The Arab World Geographer

AWG 2001 Conference in Malta

Geographies of the Euro-Arab Encounter:
Past, Present, and Future

Thursday 4 October 2001
Speech Dr Anthony Spiteri, Director EUMENESS, University of Malta

Honourable Minister,
Your Excellency,
University Rector,
Presidents of the Associations,
Honourable guests,
Ladies and gentlemen.

On behalf of EUMENESS – The European Mediterranean Network for the Social Sciences, - I greet and welcome you

Today we are gathered here as academics in service to the cause of understanding how to further the encounter of horizons which, for too long, have remained unnecessarily unfamiliar to each other – the European and Arabic life worlds.

The Mediterranean space, as is well known, is emblematic as a region of the European Arabic encounter. It is a region that has been the hearth place for Arabs and Europeans for generations. Indeed, it is a tapestry of cultures and life-forms whose Arabic and European roots are paramount. EUMENESS, as a network concerned with the European Mediterranean encounter is principally another expression of the effort to bolster the European Arabic rapprochement.

One of the issues EUMENESS often encounters in mentioning the Mediterranean is whether there is such a thing as a Mediterranean identity at all. For example, many countries whose southern boarders stretch along the Mediterranean sea often find themselves faced with competing interests with their northern priorities – possibly compromising their Mediterraneanness. Countries along the Mediterranean’s littoral share various dissimilarities, which tend to be most noticeable between the north and south. And the same is true for the east and west of its shores. One can subregionalize and fragmentalize further only to end up construing the Mediterranean as no more than a space of subregions rather than as a unified reference of identity. Portugal, for example, doesn’t even boarder the Mediterranean Sea and yet is readily counted amongst the Mediterranean countries. To look for a definition of the Mediterranean in things rather than thoughts, could mean that the only true Mediterranean is the constellation of Cyprus, Crete, and Malta. And that is intuitively and fundamentally just not convincing. So what can we say is single and unifying about the Mediterranean?

To answer I think we must look for its meaning in dialectical terms rather than in referential terms of correspondence.
The identity of such a geo-cultural entity must be sought in more than in any crude concept of terrain or single sense of sensibility. It cannot be defined, but only lived and shared. It is a question of belonging, a way of life that takes form and undergoes change through history.

This sense of Mediterranean being lies in the tension between poles of attraction that link one to the other and never one without the other. Mediterranean identity originates here, from its coming and going. But each day, this identity is re-invented; since no identity is ever stagnant but flows with the ups and downs of the times, it is a creation in real time. The Mediterranean identity is a polyphonic expression, at once, one and many, a plainsong that stands out from the noises of the world, made up of several solo rhythms of the soul.

The Mediterranean then is not a substantial identity that relies on essence but an identity-relation made up of multiple interactions, the continuous marks and interlaced heritages that are part and parcel of Mediterranean history. The Mediterranean is the emblematic meeting place between cultures, a permanent hearth for exchange between different religions and cultures. So much like the horizon, identity is often elusive and tends to recede as one approaches. As Claudio Margis puts it “the current debate on the Mediterranean is more of a quest for a common heritage and belonging, thanks to the discovery or rather the invention of traditions, customs, habits, styles of architecture, life and thought that, in a certain way, tend to become a unifying force, despite all the differences”.

The Mediterranean then, as a paradigm of intercultural identity is symbolized within each one of us who seeks to live in recognition and respect with the other. The Mediterranean is not then, any single reference of correspondence such as the sea basin or the sea bed. It is a dialectical notion of interculturality – a seamless fabric of values, a region on earth reflected within the soul where apollonian and Dionysian values can be reconciled, a place where grace and dancing can outdo the weight of things, a source of light and clarity.

Relating to the Mediterranean, as these Nietzschean traces suggest, is relating to the south in oneself, extending above one’s head a clear, splendid, mysterious southern sky; regaining the southern vigour and the health of the soul that it brings; becoming gradually more vast, more supernatural, more European, Arabic and eastern.

Thank you.

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