Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Syria etc. Arab Spring Revolutions seen from Rome (2)

Refugees from North Africa are flooding Lampedusa, Sicily

[read the previous chapter]

Libya, a Critical Situation

“Thousands of people, mainly from Tunisia, but also from Libya and Egypt, have arrived on the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa in recent weeks” (BBC).

“Since January Italy is facing an exceptional flux of immigrants, with over 22,000 landings mainly from Tunisia… from Eritrea and Somalia via Libya on the island of Lampedusa.” (Le Monde)

Lampedusa, between Sicily and Tunisia

The situation in Libya is more critical. According to Le Monde anti-Gaddafi rebels have no military experience, despite arms and support arriving from Egypt and Nato intervention. The port city of Misrata in north-western Libya (130 mi to the east of Tripoli, see image below) seems now to be the hub of the crisis.

Gaddafi is ready to conquer it and there are rumours of tortures suffered by the unfortunate who in Misrata fell into the hands of pro-Gaddafi forces. BBC mentions use of “human shields in the war-torn town.”

Libyan uprising main cities. Via Wikipedia. Click to enlarge

According to one of Gaddafi’s 5 beautiful Ukrainan nurses, El Rais’s health is that of an iron-man 🙄

Is the Ukrainian nurse’s evaluation accurate? Well, a desert raider like him might get extra boost from ‘fight’. Berlusconi is similar but he is not a desert man

France who first led to the intervention now fears that “we are likely to get bogged down in Misrata” (as French foreign Minister Alain Juppé’s put it). France also fears too many immigrants are coming from Italy. Italy protests France is against the Schengen agreement and says Europe should help to contain the human flood.

More British war planes seem ready to begin ground attacks (instead of just no-fly-zone checks.)

Gaddafi has sent a message to Obama yesterday. Today H. Clinton dismissed it saying he must resign and go into exile. Anti-Gaddafi rebels complain that bureaucracy is causing “Nato to take too long to respond to calls for air strikes” (BBC ) [not to mention the fact that Nato has killed quite a few anti-Gaddafi protesters by mistake!]

Berlusconi and Sarkozi will meet in Rome on April 26th. By the way Italy has finally recognised Libya’s rebel National Council.

Berlusconi was hesitant given his personal ties with Gaddafi. Now that all is more or less in the hands of Nato he looks happier.

Moscow, Berlin and Turkish Ankara seek a role as mediators. Ankara has sent Ambassador Omur Soledin to Libya.

ψ

These the recent facts. Allow me some (Roman) rambling now.

Lost in their Opiate Dream

Women of Algiers
Women of Algiers by Eugène Delacroix, 1834, the Louvre, Paris. Click for a wider view of this great but a tad decadent painting (this is just a detail) and for credits

Aren’t the French and the British lost in an opiate dream that they can still play a world role ‘of their own’? I am for a EU tighter unification, it is clear, and any prima donna or Trojan horse trying to dismantle such process from within really rails me.

The Britons are famous in their efforts to obstruct any real unification of ‘the continent’ – from Napoleon’s (was it good?) and Hitler’s (it was good) until today.

And the French? Are they pro EU only when they can play a grandeur role in it?

[Gosh, when at times they pronounce this word (France) I cannot but think of De Gaulle (my father imitated le Général not without fidelity and humour) who used to say he had ‘une certaine idée de la Fraaaance‘.]

Of course I can understand their opiate dream, their greatness belonging to only 4-6 generations ago, a short span of time. But aren’t their imperial souvenirs damaging this region, Europe, the richest of the planet (not for long) but the weakest politically?  With the huge challenges ahead of us (ie Bric) is it intelligent? Is it forward-thinking?

[See a presumptuous post of mine on EU Trojan Horses]

Braudel observed:
“Sicile-Afrique? Fondamentale”

Italy, the eternal loose woman, is reclining herself on the middle of the Mediterranean.

