The Mediterranean as Segregation

ZNET | Babelmed | 13/02/2007

“I define myself as Tunisian, Arab, Muslim, and migrant. There is also another very important element in the constitution of my identity and that is my clear position, in terms of social group and class, in favour of oppressed people. This rather strange mix (“intreccio” was the evocative word he used in his speech in Italian) of elements makes me what I am, not only in an ideal way, because it also determines precisely, concretely my individual, political praxis, my way of thinking, my way of acting. In this mixture that constitutes me the Mediterranean is not present. In my identity I don’t feel I belong to the Mediterranean.”

It’s late on a beautiful Friday evening in Rome. Omeyya Seddik, from the Mouvement de l’Immigration et des Banlieues, a federation of 50 committees from the suburbs of Paris, speaks with the uncompromising clarity and passion of an experienced civil society activist. He explains that he is a Tunisian who lives in France and as a Tunisian he is part of coalition of parties, associations and leading figures that opposes the regime of the Tunisian president General Ben Ali. Omeyya Seddik is a member of the committee set up by Tunisian emigrants that is part of this movement for democracy in Tunisia which is called Mouvement du 18 octobre.

He argues that for him, and for Arabs generally, the issue is not “What is the Mediterranean?” but rather “Why isn’t the Mediterranean present?”

Taking Sides
“For the people to whom I feel I belong, the Mediterranean is something that divides. It is a sea where our brothers and sisters die every day because there’s a colonial relationship that has existed for a long time and is becoming stronger. The name of this relationship is ‘the Mediterranean.’” Omeyya describes this sea as a “spatial segregation.” “You,” he tells us Europeans, “can visit us whenever you want; we cannot. This stops the Mediterranean from being something clear.”

Raffaella Bolini, president of ARCI, one of the associations that organized Medlink, believes that we need to articulate better an anti-neoliberal and anti-war position and to create a universal language. She believes that the place for this sort of encounter and dialogue, for this articulation is the Mediterranean, “the possible frontier of the clash of civilizations,” a place where there is urgent need for an alternative. Raffaella is aware that “many of our friends on the Southern coast contest our rhetoric about the Mediterranean as a sea of peace. For them, the Mediterranean is a border between the colonized and colonial powers, the cemetery of youngsters from the South.” She augured, or perhaps even promised, that at Medlink the civil society activists would invent, create a common sea.(1)

Omeyya travelled to Rome from Beirut where he has been “trying to build solidarity with the Lebanese people and with the resistance” ever since the start of the latest Israeli war on Lebanon in August 2006. In a steady voice that is however full of emotion he goes on to identify another major obstacle. “The Mediterranean is a place where there is an enormous problem. I will call it State of Israel. Many Arabs do not trust the concept of the ‘Mediterranean’ because they believe that talking about the Mediterranean is a way of pretending that the antagonism doesn’t exist.”

He describes Israel as “a state that has never stopped waging wars, that has never stopped systematically destroying a people, never. All the political forces that were in government did the same thing. It has never stopped waging wars everywhere. I experienced this myself when they bombed Tunisia, and then Lebanon. This is one of the constitutive elements of this state. I talk from experience. I don’t want to talk about historical legitimacy. I don’t give a damn about historical legitimacy. I ask the Palestinians to excuse me. I don’t want to talk about whose country this is. […] I only want to talk about what this State has been doing for decades. And what it continues to do. And this state, I’m sorry to say, does not form part of the Mediterranean. It is an obstacle to the Mediterranean. If we do not say this we cannot create the Mediterranean.”

Omeyya explains that for him, making it clear whose side you’re on is vital. He refers to Raffaella Bolini’s speech at Medlink and to her article in the national communist daily Liberazione. Raffaella writes that we feel the need to build a network of people, what she calls “un gruppo di affinità,” from among those who refuse the logic of taking sides, “la logica di schieramento.” It’s the kind of binary opposition that expects you or even forces you to choose between Bush and Bin Laden, between the Occupation of Palestine and suicide bombers. She calls this old phenomenon “the logic of the enemy” which is present everywhere, even in the Left and in certain movements.

