Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia. Gnu Free documentation License

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.

1. (…)

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 now moved to the north. 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 pur nous sont comme des dieux”, “Italians are like gods to us”, a Tunisian manager once told me), and we, in our narrow-mindedness, do not much notice it. Italians (especially those who travel little) do not know how much they are loved within the entire Mediterranean area.

… 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 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. (…)

[ read more in The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean ]

Naples. The castle and the Volcano

2. (…)

Patriarchy and Mediterranean. Another 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 bit of a wider freedom). So it is a misconception to think of all this as Islamic. Many Muslim societies simply stick to ancient traditions widespread in the Mediterranean and elsewhere much before Islam arrived.

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.

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. (…)

[ read more in Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1]


3. (…)

The Cairo trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz is dominated by the robust personality of Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, wealthy merchant, almighty husband and father, pious, stern and inflexible with his family by day, sensual and witty with his male friends and Cairo’s ladies of pleasure by night (Nicole Chardaire). He is the Egyptian patriarch par excellence whom “both men and women throughout the Arab world view … with melancholic nostalgia and admiration” (Sabry Hafez). Among other characters are his wife Amina, submitted to her husband though strong and the real emotional centre of the family, and the young son Kamal, who, unlike his brother Yasine, pleasure-seeking and superficial, is all absorbed in his ideals of poetry and wisdom.

Kamal falls in love with an inaccessible and beautiful young woman, Aïda … (…)

[ read more in Love Words from Egypt ]

4. (…)

In the previous post 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 for example as Islamic, such as the patriarchal control of women – belong in reality to the endless past of the civilizations.

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) regarding 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.


[ read more in Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 2]

5. (…)

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 1950s 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.

To the history-addicted all this flourishing is not surprising, being Lebanon 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 though still highly civilised – civilisations are not mortal – and, just as an example, Lebanese pop music (and culture) is probably the most successful among today’s Arabic youth (being seen as ‘modern’ by teenagers but of course a bit frowned upon by traditionalists).

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. 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 and should not scare us.

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

[ read more in Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1 ]

6. (…)

The Hyperboreans. We said there is a general attraction-repulsion among the people from North and South Europe. Having already talked about repulsion we’ll now focus on the attraction side of this relationship (as far as our use of the term Hyperborean pls read this note).

That the Mediterranean people found these northern folks attractive is confirmed by a legendary event with some historical ground. If true, it occurred more than 500 years after Tacitus’ time.

As Beda Venerabilis wrote in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, Gregory I, this great Pope from a noble Roman family, saw one day a group of children in a slave market of the Eternal City. They looked so beautiful to him that, getting curious and inquiring about them, he was told they were Angli (Angles).

He then so exclaimed with a pun: “Non Angli, sed Angeli”, “they are not Angles, but Angels” and added: “Well named, for they have angelic faces and ought to be co-heirs with the angels in heaven.” Thus, according to Beda, he thought to convert the pagan English to Christianity and sent Augustine of Canterbury to England for this purpose. (…)

[ read more in Us and the Hyperboreans. 3 ]

7. (…)

The isles of Greece! the isles of Greece!
Where burning Sappho loved and sung,
Where grew the arts of war and peace …

Thus Byron chanted, and such landscapes, the Mediterranean Greek islands (and mainland Greece as well), explain a bit how Hellenic beauty in arts developed and flourished: the extreme limpidity of the air, the richness of colours and smells, skies and sea of a magnificent intense blue, and a vehement sun, burning and pervasive. What perfection, what simplicity and yet profundity!

[ read more in Fragments of Greek Beauty ]


8. (…)

Commentator. Here’s yet another thing regarding M. Anna Magnani. I was observing her and couldn’t help but notice she shares a common trait with how Italian women are generally perceived here [Canada.] There are more “Anna’s” than women with the sensibilities or accent of a Northerner. Here, it’s all Rome and south. I went to school with many tough, joyous “Anna’s.” And you know what? There was indeed a certain way to them. What came off as crude didn’t mean there was a typically Italian panache to them. Shoot, in my family alone we have a gal that pretty much is Anna.