Fernand Braudel:

L’Italie, avec la Sicile et la Tunisie coupent la Mediterranée en deux … Est et Ouest. La liaison Sicile Afrique est fondamentale”.

This centrality favoured the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean.

Carthage (today’s Tunis) had the same central position in the Med though reversed (from South northwards). Rome though won (but … read here)

Italy and Tunisia cut the Mediterranean in two. Wikimedia. Click to enlarge

Among the European nations Italy is perhaps the most popular in North Africa and the whole Med area (some grudge left in Libya, of course.)

We eat the same food, they sing our songs (and us theirs but we’re not aware of it,) they watch since the 1950s our now horrible TV, they get consoled and excited by our III-World South which they can understand.

Tunisia in the last 100 years always looked 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. You may like this post.

This role of Italy – its Mediterranean centrality over the millennia and our today’s persisting cultural and economical influence – is responsible in my view for a certain succession of events:

Berlusconi –> Ben Ali –> Mubarak …. then the rest of the Arab Spring.

A theory of mine perhaps. So let’s now test it.

All North Africa is exploding. Arab protesters in Paris. Click for credits and to enlarge

Arab 2011 Revolution.
Are all MED BIG MEN resonating?

1) Berlusconi began to wobble …

… and while the entire world was cheerfully chatting about it (lots of fun stuff) the Tunisians were watching closely...

[Some mysterious harmony vibrating in the Mediterranean …]

They couldn’t but notice this North MED(iterranean) BIG MAN about to fall, and they know he being not terribly different from many other modern-day MED BIG MEN all over coastal Mediterranean.

[A darn tradition of ours. Let us mention: a majority of tyrants in Greek city states, Alexander and the Hellenistic monarchs; the Roman well balanced republic later superseded by Julius Caesar, Augustus & other emperors; Louis XIV le Roi Soleil; Napoleon; Napoleon III; Mussolini il duce; Hitler son of romanized Austria-Germany;  Engelbert Dollfuss in Austria; Francisco Franco, the Caudillo; Salazar his neighbour; De Gaulle le général; Italian Umberto Bossi il celodurista (I got it hard!) and Silvio Berlusconi il Cavaliere]

Of course our PM is not Bel Ali, Gaddafi or Mubarak. Italy is democratic.

But Italy (unique in the West) has this patriarchal-paternal figure (Papi his girls called him) whose de facto powers go beyond democracy. Berlusconi can influence voters being the richest tycoon and media owner in our country – as if President Clinton and Murdoch were the same person!

Now our PM has though less constitutional power than Clinton and our usually sage President of Republic counts too in our charter. Magistrates are independent and tough, and people are not stupid. Which all is saving our ass from media fascism I hope.

So Berlusconi is something Tunisians could understand. Ben Ali controlled almost all Tunisian media via his family (I worked for a Tunisian Internet company owned by Ben Ali’s daughter or wife, I forgot.)

ψ

2) … so Tunisia blew up. Also plagued by unemployment etc. Tunisia rebels against Ben Ali’s well-organized fascism. I am witness to black-clad secret police guys’ total ubiquity. Mediterranean resonating empathy I’ll repeat.

After Berlusconi wobbles Tunisia begins to blow. Click for credits and to enlarge

A small country Tunisia, one might say. Ok, but Tunisia’s rebellion infected Egypt.

Now THIS changed things entirely.

The Land of Pharaohs Wakes Up

Egyptian protests. March of the Millions: Tahrir Square. Click for a great night view

2) Egypt gets infected. The Arab world and beyond is following.

Well, given its ancientness & importance when Egypt sneezes a whole piece of the planet may catch pneumonia. Egypt is the most respected Arab state of all, beyond a doubt.

