Mediterranean Perceptions, a Long-Lasting Laboratory

Maria-Àngels Roque

Anthropologist, European Institute of the Mediterranean

Is there a shared imaginary of the Mediterranean? Or rather are ambiguity and rejection the discursive elements that make up this area? The truth is that many of the traditions that each group considers « their own » also belong to « the others » as they are the result of migrations, trade or mutual, often violent, civilising processes. These phenomena have developed over centuries, as Fernand Braudel pointed out in his study on the era of King Felipe II, which was characterised by the clash between the different cultures of the Mediterranean.

For the historian Fernand Braudel (1966), civilisations are layers of endless historical continuities. But this historian of the Mediterranean also believes that geographical genetics exist on both shores: the civilisation of the rocky promontories, ancient Mediterranean civilisations prior to the Roman settlement that have conferred on it a particular character in time. Both in the north and south of the Mediterranean, the features of the West have always been different from the East. From a sociological point of view, the phenomenon of the countryside-city opposition was a key issue that the Maghrebian historian Ibn Khaldun had already developed in the 14th century. Braudel argues that, from a historical point of view, the difference between Europe and Islam is that in Europe the cities imply « the peasant cultures » while in Islam there is a greater difference between these two elements.  

The approach to the Other has a long tradition in the Mediterranean. First Greco-Latin mythographers and historians, then Arab geographers and finally European Romantic writers and travellers left their fantastic, realistic or moral observations on the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea long before the weight of « Mediterraneaneity » fell almost exclusively on the shoulders of academic anthropology. 

From the outset of the discipline, in the late 19th century, the myths and descriptions of the Mediterranean have been – and still are – a source of reflection and comparison, to the extent of becoming a classical space in anthropology studies. Although it is true that part of anthropology was developed by colonialism, the colonial atrocities cannot simply be attributed to this discipline: the political doctrine or the economy, for instance, had more significance than anthropology itself, which at least provided a major corpus that today helps us to know about elements from other cultures that no other discipline would have provided. In any case, anthropology has also helped to put forward demands for equality by the subjected or peripheral cultures. We are not only referring to colonialism: we can apply the same idea to the homogenising and « civilising » nation-state.  

Are they the local cultures? Are they an adaptation to the territory, to ecology? Yes and no. The ownership and manifestation of a specific culture are based on a specific territory but we can never ignore the transformations of values or the aspirations of the people in these territories. Conflicts consume a great deal of energy; however, they frequently serve to drive the changes that adapt society and resources to a new reality. The contemporaneity of cultures consists of witnessing their own transformations. 

Cultures are increasingly more complex and, like it or not, societies are less homogenous in terms of lifestyles. Thus, it is a mistake to speak of contemporary societies as if we were speaking of societies enclosed in themselves with predetermined codes

It is difficult to describe a culture without taking into account otherness, given that the different human groups possess their own cultural specificities. When valuing a culture we tend to develop an ethnocentric character, in keeping with the classical concept of centre-periphery in relation to the prevailing system or position, as we can see in some Greek myths. Within a civilisation there will always be some guidelines that provide a “civilising” cohesion. These can consist of religious, legal, political or economic parities.

The ethos or behaviour of peoples is linked to collective values and representations, and these are linked to the specific history. In the social dynamic, values vary with time. Therefore, within everyday collective identities several lifestyles become apparent that entail new complexities and involve a friction-fusion between tradition and change.

The problem of current sociological analysis lies in the fact that cultures are increasingly more complex and that, like it or not, societies are less homogenous in terms of lifestyles. Thus, it is a mistake to speak of contemporary societies as if we were speaking of societies enclosed in themselves with predetermined codes. We find the same aspirations to welfare and security in the north and the south, each one seeking faults in the system. In the south, with the emergence of a civil society fighting to achieve citizen rights and, in the north, with critical currents faced with a system of exacerbated economic liberalism that has brought about a deep crisis in which the rights acquired are at risk.

Nietzsche was a great champion of the observation of cultures from their ethos. In The Birth of Tragedy he looks at classical Greek culture and establishes an approach in which he discerns the values that become apparent through their artistic expression. In this work he describes how, during tragedy, the state of civilisation remains on hold: man identifies with the satyr chorus, the primitive foundation of tragedy, and returns to a state prior to civilised life, where he coincides, in ecstasy, with the desire for universal life.

