Being Mediterranean, an Approach to Shared Identity


Monem Mahjoub

I’d like to share with you my experience, and I think it’s a colorful one. It’s the experience I practice almost every day. I’m not black, I’m not white. As a child, my grandma used to call me ‘yellowish tan’, but I’m not yellow either. My friend Penny from Ghana thinks I’m half done in the primal furnace of gods, He says: Europeans of course are raw skinned, and his people (blacks) are well done. A friend of mine, from Su people, of native tribes in the United States, who’s Red… you might say, liked to point at me as: Somatha. When I asked him: what do you mean for god sake? He laughed and said: you’re Somatha… some of this, some of that.

Knowing, feeling, touching, smelling your skin, and playing with, are an aspect of realizing identity. Identity can be colored, can it? Maybe Yes, maybe no, I say, and I’m kind of achromatic (or color blind), it is not.

Question of Identity

First of all, I would like to ask an important question in today’s world: What is identity? Does it depend on how anybody can identify his/her self? Is it something that anybody owns alone? Or do all human beings share one concept with unlimited forms due to the uncounted existence on earth? In other words: is identity a subject of definition up to numerous levels? Is there difference between personal identity and other levels? And if we could separate these levels into personal, collective, social, cultural, numerical, religious, national… etc, what are the borders between these levels? How do they interact? And what criteria are they scaled to?

These questions are a little bit old and widespread in many fields. But such questions seem to be re-thinkable anytime we need to refresh and activate our understanding of things around us.

Let us deal with individuality, and question the coordinates that specify individuals as they are, i.e. living, working, behaving, thinking, hoping, and so on.

Can anybody change his/her identity? Is it possible to choose characters that you would like others to look at you through? Can you control the process of formation that defines you to others, and vice versa? Are there things unchangeable? I mean things related to self-knowledge and self-decision under free will?

We are not to follow certain philosophical or psychological approaches to boost our searching for a final answer. Let us try to be free mentally, as an epistemological description, while we are asking the question. Just do not drift away, try to be relevant to everyday life, and let your own thoughts and needs guide you, not to back your mental model of yourself, referring to self-schema, neither to foresee the future through your own past, but to look forward and practice freely. Thoughts and needs as individual domains that everyone can control and direct to understand and improve his/her own life. We can start from knowing that we live in certain coordinates of place and time, down to the point of feeling and understanding the fact of being alive.

For individuals we may talk about a specific place and time, but beyond anybody’s coordinates – moving on as a transcendental act, I prefer to say as I try to avoid fallacies related to certain phenomena – we may talk about history and geographical domains for peoples and nations. Identity – if it is something to exist – is tied in general to such coordinates, but if we think of the ability of these coordinates being changeable, won’t we say the same about an imaginable single identity?

Strict and Fragile

There is no strict identity at all. Can we recognize concrete one? In fact, identity borders are imaginable spectrum, and we can imagine many different identities everywhere and every time, strict and concrete, but nobody can be certain of what he/she is thinking of.

In my small work The Question of Entity (Mahjoub, 25) I wrote that identity is an overflow. It’s a regional manifestation of the entity. Ironically, we are not but this little prefix id as we flow here and there to occupy unavailable space on earth. We are on the surfaces we think that we own, everybody is, but what does it really mean – in humanity terms – to be a surface; tiny, local, authentic or ethnic part of some entity?

This is to identify or to issue an ID somewhere, someway, and somehow. Here we deal with a kind of an overflow, with an excess not able to be accommodated by an available entity space. The ID which precedes ENTITY is a symptom, and this prefix is a parasite on existence itself, and it’s absorbing the whole world, conflicting with main needs of living, and with being free. It’s absorbing human rights and reproducing them. Human rights have to be set free so we can practice and enjoy our choices. Is this possible? Yes, if identity can be changeable, switchable and configurable. A person who’s not changing at all would not be a person, right! Societies as well never remain solid and stable. Social mobility creates different values from time to time, some of these values seem to be stable, but rethinking of them we always discover little changes working inside them, and these changes renew the values themselves to lead to another level despite the terminology that seems to be lasting and unchanged. Isn’t language the house of being? Heidegger said so. Tense and lasting language needs a flexible geography to interact with. We, human beings, are fragmented units and forces of this flexible geography, and we are committed to/tied by our personal identities. Now and Here, that means nowhere to go but the fields and domains we actually occupy to form the world. Identity, following Nietzsche in The Gay Science, is an interaction of these forces, an ever-changing thing far from timelessness to approach meanings in the present world.

