‘Defend Europe’ and Mediterranean Xenophobia

The closing of the Mediterranean route is the only way to Defend Europe and save lives.” – excerpt from the mission statement of the far-right group Defend Europe

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), almost 118,000 migrants and refugees have entered Europe by sea this year, 80% of whom arrived in Italy, with the remainder in Greece, Cyprus and Spain. Over 2,400 migrants have died (or are missing) crossing the Mediterranean so far this year, and the tragedy is far from over.
As the world intensifies its efforts to rescue migrants and pools resources to face the crisis, the far-right group ‘Defend Europe’ has managed to raise funds for the exact opposite purpose: they sent a boat with full crew to patrol the coast and circumvent the rescue efforts in an attempt to send the refugees/migrants ‘back to Africa’. The discourse is not new and the excuses are age-old, including security concerns, economic pressures and the misguided desire to protect Europe’s identity (whatever that means). This and other far-right groups in France, Germany, Austria, Greece and elsewhere are oblivious to –or consciously ignore- the fact that identity is a dynamic concept and that the European culture would be inconceivable without pluralism, mobility and dialogue. Blinded by Xenophobia and racism, they forget that migrants gave Europe its earliest civilizations and forged its culture over millennia.
You will not make Europe home!” is only one of the many messages that Defend Europe sends to migrants through huge banners on its boat, the C-Star. They accuse NGOs involved in rescuing migrants of collaboration with the human smugglers, fashion themselves as saviors of Europe and enemies of human-trafficking, and they continue their fundraising efforts and their toxic propaganda at a part of the world where tensions have been already growing.
Is “the closing of the Mediterranean route” really “the only way to defend Europe and save lives”? Isn’t curbing the arms manufacturing and arms deals a better way than ‘Fortress Europe’ to save not only Europe but the whole region? Isn’t intercultural dialogue a tried-and-trusted means to save the entire region? Isn’t this the very same Mediterranean where the Phoenicians taught Europe how to write and the Arabs gave Europe its numeral system?

More than ever, we need to understand that the ‎moment we see our diversity as a threat rather than a resource, ‎we are no longer Mediterranean, because one of the core parameters of our Mediterranean ‎culture is our ability to absorb so many differences without losing our essence; without giving up on what makes us individually unique in a context of pluralism. ‎
The fact that our part of the world is currently plagued with a full spectrum of regional challenges should guide our moral compass to a new, more humane geography in which building bridges and engaging in dialogue -rather than flashing economic sanctions, resorting to armed conflict, and stooping to political and cultural Darwinism- would pave the way for a better future.


The Painter of Nightmares

Not Herni Fuseli, not Goya, not Dalí…

I first learned about Zdzisław Beksiński thanks to his cover art for an album by a metal band. As I started exploring his artworks, I came face to face with a gothic realm of nightmares where art is more than just a medium. I cannot think of any other artist that reproduced nightmare landscapes the way this man did; surrealism was never so ‘real’!
Many attempts have been made to classify his artwork, and like always, the obsession with terms and categories are meaningless when it comes to contemporary art. Those with a taste for the grim and the eerie will most definitely appreciate his art, but so would those with the slightest interest in surrealism.

Van Gogh’s Mediterranean

“We can tell that Van Gogh painted this view of the sea from the beach, as grains of sand have been found in the paint layers. It was done at the fishing village of Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer, during a trip he took from Arles in the south of France. In addition to the blue and white that he brushed onto the canvas with bold strokes, he used green and yellow for the waves. He applied these colours with a palette knife, neatly capturing the effect of the light through the waves.

Van Gogh was enthusiastic about the colours of the Mediterranean Sea. He wrote that it ‘has a colour like mackerel, in other words, changing – you don’t always know if it’s green or purple – you don’t always know if it’s blue – because a second later, its changing reflection has taken on a pink or grey hue’. The bright red signature has been placed prominently in the foreground: it was intended as a ‘red note in the green’.”

Source: https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/collection/s0117V1962


My First Book Published on al-Andalus

This week my first book was finally published after years of travelling, researching, writing and editing. The book is a study of a very important Mediterranean diaspora that took place in the early 17th century and left an extraordinary imprint on the Mediterranean culture, especially in North Africa, namely the diaspora of the Moriscos (Arabs and Berbers forced to convert into Christianity under the pressure of the Inquisition Courts in the Iberian Peninsula, mostly in Spain).

In the year 711 AD, Muslims conquered the Iberian Peninsula, calling it al-Andalus and sowing the seeds of a fascinating renaissance characterised -mostly- by tolerance, coexistence and an appreciation for the arts and the sciences. With the fall of the last Andalusi Kingdom in Granada to the Catholic Monarchs in 1492 AD, the Muslim rule in al-Andalus came to an end. Faced with discrimination and persecution, the Muslims there (first called mudejars, then moriscos after they converted to Christianity) survived one tragedy after another until the Spanish King Felipe III approved a decree calling for the final expulsion of all the Moriscos between 1609 and 1614 AD. It is estimated that some 350,000 Moriscos were forced to leave, accused -among other things- of practising Islam in secret, failing to integrate in the Spanish community and conspiring with the Ottomans against the Spanish Crown.

