I’ve always felt the Mediterranean as part of what I am. I think that there is a shared feeling among the people who’s countries look onto the sea that the Romans used to call “mare nostrum” (our sea); like a common sensitivity, maybe not always noticeable or clear, sometimes just laying behind the surface.
Mediterranean: “in between the lands”. Which lands? Africa, Asia, Europe. Three continents and a lot of history.
I remember a map I bought while I was a student at Bologna University (Middle East Studies, no coincidence, I guess). I do not remember why I bought it (but I know for sure that I gave it to an acquaintance for his holiday and it never came back): it covered southern Europe, northern Africa and Asian Mediterranean coastline. I’ve always thought that this area was “mine”, in terms of roots, belonging, of a sense of feeling home in these geographies.
These geographies are physical and cultural, sometimes a state of mind made of landscapes, colors, smells and sounds: Italian band Mau Mau sings it with the right words and rhythms:
E qui ritrovo il presente
di geografia tormentata, ma
è parte di me
Sopra la crosta dura
brulica un basso paradiso
A feeling that was present when I spent a few weeks at Rabat University (unfortunately, my Arabic has been forgotten: my fault) or when I lived in Andalucia for a few months or, again, when we moved to Avignon in France.
One of the first project for a long bike trip was to ride along the Mediterranean, passing through every country, trying to trace and connect all the common traits in culture, in food, in the mix of words of different origins, in the different paths that myths and legends have taken across histories and geographies. Unfortunately it’s not the best time for a trip like this. War is not something we left to the past.
Probably the best example of this effort of mapping cultural closeness between geographies and throughout history is the book about the Mediterranean by Predrag Matvejevic (original title Mediteranski brevijar), a poetical journey into what make us close, in between north and south, east and west. In times of racism, walls and fears that are spread by politics and media, this book is a must read for those who want to focus more on what makes us close (and there is a lot!) instead of on what can divide us.
I remember a page from Solea, the last book of the Marseille Trilogy by Jean-Claude Izzo. There is this dialogue about the Mediterranean, the South and the people coming from the South. An abstract:
(…) le Sud, la Méditerranée… Nous n’avons aucune chance. Nous appartenons à ce que les technocrates appellent « les classes dangereuses » de demain. (…) Avec la fin de la guerre froide et le souci de l’Occident d’intégrer le bloc de l’Est – en grande partie au détriment du tiers-monde -, le mythe revisité des classes dangereuses est répercuté vers le Sud, et sur les migrants du Sud vers le Nord. (…) Pour l’Europe du Nord, le Sud est forcément chaotique, radicalement différent. Inquiétant donc. (…) les États du Nord réagiront en érigeant un limes moderne. Vous savez, comme un rappel de la frontière entre l’Empire romain et les barbares. (…) Nous allons payer cher cette nouvelle représentation du monde. Nous, je veux dire, tous ceux qui n’ont plus de travail, ceux qui sont proches de la misère, et tous les gamins aussi, tous ceux des quartiers Nord, des quartiers populaires qu’on voit traîner en ville. (…) Ce nouveau monde est clos. Fini, ordonné, stable. Et nous n’y avons plus notre place. Une nouvelle pensée domine. Judéo-christiano-hellénodémocratique. Avec un nouveau mythe. Les nouveaux barbares. Nous. Et nous sommes innombrables, indisciplinés, nomades bien sûr. Et puis arbitraires, fanatiques, violents. Et aussi, évidemment, misérables. La raison et le droit sont de l’autre côté de la frontière. La richesse aussi.
Following the thoughts that Izzo wanted to share, using one of the characters in the book, it seems that the adjective “nostrum” (our) that the Romans gave to the Mediterranean as a way to express their power over the region has now become a synonym of closed, with no entry: “ours” now means “not yours” and European Union politics and policies apply this rule, trying to keep out the migrants who want to reach the continent, no matter if the die in the sea or in camps and prisons in Libya.
Borders and documents are recent inventions, deadly ones. We are crossing borders with our loaded bikes and we show our documents to officers from different countries, but we have a “good” passport and we have it just out of luck: being born on the northern side of the Mediterranean instead of the Southern or the Eastern sides.
The Mediterranean should become – for good – a place of openness, culture, exchange, where people and their stories are welcomed, where everybody can cross from one point to the other without any limitation. And, since politics is (still) going the opposite direction, creating this space of freedom and peace it’s on us, and just on us.