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.

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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 ?”

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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.

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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

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)

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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

Permanences. Rome and Carthage

Kastell Welzheim, near the Limes, Porta Praetoria

Civilisations are not Mortal.
Rome and Carthage

The French historian Fernand Braudel argues in “La Mediterranée” (see note below):

“That Rome has deeply marked Europe it is evident, but nevertheless there is room for some amazing continuities. Is it by chance that, when Christianity breaks in two during the XVI century, the separation of the fields occurs exactly along the axis of the Rhine and the Danube, the double frontier of the Roman Empire?

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? [see map below]

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.”

[Extensive note to text]

Carthage’s zone of influence in the III B.C.

Italian version

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See also the above note later become a post:

Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds