On Stereotypes and Mediterraneanism... / by George Bajalia

Much of the impetus for my research in Morocco began with a series of inquiries into the notion of the “Mediterranean character.” During my time at Northwestern, I devoted much of my time into a course of study I titled “Mediterranean Culture and History.” My goal was to discern exactly what it meant to be “Mediterranean,” where the borders of the sea’s influence started and ended, and how people in the historical Mediterranean region negotiated their identities today. 

For the past few months, while studying Darija in Fez, these goals slipped away a bit. They remained relevant in my thinking, but weren’t immediately present in my everyday encounters. Now I’ve arrived in Tangier to begin research in earnest and it’s all come rushing back. As I sit writing this, I look up out of my window and see lush foliage extending into the clear blue sky, with palm trees poking up at a distance. Yet, even as I contemplate the landscape I find myself wondering how much of my thinking is influenced by the stereotype of the Mediterranean, and if I’m succumbing to a Mediterraneanist perspective. I use this term, in reference to Edward Said’s seminal writings on “Orientalism,” to describe the tendency to lump my experiences and conversations into the label of “Mediterranean” without critical inquiry into their actual composition. That is to say, am I simply stereotyping Morocco and its peoples as simultaneously relaxed and hot tempered, sea-oriented, and prone to viewing daily life through an honor/shame perspective? 

Recently I been reading a collection of essays entitled Rethinking the Mediterranean, edited by W.V. Harris, and I think I’ve stumbled upon a solution to this question. Sort of… Dr. Michael Herzeld, of the Harvard Anthropology department, poses a similar question, but from a different perspective. In his writings, he posits that it is critical to recognize that this sort of Mediterraneanism is not simply an outsider view of the “other.” Rather, it is a type of stereotype used by peoples themselves in their daily identity negotiation. The interesting thing lies in how people in the Mediterranean region use these stereotypes in describing themselves, and why. These stereotypes play an integral part of identity construction, just as much as clothing, language, or any other form of capital. It is ok to think in terms of stereotypes, as long as we recognize it and are willing to critique them. They offer a handle on the everyday, something seemingly solid to build upon.

**EDIT** Somehow about half of this post was deleted, so I’ll do my best to rewrite it, or at least the sentiment of it…

Herein lies the trickery of globalization. As the influx of mediated images increases, via TV, online, etc…, so does the potential to both remonstrate and reinforce these stereotypes. As we’ve seen recently in the “Arab Spring” movement, as forms of governance changes the new governments must find a way to legitimize themselves in the eyes of their peoples. This must come in the form of capital, albeit it fiscal or otherwise. In order to do this, they can grab onto preexisting social ideals, or play upon new ones. For example, a large component of the protests in Egypt today are building upon the ideology espoused as far back as the French Revolution, and as recently as the #Occupy movements in the US and abroad (and everything in between, including the US Civil Rights Movement). In these cases, protesters are seizing upon circulated stereotypes to charger their own movements. In other cases, governments are using stereotypes of the Mediterranean character for political gain and attempted reconciliation (http://www.europolitics.info/external-policies/potential-vehicle-for-strengthened-north-south-cooperation-art319007-44.html). In either case, a preexisting stereotype becomes the vehicle for social capital and, potentially, change. 

All of this is to say that stereotypes, like all notions, exist in a neutral place. They may be appropriated for positive or negative purposes, all depending on the context. Am I simply attempting to justify sitting by the sea, drinking red wine, and eating fresh sardines? Perhaps. However, with my research I hope to show how peoples in the region of this rapidly changing are negotiating their identities in, and with respect to, an increasingly accesible, even larger sea. There are hot-blooded types everywhere, and people in Ohio enjoy fish just as much as Sicilians. Furthermore, people are no longer limited to the objects and ideas present in their local areas. This hasn’t been the cases for quite a while now, but access to global goods and notions is almost immediate now. All I can hope to do is to sit here, by the sea, and see what happens next.