The Nietzschean analysis reveals how Greeks symbolised the conception of art, not through concepts but through embodiments of their deities Apollo and Dionysus. The Dionysian spirit may seem barbaric to the Apollonian spirit, but they cannot live without each other. In the necessary interaction, Nietzsche seeks to explain how the disappearance of the Dionysian spirit is related to the surprising degeneration of Greek society. Although focused on art, the Nietzschean distinction – and conjunction ‒ between Apollonian and Dyonisian is not just an artistic categorisation: it is the expression of forms of culture that, in the end, are lifestyles. The influence of these two expressive poles of representation has been very suggestive for intellectuals who have introduced them into their reflections on society in different fields.

Trends Creating Mediterranean Imaginaries 

After the Second World War, a large number of anthropologists who studied at the University of Oxford used fieldwork methodology to look for their study subjects in mountain areas, in the small Iberian, Italian or Greek peasant settlements or within the Maghreb or Middle East tribes. They were mainly Mediterranean communities in which we find some exoticism in relatively similar societies. The early comparative works include the essays collected by Julian Pitt-Rivers (1963) and J.G. Peristiani (1968), who tried to give substance to this notion of Mediterranean society by emphasising, beyond the real diversity of societies and cultures, the existence of related forms of social organisation and shares values. In contrast, we could cite the work by the anthropologist Ernest Gellner (1969), in which the term “Mediterranean” is used less to qualify shared features than to designate the “mirrored” oppositions between southern European Christianity and North African Islam. However, the realities are multiple and even in scientific studies we know that the results depend on the place of focus. If we deal with Mediterranean cultures, and we focus on orthodoxy, Gellner is right but if we look at popular practices we recognise the “family resemblance” of which Julian Pitt-Rivers talked.  

We should recall that in Europe the compliant stereotype of the Mediterranean was consolidated thanks to Romanticism. But this harmonious and solar culture to which Goethe referred on his journey to Italy quickly transformed into a synonym of backwardness and mere remembrance of the past. The essences of Greek and Roman classicism recovered by eminent Anglo-Saxon philologists were absorbed by Nordic culture and only thanks to artistic heritage would it maintain the honour of being “the cradle” of civilisation. In the late 19th century, in certain Italian, French and Spanish intellectual circles, the idea of the incapacity of the Latin people faced with the power and strength of Anglo-Saxons took shape, embodied by the Prussian victory over France and rounded off by the loss of the Spanish colonies. 

The end of colonialism and the need to create an identity different to that of the colonisers did not contribute too much to creating a “Mediterraneaneity” common to the two shores, as Albert Camus would have wished

The fact that the Latin identity served as a basis for Mussolini to dress the fascist spirit and that, after the Second World War, the French thinker Alexandre Kojève resumed the idea of the Latin Empire, did not enhance its prestige too much. In 1945, Kojève tried to persuade Charles De Gaulle that, under the leadership of France, Spain and Italy, as well as southern Mediterranean countries under French control, should join the Latin Empire. The end of colonialism and the need to create an identity different to that of the colonisers did not contribute too much to creating a “Mediterraneaneity” common to the two shores, as Albert Camus would have wished.

Several decades went by before the vision of the Mediterranean, at least the European Mediterranean, re-awoke positive images related to progress. We should recall that in the first Clash of Civilizations, published by Samuel Huntington in 1987, the author subdivided contemporary civilisations into Protestant Nordic, Catholic Latin, Arab, Slav, Hindu, Chinese, Malaysian, Japanese and African. Six years later, in the 1993 version, Huntington’s division had reduced the number of civilizations: Nordic and Latin formed a single group, which were now Western societies. 

After the Fordist industrial crisis, the decentralisation of more customised products and greater demand for services, small and medium-sized family enterprises that seemed close to extinction reappeared in Italy and Spain, as values on the rise. In Italy, the Veneto, Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany emerged in what I would call “the third Italy”, whose regions are considered the wealthiest and most dynamic and are not related to the model of industrial Italy, the North or the Mezzogiorno. In the case of Spain, Catalonia, Valencia and the Balearic Islands embodied the emerging Latin arc, in which the human capital of which the sociologist Robert Putman speaks was valued. 

