Rethinking the Mediterranean

By Andrea Shala-Esa

Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity
By Iain Chambers
Duke University Press: Durham and London 2008, 192 pp.

In “Mediterranean Crossings: The Politics of an Interrupted Modernity,” Iain Chambers argues that the region is a far more complex, fluid and porous concept than generally understood.

Part love letter, part high theory, part travelogue, Chambers densely packed this slim book with important insights and a long overdue reclamation of the often hidden Arabic and Islamic history of the Mediterranean. Chambers urges adoption of a new, “uprooted geography” that examines not so much a physical region but a malleable and continually changing web of cultural and historical currents.

Throughout the book, he challenges the very concept of borders and calls into question the standard explanatory frames of historiography, sociology and anthropology.

Using texts, architecture, history, music, even cookbooks, Chambers applies the principles of archeology to excavate the African, Arabic, Islamic, Jewish and Asiatic contributions that shaped the Mediterranean, but have been largely denied and silenced over the past 500 years.

At the same time, he also foregrounds Italy’s own colonial past, highlighting the current amalgam of immigrants from places as far-flung as Sri Lanka, West Africa and China, and even the massive migration out of Italy and other European countries in the early 20th century.

Chambers is a professor of cultural and postcolonial studies in Naples, and the city – framed by the sea, the sun and a volcano – functions as his muse in the book. It provides many of the rich, “deceptively marginal details” that make this book a gem.

For instance, during a visit to the National Archeological Museum, Chambers finds a text written in 1287 by a Mongolian monk who witnessed a battle between the Neapolitans and the Aragonese. The text reveals “an unexpected overlapping of worlds that here seem strangely more immediate in their fluidity than those subsequently imposed via the rigid frontiers of a subsequent Western modernity.” Too often, he says, Italy’s own colonial past is excluded from discussion or study, revealing a culture that “studiously evades an encounter with its own colonial past.” For instance, he notes that the 1980 film “Lion of the Desert,” which recounts the Libyan resistance, has never been shown in Italian cinemas.

“Mediterranean Crossings” finds its great strength in such poignant observations, which drive home Chambers’ urgent appeal to scholars to widen their lenses and seek out what has been persistently overlooked, ignored and denied.

Chambers says the answer is not simply to overturn prevalent views and a Northern framing of the world, but to “follow signs, suggestions, sounds, smells and silences that propose a complex, open-ended narration of historical time and its cultural composition.” In this case, the result is an important new work well-worth a read.

This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)
Copyright (c) 2009 by Al Jadid