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Smile with me. I am Arab

SOCIETY-PAOLO-BRANCA[2]smileProfessor Paolo Branca of the Catholic University of Milan (UCSC) is giving us a new image of the Mediterranean, “The Mediterranean he knows”. He will start  with a smile: a series of articles on the Islamic humour. Oh yes, also Arabs can smile!

The stereotype of the grim-faced Arab brandishing a scimitar is part of our collective imagination and is the result of centuries of struggle between the two sides of the Mediterranean. Over the course of time, Franks and Saracens, Crusaders and Turks, Venetian ships and Barbaresque pirates engaged in many epic battles, which have become mythical. In more recent times these images have been replaced by the representation of the lustfulness of the harem, making the fortune of a whole host of painters, when the eastern countries were no longer an impending danger and could therefore give way to less bloody and more exotic representations.

All this has been replaced by the clichés put forward by travel agencies, where the Orient rhymes with sunny beaches, coral reefs, tourist villages provided with all the comforts and providing quick visits to the archaeological sites and some shopping at the local markets. And here tourists risk buying “local” handicrafts … made in China.

In recent years the threatening aspect of the Orient and in particular of the Arab/Muslim world has had a dramatic revival.
The negative image has been strengthened by Islamic terrorism, the harsh disputes and the tragic facts following the publication of the Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie, the Dutch documentary Submission whose director was murdered, the Danish satirical cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad and the violent reactions to the lecture Pope Benedict XVI held in Regensburg.

It is increasingly thought that an entire civilization is destitute of irony and of a light touch and can be summarized by the obtuse eyes of the fundamentalists, by the merciless harshness and the inarticulate quality of their ideology, by the inhuman ferocity with which they cut heads and hands and throw stones at the unfortunate who happens to be caught.

It is an unreal image clashing with the overflowing humanity characteristic of towns and villages of the Middle East and of North Africa, which are far from being gloomy, not only thanks to the weather but also to the character of their inhabitants. In many ways they are similar to people living in places overlooking the Mediterranean.

And in my next articles you will discover how similar they are.

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