Omeyya points out that he understands perfectly what Raffaella Bolini is saying. “I understand the pain of the person who is forced to choose between terrorism and the United States. I understand this. But if we go a bit deeper things are a bit more complicated. To work together it is necessary for people to establish which side they are on.” The Arabs feel “that they are living a permanent war. The issue is not whether to choose between living in peace and being at war. The issue is that we are at war. And when there’s war, we have to do something. We have to take sides.”

“I’m not practising intellectual terrorism. In the First World War there were two warring sides and some pacifists refused to fight this war. It was a beautiful thing. They said, We don’t want this war. I hope that if I had lived in that period, during that war, I would have been able to make the same choice. But the war we are living today is not like the First World War. The war we are living today is a colonial war in which we have to choose, in which we have to take sides. In a war like this there’s an enemy and there’s a friend.” Omeyya points out that “Our peoples cannot understand an alliance,” and here he means Europe, or specifically the European Union, “that does not say that there is an enemy that is waging a war against our peoples,” that is, against the Arabs.

How can a Lebanese be part of an alliance in which he or she have to work with people who are associated with, or very close to forces that are allies of the United States of America in Lebanon after having “received tonnes of bombs and lived through a war.” How can one discuss alliances and cooperation with people who are allies of and work with those who have attacked Lebanon and its people?

Omeyya Seddik gives another example. “When there was a rebellion some time ago in Algeria, in the [mainly Berber] region of Kabylia, after the assassination of a teenager called Massinissa Guermah [in 2001], I went to Kabylia to deliver a declaration written by many Arab intellectuals to support the revolt. They defined themselves intentionally as Arabs to establish that they did not consider this to be a war between Berbers and Arabs. They considered this to be a just revolt, a social revolt against a state that denies the rights of the people. And in fact this revolt wasn’t only in Kabylia but also in many villages and cities outside the Berber areas that took part in the revolt. Nobody said this.”

But when he was there Omeyya had “enormous problems with two discourses that were in fact the same discourse: the first discourse was that of the State, of the military within the State that said that this revolt was an ethnic, Berber revolt that was threatening the State and unity of Algeria.” The other discourse which he could not accept was “a chauvinistic, ethnic Berber discourse of some of the social and political representative groups of Kabylia that were saying exactly the same thing.” They wanted, at all costs, to turn this just cause into an ethnic conflict. I position myself in favour of the right of the people to choose how to speak, which language they use, the right to choose to fight against injustice; but I also take sides against all discourse that divides people and creates social strife amongst them by turning everything into religious and ethnic conflicts.”

“I’ll give you another example, this time related to Tunisia. I don’t blame the organizers of Medlink for this, but how can I talk about alliances and cooperation when I have to speak to an audience which also includes spokespersons of the regime of Ben Ali?”

“And how can I not take sides on Iraq and Palestine? You can say that for me this is an aesthetic or spiritual choice, or whatever you want to call it. For me, resisting injustice is a sacred thing. But not all kinds of resistance in different parts of the world are sacred. Mistakes are made. But I have to take sides. I am on the side of the resistance and taking such a position is the condition to be able to work on how to resist. First we have to take the side of those who are resisting injustice, colonialism and occupation: that’s the first step without which we cannot cooperate to make the resistance more effective and closer to our vision of equality and so on.

Omeyya acknowledges, of course, that it is not easy to take sides because things are not simple and clear-cut, but someone who gets involved in politics or civil society must make the effort to see what is happening. “In Lebanon things are difficult. In Iraq things are difficult too. But in Iraq there is a resistance, even if there are things that are difficult to comprehend. Our duty is to go and see and understand what is happening to be able to take a position.”

The Mediterranean as Segregation
Nahla Chahal

A Locus of Dialogue and Action
Another Arab speaker who was critical of the whole notion of the Mediterranean as a locus of dialogue and action for civil society was Nahla Chahal (who spoke on Saturday 25 November), a Lebanese sociologist and university professor who now lives in Paris and was representing the Campagne Civile Internationale pour la Protection du Peuple Palestinien. The experience of the war on Lebanon in the summer of 2006 was also very vivid in her heart and mind.

