Special issue: When Sicily challenges the narrative of the end of Mediterranean hopes

Kanaltürk and Bugün, two Turkish independent TV channels are closed by the police on October 28, with the accusation of fomenting terrorism (but apparently, the two channels were investigating the corruption inside Mr. Erdogan’s party). Five days earlier, a court of Istanbul has sentenced 244 citizens to between two and fourteen months of detention for their participation in the massive Gezi Park protests of June 2013. Three days after the general elections of November 1, Turkish authorities dismiss 71 Ipek Media Group journalists following the recent government’s forcible seizure of the group.

Israeli authorities have arrested more than one thousand Palestinians during the month of October. On October 27, dozens of Palestinians are injured by Israeli forces in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron during protests against the Israeli government’s refusal to return the bodies of Palestinians killed during alleged attacks, something which seriously offends the Arab mores. Israeli forces and settlers have killed at least 63 Palestinians, including unarmed protesters, bystanders and suspected attackers during the same month.

In Egypt, independent activists consider that the authorities detain between 30,000 and 40,000 political prisoners, the last one being Heshām Gaʿafar, well renowned dialogue practitioner and journalist who has been arrested last October 21, and whose MADA foundation offices have been raided (a friend activist tells me that he has been targeted because he was investigating on corruption in the Egyptian Army). On the other hand, parliamentary elections held in October have had a miserable turnout between 21 and 26% of the registered voters (runoff included), which independent sources still consider fabricated. The last People’s Assembly elections held in 2011, months after the ouster of Hosnī Mubārak, recorded a turnout between 62 and 67% (runoff included).

In Siria, the Russian air force has so far killed more than 1700 civilians during its military operations, while the regime’s barrel bombs still fall on liberated Syrian towns[1].

Youth unemployment rates in Mediterranean Europe range between 32 and 54%[2], while EU average is around 21%. In 2014, the number of people having left Italy to look for a job abroad increased of around 155,000 people, a figure which only includes Italians who settled down and legally registered in a foreign country[3].

In the meantime, ten days ago Austria revealed that it is planning to build a fence along its border with Slovenia in order to control the flow of asylum seekers, taking example from previous Hungary’s decision to do the same along its border with Serbia, breaking thus apart the hopes of many asylum seekers.

Yes, dear readers, we are facing a depressing Mediterranean scenario, indeed. However, something different recently happened in Sicily. Forty activists gathered in Messina from the 8th to the 11th of October to challenge this narrative of the end of hopes.  Messina is a place of symbols. Facing Calabria coast on the renowned strait, it seems embodying the embrace between the two sides of the Mediterranean sea, such as the strait of Gibraltar and the strait of Bosphorus do. Messina was also known to be the Sicilian city were Mafia’s bosses were gathering to reach agreements and make deals. It is also a city which has been rescued from a corrupted political class and budgetary bankruptcy through the unexpected electoral success of a civic, independent and progressive coalition lead by activist Renato Accorinti in June 2013. During the first round, Felice Calabrò, the candidate of the well established Center-Left, got 49,94% of the ballots, missing the victory by a whisker, while Accorinti classified second with 23,88% of the ballots, and the other four candidates fell behind him. That result was already considered a great victory, and nobody bet on Calabrò missing the chair of mayor at the runoff. However, against any forecast, the wonder happened: at the runoff, Accorinti got 52,67% and Calabrò 47,33%.

The two times I met Accorinti he was wearing sandals. When he shows up at the Sabir Maydan forum, which has taken place in the small church of Saint Tommaso the Old, recently renovated after years of neglect and decay, he says: «The church is so beautiful. I still remember when I used to climb the fence to reclaim the church back to people». And in front of the participants in the forum, he adds: «I am so happy you are here, you are a gift for us». And he continues by saying: «In my life, I learnt that politics requires both mind and humanity to change reality. Messina is the thirteenth city of Italy, but when I visit other cities, people tell me: you are also our mayor!». The forum attendees understand the message and let themselves go into a loud applause. Messina is the metaphor for how corruption and capitalism can reduce an harbour city with a millenary history and a county of unique beauty to ashes, with poor cultural life and economic prospects, and a territory eaten up by estate developers. Here is a recent example: at the end of October, a landslide has broken a major public water pipeline, leaving the city without water for more than a week; worst, as of today, the city is still counting on water tankers. In this context of continuous status of uncertainty, were the local communities and their territories have been the first victims of a systematic policy of land commodification and wild urbanization, is where we have organized the Sabir Maydan.

