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

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1

Sicilian old men. 2008

Secrecy & Omertà

At the end of an earlier post we had invited Naguib Mahfouz (see picture below), the Nobel-prize Egyptian writer, to help us to understand the ancient world of the Mediterranean. Let’s consider today how the charming characters in his Cairo trilogy do tons of forbidden things: they drink alcohol, they cheat and eat pork, but all is done in secret and keeping up the appearances.

Two daughters of Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad – this Egyptian patriarch par excellence and main character of the trilogy – quarrel and one of them angrily denounces her sister’s husband to her mother: “He drinks wine at home without hiding!”

Which reminds us of some Tunisian people who were drinking beer in a coffee house in Tunis and who confessed: “Nous on fait tout, mais en cachette” (we do everything, though in secret).

It is irresistible not to think about Sicily, where doing things in secret is well ingrained (Sicily was under Tunisian rule for 400 years). And what about omertà, which makes defeating Mafia so difficult?

Omertà is a code of silence that seals the lips of men even when innocent and protects mafiosi in Italian southern regions like Sicily, Calabria and Campania. We’re sure there is some connection between the said secrecy behaviour and Mafia’s omertà.

[By the way, is all this so remote from that omertà that protects Osama bin Laden in territories where everybody is so capable of keeping secrets? A weird association? Hard to say. Back to Mahfouz and to the Mediterranean]

The Power of Man on Woman

Naguib MahfouzAnother element is the power a husband exerts on his wife. That same angry sister tells her mother about the other sister’s misdemeanours: “She drinks and smokes, acting against God and with Satan.”
Her disconsolate mother replies: “What can we do? She is a married woman, and the judgement of her conduct is now in the hands of her husband…” (I am freely summing up the text).

This is Islamic society, one could say. Ok, but this patriarchal power is much older than Islam and was present both in ancient Greece and Rome (although from the late Republic onwards Roman women – especially within the upper classes – gained a wider freedom). So it is a misconception to think of all this as Islamic. Many Muslim societies (not all of them) simply stick to ancient traditions widespread in the Mediterranean and elsewhere much before Islam arrived, which doesn’t mean we like women to be submitted to man’s power, no, no. And this is certainly not Italy’s contemporary life, even though in the South something of a more ancient patriarchy still seems to survive.

The honour of the family

Speaking of patriarchy, the honour and dishonour of the family falls upon the father or husband. Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, called by his daughter’s mother-in-law because of his daughter’s misconduct, thus reproaches her: “Nothing that was raised in my house should be stained by such behaviours! Don’t you realise that the whole evil you are doing brings dishonour to me?”.

Again it is tempting to think about Neapolitan Eduardo De Filippo‘s Natale in casa Cupiello, a delightful comedy in which Luca Cupiello (Eduardo), exasperated with is wife Concetta, cries aloud: “La nemica mia! La nemica della casa!” (This enemy of mine! This enemy of the house!), where he clearly considers himself to be THE house, in such a funny and masterly way, because Eduardo and the Neapolitans are so refined and adorable (the Greek cousins of Rome) despite all the problems now Naples is facing.

Naples. The castle and the Volcano

And again it is clear that patriarchy is prior to Islam, Naples, Sicily etc. It was previously present in Rome, Greece, Carthage etc. And it existed in Mare Nostrum and elsewhere long before these civilisations arrived. Records of it seem to be as far back as the 4th millennium BC.

We have tried to explore some Mediterranean traditions with the help of Naguib Mahfouz, and we have mused about some possible influences between the North and South shores of this sea. It seems clear to us that every study of present ways of thinking (European, Islamic, Sicilian, Neapolitan etc.) is not wholly understandable without looking at the endless past of the civilizations (see also the concept of the mind like a museum in the last section of our post Knowing Thyself).

(to be continued)

Ψ

Other related posts:

Permanences I
The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean
Love Words from Egypt
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean

Sidi Bou Said, Tunisia. Gnu Free documentation License

Italian version

The Greco-Roman soul is intimately tied to Egypt and North Africa.

