Mediterranean localism has been forged as much by quarrels and misunderstandings whose sources sometimes predate written culture. Still, no other region in the world will combine tribal resentment and intolerance with an equally overwhelming agreement in what a good life and poise should be when sitting at the table with family and friends.
Ancient Egyptians called their sea Wadj-Ur, or Wadj-Wer (“great green”); ancient Greeks called it Thálassa (θάλασσα, “the Sea”); to the Romans, it was the Mare Magnum (“Great Sea”), Mare Internum (“Internal Sea”), or Mare Nostrum. Isidore of Seville, archbishop of Seville in the 7th century, authored the first existing record of the term “Mediterraneum” (a sea between lands), probably used before him.
To the East, its prosperous shores hosted ancient civilizations and benefited from nearby plant and animal domestication, mainly occurring in the Fertile Crescent.
Ancient sea, shared tradition
Many Europeans and Levantines, and by extension, their descendants worldwide, declare themselves a part of the culture and religion issued from the eastern end of the Mediterranean, conceptually between Athens (or Rome, or Constantinople) and Jerusalem.
North Africans and Near Easterners also gravitate towards the region between Cairo and, again, Jerusalem. The Mediterranean, called the “Roman Sea” by a mighty neighbor to the East, the Persians, is still present in the collective unconscious of people sometimes living thousands of miles away.
Localism is full of nuances, especially in the Eastern Mediterranean, where there’s been little to celebrate. At the beginning of the 2010s, the MENA region (Middle East and North Africa) held hopes of democratization and development, fueled by the rebellions against corruption and stagnation. Such hopes fell short, and some countries are experiencing regression instead of a turnaround for the better.
Migrant and humanitarian crisis in the Mediterranean? Check. Political instability that further fuels a sense of pervasive despair among the population? Check. Failed States after the deposition of strong men such as Gaddafi (replaced by armed groups)? Check. Natural disasters, from earthquakes, to floods? Check. Now, the unpredictable consequences of the Hamas attack and the Israeli response in Gaza.
Nobody born near the Mediterranean, whether in Europe, the Middle East, or North Africa, can consider the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as something utterly foreign to them; it’s happening within the boundaries of a place that has long forgotten about the things it shared, despising weak equilibriums done by old Empires to assure conviviality and protect minorities.
A region where delicately stuffed vine leaves (Greek “dormades” or “dolmas,” Turkish “sarma,” Lebanese “warak enab,” etc.) assure a minimum degree of quotidian sanity among everyday calamities, especially when things derail with a fatalistic point of no return. And what to say about hummus, the savory dip spread made from mashed chickpeas with tahini, lemon juice, and garlic? Eaten on a salad or as a dip with pita bread, it’s considered a local treasure from Cairo to Istambul. Can the different communities in the region at least agree on their appreciation for this old dip, already mentioned in the Old Testament (Ruth 2:14)? But mind you, this is the Eastern Mediterranean.
Serbian American economist Branko Milanovic commented recently, in a fatalistic tone, that “perhaps the real meaning of the ‘end of history’ is that we shall go back to the prehistory of tribal wars of all against all, devoid of any meaning, with no real aim but killing, and no end in sight.”
Many Turkish, Syrian, Lebanese, Jordanians, Palestinians, or Israelis will claim that hummus is a national dish instead of a typical Middle Eastern (and Eastern Mediterranean) staple. It may adopt localisms, use different amounts, or include slightly different ingredients, but its quintessence talks about a shared way of looking into the tangible and non-tangible elements of local cultures, whose idiosyncrasies share so many commonalities.
The Triad, and the lifestyle it fosters
The Arab Spring, the Syrian war, the secular systemic crisis in Lebanon, a recent devastating earthquake in the Turkish-Syrian border followed by another in Morocco, and a bigger influence of extremist views dictating the Israeli-Palestinian conflict leave little to share or celebrate in a region in which music, food, architecture, preferred colors, aspirations, or subconscious allure are often complementary or similar, if not the same.
Is cuisine the last common denominator that could drive some sense of shared localism in the Levant? The Mediterranean Triad of cereals, olives, and grapes has forged the region since the Bronze Age and beyond. With the collapse of Bronze Age civilizations, Canaanite religious beliefs evolved into proto-Abrahamic beliefs. Centuries after, in the Bible, we read parables about these staples and can imagine the ancient agrarian wealth in a region that was becoming more arid:
“They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD— the grain, the new wine, and the olive oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more.”Jeremiah 31:12
The Greek symposium (their banquets) combined simple food with wine and fruit, as well as amusement, and its success depended on the wealth of such ingredients and their derivatives. Olives, figs, fish, pomegranate, grapes, and grain, central in Greek and Roman food, appear in all Abrahamic sacred books, the Quran included.
Sauces with olive oil, herbs, nuts, and other common ingredients (garlic, cappers, etc.) bear a recognizable taste in the region since Roman times, eaten with fish, vegetables, bread, milk derivates, and dairy products. Like anywhere else, the Mediterranean rapidly integrated staples coming from the Americas and other regions during the first era of rapid globalization, the Columbian Exchange. However, the Mediterranean diet has remained distinctive, sharing its ethos across the entire Basin.
Make a sauce, improvise the rest
Muhammara sauce, a Levantine staple adopted by the Turkish as an echo of the old Ottoman reality (built, like the minarets of Hagia Sophia, on top of a Byzantine substratum), will be enjoyed by a Greek commensal, who won’t find its taste “foreign.” In essence, muhammara (which means “reddened” in Arabic), a spicy dip made of nuts, red peppers, pomegranate, and breadcrumbs, will feel in place next to a similar sauce from the Western Mediterranean like the Catalan romesco sauce, which includes tomato (from the Columbian Exchange) but also almonds, pine nuts and/or hazelnuts, olive oil, pepper and flour or bread. The similarities aren’t a coincidence.
Conversely, the Spanish or Italian sofrito sauce, a list of aromatic ingredients sautéed in cooking oil for an extended period, brought to the Americas by Southern European migrants, has Levantine counterparts, though arguably richer in spices. To some of us, life without sofrito would be just more complicated —and less flavorful.
The culinary common ground that would help build a “pan-Mediterranean cuisine” case is unquestionable. However, the deconstruction of an intermingled culture cross-pollinated for millennia from the Fenician and Greek outposts of Iberia to the Fertile Crescent has made a deep imprint. Albert Camus rebelled against the secular misrepresentation of “the other shore,” the non-Europeans (as if many were not the same peoples, settled in Oran, Cartago, Tripoli, or Alexandria) when Meursault, the alienated protagonist of The Stranger, gets obfuscated by the sun at a beach in French Algeria and decides to shoot “the Arab” down. Why? He doesn’t know.
Meursault and his apathy and inability to relate to a person who, unlike Algerians of European or Jewish origin, weren’t full French citizens. Sounds odd? Not when describing the relationship between Europeans and non-Europeans in a sea that didn’t make such distinctions in other moments of history.
Origins of a process of antagonization
Before the Arab expansion across Northern Africa and most of Iberia, North Africa saw the rise of influential scholars shown as pillars of Western culture, like Berber philosopher Augustine of Hippo, born in 4th-century Hippo Regius, Roman Numidia (north-east Algeria). Saint Augustine was “one of us” for Western culture from the beginning, influencing Protestantism in Northern Europe over one millennium later.
Another historical figure, though less known to non-scholars, is Don Julián, a lord serving the interests of Byzantium in Ceuta and Tangiers who first submitted to the king of Visigothic Spain, but facilitated the Islamic conquest of Spain. Given Don Julián’s symbolic role as a villain in Spanish history—explains the legend—is driven by vengeance since Rodrigo, the last Visigothic king, abused his daughter.
Barcelona writer Juan Goytisolo used the legend of Don Julián to explain his complicated relationship with North Africa in Count Julian. Camus’ Meursault otherizes the Arab by committing an abulic, listless crime; like the American Beat Generation, Goytisolo uses the region as a receptacle of exotic (often homosexual) desire, though decades later. Goytisolo, who lived in Morocco at the end of his life, uses the historical taboos of modern Iberia, constructed around the local Crusade of the Reconquista, to incite his readers’ deepest Jungian enemies deep in the European collective unconscious.
Spain buried a rich history in which scholars of Jewish, Christian, and Muslim origin described the world and influenced mathematics, philosophy, cartography, and art.
Through Italian expeditions to the East and South and cartographic works like the Catalan Atlas, the Medieval collective unconscious relating the East with “moors” invading Southern Europe and Saracens taking over the Holy Land reached its apex with the Turkish advances in Eastern Europe, stopping at the doors of Vienna; in the Mediterranean, the Habsburgs (Spanish Empire) and their Italian allies defeated the Ottomans, and built upon the civilizational antagonism represented by Europeans on one side, and Saracens on the other side.
Napoleon facing the pyramids
The relative religious emancipation represented by the Enlightenment expanded European interests onto the Middle East, establishing a perception of the region that perdures in Western culture: in the context of the French Revolution, the 1798 Egypt campaign of young Napoleon used modern propaganda tools to create the language of “orientalism,” or the European perception contrasting scientific progress with Eastern backwardness and barbarism.
Palestinian-American intellectual Edward Said studied the effect of otherization caused by orientalism in the Western perception of the region and was criticized at home and abroad for doing so. His efforts to influence a Palestinian democratic tradition devoid of extremism failed and made Said’s position in the US controversial, showing the suppression of nuance and the fall from grace of Palestinian legitimate vindications after the 9/11 attacks. Edward Said even came under FBI surveillance for his pro-Palestinian “activities,” an overreach that won’t look good in history and that explains the delicate and mostly one-sided position of Western diplomacy regarding the conflict.
We regard figures like Saint Augustine and Marco Polo as a part of the foundation of Western culture. But we struggle to recognize (at least in the popular conscience) the influence of intellectuals and explorers between these antagonized parts of the Old World, like the Maghrebi traveler Ibn Battuta or the Andalusi diplomat and author Johannes Leo Africanus. Andalusian polymaths like Maimonides (a Sephardic Jew) and Averroes (a Muslim) influenced European modernity by commenting on classical Greek philosophy and bringing the most advanced astronomy, physics, or mathematics into 12th-century Europe. Yet their recognition has only materialized in obscure academia, never in popular culture.
Eating, then and now
In the Mediterranean Basin, Jungian archetypes may differ depending on localisms. However, the old agrarian Triad is alive, contributing to the region’s pride and raison d’être: wheat, olive oil, and grapes/wine, already present in Ancient Egypt’s texts, Sumerian cuneiform clay tablets, the Old Testament, or Greek myths, are the region’s symbolic staple from the Middle East to the Portuguese island outposts, shaping its personality —and offering unexplored opportunities for reconciliation.
When winter comes, I relish a product from the region, equally recognized by Levantines, Turkish, people from the Balkans, Italians, Iberians, or Northern Africans: dried figs. My grandparents used to prepare them for us, and now my parents prepare them for our children; I’m sure other families across the Mediterranean maintain such meaningful traditions. Dry fruits were already a part of the diet in ancient Greece. Some athletes practiced “xērophagía” (ξηροφαγία), a strategy relying on dry figs, fresh cheese, and bread.
When discussing the Mediterranean diet, we detach the food and its preparation from the places and people that developed it. Healthy and recognized after early studies showed its effects on well-being, the Mediterranean diet (rich in fruits, vegetables, legumes, whole grains, nuts, seeds, lean proteins, and healthy fats) has a protective effect.
This effect stems from the region’s attitude towards food and gatherings. Food can protect the heart —and it can arguably protect the spirit, for sharing it with friends and family or at a café on a nice day also has protective effects, only difficult to quantify. Could the Mediterranean diet become not only a successful export from the region but an opportunity to recognize ourselves, with no exception, as we sit at the table and share a table, a meal, looking at each other, and holding a conversation?
Making one’s own olive oil
The Mediterranean’s imprint in popular culture is mighty, as tourism in the area demonstrates: of the five most visited countries in the world in 2022, four of them concentrate part of their attraction along their share of Mare Nostrum: France was the most visited country, followed by Spain, Turkey is fourth (after the US), and Italy fifth. Other regional destinations, from Portugal (counted here as “Mediterranean” despite their Atlantic reality) to Greece. Instability plays a role in tourism and partly explains why some destinations in North Africa and the Middle East have stagnated in times of perceived turmoil, benefiting their neighbors on the north shore.
In popular culture, there’s such thing as visiting the Mediterranean and falling for the cultural patina of old cities, the nonchalant lifestyle and quality of life, and an archetypical landscape of Virgilian “otium ruris” (enjoying the countryside), with rolling hills blending vineyards, lavender fields, fruit and nut trees, and clustered populations blending their color with their surroundings.
Retiring somewhere on the Mediterranean shore to make some wine or olive oil is an irresistible dream for some, especially when the hassles of such an endeavor aren’t factored in. When a few days ago, a known Levantine, Nassim Nicholas Taleb (very vocal on the importance of recognizing the nuances of localism in the region), shared pictures of his small batch production of extra virgin olive oil (from somewhere in Lebanon, I suppose), some people could relate so readily:
“This emotional moment when you taste your own olive oil. 100% organic. The trees are young (planted them myself), but the yield is increasing rapidly. Meanwhile, the ‘Olive Balsamique’ by ‘A L’OLIVIER’ has 16% olive oil, 59% Rapeseed oil, a ratio of 3.8 to 1.”
In this message, all of us who were born or drawn to the magnetism and many good things regarding the shores of the old sea are all in, no matter who we are or where we live. Some people may consider this a very low bar, but sharing things without having the feeling one is constantly negotiating or trying to know what to say or how to act because of all the pain and trauma involved in some conflicts is necessary and refreshing.
When Syrians suffered the war, then an earthquake, when Beirut families had to brace to overcome the collapse of the Lebanese banking system and then suffer a shattering explosion caused by confiscated ammonium nitrate left to fester in the harbor, others in the Levant and North Africa suffer the contingencies they constantly endure, they may appreciate to see ways to relate.
Even if we are merely talking of conviviality, a taste for patina and the organic beauty of things, a respect in giving things the time they may deserve.
Maybe by recognizing a common intangible cultural heritage we can recognize each other beyond the painful, fatalistic zeitgeist.