

View of Rome. By paolo1899, member of www.igougo.com

Italian version

A few observations on Rome by the Italian sociologist Franco Ferrarotti regarding the period starting from the Italian unification, when Rome became Italy’s capital in 1870, until today.

They appeared in two interviews published in Milan’s Corriere della Sera and Rome’s Messaggero, between 2005 and 2006, at a time when the Paris banlieu had exploded with riots.

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1. Ferrarotti (Corriere della Sera, April 2, 2006) observed that Rome always found it difficult to be loved by Italians, for her double role of capital of Italy and of the Vatican state. Italians always felt Rome as too universal, Ferrarotti argues. Rome, in short, gli starebbe larga, was / is too large to them.

According to Ferrarotti, only provincial aesthetes like Fellini and Pasolini really loved Rome. Ferrarotti published 40 years ago Roma da capitale a periferia (Bari, Laterza 1970), a book that depicted a suburban anti-Rome totally different from the celebrated historical centre.

Today, thanks to years of good administration – Ferrarotti observes – Roman suburbs have evolved. Suburbia, together with historical Rome, have merged into a real capital. A celebrity like “Michele Placido is now on stage in Tor Bella Monaca, a very peripheral borgata (eg a working class suburb).”

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According to Ferrarotti there are no potentially explosive suburbs in Rome such as those in Paris since immigration is recent here. In 15 years, perhaps, Roman immigrants’ children and grand-children will protest for their rights.

Rome as a capital, Ferrarotti believes, is more Mediterranean than European, due to both her nature and her mediation capabilities. However she is also a religious capital, like Mecca or Jerusalem, which makes Rome something way beyond Europe (observation quoted in our first post, a sort of introduction to this blog).

The problem has always been that of urban planning management, although the old alliance among real estate business, finance and political power seems broken today thanks to increasing democracy. There is a tendency towards polycentrism, which is good since the city is allowed to breathe.

In short, Rome is not matrigna (stepmother) anymore, as Ferrarotti had called her in 1991.

“Today Rome has become alma mater (Latin for nourishing mother) even though she is also at times lupa (she-wolf) with her children.” Places once bleak like Quarticciolo or Alessandrino are now urban areas. “Instead of a progressively rotting suburbia we have had a process of social auto-promotion: unlike other large cities no favelas have developed here.”

Capitoline She-Wolf. Rome, Musei Capitolini. Public domain

2. Now the november 2005 article appeared in Rome’s daily Il Messaggero.

Professor Ferrarotti, do you think Prodi is right? Will Italian suburbs be on fire as it happened in France?

“No, Italian suburbs have nothing in common with the Parisian banlieue.”

What is the difference?
“A third generation of immigrants – children and grand-children of the old pieds-noirs – inhabits the Parisian banlieue and feels that they are rightful French citizens. In schools though francocentrism is dominant while Maghrebine culture and roots are ignored, which alienates these youngsters from society. First-generation immigrants had shown gratitude to France that had hosted them. The second and third generation, on the other hand, observe how their fathers are threatened by ostracism, which turns the old gratitude into hate. It is a tragedy and no parallel can be drawn between the French and the Italian situation”.

Italian suburbs are then the best of possible worlds?
“I wrote a book in 1970, Roma da Capitale a periferia (“Rome from Capital to Suburbia”). Today I would rather speak of Rome’s transformation from suburbia into a real capital. Slums have disappeared. In Alessandrina, a borgata, 50 percent of the students are non-EU. They don’t have problems. It’s their teachers who have problems, instead.”

Why, Professor?
Because these non-EU kids’ parents earn more than the Italian teachers themselves, who, despite their being badly paid, must increase their efforts when facing a multiethnic audience. Therefore they lose their motivation. Were I a politician I would rather worry for possible protests by underpaid teachers and young unemployed graduates. These, not the immigrants, are the new poverty-stricken people in Italy, which could give rise to explosive protests”

No imminent immigrants danger, then.
“No. Problems could perhaps arise from CPTs (Centres of temporary permanence) created by the Turco Napolitano bill (num. 40, 1998). If CPTs became like concentration camps, yes, there could be some danger. But as of now the situation in Italy doesn’t seem that difficult. Nothing comparable to the suburbs in Paris, Frankfurt or London.”

An excessive alarm, that from Prodi ...
Yes, a bit apocalyptic, to me. Nevertheless, his statements imply some insight. Prodi invites us to think about a process of citizenship and integration of non-EU people in our country. I find this right, necessary. If a true immigrants-integration process is set out in our country the mine is deactivated before it can explode.”