We are all Mediterranean. Food, plants and plenty of traditions are similar. On a long-period perspective we belong to the same historical stream, to the same sea from which some of the first civilizations have germinated on this side of the planet.

Of course there are differences though we are not so dissimilar as someone might (or liked) to think plus our same religions, apparently dividing us, are in reality loving the same God.

It is not by chance that these north-African regions are considered diverse and almost European by Sub-Saharan black people. They are in fact very different from Sub-Saharan Africa.

Another interesting point is that during the whole Middle Ages north Africans were the most powerful, civilised and wealthy among all Mediterranean (and European) folks.

Wealth has move to the North

Wealth has now moved to the North shore.

The Northern and Southern shores of the Mediterranean tend to exchange their roles.

Tunisia conquered Sicily for 400 years. Today it looks 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). While we, in our narrow-mindedness, do not even notice it.

Italians (especially those who travel little) do not know how much they are loved within the entire Mediterranean area.

Even when we landed on its islands as occupants, together with the Nazis, we were accepted with affection by the local populations because they felt us as close relatives. How many memories, traditions and bonds we do share with them.

Many villages in Southern Italy – or in so many Greek islands, not to mention Spain, who was under Arabic rule for so long – look Arabic or belonging in any case to the deep South Mediterranean: take Ostuni, in Apulia, or Sperlonga, in the south of Latium; then cast a glance at Sidi Bou Said in Tunisia (see picture above:)

They are almost identical, belonging to a very similar culture, whether we like it or not, because during the Middle Ages the winning model came from the South Mediterranean coasts, where civilization (and power) lay.

Needless to say, when a Roman – even more a Neapolitan (not to mention a Sicilian) – hears an Arabic melody he feels hidden strings vibrating in his soul.

Death of Dido, by Augustin Cayot (French, 1667-1772). Public domain

Going further back in time let us conjure up the war to the death between Rome and Carthage immortal Tunisia, again) whose legendary origin – narrated by Virgil’s classical (and beautiful) poem Aeneid – sprang from Dido’s desperate love for Aeneas, our Trojan ancestor of Rome.

This Carthage’s queen, forsaken by the Trojan hero, stabbed herself after predicting eternal hate between Rome and Carthage.

So from love sprang hate; from hate tremendous war (thus says the legend): a moment of history – the historical, not legendary war, this time – that decided whether the Mediterranean was to be dominated by its North or its South shores.

The North (and Rome) won – by a hair’s breadth it’d be fair to say.

Meeting Tunisians
à La Goulette

I was in Tunisia for work and in La Goulette coffee houses – La Goulette is a picturesque district in Tunis, close to the harbour, where incidentally the beautiful Italian-Tunisian actress Claudia Cardinale was born – people still discuss the battles of Roman Scipio and of Carthaginian Hannibal, and they line up beans on tables thus drawing up troops of both armies in order to celebrate Hannibal’s brilliant victories over the Romans, still trying also to understand where Hannibal went wrong in the last fatal battle of Zama.

One of the guys I met there had worked with several Italian movie directors in the innumerable films the Italians shot in Tunisia.

I clearly felt they were all kind and warm to this Italian who showed interest in them. They were drinking beer so I asked them:

“Isn’t alcohol forbidden by the Koran?”.

One of them replied:

Eh bien, nous on fait tout, mais en cachette”, “well, we do everything, though in secret”. And my mind went to Sicily, where secrecy, doing things en chachette, is typical and well ingrained.

Anthony, Cleopatra
(and Octavian)

Getting back to Egypt, let us consider Alexander the Great and his relationship with Egypt and the city of Alexandria, which he founded. And let us consider Cleopatra, descendant of one of Alexander’s generals, as well as her love affair with Julius Caesar, first, and with Mark Anthony, Caesar’s relative, later.

Caesar and Anthony, united by both kinship and their love for Egypt’s splendid civilization. Was Caesar’s love for Egypt sincere, or was it the result of mere political calculations? Hard to fathom, Caesar’s mind, but we are inclined to believe Anthony’s interest for Egypt was not only political.

