A Greek folk tale which we had been told about at school came to my mind recently. It tells the story of Prophet Elias, who tired of being at sea and the many dangers he had faced in his life as a sailor, decided one day to search for a place where nobody would have heard of sea and boats. Oar on his shoulder, he set off and started asking people what was this thing he was carrying. Every time he got the right reply he just carried on, inland and upwards. At some point he met a shepherd and asked the same question of him. After taking a good look at the oar, the shepherd replied ‘it’s just a piece of wood’. Prophet Elias smiled a smile of satisfaction and decided to spend the rest of his life among the mountain people. According to the same story, this is why the Greeks dedicate to him the churches built on hill and mountain tops.
It is on these mountain tops that Prophet Elias is celebrated every year on July the 20th, right at the heart of the summer. During a time when beaches start heaving with tourists, hordes of believers take the opposite direction and head towards the usually cooler heights even if it is just for one night. The choice between sea and mountain as the most appropriate summer destination divides the inhabitants of the Mediterranean countries, many of whom prefer to make an Elias move and spend as much time as possible in higher altitudes in order to escape the heat – and other sweaty tourists who come to colonise the landscape.
I am not sure what the connection point is between these thoughts and their cause of origin – namely a paper Adrian Grima presented at the BCLA conference I wrote about last week. In it, Grima discussed the Mediterranean imagery as a European construct which the Arab people of the North of Africa do not share. The divergence between the Mediterranean paradigm of the Europeans and the lack of it in Arab nomenclature dates back a long time. For the Arabs of the 16th-18th centuries, the Mediterranean was not the regional crossroads of the European imaginary or a ‘bridge’ between cultures or even less a melting pot. It was a clear cut religious and cultural boundary that separated Christians and Arabs. Even today, Grima argues, the revolutionaries of the former North African colonies do not think of themselves as Mediterranean people, connected to their European neighbours. Grima is critical both of the failures of the EU in engaging with their southern partners and of the persistent mythologisation of the Mediterranean in the European mind which serves to sell food, drinks, holidays and exoticity to Northern tourists. The myth of the Mediterranean is also intended for internal consumption as Grima argued in another paper, ‘The Melting Pot that Never Was’.
For Grima, the question of absence of Mediterranean identity in Arab poetry to name but one example, is a serious matter. He argues that the European imagery of the Mediterranean is a colonial concept, whereas for the Arabs the Mediterranean is something that divides, a mere geographical and not political space. It was probably the illustration of a stark polarisation between two opposing views that caused some consternation in the audience. A delegate from the Egyptian city of Alexandria argued that her compatriots do share affinity for the sea that unites them to the Greek civilisation. Another participant brought up the example of Colonel Gaddafi, who appropriated the Mediterranean for political ends, presenting himself as its leader for as long as it suited his goals. I started thinking about what the Mediterranean meant for me, whether it was a unified place in my brain and if the nostalgia I felt that day I travelled from the mountains of Grenoble to the familiar smells and sounds of the port of Marseille was due to myth.
The familiarity I felt was most likely due to a history of colonisation that divides and unites us Europeans as much as it divides us from Arabs. The first thing that crossed my mind upon arriving in Marseille was that it had been a Greek colony. Europeans have a history of ‘internal’ colonisations which preceded the expansions towards south and east. And these trajectories are critical in our understanding of the Mediterranean. I assume I feel closer to Turkish or Cypriot culture than say Algerian or Tunisian – but had I been French I would have maybe felt closer to other places, in the same way that the Venetian occupations of the Eastern Mediterranean have marked certain Greek territories in ways that are distinctly different from the Ottoman-occupied ones. If the Arabs have traditionally held a view of European colonisers as dangerous, the same could be said of the inhabitants of most European territories that at one point or another were conquered by other Europeans. Conflict and violence were the order of the day even during the colonisation of Marseille by the Greeks and it can easily be inferred that this was not an isolated case.
So, what are the kinds of Mediterranean landscape that really dominate the desires of Africans and Europeans or cause their indifference? Is the Mediterranean more than the part of its sums or is Adrian Grima right in his criticism of this imaginary construct? What if for every tourist that arrives on the Mediterranean shores there are others who prefer to climb mountains or retreat into deserts, faithful to ancient hermetic traditions or simply trying to avoid coastal colonisations and the oppressive humid heat?
Lila Abu-Lughod in her famous study Veiled Sentiments says of the Bedouins who inhabit the north of Egypt: ‘I discovered, however, that despite its proximity, the sea played little part in the Bedouins’ lives, and what appreciation of natural beauty they expressed was for the desert where, until sedentarization, their winter migrations had taken them. The members of my community all spoke with nostalgia about the inland desert, “up country” (fōg), although they had last migrated seven years before I arrived. They described the flora and fauna, the grasses so delectable to the gazelle, the umbellifer that whets the appetite, the herb that, boiled with tea, cures sundry maladies, the wild hares that must be hunted at night, and the game birds that suddenly take flight from deep within a shrub. They praised the good “dry” foods of desert life and disparaged as unhealthy the fresh vegetable stews that are now an important part of their diet. They recalled with pleasure the milk products, so plentiful in springtime when rains have created desert pastures, and savoured memories of the taste of milk given by ewes who have fed on aromatic wormwood (shīḥ).’
Mediterranean diet fans, eat your heart out!