Digression. According to the Indian-British Indologist A. L. Basham – A Cultural History of India, Oxford 1975 p. XXI- “there are four main cradles of civilizations [on this planet]: 1.China. 2. The Indian subcontinent [probably the most influential in the very long run imo, MoR]. 3. The ‘Fertile Crescent‘ [ie Egypt, Eastern Canaan-Syria-Phoenicia, Mesopotamia ie Iraq, MoR]. 4. The Mediterranean, especially Greece and Italy.”

THIS was perhaps Cleopatra – found on the Esqulinus hill, one of the 7 h. Well …

[I’m starting – some scholars are starting – to suspect a North-Europe Hyperborean cradle too. Read here if you dare 🙂 …]

Egypt is at the head of num 3 region (even though Iraq invented writing.) The Greeks totally recognized Egyptian and other Eastern influences.

[But some scholars in-between 1800s-1900s  – mainly German but not only – wanted ALL colonizing West’s knowledge to be derived from an abstract ‘pure’ Greece in order to justify the exploitation of the lower-races. Winckelmann (1717 – 1768) earlier and Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) bear a foundational responsibility among the rest for this gloomy error]

Pythagoras (Πυθαγόρας) who spread a scientific-religious cult all over South Italy – which will affect Plato, ALL West science & the core of Christianity – travelled long years in Egypt, in the Middle East and Mesopotamia perhaps too: he was permeated by African and Eastern wisdom! Herodotus (Ἡρόδοτος) surely spent years in Egypt. Just 2 examples, the former being the greatest of them as for the future of Western culture.

Btw, the story of Julius Caesar, Mark Antony, Gaius Octavius and Cleopatra – do you remember it? (see above how sexy might have been Κλεοπάτρα, the last Pharaoh of Egypt; read this post)

Now all is getting dangerous  – but also promising let’s hope for humankind.

ψ

So let us laugh a bit. Berlusconi-owned newspapers barked against France who dared enter Mare Nostrum ie the Med:

“Beyond the Alps they should remember once in a while that in their history they don’t just have Napoleon, they also have General Cambronne!” (ineffable Georgio Mulé)

Filippo Ceccarelli’s comment on the Roman daily Repubblica:

“Imagine which weight will be given, in that place of sheer humility that is Paris, to this saucy invitation from George Mulé.”

A wild laugh, that gave me a half hour of oblivion.

ψ

This whole Arab thing is dangerous but I am fascinated that many of these countries are more ancient than Italy or Greece.

It is important to understand that Syria, Egypt etc. are not only Arabic: they are much more (and earlier) than that (read 1, 2 – delighful Diana Haddad! – and especially 3)

The more ancient a country – pls be patient – the greater its reverberations in large parts of the world.

Hadn’t Islamic revolution started in Iran, former ancient (non Arabic) Persia at the head of a thousands-year-old Empire, great model for Alexander and later Rome?

Which also explains why Fascism, invented by the Italians – a complete and rich State theory & practice – was so influential in the world despite Italy’s negligible economical importance at that time.

Which applies even more to today’s Egypt. A whole piece of the world is now boiling because of the land of the Pharaohs.

ψ

As French Fernand Braudel loved to say – “civilizations are not mortal.”

Related posts:

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

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

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

The Day Paganism Yielded To Christianity. Has India Anything To Do With It?

I’m preparing 2 posts I hope will help readers to easily learn some ancient Greek and Latin but I need a few more days.

The whole thing is in fact tough and I’m a bit breathless.

Not because of the poems – they are ready (and will be in progress in any case.) It is the cultural context around them that has exhausted – and troubled me – a bit.

I’ll try to explain.

Ψ

Andreas Kluth’s Hannibal blog – a place extraordinaire I stumbled upon months ago – had once presented a fascinating metaphor possibly created by a certain Professor Phillip Cary.

“You can think – Andreas wrote – of “Western culture” as a human body:

[nums by MoR instead of stars].