For Arabs, she claimed, the Mediterranean exists as a “geographical space, not as a political space.” On the other hand, the Arabs expect a lot from Europe, but at the same time they are also very suspicious of its motives. This is clear in their assessment of the notion of a “Euromed” region or political process. “For Arabs ‘Euro’ and ‘Mediterranean’ are colonial terms. On one side there is Europe and on the other there is not the Arab world, there is the Mediterranean. What is this hybrid construct that means nothing?” asks Nahla Chahal. “They are either Euro Arabs or Euro something else or Mediterranean, but what is Euromediterranean, what is it in terms of concept or will? We Europeans are European and we once again orientate ourselves towards another sphere, the Mediterranean, and you once again do not exist.

Even with terminology one must be very careful, because the Arabs expect a lot from Europe, it is the closest entity to them with which they have many historical and cultural links. But also because Europe is a very important force with respect to American hegemony.” Nahla Chahal said that “Arabs ask themselves, what is Europe doing when an aggression takes place,” as happened in Lebanon, or “when the situation in Palestine is particularly bad?” When Europe does nothing the Arabs revive their negative memories of Europe as colonialist, as closer to the USA than to the embattled Arab world; “even memories of the the Crusades are revived, it’s to be expected.” The Arabs “expect” the Europeans to act, “and when you don’t, when you are absent, or when you act in the wrong way, this creates very big problems.”

The organizers of the Medlink meeting were fully aware of these “obstacles” and misgivings. In his introduction, Fabio Alberti, from the Italian NGO Un ponte per …, made it clear that, as shown by the first Mediterranean Social Forum held in Barcelona, one must not take it for granted that a civil society “Mediterranean” project is possible, because many civil society organizations find it difficult to conceive of the Mediterranean as “an appropriate space for action and dialogue.”

The Barcelona “Euromed” process initiated in 1995 as also tackled by Bruno Amoroso from the Università del bene comune. He believes that this process that focuses mainly on trade has failed: North-South commercial and cultural exchanges are based on oil and arms and attempts to foster more exchanges between countries in the South have not been successful. South-North emigration that was meant to be reduced has actually increased, leaving behind it a horrible trail of human tragedies. However, there has also been a revival of civil society both in the North and in the South, especially in Lebanon, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco.

The Mediterranean as Segregation
Nawal el-Saadawi

The Revival of Civil Society
The Italian civil society organizations who promoted the Medlink meeting believe that in recent years “another” Mediterranean has emerged represented by movements of organized civil society, local government administrations, intellectuals, journalists, artists and intellectuals, representatives of religions, trade unions, and womens’ groups. The organizers believe, and in some ways the meeting may have proved them right, that these “new” actors and networks “are building a new scenario, one in which an alternative is possible. The Mediterranean region can and must be a region built on dialogue, cooperation, solidarity. It can and must become the crossroads for new forms of relations between peoples, communities and societies. The Mediterranean must become the workshop for a new kind of citizenship based on rights, democracy, sovereignty, capable of nurturing a peaceful coexistence in peace, founded on social justice, on the free circulation of people, on the exchange and contamination of cultures, on socially and ecologically sustainable economies.”

At the end of his introductory speech, Fabio Alberti augured that civil society in the region will be able to work together to build a Mediterranean that is truly free: “free of hunger, illiteracy and poverty; free of war, occupation and colonialism; free of violence and fear; free to think, talk and write, free to wear the thousand colours of our sea.” No one will disagree with him, that’s for sure.

The big issue is how. Omeyya Seddik, Nahla Chahal and others seem to be suggesting that the Mediterranean can never become a locus of dialogue and action for a revitalized civil society unless the obstacles they singled out, from the brutal occupation of Palestine to a convenient noncommittal, even neocolonialist stance in the North, are dealt with. Getting people to talk to each other helps, and this is certainly what civil society in the Mediterranean can and must do, but where will we go from there?

Dialogue is vital, for as the influential Egyptian novelist, psychiatrist and writer Nawal el-Saadawi,(2) pointed out, people meet “for agreement and disagreement, because if we do not disagree we don’t learn. So we have to disagree and love each other, and that’s democracy.” But she also expressed what was perhaps a common feeling of frustration when, like Nahla Chahal, she asked us all: Where do we go from here?
1) Raffaella Bolini, “L’alternativa all’odio tutta da costruire. Mediterraneo e movimenti tra l’incudine e il martello,” Liberazione (23 November 2006).

Adrian Grima

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