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 in this side of the planet. Of course there are differences, but we are not so dissimilar as someone might (or likes to) think and our religions themselves, apparently dividing us, are in reality related to 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 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), and we, in our narrow-mindedness, do not much 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 southern Mediterranean: take Ostuni, in Apulia, or Sperlonga, in the south of Latium; then look 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 southern Mediterranean coasts, where civilization (and power) lay. Needless to say, when a Roman – and even more a Neapolitan (not to mention a Sicilian) – hears an Arabic melody he feels hidden strings vibrating in his soul.
Going further back in time let us remember the mortal war between Rome and Carthage (we are returning then to immortal Tunisia), 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 (thence Tunisian), forsaken by the Trojan hero, stabbed herself after predicting eternal hate between Rome and Carthage. So from love sprang hate, and from hate a tremendous war (thus says the legend): a moment of history – this war, historical of course, not legendary – that decided whether the Mediterranean was to be dominated by its northern or its southern shores. The North (and Rome) won, by a hair’s breadth though, we have to say.
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 person who showed interest in them. Since we were drinking beer together 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.
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 both by 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? We do not know, but we are almost sure Anthony’s interest in Egypt was not only political.
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.
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 our 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.