Until the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, the 1990s were a time of creation of dialogue and search for Mediterranean cultural bridges. The 1st Euro-Mediterranean Ministerial Conference held in 1995 was a historical milestone, when the idea of creating a free trade area by 2010 was discussed. Politicians mentioned for the first time the need to have civil society as the driver of development and democracy of the peoples.

It was then when many political and economic fora were held on this issue, in which the thinking of both shores focused on “searching” or, rather, “recovering” a shared imaginary, with greater knowledge of the societies and their culture through the recognition of mutual contributions. In the late 1990s, a series of collections on the Mediterranean appeared. In France, under the direction of Thierry Fabre and Robert Ilbert, the collection “Les représentations de la Méditerranée” was launched. The Italian publisher Jaca Book joined efforts with other international publishers to release in Spanish, French, English and Arabic the Enciclopedia del Mediterraneo. Several journals appeared such as Rive, which only lasted eighteen months, and Quaderns de la Mediterrània, contributing debates on issues of interest with the participation of specialists from both shores. All of them were committed to dialogue in a moment when it was necessary to emphasise what unites us, always bearing in mind the specificities. 

Until the attack on the Twin Towers in 2001, the 1990s were a time of creation of dialogue and search for Mediterranean cultural bridges. The 1st EuroMediterranean Ministerial Conference held in 1995 was a historical milestone, when the idea of creating a free trade area by 2010 was discussed

The French editors of “Les représentations de la Méditerranée” pointed out on the book flaps: “Speaking of the Mediterranean has a different meaning depending on the country, be it Italy, Spain, Greece, Turkey, France and even Germany or Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon or Morocco.” To this end, they sought the tandem of a writer and a specialist from each of the ten countries that formed the collection. Some of the writers, particularly those from southern countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt acknowledged in their texts that they were rather confused about having accepted such a challenge but excited to participate in the project. It is not surprising that both the Moroccan Mohamed Berrada and the Egyptian historian Mohamed Afifi mentioned, in relation to the Arab world, Taha Hussein (1889-1973). Hussein was a renowned Egyptian intellectual who in his work The Future of Culture in Egypt put forward the vision of the Mediterranean as the main element, along with education reform, for the desired changes to take place. He divided his work into three sections: The Mediterranean-memory, the Mediterranean-civilisation and the Mediterranean- prospect for the future, of that bright future, reflected Berrada, to which Moroccans passionately aspired at that time. The Moroccan writer admitted: “In the 1950s, when I was a student, I was impressed by Hussein’s work, a convincing apology for the ‘model’ that also seduced the Arab intellectual elites of the time: the Western rationalist and democratic social model that hoisted the standard of humanistic humanity.” 

Berrada also explained that Taha Hussein had written this book in the 1930s before the outbreak of the Second World War but that it was not published until the end of the armed conflict. “However, the writer did not make any change, as if fascism or Nazism had nothing to do with Mediterranean culture.” Berrada admitted the rejection he felt of the policies of the European colonialist states that tried to perpetuate the regime of control at the heart of the Mediterranean but he identified with the literary and artistic work that had emerged in the European countries. This same value of shared emotions appears in the representation of the Mediterranean by the different writers in the collection. Most of them mention the cultural heritage felt and shared with writers such as Homer, Cervantes, Federico García Lorca, Juan Goytisolo, Pierre Loti, Albert Camus, Pirandello, Alberto Moravia, Yasar Kemal, Nazim Hikmet and Ivo Andric and artists such as Picasso, Miró, Delacroix, Matisse and Mohamed Kacimi. 

Moreover, in the late 1990s, rather than a shared vision, the culturalist thesis took root. This appeared at the time of the Gulf War and the political and cultural crisis of the Muslim countries. Huntington’s culturalist thesis that, in this case, concerns the Mediterranean on the conflict of civilisations and the incompatibility of their value systems found, from that moment, feverish advocates both in the West and the Arab world. In both parts the exceptional aspects that confuse religion with politics were discussed. It was considered that the system of Western democracy serves to stimulate the entry into the governments of Islamist parties and enables the existence of xenophobic countries in Europe.