1. The left leg is ancient Athens and Rome, Socrates and Aristotle;
2. the right leg is Jerusalem and the Bible, Moses and Jesus;
3. the crotch is the end of the Roman empire when the two “legs” met ;
4. the torso is the Middle Ages, when the two traditions became one [Dante, MoR];

[etc etc up to the rest of the body that can be pondered over at the Hannibal blog, *here* and *there*; MoR]

Ψ

Ok. The left leg (1) – the Classical – has been THE main topic of this blog so far.

The research around my Greek and Latin classes though caused the other leg (2) – the Judeo-Christian – to more or less pound on my head.

Ouch what a blow my dear readers!  – and later I might tell you why.

Constantine's dream of a sign from the Christian God

Mario: A blow? Why TH do you care? Just go ahead with the left leg, you always were a leftist ah ah ah!

MoR: You moron, MY problem is the ancient languages classes Mario! Now it turns that, while the classical texts are hard (leg 1), the Judeo-Christian ones (leg 2) are often that easy – Old and New Testament alike – that even a baby can read them, for reasons fascinating not the place here to discuss.

[I know there are comics, that there are web sites plus the Latin and Greek Wikipedia- which I adore. But I always prefer the best literature for language learning: ie starting with what is matchless]

Extropian: MoR is right. Wanna get into mountain climbing? Forget the Everest and start with simple (tho captivating) hills.

MoR: Ok ok Extropian, but you 2 didn’t get the MAIN point.
I’m not only facing here the daunting task of presenting the context of the greatest spiritual revolution the West ever hadthe switch from Paganism to Christianity. And btw I’m a guy who, revering the Classical as much as I do, is not exactly excited to see the DEATH of it  …

Extropian: “Num 3, the crotch?

MoR:
The crotch, yes. Problem being: there’s a lot more, and a lot earlier.

Extropian: Urghhh!
A LOT earlier??

Serapis, an Hellenistic-Egyptian god in Antiquity (since the III century BC)

MoR: Yyyeees! While trying to figure out the spiritual context of the poems, much to my horror (and fascination) did I realise that the (Judeo)-Christian leg was part of bigger – much more ancient  – streams originating from Egypt and from the East (both Middle and Far East.)

To be more precise – and in a reversed order: from Egypt, Thrace, Anatolia, Palestine (the Jews, naturally, crucial,) Mesopotamia, Persia AND India.

Mario: India??? Oh oh oh oh ….India AGAIN???

Extropian
[*getting more attentive*]

MoR: I’ll repeat it! The Greco-Romans had already encountered A LOT EARLIER that much wider oriental humus – of which the Judeo-Christian leg was just a part – much earlier I mean than when we finally get to the darn crotch – ie the switching to Christianity and soon after that cataclysm, ie the horrible end of the Roman empire.

Extropian: [*lost in reflection, eyes gleaming*] Mmmm, how MUCH earlier

MoR: 800-850 years earlier, more or less. I’ll check better but I’d bet on it.

Ψ

Long pause. Pauses are important. The sun begins to shine through the clouds folds over the eternal city  … We drink strong coffee.

Ψ

MoR: Which led me to reconsider the Judeo-Christian tradition as being NOT TOTALLY EXTRANEOUS to the Classical World (!) as I first had thought.

A kind of a BLOW, plus a troubling one because I got fascinated by it.

I told Lichanos over at his blog – his posts inspired me as for the Jewish heritage: “I feel the need of coming to terms with both traditions or legs – I said – AND, should I get back to Christianity, I will SUE you …”  🙂

Ψ

The silence in my study-room is now disturbed only by Mario che smadonna piano piano … My friends love me and they are worried. I am just excited.

This was happening yesterday in an apartment in Rome.

On another area of the planet 70 million Hindus plus 40,000 Indian politicians were /are about to gather near the banks of the Ganges. The water is cold. It is flowing to the plains directly from the Himalayas. The water is also dirty.