All the material in my work is based on research, interviews and accredited historical sources, presented in my book in a storytelling format. The title is ‘al-Andalus: History of the Diaspora’. It’s in Arabic, but for my friends/followers who cannot speak Arabic, below is an English translation of the back cover:

Al-Andalus was once a glorious chapter in the history of the Islamic Civilization (and humanity in general), before it finally turned into an epitome of the Paradise Lost as the Muslims succumbed to their internal conflicts and ignored the civilizing foundations that the Umayyads had lain centuries earlier. The tragedy of the diaspora that followed the expulsion of hundreds of thousands of Moriscos in the seventeenth century is rich in incredible details about how these groups adapted to their new realities in North Africa and the Orient. The Moriscos left an exceptional imprint in all fields from architecture and urbanism to poetry and music. This book chronicles the memory of the diaspora through a selection of tales that trace the footsteps of the Andalusi migrants and celebrate their cultural legacy in the Mediterranean basin.

Mohammed Elrazzaz An Egyptian academic researcher and professor (Cairo, 1976). He studied History at the University of Granada and Cultural Management in Barcelona. He is Professor of Culture, Art History and Mediterranean Heritage at the International University of Catalonia where he obtained his MA back in 2010. Since 2013, he works for the Secretariat of the Union for the Mediterranean in Barcelona.


Egypt’s ‘Stick Game’ UNESCO-listed

This week brought great news regarding Egypt’s rich cultural heritage, namely the inscription of Tahteeb (Stick Game) on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Tahteeb is regarded by the UNESCO as performing art and as a social practice / festive event (two out of the five domains of Intangible Cultural Heritage). Tahteeb, which involves a non-violent stick fight that seems more of a dance, traces its roots to Ancient Egypt. It acquired this ‘festive’ character much later in Upper Egypt, where it remains to be practiced during important social events, usually accompanied by traditional popular music. Local communities take pride in this tradition which showcases not only their skill and swift movement, but also embodies the values of fraternity and respect.

Tahteeb is the second element of Egypt’s Intangible Cultural Heritage to be recognized by the UNESCO (the first was al-Sirah al-Hilaliyyah Epic back in 2008). To my Egyptian mind, I can think of tens of other unique elements of heritage that could easily find their way into the list: khiyamiyya (craft), tanoura (performing art), traditional Muslim and Coptic mouleds (festive events), the Nubian language (oral tradition), to the end of the long list.

During their meeting in Addis Ababa, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage adopted 15 other new elements from different countries. This includes the Beer Culture in Belgium, the Rumba in Cuba, the Valencia Fallas Festivity in Spain, the çini-making in Turkey, etc. Check it out here.


رائعة يوسف القعيد: الحرب في بر مصر

منذ أن جئنا إلى الدنيا والعمدة ابن عمدة، ومن نسل عمدة، أما نحن فقد خلقنا لكي ننكفئ على الفأس العمر كله، ونموت والقدم مغروس في الطين والظهر قد تقوس من كثرة الانحناء. العمر كله انحناء

هي قصة قديمة قدم الدهر في مصر: قصة عن غياب العدالة الاجتماعية وانحياز الدولة للنخبة. قصة عن معاناة المهمشين تحت وطأة الفقر والقهر وتخلي الجميع عنهم

أسعدني الحظ بالتعرف على الكاتب الرائع يوسف القعيد منذ سنوات، وذلك حينما قمنا بدعوته لمناقشة رواية له بعنوان قطار الصعيد. عرفته رجلاً متواضعاً، واسع الاطلاع، دمث الخلق. بالأمس، انتهيت من قراءة رائعته “الحرب في بر مصر” والمدرجة في المركز الرابع ضمن قائمة أفضل مائة رواية عربية. تدور أحداث الرواية في عام ثلاثة وسبعين، وتمثل صفعة على وجه نظام سمح باستشراء الفساد، فخسر معركة الداخل، وتفرغ للاحتفال بنصر أكتوبر الذي لم يكن ممكناً بدون سواعد أبناء المهمشين والمطحونين في ريف مصر وصعيده

قبيل الحرب، يقوم عمدة إحدى القرى في ريف مصر بالضغط على أحد الخفراء المتقاعدين من أجل ارسال ابنه بعد تزوير بياناته لأداء الخدمة العسكرية بدلاً من ابن العمدة ومنتحلاً صفة هذا الابن. يضطر ابن الخفير للقبول كي تحصل أسرته على المكافآت التي وعدهم بها العمدة، وكذلك رغبة منه في خدمة الوطن. يستشهد ابن الخفير في الحرب وتتكشف خيوط المؤامرة، ورغم علم الجميع بحقيقة الخدعة التي دبرها العمدة، والذي لم يفي بوعوده لأسرة الخفير، تتدخل جهات عليا لإجهاض التحقيق وإغلاق الملف بحجة عدم إفساد فرحة النصر وعدم زعزعة الاستقرار، وكأن مصر قد علقت في هذا المشهد العفن ولم يغير الزمن أي شيء