I’ll use this definition to talk about a historical experience of North African entity starting from old, usually forgotten, components.

An Experience

We can talk of different sources that led from east and south to the beginning of civilization in north Africa, but I think that the culture of this region is mainly a result of remarkable historical events that started from ancient times to the beginning of the middle Ages in the north of the Mediterranean. Shared cultural identity was not but a result of practicing multiculturalism, a generation after another for centuries.

I speak to you as a Libyan citizen from North Africa, and I know exactly what this means to others from Europe. Libyans, from a historical and cultural perspective, are stuck in the middle between blacks and whites; maybe for this reason we have gained this tanned color. But this is not new or modern; in fact Libyans have experienced this since the Phoenicians had known them, and since the Romans invaded the Libyan coasts and tried to spread deeply in the unknown and mysterious land of Africa.

I will go beyond the origins to which I personally am closest; I mean the Phoenicians that gave North Africa its civilized and cultural role. Phoenician travelers, the real founders, are in fact the first to establish what was then known as the Phoenician Libyan cities, creating the first connected and interdependent entity. I will go to the origins you think you are closest to, I mean the Greeks and Romans.

Ancient Libya has a long historical record in the north of the Mediterranean you belong to; its name is notable in Greek mythology, Libya is the daughter of Epaphus, the son of Zeus, who ruled Egypt, and this princess personified the land known in North Africa after she had been kidnapped by the god Poseidon, who was of a Libyan origin too.

In Roman mythology, Libya married Neptune, and they had a son called Busiris, who became a brutal tyrant of Upper Egypt. (Boccaccio, 24-25)

When the Greek took advantage of ancient Libya, they were much modest with the local people, they occupied Barqa (Cyrenaica) and divided Libya into two parts, Upper Libya in the north which means allies, and Lower Libya in the south which of course means enemies, and everybody got relevant to his territory and kept calm as much as they could.

With the Romans, who became an indisputable power in the Mediterranean and dominated Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica, and defeated the Greek; the whole area of north Africa was unified for the first time in history. And with Romans in the west and Greeks in the east, Libya became an integral Greco-Roman country, and during this period, the Libyans experienced their first post-tribal regime. Most of the inhabitants became Romanized.

The Roman imperial armies have always been victorious and spread throughout northern Africa. The Romanization process gradually began, not as a direct result of violence and conquering, but as a concurrent result with interests in agriculture, trade, education, construction and the establishment of new cities. ‘In 416, when preaching a sermon on the psalms in late Roman Carthage, Augustine was able to ask his audience, ‘Who now knows which nations in the Roman empire were what, when all have become Romans, and all are called Romans?’ (Conant, introduction). It will be a long time before these interests will be weakened in front of the Vandals.

The Vandals, who in the 5th century A.D. raided Gaul and Spain, and then North Africa. They replaced the Romans and settled in Tripoli. Vandals were Germanic and they believed in Arianism. The founder of this Christian concept was priest Arius, (Alister, 271) who was of Libyan origin. It’s an unbelievable ironical history that we deal with. But this complicated historical heritage is some real source that can give us a visional agenda to think and work again.

The continuum of history is well reflected evidently in Europe, but history in North Africa turns to be fragmented until the beginning of the eighteenth century, and there is an obvious reason for this recovery, because in 1800’s north Africa and the whole black continent got involved in a new phase of European rediscoveries with travelers, explorers, anthropologists, missionaries; and that was the beginning of Western colonialism. It was also the new phase of the difficult unacceptable rule that says: History of the south is always written in the north.