These are two Arab words: Sabir was the Mediterranean lingua franca, which was spoken between the fourteenth and the nineteenth century among seamen and merchants. A mixture of Venetian, Genovese, Arab, Spanish, Greek, Occitan or Turkish, it represented the contamination of cultures and between nations of the region. The word Maydan, which means square, has been chosen with reference to the places where popular uprisings and mass protests of the last years have gained momentum. Hosted by SabirFest, a festival of Mediterranean culture and citizenship at its second edition, Sabir Maydan has shown the potential of joining cultural exchange with political thinking and acting. Culture and politics, festival and forum, North and South, regional and local, this event has been characterised by many dualisms, by the superposition of multiple meanings and the stories of young women and men from different environments. Emel Kurma, Turkish leftist activist promoting human security with her platform Helsinki Citizens Assembly, besides Taqwā ben Mohammed, cartoonist for intercultural dialogue, belonging to a respected and politically engaged family of Islamist background currently living in Italy. Ilio Amisano, from the Susa Valley No-TAV Movement, who promotes solidarity economy and social currencies while fighting against unnecessary and imposed large-scale infrastructures, besides Tunisian journalist and media activist Qais Zrība, struggling for freedom of information. Syrian Māriā al-Abdeh, one of the founders of the Syrian Non-Violence Movement, a group advocating for alternative non-violent solutions to the Syrian revolution, besides Alberto Tena Camporesi, communication officer of Podemos State Political Secretary. Egyptian Mālek al-ʿĀdlī, progressive lawyer defending economic and social rights, or Mohammed Tolba, founder of the Salafiyo Costa’s group, gathering together Salafi, mainstream Muslim and Christian youth. Maria Peteinaki, Greek architect and ecologist resisting to austerity doctrine through the urban movement of self-managed vegetable gardens and other neighbourhoods reactivation actions, besides Moroccan Mohammed Leghtas, coordinator of the civil society portal for Maghreb and Mashreq ejoussour, and founder of the first web community radio in Morocco.

One of the greatest effects that such a festival could produce in the Mezzogiorno, and especially in a town like Messina, is to ignite the people’s spirit, inspire local critical minds, and warm up the most vigilant social sectors challenging a political class who has interpreted politics as an exchange of favours, and a society who is aiming at satisfaction only by embracing consumerist lifestyles. SabirFest was not meant for that, but it has moved waters. During the festival, in the same room, you had the No Muos, a movement against Muos, an American narrowband military communications satellite system recently installed in Sicily; you had Borderline Sicilia, working for the social inclusion of migrants, supporting human rights and promoting transparency in public policies regarding them. You had investigative journalist Antonio Mazzeo, engaged in the fields of peace, demilitarization, environment, human rights, and the fight against the mafias, and Matteo Letizia, who occupied with other artists a dismissed theatre on the verge of privatization, to give back to Messina’s community a public cultural space; or again Gabriele Vaccaro, the chief operating officer for the Banca Popolare Etica in Eastern Sicily. These territorial groups and characters advocating for people’s self-determination represent an incredible political resource for this island, and are able to dialogue with large movements or renown activists from other countries.

Citizenship and culture, that was the ideological marriage of this festival. Citizenship has been the most discussed topic among the activists. « We don’t know our identity any more, new and unresolved conflicts in our region make us uncertain about who we are» stated Egyptian Fātima al-Idrīsī, who supports refugees in her country. «We have a crisis of European citizenship, and national citizenship cannot guarantee rights» pointed out Igor Štiks. «Citizenship should not be considered a matter of a ‘piece of paper’. We have to spot the inalienable freedoms that citizenship should guarantee. We have to provoke the debate. It is a matter of a gesture, an artistic intervention to challenge the imperialistic declination of citizenship in Europe». Igor, founder of Zagreb Subversive Festival, was born in Sarajevo and knows what the debate on citizenship means. «Let us free ourselves from the rhetoric of civil society, trying to address realistically the economic situation we are facing (neoliberal policies and economic crisis) and to address the ‘politics of citizenship’» says Antonio Mazzeo, moving the debate to the deprivation of social and economic rights. Someone brings on the table the definition of Hannah Arendt who stressed that citizenship is first of all the «right to have rights». «That is why we need to involve the most vulnerable groups in our reflection and in our action, not only activists» states Farīza Besaisō, Civitas Academy director living in Gaza. Someone else, I guess he was Greek artist Costis Triandaphyllou, proclaims that «we should get rid of the hegemonization of the debate on citizenship by institutions acting on a top-down level». And the common project they discuss together is to draft a common manifesto on Mediterranean citizenship, as a political process aimed at deconstructing the mainstream narrative on citizenship, therefore as an advocacy-oriented initiative. Such a project should be seen as participatory, provocative and effective, and it should be made known to the widest possible community of engaged and active citizens across the different countries of our Mediterranean region.

The idea of a manifesto is inspired by the charter for a united and free Europe that antifascist thinkers drafted on the island of Ventotene, during the confinement imposed upon them by Mussolini. June 1941: while European towns are the target of massive bombings, Altiero Spinelli, Ernesto Rossi, Eugenio Colorni and Ursula Hirschmann draft the final version of what became known as «the Manifesto of Ventotene», a call for a common destiny between the European peoples. Although they were kept under constant control, they were able to work at the document between the duties in the vegetable garden, the custody of chicken and rabbits, knives to be sharpened and meals to be served. If in those days calling for a united Europe was a nonsense, so it is now calling for a united Mediterranean under a shared culture of rights. My conviction is that the more it is depicted as an utopian and foolish wish, the more this vision is resisted and delegitimized, the more it reveals to be the necessary way to go to challenge nationalism, xenophobia, military violence, social injustice, cultural brainwashing and environmental plunder. This is particularly true in a region where the historical categories of West and East were born, and the contemporary categories of North and South face each other within a stone’s throw.