In the early decades of the 21st century many elements contributed to the creation of a fragmented language, such as the financial crisis, the transformation of economic organisation according to the global network logic and the incapacity of the contemporary state to embody a project that goes beyond corporatisation. The outburst of identity demands that go in parallel with the failure of the great ideologies can be seen in a powerful return to the local space as a tool of construction or vindication of cultural identity and social solidarity.  

In the late 1990s, rather than a shared vision, the culturalist thesis took root. This appeared at the time of the Gulf War and the political and cultural crisis of the Muslim countries

Today the Mediterranean is a border again. One of the most eloquent and macabre representations is that of a big watery tomb in which thousands of migrants from the south fleeing their countries in search of a better life disappear and meet their death. The recent history of the Mediterranean again shows an extremely complicated relation with European policies that, far from the humanistic vision, turn their back on suffering and dignity. 

We could argue that, throughout the 21st century, the challenges of dialogue have not stopped growing, according to conflicts such as 9/11, the wars of Afghanistan, Iraq and Israel and Palestine, the terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda, the cartoons conflict, the lecture of the Pope at Regensburg University, Islamic State staging terror, the destruction of the war in Syria and Iraq, the hundreds of thousands of displaced people or the suicide attacks in Europe, everything followed by a media outburst that only increases the fragmentation of cultures and the difficulty of dialogue. 

The British anthropologist Edmund Leach (1978) noted the communicative importance of culture: “If we are to understand the ethical rules of a society, it is aesthetics that we must study.” And he added: “In origin the details of custom may be an historical accident; but for the individuals living in a society such details can never be irrelevant, they are part of the total system of interpersonal communication within the group.” At present we are witnessing the reformulation of imaginaries through the icons conveyed by the media, creating myths of great scope. The social networks also contribute urban stories or legends, most of them adaptations and/or recreations that reflect the classical myths mass broadcast via Internet.

At present we are witnessing the reformulation of imaginaries through the icons conveyed by the media, creating myths of great scope. The social networks also contribute urban stories or legends, most of them adaptations and/or recreations that reflect the classical myths mass broadcast via Internet

The anthropologist Luís Díaz Viana, in his recent publication Miedos de hoy (2017), reminds us that living in a panorama of non-places has not necessarily made us more cosmopolitan or safer or confident. The fact of moving in the fleetingness of no-time, the instant, the acceleration, has also not made some of us more contemporary than others. The fact that we are overwhelmed by global information day after day has not made us wiser, and the apparent obsession to “memorialise” any event ‒ from tourist trips to the big catastrophes ‒ has not make us experts on the past or saved us from forgetfulness. The information and communication technologies have become a deus ex machina that, threateningly or playfully, gives us back ancestral fears, as well as the possibility of being able to be protagonists, through the Web, of a world of hedonistic and competitive values. 

For these reasons, Arjun Appadurai warns us that “no one can enter into dialogue without taking serious risks.” This statement is opposed to the common vision of dialogue as something informal, quotidian and even secondary with respect to the true operation of power and wealth. According to this anthropologist, if we accept that dialogue is always a risky matter, we can ask ourselves about the implicit risks and why it is worth, and even becomes obligatory, to accept such risks today. Unfortunately, it seems easier to kill than to dialogue because some do not want to be convinced with reasons. The human being is a symbolic animal and conflicts appear as a result of lack of knowledge of the meaning of things or, even worse, the different interpretations we make of the meanings and the complexity of coming to terms with the diverse affiliations. The Lebanese writer Amin Maalouf argues: “The identity of each one of us is formed by many affiliations but, instead of coming to terms with all of them, we usually choose only one – religion, nation, ethnicity or others – as a supreme affiliation, which we confuse with total identity, which we proclaim in front of others and in whose name sometimes we become murderers.” And he adds: « Would it not be more lucid and in keeping with today’s realities for each one of us to come to terms with all the affiliations? » 

Art, literature and poetry contribute beauty, horror and complexity: fragmented images that today depict a dark imaginary of the Mediterranean. Dionysian elements that, as in the Nietzschean analysis, are imbued with dramatic expression with the aim of acting as a socio-cultural spur. Because art, be it literary, visual, audiovisual or cinematographic, creates an empathy that brings us closer to the culture of the Other, to tragedy and longings, and urges us to think about our own culture, which is less Apollonian than we think. 


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