An Example

Romanizing Africans on the other side was a sort of cultural identity transformation, Or a new social, political and economic process that can be understood only in its cultural context. It extended all over the northern continental coast of Africa, namely: The Roman Province of Africa. It was a result of the colonial occupation of course, but the aspects of this transformation were not only martial, political, or economical. It was also related to language, literature, philosophy, lifestyle, and beliefs. ‘Empires can survive as identities long after they disappear as polities’. (Conant, introduction).There was many North Africans from that Roman Province who had become symbols of superior life in the Mediterranean:

Lucius Apuleius (124 – 170 AD) was a prose writer, Platonist philosopher, born in Madauros (Mdaourouch, Algeria). He lived in Tripoli (Libya), and wrote the first novel in Africa: the Metamorphoses, known as The Golden Ass.

Septimius Severus, who was a soldier from Leptis Magna (Lebda city in Libya), ruled Rome and became a roman emperor for eighteen years (193 to 211), he spoke Punic language, but he was educated in Latin and Greek. The Severan dynasty ruled the empire for forty two years (between 193 and 235). In 2010, an archaeologist friend of mine found a Roman inscription that describes Septimius as Roman and Arab (Arabicus).

Saint Augustine (354 – 430) is one of the most important church fathers in western Christianity. He was born in the Roman province of Africa (Thagaste – Souk Ahras, Algeria), and became the bishop of Hippo Regius (Annaba). His writings inspired theologians and philosophers all over the time, especially his important work The City of God. I wrote a short story with this title, in which I drew inspiration from this great work of St. Augustine and I made its narrative space in Tunisia.

In short, we are dealing here with one example of identity transformation in a time that was not all based on war and the occupation of other’s land, such time calls for resistance because the first thing people do during regional wars and conflicts is protecting their entity and magnifying their identity. But the transformations of identity can only start working in times of peace.

With Mattingly, one of the most important scholars we think of in this case, we know that Romans, ‘in reality, were not trying to enforce a complete cultural complex on their subject people. Certainly, the development of towns and an urban-based system of local government followed an approved model. Latin became the official language in the western empire and some provincials gained Latin names through enfranchisement. Religious differences were generally resolved by syncretism, linking local gods with the Roman pantheon. Roman tastes in luxuries were encouraged and satisfied through the growth of trade and a cash economy centred on towns. Beyond this the ‘specific cultural complex’ of African provinces may be described as Romano-African with some of the strongest influences being Punic and Libyan’ (Mattingly, 72). He continues: ‘Because there were few Italian settlers and no Roman military colonies in Tripolitania, the indigenous cultural contribution remained paramount’. (Mattingly, 73).

Social and cultural change Rome actually tried to achieve in the provinces was primarily political – to create stable conditions of local government centred on towns, with Latin language of officialdom, and ‘This sort of ‘Romanization’, working through treaties, grants of Roman citizenship, the export of high prestige goods and services, was designed to create cultural links between Roman and natives, Libyans were not intended to be turned into Romans, but potential enemies were persuaded to identify just a little with Roman civilization. (Mattingly, 80)

Based on these historical transformations, I describe Libya as a flexible geography that kept moving from the discoveries of Greeks and Romans up to the beginning of the twentieth century with Italians. That’s why Libyans truly feel that their history started with ancient Rome to end up with modern Rome.

My country is named after a mythological queen. It’s made of myths and visions, and it’s open to the four cardinal directions from where it derives the meaning of entity.

For Libya to exist is to accept being changeable, variable, and unstable, with an identity that must be switchable from time to time. Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Berbers, Hebrews, Tuaregs, Tebous, Africans, Asians and Europeans, but also and always: Arabs. The name that we should pause whenever we say so, so we can re-read the history. I’m mentioning the different historical momentums with various abilities and capacities that have figured up the name of Libya. For me, Libya – and I do not just mean my country – is the name means the world in a moment of constant formation.

History compass always leads to cross roads through Libya. That’s why – I believe – my people think of history as a guest to be hosted and let go. History is something that my people help to pass away, not to settle down, for if it stops, it will end and die.

Libya is mentioned at different times of the Mediterranean history, sometimes very positively, and some other time very negatively. It has never had normal, stable, balanced status as its inhabitants wish. Today, perhaps Libya lives its worst days, but we always hope for better. We know that betterment cannot be approached out of flexibility, exchanging and sharing with others.

