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Tag Archives: Islamic culture

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)

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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

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

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For the same theme though in a wider picture:

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

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