Identity Confusion in the Mediterranean

I would like to preface this post by clarifying a few terms. When I use the terms Southern Italy, Mezzogiorno, or Neapolitan, I am referring to the area, culture, or ethnicity of Southern Italy that was the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies prior to Piedmontese colonization. I am making that distinction because for all intents and purposes Southern Italy is culturally, linguistically, historically, and ethnically (generally) different from that of the North. 

When I first started learning about the Middle East, I was not expecting there to be much overlap, if any, with my Italian culture. I saw Italy as a unified, monolithic country that was part of Europe. Europe was separate from the Middle East and the Middle East was separate from North Africa. The only thing that they had in common was that they happened to share the Mediterranean Sea. At the same time I was learning about the Middle East and North Africa, I was also learning about the history of the Mezzogiorno. I read Terroni by Pino Aprile, countless articles, and had endless conversations with my father and other members of my family about what the Mezzogiorno was like before we were colonized by the Piedmontese. We were a multi-ethnic society and culture, the result of centuries of invasions by the Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans, and Spanish. Our language, our food, and what we looked like was a result of that. How we treat our dead, a tradition that has been traced back to ancient Egypt, and is a kind of mummification, something I witnessed firsthand with the death of my grandfather. When the Piedmontese (who were financed by the French, and supported by the British) colonized us, our history, culture, and language was disrupted. We were told that our language wasn’t the language of the new country, and wasn’t “proper.” We were told that our culture was dirty and we needed to be “civilized.” We were forced out of our land and our future was taken from us. Those who were able to move, moved to North Italy and abroad and faced further discrimination unless they rejected their history and who they were. Those who stayed were forced to live in poverty and shame, while being told that they deserved to live like that.

Despite these conditions, the Mezzogiorno maintained their identity, even though they were pressured to be ashamed of it. So, what does it mean to be Neapolitan? That is the question I have been struggling with. I don’t want to say I’m Italian because that implies that Italy is one, unified country and culture and the South is not an internal colony. Although my roots are probably mostly Greek, I have no family there, nor any personal connection to the country. I can’t call myself Arab because I am not a native Arabic speaker nor do I really know how much Arab influence is in my family. The Spanish and Norman influence was more political than cultural. So what am I left with? Now, you’re probably asking, what does this have to do with my study abroad experience in Morocco? I’m getting there, bear with me. I would like to mention before I continue that Morocco, as many other countries, is ethnically, culturally, geographically, and religiously diverse, and I do not intend to disregard these diversities, but rather look at the similarities. The Mediterranean has many layers, and I am focusing on one of those many layers.


nonno e nonna

My grandmother Zoe and my grandfather Alberto.


When I got to Morocco, as I mentioned in previous posts, I was overwhelmed at first, but then I was comfortable because I was able to find a remarkable amount of similarities between Rabat and Naples, Italy. The way people spoke, their gestures, the merchants yelling, the poverty, the family structure, the disorganization, the food. But there was also something else. There was something that I could not quite put my finger on that made me feel like I was home, in a way. However, when I tried to explain this to my other American friends, they did not understand what I was saying. They looked at me, and looked at the people around me, and the environment and did not understand the connection. I tried to communicate this to some of our instructors, and I did get somewhat of a positive response from my program director, who is Moroccan. He said that there are similarities between Morocco and Italy, but politics get in the way of us forming a more cohesive Mediterranean. He told me when he went to southern Spain, he said it felt like he was back in Morocco. I agreed with him, and it was the most reassuring response I had gotten to that point, but something was still missing.

About a week ago I relocated within Morocco for my program’s independent study project. Myself and two other American students have been staying with an Algerian film student named Rami in an apartment in Marrakesh. On one of the first nights, a couple of his friends came over, another Algerian, and a Tunisian names Mehdi. I mentioned that I am Southern Italian and we started talking about the Mediterranean. Mehdi started talking about how he, along with a lot of Tunisians, have an identity crisis because they don’t know what to call themselves. He went on to say that his roots are technically Turkish because of the Ottoman Empire, but Tunisia was also invaded by the Arabs. But he doesn’t relate as much to Arab culture because he doesn’t feel a connection to the Gulf, a region he thinks is truly Arab. Additionally, Tunisia was also a big trading partner with a lot of other Mediterranean countries, therefore it is extremely diverse. So I asked him, what does he call himself? He responded by saying Mediterranean. I asked him if a lot of Tunisian people identify as Mediterranean, and he said not everyone, but a lot of people do.


Rami .jpg

Rami, from Algeria, who is hosting us in his apartment in Marrakesh.


Another one of Rami’s friends came over, and he is Moroccan. Rami starts to tell a joke: “There were two Algerians, a Moroccan, a Tunisian, and an American…” Mehdi interrupts him and points out that I am Southern Italian, and the Moroccan guy that just came in says “Oh, a neighbor!”
A couple of days later, we were eating dinner and we started talking about identity again, and Rami said that he can trace his roots back to an Arab tribe, but he has a hard time relating to that because he is so light-skinned. Responding to that, Mehdi said that sometimes people don’t know he is from Tunisia because he is quite light too, and people make fun of him, thinking he can’t understand what they say. He went on to say that it was interesting that we were having this conversation together, because it is what his family and friends have been talking about since he was a kid.



Mehdi from Tunisia.


This issue of identity in the Mediterranean is very, very complex. I am not writing this post as a researcher, or an expert in any way. I am simply writing this to explain how I feel, and how other people in the region might feel. I am aware that not everyone in the Mediterranean feels the same way me and my friends did while having this discussion. There are people who really closely associate with Arab, Greek, Spanish, Lebanese, Amazigh culture, etc. and that is perfectly fine. Most people, as Rami said, simply don’t know enough about our similarities to feel any kind of connection to one another. However I am grateful that I was able to find these four people from different countries, who under similar circumstances and historical contexts, felt the same identity confusion I did. I am proud to feel a deeper connection to my fellow Mediterraneans after exploring this issue with them.

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Filed under middle east, Savin in Morocco

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