A Mediterranean identity and the Arab Mashriq

In the European imagination, as well as in a rich tradition of scholarly discourse, there is an intellectual current of positing the Mediterranean idea in contra-distinction to other cultural traditions which constitute "cold" European industrial cultures: the Nordic, British-Celtic, Slavic and Germanic. In the social sciences, Ferdinand Braudel and his followers set the grounds for an overarching frame of analysis that considered the common (and differential) boundaries of Southern European, North African and Eastern Mediterranean cultures. In the Republic of Cousins, the anthropologist Germaine Tillion introduced the provocative idea that it was rules of kinship and preference for paternal cousin marriage–with far-reaching social consequences–that separated Mediterranean cultures (Greek, Arab, Turkish, Balkan, and to a lesser extent in the former Yugoslavia, southern France and southern Italy) from the rest of European cultures. On a more popular level, and certainly in literature and the arts, "the Mediterranean" continues to evoke a Northern European (and perhaps North American) iconography that is associated with the idyllic and rustic culture (real and imagined) of Tuscany, Umbria and Provence.

With the turn of this century, however, a noticeable shift took place in Europe. Immigration controls were introduced to curb unauthorized labor migration from North African countries into Spain, Italy and France. Mediterranean conferences, sponsored by the European Union in Rome, Marseilles, Casablanca and Barcelona began to focus on Mediterranean studies from a security angle. Security here was defined as a demographic-cultural obsession with North African migration as a threat to the (cultural?) stability of the European Union. Tariq Ali treated the historical roots of this obsession in a dramatic Channel Four film entitled "The Final Solution" (Bandung Series) in which the roots of the Mediterranean-European cultural divide were traced from the Spanish Inquisition to the establishment of modern and ruthless border patrols in Andalusia in the mid-1990s.

In the Middle East, the "Mediterranean idea" suggests an implicit cultural notion that is counter to the nationalist idea, and gives privileged status to commonalities across ethnic boundaries. I use the term "implicit culture" to signify the manner in which these social practices are observable but not usually acknowledged as being stronger than the acclaimed nationalist bond. For example, we are aware that the cuisine of greater Syria (bilad al Sham) has more affinities with Turkey, Greece and the Balkans than these all have with Iraqi, Arabian and Yemeni food cultures. The same may be suggested for crop arrangements, agricultural techniques, folk dancing, traditional building modes, organization of urban space, and so on. Another feature of the East Mediterranean is the duality of coastal and mountain tradition that is not found in other Arab, non-Mediterranean countries.

In all of these cases the patterns exist but are not officially recognized. The implications of these observations are not self-evident, but have tended to undermine ideologically-constructed notions of Arab unity. Theorists of Arab nationalist ideologies such as Sati’ al Hussary and Constantine Zureik posited cultural similarities among Arabs as given without assessing them in their wider context. In contrast, they invariably argued that Arab state boundaries are colonial impositions with no internal cultural legitimation.

Because of these ambiguities, Arab nationalist theorists tended to be hostile to the Mediterranean idea. They took it for granted that it undermines their interpretation of Arab cultural unity. They further identified the Mediterranean idea–with some justification–with nativist anti-Arab intellectual traditions in the Arab East: the Phoenician ideology of Said Aqel in Mount Lebanon; the Pharaonic principle of Hussein Fawzi and Salameh Musa; the Canaanite nativism of Palestinian nationalism, and Israeli Hebraism (Ratosh and Boaz Evron). It is true that some of these ideologies were explicitly anti-Arab nationalist (particularly in Said Aqel’s writings), but others were either ambivalent or agnostic about it.

In Israeli academia, the Mediterranean idea was adopted as a way of resolving Israel’s isolation (imposed and often self-imposed) from the Arab world. Reaching out to European cultural affinities may have been geographically problematic, but the Mediterranean idea seems to have created possibilities for allowing the Jewish state to be "of Europe" if not "in Europe". Furthermore, it was a convenient way for bridging the Sephardic-Ashkenazi cultural divide without acknowledging the Arab component of Mizrahi culture.

In the Arab world, Mediterranean studies centers seem to be confined to Tunis, Egypt, Lebanon and Palestine. Here they exist as either environmental research centers (Alexandria) or as institutes for tourism networking (Tunis, Morocco, Lebanon). Increasingly, however, as Nasserist and Baathist currents lost their historic potency as political mobilizers, Arab intellectuals began a protracted struggle to redefine an intellectual core for Arabism in cultural terms–Islamic, regional and inter-regional. With this enhanced complexity of perception, it is possible today for many Arabs to define themselves as Arabs and Mediterraneans, without abandoning their affinities with other non-Mediterranean Arabs. The problem, however, is that the notion of being "Mediterranean" has become too diffused to have any instrumental meaning today–except perhaps as a platform in which Europeans, Turks and Arabs (and possibly a de-colonized Israel) can discuss a common future.