 

lupaottimigut1.jpg

The conflict between Anthony and Octavian was again a moment in history that decided whether the Mediterranean had to be dominated by its Northern or South-eastern shores, this time. Again Rome (and the North) won but later, after the fall of the Roman empire, the South and Near East took their revenge, with triumphant Islam and the survival of Greek Constantinople.

Mahfouz, as a conclusion

As a conclusion, the eternal Roman and Mediterranean soul vibrates when in contact with relatives to whom it is tied by both common history and traditions.

Who better than Naguib Mahfouz, the great Egyptian writer (and future virtual guest), can guide us and help us to understand?

In our next post dedicated to the Southern shores of the Mediterranean we will in fact listen to the love words of young Kamal, the main character from the second volume of Mahfouz’s Cairo trilogy.

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

Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1

Downtown Beirut. Public domain

A few days ago, when listening to Diana Haddad, an Arabic Lebanese pop singer, something echoed in my mind.

Before the war (started in 1974) Lebanon was called the Switzerland of the Middle-East. In the 50s Beirut was one of the financial capitals of the planet and the intellectual capital of the Arab world. It offered, among the rest, highest financial skills to the Saudi Arabians and a very convenient interface for Western firms towards the Arabs, rich in oil.

It also offered an Arabian Nights highly refined dolce vita attracting all kinds of VIPs, Hollywood and international actors, tycoons plus the most splendid ladies of the epoch. Beirut was a synonym of luxury, of all pleasures combined and of intelligent cosmopolitism. Three languages were (and are) there spoken: Arab, French and English.

Some dear Italian friends of mine studied in Beirut in their youth and are in fact fluent in these 3 languages. When we were children we heard all these magic tales from our parents and looked amazed at pictures in gossip magazines.

To the history-addicted all this flourishing is not surprising. Lebanon IS the land of the Phoenicians, highly refined merchants since Antiquity and ancestors of mighty Carthage.

Now that Beirut’s glamour is gone – the city has been partially rebuilt but its premier role seems to have moved to London, Dubai, Cyprus etc. – this place is still highly civilised though, since civilisations are not mortal I believe, and, just as an example, Lebanese pop music (and culture) is probably the most successful among today’s Arabic youth, being seen as ‘modern’ but of course a bit frowned upon by the traditionalists.

Here a song by the delighful Diana Haddad for you to listen.

Northern Mediterranean youth cannot but feel how similar these people are to us, and yet portions of this music and other details we feel are diverse. One can say that this diversity is provided by Islam. Yes but, I am asking myself, is Islam really so alien?

Well, yes and no. One moment we feel it is the Mediterranean (hence not so different from Southern Europe,) another moment it is Persia, Arabia, Baghdad, Pakistan, Northern India, Indonesia, West and East Asia in short, both very different from Europe.

This diversity is though exciting. Why should it scare us?

As we promised in an earlier post and its notes, this writing is the first of a series dedicated to Islam, seen as exotic and yet somewhat close to our Roman heart. We are not here to judge but to learn (and possibly communicate.)

Once more we’ll ask French historian Fernand Braudel for inspiration and guidance. See you at our next post then.

Italian version

Ψ

For the same theme though in a wider picture:

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1
The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean

Permanences. Rome and Carthage

Kastell Welzheim, near the Limes, Porta Praetoria

Civilisations are not Mortal.
Rome and Carthage

The French historian Fernand Braudel argues in “La Mediterranée” (see note below):

“That Rome has deeply marked Europe it is evident, but nevertheless there is room for some amazing continuities. Is it by chance that, when Christianity breaks in two during the XVI century, the separation of the fields occurs exactly along the axis of the Rhine and the Danube, the double frontier of the Roman Empire?

And is it also by chance that the astonishing conquest of Islam was easily accepted by both the Near East and the two areas formerly dominated by Carthage, i.e. Northern Africa and a portion of Spain? [see map below]

We have said it before: the Phoenician world was more inclined, deep inside, to welcome the Islamic civilization than it was to assimilate the Roman law, for the reason that the Islamic civilization didn’t only represent a contribution, it represented a continuity as well.”

[Extensive note to text]

Carthage’s zone of influence in the III B.C.

Italian version

ψ

See also the above note later become a post:

Roman Limes. Between Two Worlds

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