Of course the sea can be conquered, but sooner or later, and regardless of the empires, it returns to itself, to its statute of being a sea that belongs to everyone and to no one. The Mediterranean is united by many shared geophysical features, the gentle climate, its colours, long evenings spent out of doors, by a conviviality that brings people closer, by a century-old mingling of genes that have overcome any pretence of purity. It is however also divided by languages, religions, the inertia of the continents for which it is the extreme border, the one overlooking the other.
Remaining on the border, it has forever listened to people speaking and praying in different ways, and it knows plurality well, it knows that extremism is the most stupid and less refined of all options. A sea that also marks a border means multiversity, having ancient confidence with the transporting of goods and stories from one shore to another and from one language to another. It is here that the verbs of passage and transit developed, rendering less suffocating the burden of identity, their fixity and earthly inertia. And it is no coincidence that philosophy was born here, a form of truth not simply handed out once and for all, but that is the result of an eternally provisional search.
Many believe that the Mediterranean was only a sea in the past, the heart of the “Old World” (Hegel), now overtaken by the great oceanic spaces, by increased distances and the enormous development of the technologies needed to cross them. And it is certainly true that the history of modernity, five centuries ago, took the route leading to the north and the west, relegating this sea to the suburbs. To stop at this image would be superficial because nowadays this sea has returned to the centre of great history, with the dramatic turn it has always taken.
The Mediterranean in fact is on the line along which the North-West and the South-east of the world meet, it is not a suburb, but rather a determining and crucial place. This line of contact may become, as Samuel Huntington believes, a faille line, of separation and opposition, the announcement of a conflict between civilisations, or it could take the opposite direction, that of dialogue, there where the shared factors mingle with the differences and teach them to respect, understand and know each other.
The presupposition for this dialogue is to abandon that colonial assumption still lasting today, according to which, one of the subjects, siding with knowledge and civilisation, can only teach, and the other, having little to say, can only learn. Such an asymmetric relationship is not a dialogue, but rather a monologue. In a dialogue, the other is not an imperfect figure that is behind us, but another perspective of the world. The difference should not be transformed into a hierarchy. Each must learn from the other and also teach. Only this kind of demilitarised relationship can break the homicidal game of extremisms, addressed at rendering cultures monolithic, at suffocating the inner plurality and complexity. To dialogue means not only to allow two different cultures to speak to one another, but also to ensure that each one speaks within itself addressing a plurality of interpretations.
For the dialogue to be constructive it is also necessary to put aside this solely horizontal aspect of the discussion, in which the subjects appear as being in equal conditions. This is not in fact the truth. A little over half a century ago Africa was divided into many states according to decision made in the European chancelleries, the private property of colonial empires: Angola was Portuguese, Egypt was English, Algeria was French, the Congo was Belgian and so on. Still today the West continues to think it can decide the set up of the states in the Mediterranean basin. What would we think if the mujhadin presided over the oil wells in Texas and Alaska? Would we not quite rightly consider this an unbearable prevarication? We will not make any progress in the dialogue if this lack of balance and asymmetry are not reduced, and are the real cause of fundamentalism.
Those who love dialogue and want it must not dissociate it from justice, otherwise it will always be fragile and uncertain, and on each occasion will fall to the valley below. To beat the fundamentalism of others one must acknowledge and fight one’s own. There is however still something important to say about the contents of the dialogue. The Mediterranean is not only a post-modern and post-colonial sea, in which one becomes the extension of the other. It is also an idea for mediation, that fights the contraposition between two fundamentalisms, one of the land and one of the sea. The first fundamentalism is very obvious; it is the fundamentalism of belonging and of identity and holds the individual on a tight leash of social bonds, be these ethnic or religious.
In Escape from Byzantium, Josif Brodskij described beautifully this oppression: where criticism is seen as an attack against the group’s loyalty and cohesion, those who dissent are considered criminals. Facing it however there is the opposite kind of fundamentalism, that of the sea. Here the individual has gone to never return; just as in the ocean the sea never again meets the borders of land. This contraposition was emphasised by Carl Schmitt in a famous book entitled, Land and Sea. But Schmitt was entirely on the side of the land, he was not a Mediterranean man, moving constantly between the land and the sea, between belonging and freedom, between the individual and social protection.
Schmitt’s nostalgia, which confidently attributed man to the land, had never experienced the thrill of departure and maintained a platonic diffidence for sailors. Today however the ocean of the global economy and the global market, of that “liquid modernity” in which those who stop are lost, provide humankind with constant precariousness and endemic and pervasive uncertainty. In addition to the pathologies of totalitarianism pursuing freedom, there are the ones with no name and no accounting, which arise from the constant exposure to precariousness and see the protection and equal dignity of human beings as a weakness or a regression.
The voice of the Mediterranean does not therefore come from the past, but from the future, nor has it only local importance: the balance of land and sea, belonging and freedom, is a model of life that does not demonise our need for a bond or our need for freedom. The dialogue does not remain blocked on the method factor, but speaks of contents, of a life in which the measure lies in guaranteeing that humankind will not be sucked in by two opposed hybris, the one that in the name of a common good oppresses the individual, and the one that in the name of freedom abandons humankind out in the open sea. Mediterranean, land and sea, means this too.