The Other

Experiencing the world as a flexible geography is an aspect that indicates to future possibilities where the other could be just a potential partner to understand, accept and deal with. I’m pointing at the concept of mutuality as the only available way to look at the world around us and make things better.

Others beyond borders, or overseas, have been for a long time an example for strangeness. It is normal that dealing with others may begin strangely until people discover that acceptance leads to a beneficial conclusion, this is the sensitivity of openness, and once the strange turns familiar, it’s never quite the same again. Sensitive dealing leads to a civilized atmosphere and thus transcends the primitive concept of the other. Remember: “The strangeness is related to the primitive notion of person”. (Ricoeur, 35 – 36)

Imaging others’ identities never ends because of the unending natural characters that make them seem different; social class, physical, psychological, and social character, culture, dialect, disability, education, ethnicity, language, nationality, sex, gender, generation, occupation, profession, race, religion, sexual orientation, settlement, urban and rural habitation… etc. these intersectional versions have no specific significance in fact unless each of them we speak as a different concept in itself. For the self-concept, and we might say self-identity, it is the main source of understanding how different images of identity can come together in one person, and this mental imaging is always following the awareness of one’s self, or self-consciousness, but it is a subject to several variables and may vary from one person to another and from one place or time to another. Any image of these, of course, can be outlined as a sum in interacting with others. I hope to be precise in this analysis.

In claiming forms, or manifestations, of shared identity we are not searching for similarities or trying to end up with an imaginable sameness. It doesn’t mean that I, this very person, can be an-other, for others are always the Other. All of us are tied to the distance between us, the more it goes further the more we get stranger. Sharing the identity we may think of is a sort of mutuality that activates and completes the exchanging processes people are involved in.

Some scholars and writers have difficulty seeing this, Huntington in The Clash of Civilizations for one, went concrete in his civilizations map and he was such an extreme to prove the clash between borders he has drawn. Out of political borders we may see the flexibility and fragility that individuals are associated with, and these expand their limits and give them the meaning of meeting and exchanging peacefully. Flexibility is the primary condition to introduce the other as a potential partner, and always ends up willingly satisfying the requirements of the right of sharing life. Nobody after all can consider himself being alone for good and all, even if he insisted to.

The accelerated global flow of goods, ideas, people and capital is a threat, to a great extent, to national cultures, but on the other hand there are benefits that peoples all over the world can gain. Exchange of goods and ideas in fact supports and works to bring identities closer. No doubt that this progress is dominated by the north, but everybody knows this is a matter of capacity and ability to direct and manage or to handle resources. The world is to open and merge all borders by time. This progress of nations is very slow and we may not recognize it as we get involved in one of its parts or durations, but it can be seen when we deal with the big picture of history practicability. The threat in fact is used now as a mechanism to defend – let’s say – national singularity and to preserve the cultural specificity, and it’s used politically most of the time, but how aspects of solitude like these can be defended against the will of the citizens and their desire to exchange ideas and share the resources of life. Cultural problems in any north African or middle eastern society can be absorbed by using multicultural policy, but it is not the loss of cultural identity that concerns regimes and governments as much as the loss of benefits and privileges of governance. Politicians in different countries may see bringing identities closer as a threat; while it’s the most important thing man ever dreams of. To my opinion, the world needs such a threat every day; it should be accelerated and made continuous for the good of mutual and shared identity towards supranational citizenship for everyone wherever he/she is.

Supranational Citizenship

Supranational citizenship sounds futuristic, despite the fact that this term refers to 1940’s, when Albert Einstein wrote, concerning war, about “supranational organization” that can control all military forces and nuclear weapons.

European citizenship as a result of the mutual recognition of belonging is the most known example for bringing diversity to positive interference to be practiced and related to everyday livelihood. As an Arab from North Africa I may speak here of Continental Citizenship more than I can do for Supranational, dreaming that this term (supranational) must be hold a while to be merged with another terms shown in the literature of being human, let’s think of: cosmopolitan, universal, humanitarian, …  We know that transnational or supranational lies somewhere between federal and con-federal up to unified states and united entities.