Mor. People in fact migrated from the most traditional areas of this country. I too like this crudity: it has verve, dash. Wow, so you have an Anna in family. Well, I do also, to a certain extent. These Annas I call ‘ancient’. Fellini said Anna (Annas) is/are a symbol and a survival. This he also meant by “Lupa and Vestal, aristocratic and tramp, dark and buffoonish;” (listen to him saying it to Anna in the film “Roma”.)

I’m sure the perception of the artist is sometimes superior to that of the scholar. On the other hand, in my opinion, a peasant from the Italian South (or from Greece) is closer to the Greco-Romans than any historian of antiquity. (…)

[ read more in On Roman, Italian and Latin Roots. Italy and the New World ]

9. (…)

Conrad Phillips. Hi Man of Roma, I just came across your blog (…) How does Montaigne and narcissism fit into your background?

Man of Roma. Well, narcissism was a sort of a jest in my bio info page, although there is some annoying narcissism in the Mediterranean people, living in the sun, something for example the Britons, from clouds and rough weather, reproach us, not without reason.

But the beauty of classical or Renaissance art cannot be quite understood without considering a certain narcissistic component, in my view. Works of art (like Palladio’s villas or palaces, for example, see the London exhibition) were mainly for great families who sought distinction, éclat. The elegance of a Julius Caesar (here is a post considering this aspect of him), or of most toreros for example, or of the French, who love to correct foreigners who speak their language, can be explained by some vanity as well. … Montaigne is a constant dialogue I have. (…)

[read more in Can Narcissism Partially Explain the Cult of Beauty in the Latin Cultures? ]

10. (…)

Civilisations are not mortal. Carthage. In “La Mediterranée” French historian Fernand Braudel says:

“And is it also by chance that the astonishing conquest of Islam was easily accepted by both the Near East and the two areas formerly dominated by Carthage, i.e. Northern Africa and a portion of Spain? We have said it before: the Phoenician world was more inclined, deep inside, to welcome the Islamic civilization than it was to assimilate the Roman law, for the reason that the Islamic civilization didn’t only represent a contribution, it represented a continuity as well.” (…)

[ read more in Permanences. Rome and Charthage ]

11. (…)

Carthage’s former territories, apparently deeply romanized, accepted Islam willingly after the Roman Empire collapsed. This is important and is also amazing. What Braudel doesn’t say in this passage is that Sicily also will be invaded by the Arabs and will be under Islamic rule for many centuries. Sicily will play a privileged role as bridge between Africa and Europe. And again western Sicily belonged to Carthage.

Carthage is one of the most fascinating topics of the ancient world. Her war with Rome was monumental and we will face this and other things in future posts. I am not prepared yet. I have to think about it, even though I have worked in Tunisia for 3 months. I am starting to get some confusion in my head, lol, so I have to get more mentally organized.

Carthage (and Hannibal) were defeated with honour and because of this defeat history changed in our side of the world … well, did it really totally change? Yes and no. Continuity and discontinuity.
More on Carthage then and many posts to come about the Muslims and the Arabs, especially those of the Mediterranean sea, although not exclusively. Islam is another close neighbour of Rome. We have to consider it well.

[ read more in Notes ]

12. (…)

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 the Mecca to Cairo, Damask and Baghdad. (…)”

“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. [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 the knees.’

“the hand of Fatima, … it already adorned the Carthaginian funeral steles

“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.”

AutumnSnow: “I now just know what i am wearing on my neck!!! When I got this “Hand of Fatima”, yes I found that it looks like a hand, but some people in here in China said it looks like cuttlefish, or like an inverted maize..etc.. I was so stupid in the past not to find out what it means when i got it.”

MoR: “Well, actually the Hamsa or “Hand of Fatima” seems older than Islam and like a kind of protection against evil. It is one of those permanences I like to point out in my blog. I agree with you. Arabic countries are among the most fascinating cultures on earth. ”

[ read more in Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2 ]

13. (…)

Muslim pride in Tunis. 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.  […]

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.

[…] Well, I thought later, if this touches the heart of such a good old man, who condemns terrorism and everybody calls le père for his wisdom, 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 …

[ read more in Tunis, the Port of La Goulette and a White-Bearded Old Taxi Driver ]

3 thoughts on “Folks of the Mediterranean Sea

  1. I would say that Italians may be unaware of how highly Italy is viewed all over the Latin world…even on our side of the Atlantic.

    We see Italy, and Rome in particular, as the cradle of Latin civilizations all over the world.


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