Mediterranean Europe by Walter Grond

In 1993 when the conflict was at its height in Yugoslavia, American political scientist Samuel Huntington published an essay that provoked not just heated controversy and opposition, but was also to have a big influence on the political establishment in the US and Europe for years to come. The book’s publication coincided with the siege of Sarajevo when libraries, museums and theatres were bombarded from surrounding hillsides. At that time, in the name of the West, fanatics wanted to see the destruction of the memory of any coexistence of Muslims, Orthodox, Jews and Catholics. The writer Dževad Karahasan had just fled to the West to report on this attempted annihilation of cultural memory within his city. Or to put this more hopefully – of a culture of dialogue, which influenced Sarajevo, of a piece of Europe, which was permeated by the meeting of cultures, religions and mentalities.

At that time, Samuel Huntington’s hypothesis of the “clash of the civilizations” was easy to relate to the Balkan War. And it is not difficult to read this as a prophecy of the ongoing war in the Middle East with all its consequences for Europe and the entire world order. The American political scientist suggested that after the end of the Cold War not political ideologies, but cultures would define the world order in future. Globalization necessarily culminates in a “clash of civilizations”. Huntington divided the 21st century world into seven cultural blocks, drawing a pencil line across the globe to illustrate the demarcations, which were to show where civilization ends and barbarism begins. Europe and North America were contrasted with Japanese, Hindu, Slavonic Russian, African, Chinese, Latin American and Islamic culture as a Christian, civilized cultural block (from which, incidentally, Huntington excluded Greece). They had to act to counteract the malady of cultural diversity. Huntington virtually made major conflict into the self-fulfilling prophecy of his hypothesis of the clash of cultures.

These thoughts sprang to mind as I recently attended an evening at the Klangraum in the Minoritenkirche, Krems. The evening had a deeply emotional effect on me: Mediterranean Voices was the theme – an absorbing evening of videos, a reading, conversation and concerts. This programme of artistic staging and intellectual rapprochements to Mediterranean culture made tangible the world of dialogue that Karahasan described so vividly in the 1990s. This world is one of meeting and respect; it is the exact opposite of Huntington’s characterization of the idea of a clash of cultures. And this simultaneously highlighted some of the background to that conflict currently raging in the Middle and Far East with consequences that are spreading to Europe.

Picture four men who meet each other in March 2016 in a secularized church in the centre of Europe to hold a conversation. First up is Johann Kneihs, an editor for Austrian radio, then Rachid Boutayeb, a philosopher who emigrated to Germany, Michael Roes, a German writer, filmmaker and ethnologist who has found a second home in the East, and Samir Odeh-Tamimi, a Palestinian-Israeli composer whose artistic work has been strongly promoted in the German-speaking context. You hear the soft, thoughtful voice of Johann Kneihs, who attempts to create order from the contributions, who poses questions, moves on to another subject at exactly the right moment and never entices a conversation partner into the trap of indiscretion. The impish and cleverly challenging voice of Rachid Boutayeb, who protests at any prejudice and clarifies the character of viewpoints that are never final. Michael Roes’ voice searches for precision of expression and argues to what extent binding rules are required. And the melodious voice of Samir Odeh-Tamimi striving for the authentic expression of his experiences and making the world, which he hails from, audible and tangible.

At the start of this evening Rachid Boutayeb and Michael Roes read from their conversational volume Der eifersüchtige Gott (The Jealous God). Their dialogue revolves around images of God, irony, politics and society. When Boutayeb wishes for a polyphonic pantheon, as a refuge from the monotheistic madness of modern-day life, Roes comments on what kind of belligerent realm of Gods once ruled on Mount Olympus. Out of this to and fro about the singularity and polyphony of voices a lucid conversation materializes about the issues that concern us today.

Rachid Boutayeb discusses the war in the Middle East and what role European and American colonialism plays in this. He then refers to the freedom of the West. He had been raised in a world where there was no criticism; hence he now criticizes the West because he has learned the art of criticism from the Western world. Therefore, he senses critical loyalty towards the peripheral world, as he calls the world beyond the West. Western knowledge is important, yet also associated with the violence of colonialism.

Michael Roes agrees with the critique of the Western monopoly of knowledge. Yet he insists that there is no alternative to knowledge, to knowledge about each other because only knowledge about each other facilitates a reasonable conversation.