Sociologist Franco Cassano in his pensiero meridiano argues that the highest significance of the Mediterranean consists in its “capacity to transform our limitations in a common benefit, a tragic memory in the fight against all forms of fundamentalism”. For all that, the Mediterranean could become again a cradle of a new Renaissance if conditions were put in place for a project of transnational citizenship. (Gianluca, 94)

Gianluca Solera in his Citizen Activism and Mediterranean Identity suggests a step forward “By building a Mediterranean platform for new social alternatives, so urgent in times of profound crisis both in Europe and in the Mediterranean”. (Gianluca, 94) History of superposition of multiple civilizations, and of the common values that its peoples embody – a strong sense of community, the attachment to family, the taste for beautiful things, the deep connection with the land and the food, the cult of hospitality, spirituality, creativity, and industriousness, and the exposure to coexistence with the other”. (Gianluca, 94)

I am really impressed with Solera’s book, and I feel that he expresses a large number of Mediterranean intellectuals, when he says, I quote: “The momentum for a new space of political and social engagement for regional integration around the Mediterranean is now there. It is up to movements and citizens’ initiatives to perceive this historical opportunity and contribute to sharing a common destiny for the region, Europe and the Arabs, the West and the East, a common destiny that regimes and governments are not able to envision because they are prisoners of national or corporate interests, identity-based ideologies and old cultural paradigms”. (Gianluca, 94) I agree to his processing of grassroots around the Mediterranean citizenship and transnational identity, promoting organizations and activists of the two shores, to end up with a political and cultural roadmap envisioning the belonging to a common space for redistribution of resources and fighting against identity-based narratives.

Back to Einstein, it is not the fear of war that makes transnational or supranational citizenship necessary and more urgent at this time and forward, but the need to see the future of the world differently.


For the present, I believe that the interaction between cultures and continuous diversity is essential and necessary to share a valuable, meaningful and peaceful life.

To sum up, we may propose possible and practical steps or an open work program based on the following:

– Exploring present intercultural possibilities and proceeding exchanges all over the Mediterranean.

– Organizing open campaigns engaging trans-Mediterranean participations about freedom of expression and freedom of conscience, and to reinforce partnership and solidarity across the two shores.

– Linking between different grassroots movements and gathering engaged activists in both shores.

– Drafting a manifesto advocating for attending and dealing with the Mediterranean as a common, integral, and shared space depending on mutuality and exchanging.

– Preparing and drafting detailed legal regulations for transnational citizenship.

– Holding different cultural activities on both shores, such as:

– Open seminars to envision and discuss shared identity and trans-Mediterranean citizenship according to the cultural background and political situations.

– Free press exchanges and meetings between journalists.

– Joint entertainment and Folklore festivals and art exhibitions.

– Poetry and literary evenings.

– Translating and publishing North African works in Europe and European works in the south Mediterranean countries.



Boccaccio, Giovanni. Famous Women, trans. Virginia Brown. Harvard University Press 2001

Conant, Jonathan. Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, Cambridge University Press, UK, 2012

Formez, Shared Identities and Cultures in the Mediterranean, Centre for Administrative Innovation in the Euro-Mediterranean Region. pdf pub.

S. Poiycratis. The Influence of the Ancient Mediterranean Civilization on the Development of Human Cultures. Annals of the MBC, vol. 5, n’ 1, March 1992

Huntington, Samuel P. The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. Simon and Schuster, New York, 2011

Mahjoub, A.Monem. The Question of Entity. Independent Editions, Cairo, 2014

Mattingly, D. J. Libyans and the ‘Limes’: Culture and Society in Roman Tripolitania. Antiquites Africaines, t. 23, 1987, p. 71-94

McGrath, Alister E. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998

Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. Trans, Kathleen Blamey, The University of Chicago press, 1992

Solera, Gianluca. Citizen Activism and Mediterranean Identity: Beyond Eurocentrism. algrave Macmilan, Italy, 2017 


About Author

Monem MAHJOUB ,Dr.

Historian and Political Critic (Tripoli – LIBYA)

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