Indian crowds over the Ganges to purify themselves. Click for credits and to enlarge

Not that the Indians will care – about the cold or the dirtiness. All they care about – the poor and the low caste, the rich and the high caste – is this sacred water purifying them from their sins and helping them with better reincarnations.

The Kumbh Mela hindu festival might though be special this year. The convergence of the 12-yearly Kumbh Mela with the longest solar eclipse of the millennium – it is believed – could guarantee an end to the reincarnation cycle.

Note. Sin. Purified by sacred water. ‘Souls’ and ‘bodies’ separated but incessantly reuniting in a reincarnation cycle of life and death.

Ah what a marvellous introduction to what we are about to narrate!

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

Gods are Watching with an Envious Eye

Not long ago my friend Mario took me for a drive on his stupendous vintage Lancia Flavia 1500. Although now living in Rome Mario is from Naples, one of the biggest towns of the Italian Mezzogiorno, and he is so proud of his gioiello (jewel) which he seems to care for more than he does for his wife and children.

The trip had been great, the green and smiling countryside north of Rome had shown so sunny and refreshing, and our glowing Lancia had well behaved so far despite its age (1960).

On the way back to Rome along the via Flaminia I exclaimed merrily:

Diavolo, this car is a gem, it has rolled as smoothly as olive oil and we didn’t have any problem during the whole drive.”

Mario snapped with a worried look:

Zitto zitto non lo dire! (hush! hush! don’t you say that!).” He didn’t add much but I knew what he meant:

“Oh you shut the hell up! Do you want the car to break down? Do you want anything bad to happen to us?” as if the mere utterance of happiness would attract us ill luck or the envy from someone.

Well, the envy from whom?

Ψ

A good answer is provided by the modern Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis. When he was very young he once went travelling all over Italy. When he got to Florence (see image above) he felt so happy in front of all those palaces, statues and paintings that he felt that the rights of the humans were somewhat overstepped. As a young and superstitious provincial – he writes in his autobiography – he was terror-stricken for “as I well knew, the gods are envious creatures, and it is hubris to be happy and to know that you are happy.”

So, in order to counterbalance such blissful state of mind, he bought a pair of narrow shoes he wore in the morning and which made him miserable and “hopping about like a crow.” He then changed shoes in the afternoon so he could walk weightlessly and thus vent all his joy. He strode along the banks of the Arno river, he went up to San Miniato etc. but the next morning he went back to his narrow shoes (and to his misery again).

Ψ

More than 23 centuries before Kazantzakis’s trip to Italy, the Greek Herodotus, the first historian of the Western world, wrote about a man extremely fortunate who got everything from life and who was tyrant of Samos, a beautiful island of the Greek archipelago (see a picture by Nasa above). His name was Polycrates and he was so fortunate and his wealth and power so great that one day his friend Amasis, pharaoh of Egypt, wrote him a letter saying:

“Beware Polycrates: such fortune being not allowed to humans, get rid of whatever is most precious and dear to you in order to escape from gods’ wrath.”

Hit by fear and understanding that the pharaoh’s suggestion was wise Polycrates began reflecting on the things he possessed that were the most beautiful, precious and dear to him and among them he chose a stupendous ring with an emerald set in gold he was always wearing day and night. He then went on board of a ship and ordered the sailors put out into the open sea. Once far away from his island he took the ring from his finger and threw it away into the deep.

What happened is that some time afterwards a fisherman caught such a big fish he thought it deserved to be given as a present to the Lord of Samos. He thus brought the fish to the palace and when the servants cut the fish open they saw it contained a beautiful ring and brought it to the tyrant.

Polycrates much to his horror recognizing the ring finally understood that the envious gods had something in store for him.

After a few years he was captured with guile by the Persian governor of Sardis, Oroetes.

His life had been happy and glorious. Ignominious and horrible happened to be his death. Oroetes had him impaled and then crucified.

PS
The next post, Knowing Thyself, connects the three episodes and provides the reader with some explanation regarding Greek gods’ envy.

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.

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