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In the Name of the Mediterranean

"I have traveled all over the globe and seen divineness, but the Mediterranean always calls me back. No landscape moves me like that of the Mediterranean—it weaves my body to the earth and still lets me be water."

Close your eyes and think of the Mediterranean Sea. What comes to mind? 

“Blue. Sea and sensuality. Icon and infinity. Melody and melancholy. Labyrinth and love. Mozzafiato. Soleil. Aceituna,” 

the poet Nathalie Handal responded.

A while ago, I found out that July 8 2020 would be the International Day of the Mediterranean Sea. I felt moved that a whole day would be devoted to a sea I feel a deep connection to. And I immediately thought of the answer that Nathalie Handal gave to me when I first met her and asked, “Where do you come from?”

“I am from the Mediterranean.”

That’s why I thought she would be the perfect guest for my blog post devoted to the Mediterranean Sea. A writing siren coming from a symphony of languages, and whose multilingual poems are often about the Mediterranean. Nathalie wrote a collection of poems that is an ode to the Mediterranean – Canto Mediterraneo, published by Ronzani Editore (2018), that I had the honor to translate into Italian. The siren says, “being originally from Bethlehem means being made of those who work the land and those who cross seas. Being local and plural. Weaved with Eastern and Mediterranean cultures — Canaanite, Levantine, Palestinian, Arab, Assyrian, Armenian, Islamic, Byzantine, Greek, Roman, Venetian, Sicilian, French.”

Nathalie’s strong bond with the Mediterranean Sea is not only her origins, it is part of her present life: “I can’t live away from the Mediterranean for too long. I live half the year in Rome, and go to Marseilles, Greece, Croatia, the Levant as often as I can. And then there is Venice—city of water and poetry. When I am in Rome, I take the train to magnificent Naples. When I see the sea, feel its waves, hear its murmurs, I am changed each time. The sea like the strongest side of love seduces and sculpts silence into a long-awaited song.”

Nathalie Handal and the Mediterranean Sea

Of the Mediterranean she captivatingly said: “the Mediterranean Sea is the cradle of civilization. The region fostered the movement of people and commodities, the transmission of cultures and ideas, stimulating minds and inspiring adventures and reveries. It is surrounded by twenty sovereign countries in Southern Europe, the Levant, and North Africa, and two island nations—Malta and Cyprus. It’s a region where cultural, religious, and linguistic diversity converge, where ideas travel and intersect. The Mediterranean people are navigators and interpreters. Our lingua franca is the sea—a language born in the waves and ports, a coalescence of many tongues. I see myself in its crossroads.”

But is there a real Mediterranean identity, I asked? To that she responded: “there are numerous views on the Mediterranean idea and identity, developed at different periods of history, to carry forth different socio-political agendas. Some contemporary scholars are revisiting and rewriting European discourses emphasizing the Western world’s Greco-Roman and Christian traditions but not their African and Asian roots—Egypt and Mesopotamia.”

Nathalie added that “writers and creative practitioners have always offered other gazes. Albert Camus encouraged a ‘New Mediterranean Culture’ (La Nouvelle Culture méditerranéenne) in his 1937 lecture at the Maison de la Culture—though his lecture has been construed in drastically different ways. Serbo-Croatian poet Ivan V. Lalić said he belonged to a Mediterranean tradition, and we can find in Cesare Pavese’s work a Mediterranean ethos. Many Alexandrian writers have written about the city’s multiethnic, multireligious, multicultural, multilingual society living harmoniously—even if this coexistence did not last.”

In her personal journey “as a Mediterranean woman, wanderer and dreamer of a return home,” she elaborated, “I’ve looked for reflections and ruminations in the works of other women writers from the Mediterranean, such as the Algerian Assia Djebar, the Turkish Lale Müldür, the Croatian Slavenka Drakulic, the Sardinian Grazia Deledda and the Greek Kiki Dimoula, among others.” In literary outputs by writers of the region she traces “a Mediterranean sensibility—nostalgia, torn-ness, continuous movement.”

She also emphasized the tragedy of the sea: “The Mediterranean Sea is also an amphitheater of wars, conflicts, and deaths.” And suggests, “A deeper awareness of this ancient history is vital to address the current migrant crisis, to fight discrimination and otherness.”

Which brings me back to one of her poems in Canto Mediterraneo, “Italo’s Secret”

We no longer need / to translate perdita / our knees trembiling under / a sheet of water / knows we are on / our way

The poet’s current book-in-progress is set in Sicily and Southern Italy: “Sicily is a place where racial, ethnic, and religious forces intersect. The Mediterranean Sea has become a transit for peoples from Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, en route to the shores of southern Europe. Sicily is a meeting place between Christianity and Islam, European and Eastern cultures. The Mediterranean of medieval and early modern eras was multicultural and religiously plural as Christian, Muslims, Jews and others interacted at various levels from literary to economic. Southern Italy offers me a reflection of myself and reminds me coexistence is possible.

As a final gift to us, a beautiful poem from her book-in-progress:


Un posto ci sarà per questa solitudine

From a place where memory is a reservoir. From an old wound. A war. From a room of fantasies. From the faint voice of pleasure. From the view of our naked bodies. From the road that leads to mirrors. From the mirrors that lead to hums. From the pleasure we unlearned, and learned late again. From this rhythm we keep. From this passion we endure. From this mystery that tells us we lost everything in one room, and found we belonged somewhere after all.

Un posto ci sarà per essere felici

Why find out who we are? Why remember all we did? Why think of what changed us? Why think of what challenged us; what kept us away from what we began? When a heart empties a gaze. When a memory turns on another memory, which of your voices is mine? Only mine. We slip through each other as if the cities we came from meant nothing to the world.

Un posto ci sarà dove si spera ancora la gente porterà una storia nuova

When we are lonely, the city opens itself to remind us no one is alone, all the time, and then the wind delivers a day, light moves to make space for nameless friends, a saint tells us what the heart didn’t dare to, and we come to know, each time we believe music is memory, the waters ask us to look into its eyes.

We are looking forward to this new intensely rich collection, where Nathalie achieves so well what she considers as her ultimate artistic goal: “to excavate pleasure on the page.”

Nathalie Handal “illuminates the luxuriance and longing of deracination—a contemporary Orpheus.” Her recent poetry books include Life in a Country Album (2019/2020), shortlisted for the Palestine Book Award and a Finalist for the Foreword Book Award; the flash collection The Republics (2015), lauded as “one of the most inventive books by one of today’s most diverse writers,” and winner of the Virginia Faulkner Award for Excellence in Writing, and the Arab American Book Award; the critically acclaimed Poet in Andalucía(2012); and Love and Strange Horses (2010), winner of the Gold Medal Independent Publisher Book Award. She is the author of eight plays, editor of two anthologies, and her poetry, essays and creative nonfiction have appeared in Vanity Fair, Guernica Magazine, The Guardian, The New York Times, The Nation, The Irish Times, among others. Handal is the recipient of awards from the PEN Foundation, The Lannan Foundation, Centro Andaluz de las Letras, Fondazione di Venezia, among others. Her work brings her to audiences globally. She is a professor at Columbia University, and writes the literary travel column “The City and the Writer” for Words without Borders magazine.

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