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

Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

Sacred Islam Prayer rug. Fair use

The French historian Fernand Braudel writes:

“Civilizations are not mortal. They survive transformations and catastrophes and when necessary rise up again from their ashes (…). Islam probably sprang from desert Arabia, crossed by caravans and with a long past behind, but it is above all a territory acquired by the conquest of Arabic horsemen and camel-drivers even too easily: Syria, Egypt, Iran, northern Africa. Islam is primarily a heir of the Near East, a whole series of cultures, economies and ancient sciences. Its heart lies in the narrow space that goes from Mecca to Cairo, Damask and Baghdad. (…)”

Islam Prayer. Fair use

“A civilization is in fact not only a religion – however a religion may be at the centre of any cultural system. It is an art of living as well, i.e. the reproduction of thousands of behaviours. In ‘The Arabian Nights’ saluting a king means ‘kissing before him the earth amid his hands’. Well, it is a gesture already customary at the court of the Parthian king Khosrau (531-579 AD) – Braudel continues – and it is the same gesture that in 1500 and 1600 (and later) European ambassadors in Istanbul, in Ispahan or in Delhi tried to elude finding it extremely humiliating for themselves and for the princes they represented. [The ancient Greek Historian] Herodotus, [490-425 BC] was upset by some [Ancient] Egyptian manners: ‘In the middle of the road, as a salutation, they prostrate the one in front of the other, lowering their hands down to their knees.’ “

Islamic Clothes. Fair use

“Think about the traditional costumes of the Moslems whose evolution will be very slow [see picture above]. It is already recognizable – Braudel argues – in the dress of the ancient Babylonians, described by the same Herodotus [more than] twenty-five centuries ago: ‘The Babylonians first of all wear a flax tunic down to their feet (which we would today call gandura, notes E. F. Gautier), and on top of it another wool tunic (which we would call djellaba); then they wear a short white mantle (we would say: a short white burnus); and they cover their heads with a mitre (a fez, today, or tarbush).’ And we could continue talking of the houses (pre-Islamic), and of food and superstitions: the hand of Fatima, … it already adorned the Carthaginian funeral steles (see figure below).”

Hand of Fatima used as a pendant. GNU Free Documentation License

“Islam is evidently tied to the compact historical ground of the Near East.” (…) In short – Braudel concludes – any study of our present ways of thinking necessarily has to look at the endless past of the civilizations.”

(La Mediterranée, by Fernard Braudel, Flammarion 1985. Translation by Man of Roma. Square bracket text is by MoR)

(The end )

Italian version

Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1

Downtown Beirut. Public domain

A few days ago, when listening to Diana Haddad, an Arabic Lebanese pop singer, something echoed in my mind.

Before the war (started in 1974) Lebanon was called the Switzerland of the Middle-East. In the 50s Beirut was one of the financial capitals of the planet and the intellectual capital of the Arab world. It offered, among the rest, highest financial skills to the Saudi Arabians and a very convenient interface for Western firms towards the Arabs, rich in oil.

It also offered an Arabian Nights highly refined dolce vita attracting all kinds of VIPs, Hollywood and international actors, tycoons plus the most splendid ladies of the epoch. Beirut was a synonym of luxury, of all pleasures combined and of intelligent cosmopolitism. Three languages were (and are) there spoken: Arab, French and English.

Some dear Italian friends of mine studied in Beirut in their youth and are in fact fluent in these 3 languages. When we were children we heard all these magic tales from our parents and looked amazed at pictures in gossip magazines.

To the history-addicted all this flourishing is not surprising. Lebanon IS the land of the Phoenicians, highly refined merchants since Antiquity and ancestors of mighty Carthage.

Now that Beirut’s glamour is gone – the city has been partially rebuilt but its premier role seems to have moved to London, Dubai, Cyprus etc. – this place is still highly civilised though, since civilisations are not mortal I believe, and, just as an example, Lebanese pop music (and culture) is probably the most successful among today’s Arabic youth, being seen as ‘modern’ but of course a bit frowned upon by the traditionalists.

Here a song by the delighful Diana Haddad for you to listen.

Northern Mediterranean youth cannot but feel how similar these people are to us, and yet portions of this music and other details we feel are diverse. One can say that this diversity is provided by Islam. Yes but, I am asking myself, is Islam really so alien?

Well, yes and no. One moment we feel it is the Mediterranean (hence not so different from Southern Europe,) another moment it is Persia, Arabia, Baghdad, Pakistan, Northern India, Indonesia, West and East Asia in short, both very different from Europe.

This diversity is though exciting. Why should it scare us?

As we promised in an earlier post and its notes, this writing is the first of a series dedicated to Islam, seen as exotic and yet somewhat close to our Roman heart. We are not here to judge but to learn (and possibly communicate.)

Once more we’ll ask French historian Fernand Braudel for inspiration and guidance. See you at our next post then.

Italian version

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For the same theme though in a wider picture:

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1
The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean