Collective Identities in the Mediterranean

José Miguel G. Cortés

Universidad Politécnica, Valencia

Based on the example of Beirut, a city in ongoing reconstruction with a multidenominational identity, we can ask ourselves about the construction of a collective identity in the Mediterranean region, a place where today identities are constantly challenged and problematised. In recent decades, many intellectuals have worked and created around the key issue of the reencounter between the Arab world and the West and, in this respect, it is worth highlighting the work of Mona Hatoum, a Lebanese artist of Palestinian origin exiled in London. In her pieces, Hatoum reflects on the fragile balance of the Middle East, extrapolating it to the state of the whole planet. Thus, the artist argues for the importance of memory in identity while reminding us about the instability of life, maps or borders. The world is, therefore, an apparently organised place, which at any moment can move, lose balance or be displaced.

Lebanese artists Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige said, in one of their more suggestive pieces, that “Beyrouth n’existe pas”, Beirut does not exist. And they did so because they understood that the Lebanese capital does not have a limited and essentialist identity but rather is experiencing an ongoing reconstruction process, the result of the endless convergences and resistances that come together every day in such a big city. However, if this is so for Beirut, can we speak of a collective identity construction for all the countries and cultures around the Mediterranean Sea? What would this vague and blurred conception of the Mediterranean identity consist of? How can people living their everyday existence in such a radically different way share an identity? What can people for whom the Mediterranean is an abyssal border have in common with those who use it as a space of pleasure and enjoyment? These questions are difficult to answer because we are experiencing complex situations and turbulent times in which identity(ies) are being problematised and challenged. Ultimately, it is also true, and hence the complexity and interest of the issue, that when we are referring to the Mediterranean Sea we are capable of finding, in a given shared collective imaginary, experiences, climates, relations, landscapes, odours, lifestyles, special organisations… that bring together the peoples of the North and South of that sea, on whose shores we can see all the people living there reflected.

For this reason, perhaps we can speak of a certain feeling of belonging, of “urgency”, if you prefer, rather than of common identity. Because, although in recent decades the distances between the two shores have widened and the Mediterranean has become a border, boundary or mass grave for thousands of people from the southern countries, we still recognise ourselves close to each other in certain gestures, attitudes, tastes or desires. Perhaps we can still re-establish relations based on peer-to-peer collaboration and solidarity. Consequently, and although these are not the best of times and many of us share undoubtedly truncated hopes, we cannot or should not stop wondering about our relationship with the Mediterranean and its surrounding peoples. In this way, questioning ourselves, wishing to know more about our neighbours, renouncing a colonial past concerning the southern countries, avoiding prejudices about ways of living, dressing or relating with the others or the desire to not impose our points of views, mainly responds to the will to know, build and develop new narratives that enable us to intervene in a diverse and contradictory socio-cultural context.

Trade, economic development, social and cultural relations, exchanges and pleasure trips have affected the history of this geographical area since time immemorial

How can we imagine the political and cultural relevance of a sea that is much more than a sea? How can we think about the common elements of countries that are both so close and distant? Languages, religions and lifestyles that often seem similar and sometimes irreconcilable help to build societies historically related by different links and that, however, for the most disadvantaged people, are completely different worlds. Sometimes I wonder whether the idea of the Mediterranean, as a historical and social entity, is an invention of the rich northern countries, which owes a great deal to mythical fancies about a splendorous past, along with a present full of mistrust, marginalisation and ignominy towards the southern countries. Do the people of Morocco, Italy, Spain, Palestine or Greece really have a similar vision of the Mediterranean or, rather, is it for some an attractive idea while for others just an almost unassailable border?

Be that as it may, the truth is that the relevance, in one sense or another, granted to the Mediterranean is a constant feature in all cultures that have emerged and developed around it: its presence has always been determinant in cultural creation and marks the life of those living close to this sea. Trade, economic development, social and cultural relations, exchanges and pleasure trips have affected the history of this geographical area since time immemorial. In the last century, the issue has not changed and there are many experiences that, to some extent, have extensively documented and recreated such a significant natural space from all points of view. Certainly, until well into the 20th century in the Western world, quite an amiable, light and pleasurable vision of the Mediterranean prevailed as an area understood as a space in which to project many dreams and desires. However, from the last decades of the 20th century, the mainstream vision notably changed, and from a legendary place in which – almost – anything was possible we have moved to a space where fear, misunderstanding, death and horror prevail. What before was an area of free movement and meeting, today is a border in which the nearest neighbours are not welcome.

The different shores of the Mediterranean are close enough to enable the intense contacts between them, but, at the same time, distant enough to make the development of very different societies possible. All of them are societies that receive, at some time, the influence of their own inland territories and of the other side of the sea, which sometimes causes somewhat contradictory conflicts and situations. In any case, it seems clear that the close relationship between its different coasts has always had a highly important transforming effect on these societies; thus, for millennia the Mediterranean has been one of the most vigorous geographical areas of interaction between different peoples, and has played a fundamental role in the development of a civilisation that, in each historical period, has had a very different shape. For this reason, the history of the Mediterranean is also the history of its port cities: Corinth, Athens and Rome in Antiquity; Genoa, Venice or Barcelona in the Middle Ages; Izmir, Livorno or Istanbul in the Modern Age; Tel Aviv, Beirut or Marseilles in contemporary times. These cities, and many more, have acted as vectors for the transmission of social, political or religious ideas, and they all had a heterogeneous identity that they only lost in the second half of the 20th century, with the rise of nationalisms.

The great French historian Fernand Braudel argued that the Mediterranean must be understood as a space created by the constant movements, communication routes, and economic and human commercial links. According to Braudel, the Mediterranean is built by routes – land, sea or river –, an immense network of regular and chance relations, of a perennial distribution of life. In fact, when the steamboat appeared in the mid-19th century – much faster and more reliable than sailing boats – and the Suez Canal was opened in 1869, the Mediterranean became the fastest and safest way to connect East and West. Even today, the Mediterranean continues to be one of the geographical areas with the greatest number of links between the different cities that populate it, whether through the transport of goods, passengers, tourist ships, migrants or even data through submarine cables crossing it. However, as we can see in Braudel’s famous book on the Mediterranean, there is a desire or a temptation to try to find a certain common Mediterranean identity. As Braudel writes, what matters is to know to what extent the movement of ships, animals, vehicles or people constructs the Mediterranean as, from a certain point of view, a uniform unity despite local resistance. This second question would be the most debated and debatable. So much so that David Abulafia, another historian, in his well-known book The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean, does not agree with Braudel’s ideas and insists that greater attention must be paid to diversity and richness, both linguistic and religious, ethnic or political – subject to multiple external influences –, from which the towns, cities and islands that populate this sea are nourished, to understand that the extensive and even intimate relationship between them does not entail any possible kind of “Mediterranean unity”.

But it is true that, in recent decades, many intellectuals, writers and artists have focused their creation around the essential question of the reencounter between the Arab world and the West, their reciprocal history and their uncertain future. A wide range of works have been produced that refer to the thousands of colours, odours, landscapes and voices that appear in cities where markets and ports are a highly significant part, more than evident examples of a cultural, social and economic exchange that helps to shape “a common space”, which brings together all the possible Mediterraneans that are in the same sea. One of those important artists who has worked hardest to develop new forms and ways of seeing and (re)imagining the Mediterranean – and the relationships established between the different peoples surrounding it – is Mona Hatoum (Beirut, 1952). For several decades now, Hatoum has been developing, with great coherence and significant personal honesty, a series of works that tell us both about her Arab roots and her relationship with other cultures, other people and other forms of expressing or feeling. Hence, I wanted to unravel some fundamental aspects of her artistic creation so that they enable us to understand the difficulties involved in defending a specific identity, without it becoming an instrument that constrains freedom. In fact, her creative work is fed by two central aspects: one, the desire to achieve independence both from Islamic religious fanaticism and the colonial tutelage of the great Western powers; and two, the construction of open and plural identities that go far beyond the borders and the political or mental maps established authoritarianly.

Hatoum has been developing, with great coherence and significant personal honesty, a series of works that tell us both about her Arab roots and her relationship with other cultures, other people and other forms of expressing or feeling

Mona Hatoum is the daughter of Palestinian parents exiled in Lebanon, and she herself ended up in exile in London after the outbreak, in 1975, of the civil war. A personal story shared by millions of people who experience situations of exile and displacement around the world and feel, at all times, “out of context”, with the sensation of not being from anywhere and inhabiting an unstable social, personal and precarious territory, provisional, full of uncertainties, where memory and identity are elusive. Since the 19th century, the city of Beirut has played a very important role in the Arab world. At the end of that century, Beirut, together with Cairo and Damascus, was the centre of the intellectual world of the region.

Later, upon gaining independence from the French mandate in 1943, the Lebanese capital became a leading commercial, economic and cultural centre. It was a city that maintained strong Arab roots, while generously opening up to the introduction of Western culture and ways of life.

The delicate and precarious balance of faiths established over the years has exploded on several occasions with all its contradictions, creating a turbulent history with deep social fractures

In fact, Lebanon is a country historically characterised as a multidenominational society – there are about eighteen communities recognised by law –, with Maronite Christians being the largest community, followed by Sunni Muslims and Shiites. But, nevertheless, the delicate and precarious balance of faiths established over the years has exploded on several occasions with all its contradictions, creating a turbulent history with deep social fractures.

The fratricidal confrontation between the various militias greatly transformed the urban and social configuration of Beirut. All these circumstances, and especially the intensity, duration – fifteen years – and violence generated by the civil war itself, had, beyond the economic disasters and the collapse of infrastructures, a great psychological impact on its population. Shattered and deeply traumatised by that conflict, Beirut remains haunted by the ghosts of war, violence and death. The terrible war of 1975-1990 caused nearly 200,000 deaths, a battered economy, tremendous social upheaval, population displacement and a country in ruins. By the time the war ended, about a third of the buildings in the traditional centre of Beirut – the focal point of the conflict – had been irreparably damaged.

In a widely devastated city, the essential problem for its inhabitants and their memory is the loss not only of cherished objects but also of the reference points of what were their city and their daily life. The destruction was so extensive and the traumas so intense that, somehow, the city had to learn again to live with the others, with the different communities. Thus, the experience of war is not only related to the physical destruction of the city but also to the reorganisation of society, the separation of families, and the division of communities. Although the war ended several decades ago, today it is still present, in one way or another, in everyday life: it has taken on invisible forms and shifted to less obvious places. As the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury explains, once peace was achieved, a new war began whose victims were no longer the people but the buildings, the avenues and the planning of the city. Thus, the Beirut reconstruction project became a war against the city’s memory, a war for oblivion. For Khoury himself, the bulldozers and machines that flooded the capital of Lebanon were a symbol of the new world order invading Beirut, in an attempt to achieve a collective amnesia: amnesty for militia leaders and politicians involved in war crimes; the neoliberal reconstruction of downtown Beirut, which prioritised privatisation and speculation over the preservation of communal stories; the absence of any aspect referring to the civil war in school textbooks or the non-existence of public monuments and memorials dedicated to its victims. This accumulation of violent personal ruptures has led many contemporary Lebanese artists to focus their work on the desire to show the collective memories and aspirations of their country. They are intellectuals who have devoted great energy and creativity to examining the state of destruction produced in personal lives and in urban public spaces in Beirut; and they have also exposed the most tragic and disconcerting effects of violence as a broad process of personal therapy that helps to recover from the trauma of war, the reorganisation of society and to overcome family or community barriers, in order to create a new hope for the country.

The ephemeral nature of soap holds within it the promise of dissolving those unjust borders and stands in stark contrast to the centuries-old tradition of soapmaking preserved by Palestinians

It is in this context that Mona Hatoum’s work must be analysed, especially everything related to the memory and identity of her people, since memory helps us to know who we are and where we come from. With this in mind, there are multiple experiences that help us to shape a changing identity, away from clichés and stereotypes. This is the case of the piece Present Tense, (1996-2011), an installation in the form of a grid, consisting of 2,200 blocks of soap made with olive oil from the city of Nablus, north of Jerusalem, in which tiny red glass beads have been embedded that outline the borders of the cantons or separated regions – uprooted from historic Palestine by the Oslo Accords (1993) – that would make up the future Palestinian State. The ephemeral nature of soap holds within it the promise of dissolving those unjust borders and stands in stark contrast to the centuries-old tradition of soap-making preserved by Palestinians. This is a work linked to the creation of multiple maps, maps that become metaphors for the instability of life itself, of a fragile existence, of a shaky and unexpected geography that questions or denies social and personal identities. At least that is the impression that invades us when we contemplate that set of small and fragile marbles in Map (Clear) (2021) that make up the world map created by Hatoum: an apparently ordered world that at any moment can move, unbalance or be displaced and cause the greatest disaster, because the borders would blur, the limits would be lost and what today seems clear and sharp to us would become an amalgamation of unknown areas and unexpected places: one false step and the marble would bring about a fall. The world on this map will end up disintegrating; it will be filled with islands and holes. Thus, Hatoum’s maps are objects full of strangeness that subvert their own character; maps made with very fragile materials to which, it seems, the world is about to succumb.

At the same time and on repeated occasions, Hatoum offers us a set of works of great physical strength, which take us to experiences generically linked to violence and war but closely related to their origins. They are all threatening pieces that offer a hopeless vision, making us understand that we live in permanent conflict; or they refer to an institutional violence that regulates and puts under surveillance the lives of individuals. In view of these works, we might think that we have precipitated ourselves into a spiral of conflict with no possible peaceful solution, with our entire world on fire, as we see, for example, in Hot Spot (2013). In this piece, the artist speaks metaphorically of a world mired in conflict whose regions are at risk of wars, citizen unrest, ethnic cleansing or religious persecution. This hot spot is the planet itself: conflict is omnipresent and incessant. Along with the enormity of the human suffering that spreads across its surface, the Earth itself is facing a danger due to the increasingly real effects of climate change. With the same 23-degree tilt of the Earth’s axis and a diameter of 223 centimetres, this stainless steel lattice dial features geographical references outlined in bright red neon. The demarcations of the continents pulsate with a red light that seems to give off heat, or perhaps electrical discharges. The piece, although not in itself unsafe, conveys a sense of danger. For this reason, looking at these works, I wonder if this way of representing the world does not have something to do with a certain feeling of belonging and, at the same time, of detachment; to be part of a world from which we would simultaneously be exiled.

Mona Hatoum’s work contains constant references to the fragility of human existence, a fragility that is reflected both in the materials she chooses and in the situations she represents

Mona Hatoum’s work contains constant references to the fragility of human existence, a fragility that is reflected both in the materials she chooses – from thread to hair, soap or glass marbles – and in the situations in which she represents interiors inhabited by burned furniture, claustrophobic spaces, sharp objects… The works mentioned here are a great metaphor for the times we are currently experiencing in the Mediterranean, times of instability, questioning of identity and violence. The dreams and desires, the fears and the chimeras that structure our daily life are reflected in many of her pieces, everything that helps to make up the identity of the human being, an existence that is torn between belonging or estrangement and that questions the individual and collective imaginaries that populate the Mediterranean Sea.