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field notes

Letter from the Mediterranean: Familiar Shores

5 MINS READJun 10, 2014 | 19:24 GMT
"Oh, you're Italian," the man smiled, "so it will be easy for you to understand the situation here. If you're Italian I don't need to explain corruption, bad politics, scandals — all of that." That happened a year ago while I was doing field interviews in Lebanon. Usually Arabs are open and friendly to foreigners, but from the Lebanese I got a palpable sense that they were fed up with talking to researchers, especially in the refugee camps. Syrian refugees have become a trendy topic in the West. For their part, the Palestinians in Lebanon have become jaded by the popularity of Shatila refugee camp, the site of an infamous 1982 massacre that continues to attract journalists, academics and even tourists. For them, I was just another European asking questions. But time and again, as soon as I revealed my Italian nationality, the atmosphere changed and a feeling of complicity arose. At first I thought I was simply lucky enough to meet those who happened to like Italians. After several weeks, however, I came to understand that it was not random. When I introduced myself in English, I was simply one more European. But when they realized I was Italian, I suddenly became part of their world — the Mediterranean. "With Germans, Swedes, Danes, it is so difficult to explain our society, our politics. But you're not really European. Come on! You're Italian. It's different." I listened to stories about the importance of families and clans in politics — stories that could have been set in Italy. I also discussed with young Lebanese our shared mistrust of the state and of public administration. For example, Beirut suffers constant blackouts, lasting at least three hours per day. "Do you know why?" a Lebanese friend asked me. "It's because we have a minister of electricity. The minister is the trouble. I am sure that without the minister responsible for it, we would have no problem with electricity at all." Their sense of irony made me laugh, but I could recognize my culture in it. "Well," I replied, "at least you don't have a prime minister who tried to convince the country that he took a young Moroccan prostitute out of jail because she is the niece of the Egyptian president, with whom he wanted to avoid an international crisis." Silvio Berlusconi's over-the-top absurdity always outdid my Lebanese interlocutors. They never knew quite how to top it. I often took advantage of his reputation during my interviews. When I felt distance between the interviewee and myself, I would mention some tragically funny thing about Berlusconi, and it always helped to relax the atmosphere. Suddenly we were closer and I moved from being part of the West to being one of "the Rest," where politics is a joke, people evade taxes, media is controlled and private interests direct public policy. I leaped from Europe into the Mediterranean. In Turkey it was the same. The same smiles: "You're Italian? This means you're like a Turk. We are all the same, we Mediterranean people. We're Mediterranean brothers." The idea of belonging to a common Mediterranean culture — whatever it is — was strong in the countries along the southern shore. The feeling was not the same among Italians. Each time I shared my plans to move to a Middle Eastern country, I was met with worried reactions. "Isn't is difficult to live with Arabs? Do you have to dress like a Muslim woman? Are you sure you can stand those conditions of extreme poverty?" Islam and poverty, that is how Italians perceive the southern coast. Years of the media showing desperate migrants arriving on the Italian coast has drawn a line between "us" and "them," the healthy and the poor. Politicians across the spectrum have underscored this divide, with the right wing casting migrants as invaders and the left casting them as helpless charity cases. All the things in common are lost: our shared reliance on family, our sense of irony, the habit of strong social expectations, gender relations and even the similar plants we cultivate. The southern Mediterranean has become little more than a source of danger in the Italian national consciousness. The Arab Spring erupted less than 150 kilometers (93 miles) from Italy, but we were too preoccupied with our role as sentinels on the parapet of "the Fortress Europe," as one Italian journalist called it. The difference in religion also looms large in the Italian mind. Italians refuse to accept that they could be similar to Muslims, which is ironic considering that Italy is one of the founding members of the European order. The Romans called the Mediterranean Sea "Mare Nostrum," or "Our Sea." Mare Nostrum is also the name of the military and humanitarian initiative that the Italian government launched in 2013, aimed at preventing the Mediterranean from becoming a mass grave for migrants. But the Mediterranean can only really become "our sea" again if the public discourse changes, if it is able — and willing — to focus on the common heritage that the two coasts share. "Oh, you're Italian?" the Lebanese man smiled. "Then you don't really feel like a foreigner here, right?" Italy's southern neighbors already understand.

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