Rachid Boutayeb again agrees with this and notes that there are more important things than knowledge, namely, mutual respect. Michael Roes deals with him as though he were an object, he says. Michael Roes says that defines the West; there always remains the Western intellectual who is convinced of the superiority of his culture. Meanwhile, for the man from the peripheral world, truth and envy are more important than knowledge.

And he smiles as he utters this.

Johann Kneihs asks about the jealous God, who is certainly a patriarch, a God that suppresses any kind of femininity.

The conversation now confronts a difference that is not reversible. It is not reversible in any dialogue about cultures regardless of how successful this is. Michael Roes mentions corporeality and how much knowledge expresses itself via the body. And conversely, how knowledge about the body formed over many generations is essential for gender roles. Ultimately, differences remained, which precisely relates to this other corporeal knowledge that one must be aware of to be able to conduct a successful dialogue about cultures.

Samir Odeh-Tamimi only wants to allow this on certain conditions. For him, Palestinian music is defined as feminine music influenced by feminine experiences. He grew up almost entirely among women and in the 1960s no women in Palestine wore the veil. Today’s development also has to do with the West. The Islamic world equally encountered periods in its history, which were incredibly free, periods in which atheist philosophers, homosexual poets and lesbian musicians were highly respected.

Michael Roes highlights how the asynchronicity of these developments has intensified. While in Italy it took one to two generations for the role of the woman and child to change, we expect people from the south-eastern Mediterranean to achieve this within a single year.

This is the point in the conversation when Rachid Boutayeb coins the term “Islamity”. He defines what is happening now in the Islamic world as “Islamity”. By that he means the de-culturing of Islam and emphasizes this is not a theological, but a political project. The previously achieved diversity was destroyed. The fact that Islam does not face up to the achievements of modernism is related to the political situation in this region. Boutayeb follows the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, who grew up in Algeria and defined the Maghreb as a Western culture. The Mediterranean world has always been a mixed culture. Christianity has also been part of the Maghreb, and the same goes for Judaism. Islam is not exclusively Islamic, the Quran itself is a text dating from late antiquity. Christianity does not exclusively belong to the West, just as Islam is not exclusively part of the East. Today’s ‘Islamity’, a patriarchal system of rule, blocks out all languages and cultures that influenced Islam, just as Western fundamentalism blanks out how Islam has co-influenced Christian Mediterranean culture.

Yes, the yearning for purity, purity of body, of religion, of politics was the permanent attribute of fascism, remarks Michael Roes. The hybrid world that we live in makes people afraid. The future of mankind is only imaginable as a global, jumbled together future. What is happening today is the reaction to the conglomeration, to a life in more than one culture, in more than just one language and more than just one gender. This development towards hybrids is unstoppable. The question is merely what rules are required for living together. The rules of the game are not divine, but human. How can obligations be produced and rules for a multilingual world?

The last word of the evening goes to Rachid Boutayeb, the impish rascal. In his view, Michael Roes is a man of the world, and he always needs more light and rules than he, Boutayeb, as a man of the peripheral world.

Incidentally, Dževad Karahasan never stopped speaking with empathy about the theatrical culture of Sarajevo (he had really enjoyed the evening at the Klangraum Krems). In his new novel Der Trost des Nachthimmels (The Solace of the Night Sky) hidden in the library in Sarajevo his narrator finds handwritten manuscripts by an enlightened Muslim 11th century scholar. His novel recounts the story of a flourishing state system, of its downfall and subsequent inferno of fundamentalism in Persia in that faraway epoch. Yet how could Karahasan narrate the story, since these manuscripts, so he claims in the novel, were burned during the destruction of Sarajevo library in 1992? It’s simple. Because he is a philosophical rogue: Karahasan quickly lets his narrator write up the hero’s story from memory again. The Other, Hope survives violence and war, as long as we believe in it. In his incomparable way, Karahasan conveyed this to us as the crucial message. And this animated the evening in the Klangraum Krems. It struck a chord with me.

By Walter Grond

Translated by Suzanne Kirkbright

This blog was originally published on ELit Literature House Europe‘s website on 14 March 2016.

Category: ELit Literature House Europe Observatory

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