The activists who met at Sabir Maydan have given themselves a year to try to draft such a visionary statement, and to launch it to the public at the next forum, possibly in Messina. Each spot on this earth has its vocation: Messina hosted in 1955 a conference among six European countries whose final resolution formed the basis for European integration, on the basis of a common market and integration in the transport and atomic energy sectors. The road toward 1957 treaties of Rome and 1958 European Economic Community and Euratom was paved in Messina. Maybe, supporting the cause for regional integration is Messina’s vocation.

As the words of Ventotene’s manifesto were not an invitation to dream, but to act, in the same way a trans-national message of integration and cooperation between Mediterranean peoples in the name of a shared culture of rights can go through if we take action as citizens. Healing the fracture between the Mediterranean shores and advocating for equal political, social, economic, cultural and environmental rights is the “challenge” of the current times. To take actions, we need tools that enable activist communities from the two shores to sharpen a common voice, and proclaim a common message. The tools which we need might be several, and the list must certainly including:

  • An Institute for Mediterranean Activism to promote dialogue and education activities, exchange knowledge and practices among citizens’ initiatives, offer content related, legal support and capacity building to local groups, and to connect intellectual strategizing with action on the ground;

Specific trans-Mediterranean campaigns, advocacy campaigns on issues of common concern, conceived and organized simultaneously on both shores of the Mediterranean, and focusing on sensitive challenges such as freedom of expression or people’s right of mobility;

  • A trans-Mediterranean Radio-TV channel through the use of new Internet technologies and with the support of local groups of grassroots journalists. Such a channel would produce and broadcast programmes in several languages, beyond mainstream narrative, and would be using existing pilot networks of independent media such as community radios or online magazines.

«Pronto? Hello?» I am on the phone with Ugo Magno, the chairman of the SabirFest organizing committee. We are three weeks after the closure of the festival. The festival bills are chasing us. From Florence, at COSPE’s office, we managed to collect 4,000 € from friends of the Mediterranean cause, while a few activist participants contributed by covering their own costs. Messina’s team had the most burdensome mission: to collect the bulk of the festival budget. Ugo Magno is a bizarre character: he is able to switch the most dramatic situations into phantasmagorial scenarios. He needs the funds of the regional government of Sicily, but the government is going through a political crisis, and SabirFest’s application for a grant from Sicily’s cultural programme has not received the due feedback because of the political turmoil. «Do not worry», he tells me. «We in Sicily we have our own ways to make things happen, but they finally happen». So, SabirFest will get the expected funds, and Mediterranean hopes will find a way to evolve into action. Hopefully.

In the past, I used to go through Messina to reach other Sicilian destinations for my holidays. Since a year and a half, with the idea of Sabir in mind, I have taken the habit to stop here and gotten more acquainted with this place. This is a city lost in translation, which was subjugated during many years by a modest political class without vision, lacking the antibodies necessary to confront corruption, private interests and illegal networks, despite the potential the Sicilian territory and culture can offer. A city who is now trying to overcome years of plunder and abandonment using the card of culture through a festival gathering authors, academicians and activists from the Mediterranean region. It is difficult to say whether this will succeed, socially and economically. This year, 5,000 people visited the event and 160 local young people volunteered in the organization: for a city of 240,000 people, is this an achievement or a failure?

The mayor Renato Accorinti, the bearded man wearing sandals, reminded us at the Sabir Maydan forum that being on a strait, reflecting its image on another piece of coast is Messina’s fate, but what the city and his people were trying to do is to convert fate in an opportunity, a fortune, by promoting a culture of encounter and hospitality. A couple of examples: the new government of Messina has tackled the issue of homeless people as a priority, and it has launched a new policy where all cultures represented in town deserve a stage.

Sometimes, things happen when they were supposed not to. Accorinti was not supposed to become the mayor, Mediterranean activists were not supposed to find in such a peripheral town their meeting point, Messina was not supposed to lose its status of a safe shelter where Mafia bosses can meet. It is like what Italian composer Giorgio Gaber used to sing: «Una donna […] vuole un uomo concreto come un sognatore. A woman would like man to be concrete like a dreamer»[4]. It is a nonsense, a concrete man is not supposed to be a dreamer; however, he can be. The Mediterranean is not supposed to be the cradle of our hopes and plans for another world, is not supposed to become our common destiny. However, it can be.

[1] Source: National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, 31 October 2015.

[2] Source: Statista, 2015.

[3] Source: Idos (Centro studi e ricerche immigrazione dossier statistiche); Unar (Ufficio Nazionale Antidiscriminazioni Razziali).

[4] Words from Giorgio Gaber’s song Una donna (1984).

One thought on “Inside Italy: «Hopes were not supposed to be: Messina after the Sabir Maydan»

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