المشاهد تتعاقب وتنضح بملامح البؤس في ريف مصر، حيث يروي الفقراء قصص الظلم الواقع على كاهلهم، فهذا يعمل أجيراً ويتقاضى ملاليم قليلة لا تكفي لعلاجه، وذاك لا يستطيع التكفل بمصاريف دراسة ابنه المتفوق، وآخر يشكو من انعدام فرص الترقي أو المعيشة الكريمة. الناس أسرار- كما يقول أبطال الرواية

الرواية مشحونة بلحظات مؤلمة وتأملات لا تفقد وقعها مع مرور الوقت، وذلك لارتباطها بحالة إنسانية تبدو أزلية في مصر، هاكم بعض المقتطفات

كلنا نحب مصر. كل منا يحبها بطريقته الخاصة. ولكن أي مصر هذه التي نحبها؟ مصر الذين يموتون من الجوع أم مصر الذين يموتون من التخمة؟ 

من قال إن الحق له قيمة في مواجهة القوة؟ الحق بمفرده عاجز. بندقية توجه طلقاتها للخلف، إلى صدر الممسك بها. سيف خشبي مكسور. إن كان الله قد اختار صف الأغنياء وقرر أن يكون ربهم وحدهم، فما على الفقراء إلا أن يبحثوا عن رب لهم

ذلك أن عصر الحروب انتهى، وبدأ عصر الكلام. ولأن الكلمات تشتعل من بعضها البعض، فلن يعرف بر مصر سوى الكلمات. الصمت أجدى من كلمات تقال في عصر يعوم فيه الكل في بحار الكلمات


The Bridge on the Drina

“Nothing brings men closer together than a common misfortune happily overcome.”

Few writers are capable of tracing and presenting the turbulent and complex history of the Balkans through the centuries (since the Ottoman rule to the First World War) as masterfully as Bosnia’s Ivo Andrić, Winner of the Noble Prize for Literature and author of ‘The Bridge on the Drina’, his absolute masterpiece.

I was very lucky to read this novel before visiting Bosnia; it helped me understand the unique cultural legacy of that part of the world, always stuck between powerful empires (Ottomans and Austro-Hungarians) and warring sides (Serbs and Croats), always an easy and likely victim for religious zealots and political dogs of war.
The novel traces the lives of the people of Višegrad, whose lives have always revolved around the great Ottoman bridge that bears witness to their joys and sorrows, their pain and passion. One generation after another, the human condition is captured to perfection through a myriad stories and anecdotes; the bridge and the city become a microcosm at the mercy of greater powers and radical changes.

The novel is dotted with fantastic tales and heart-breaking moments. I chose two of them to share with you.
First, the horrendous blood tribute by the Ottomans in Eastern Bosnia:
“On that November day a long convoy of laden horses arrived on the left bank of the river and halted there to spend the night. The aga of the janissaries, with armed escort, was returning to Istanbul after collecting from the villages of eastern Bosnia the appointed number of Christian children for the blood tribute.
It was the sixth year since the last collection of this tribute of blood and so this time the choice has been easy and rich; the necessary number of healthy, bright and good-looking lads between ten and fifteen years old had been found without difficulty, even though many parents had hidden their children in the forests, taught them how to appear half-witted, clothed them in rags and let them get filthy, to avoid the aga’s choice. Some went so far as to maim their own children, cutting off one of their fingers with an axe.
(…) A little way behind the last horses in that strange convoy straggled, dishevelled and exhausted, many parents and relatives of those children who were being carried away forever to a foreign world, where they would be circumcized, become Turkish and, forgetting their faith, their country and their origin, would pass their lives in the ranks of the janissaries or in some other, higher service of the Empire.”

Second, an imaginary religious explanation of how and why bridges are divine structures:
“My father told me as a child how bridges first came to this world and how the first bridge was built. When Allah the Merciful and Compassionate first created this world, the earth was smooth and even as a finely engraved plate. That displeased the devil who envied man this gift of God. And while the earth was still just as it had come from God’s hands, damp and soft as unbaked clay, the devil stole up and scratched the face of God’s earth with his nails as much and as deeply as he could. Therefore, the story says, deep rivers and ravines were formed which divided one district from another and kept people apart, preventing them from travelling on that earth that God had given them as a garden for their food and their support.
And God felt pity when he saw what the Accursed One had done, but was not able to return to the task which the devil had spoiled with his nails, so God sent his angels to help people and make things easier for them. When the angels say how unfortunate men could not pass those abysses and ravines to finish the work they had to do, but tormented themselves and looking in vain and shouted from one side to the other, the angels spread their wings above those places and men were able to cross. So people learned from the angels of God how to build bridges, and therefore, after fountains, the greatest blessing is to build a bridge and the greatest sin to interfere with one, for every bridge, from a tree trunk crossing a mountain stream to this great bridge of Mehmed Pasha (Sokolovići), has its guardian angel who cares for it and maintains it as long as God has ordained that it should stand.”