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

Love Words from Egypt

Cairo. From Ansa. Fair use

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, who lives in a splendid mansion – thence the name of the second novel of the Trilogy, Palace of Desire – and has spent some time of her life in Paris. The events are set in the first decades of the last century.

While Aïda is away, Kamal is sighing in her absence and remembering. Here are some of his love words (the French translation being in my view better, I add some of it for those who can read this language):

Egyptian jewel

“Ta peau d’ange n’est pas faite pour la chaleur brûlante du Caire. (…) Your angelic complexion was not made to roast in the heat of Cairo (…) Let the sand enjoy the tread of your feet. Let the water and air rejoice in seeing you.”

“Le Caire est vide sans toi. Y coulent tristesse et solitude (…) Without you, Cairo’s is a wasteland exuding melancholy desolation (…) no place in Cairo offers me any solace, distraction or entertainment (…) so long as I remain under your wing, I feel fresh and safe, even if my hope is groundless. Of what use to a person eagerly searching the dark sky is his knowledge that the full moon is shining on earth somewhere else? None … Yet I desire life to its most profound and intoxicating degree, even if that hurts (…)”

“Today, tomorrow, or after a lifetime (…) my imagination will never lose sight of your dark black eyes, your eyebrows which join in the middle, your elegant straight nose, your face like a bronze moon, your long neck, and your slender figure. Your enchantment defies description but it is as intoxicating as the fragrance of a bouquet of jasmine blossoms. I will hold onto this image as long as I live. (…)”

“Don’t claim to have fathomed the essence of life unless you are in love. Hearing, seeing, tasting, and being serious, playful, affectionate, or victorious are trivial pleasures to a person whose heart is filled with love.”

“Ton cœur ne sait plus où jeter l’ancre, il va à la dérive, cherchant sa guérison à travers toutes les médecines de l’âme qu’il trouve tantôt dans la nature tantôt dans la science, dans l’art et … le plus souvent … dans l’adoration de Dieu …”

“Your heart [Kamal’s] could find no repose. It proceeded to search for relief from various spiritual opiates, finding them at different times in nature, science, and art, but most frequently in [religious] worship.”

“Seigneur Dieu, je ne suis plus moi-même (…) Mon cœur se cogne aux murs de sa prison. Les secrets de la magie dévoilent leur mystère. La raison vacille jusqu’à toucher la folie.”

“Oh Lord, I was no longer the same person. My heart collided with the walls of my chest as the secrets of the enchantment revealed themselves. My intellect raced so fast it courted insanity. The pleasure was so intense that it verged on pain. The strings of existence and of my soul vibrated with a hidden melody. My blood screamed out for help without knowing where assistance could be found.”

“Husayin, Isma’il, Hasan and I were busy discussing various issues – Kamal recalls – when there came to our ears a melodious voice saluting us. I turned around, totally astounded. Who could be approaching? How could a girl intrude on a gathering of young men to whom she was not related? But I quickly abandoned my questions and decided to set aside traditional mores. I found myself with a creature who could not possibly have originated on this earth. (…) At last you asked yourself whether there might not be special rules of etiquette for mansions. Perhaps it was a breath of perfumed air originating in Paris, where the beloved creature had grown up.”

Kamal keeps on remembering his first encounter with Aïda: “The charming look of her black eyes added to her fascinating beauty by revealing an agreeable candour – a daring that arose from self-confidence, not from licentiousness or wantonness – as well as an alarming arrogance, which seemed to attract and repel you at the same time.”

References. Naguib Mahfouz, Palace of desire, English translation by William Maynard Hutchins, Lorne M. Kenny and Olive E. Kenny, 1991, by the American University in Cairo Press, Everyman’s Library, Alfred A. Knopf.
Naguib Mahfouz, Le Palais du désir, French translation by Philippe Vigreux, Jean-Claude Lattès, 1987, Livres de Poche.

Note on translation. As far as translation of novels and poetry, we usually prefer a beautiful and unfaithful translation to an ugly and faithful one, meaning by ‘unfaithfulness’ only “aesthetic respect of the new language we are translating into” (and possibly not distortion of the original meaning). One might guess that we consider the French version belonging to the former. Yes, we do, although its type of ‘unfaithfulness’ is hypothetical since Arabic is unknown to us.

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.