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  • After the Shipwreck:Mourning and Citizenship in the Mediterranean, Our Sea
  • Maurizio Albahari (bio)


Zuwara, a Libyan port city not far from the Tunisian border, serves as a migrant smuggling hub. It promises arrival to the island of Lampedusa 180 miles to the north, in Italy.1 Lampedusa’s fishermen avoid the stretch of sea to their island’s south—experience tells them their fishing nets are likely to be torn by the many wrecks on the seabed. And in Zuwara, many residents stay away from wild-caught fish. They are afraid that fish in this Mediterranean stretch feed off human flesh.

What is the Mediterranean? Water, salt, beauty, refineries, straits, ports, cities, olives, sanctuary, trade, vessels, relations, fiber optics, shipwrecks, and historical memory. This fluid list could be much longer, especially given the horrific conflicts currently binding and lacerating Mediterranean lands. There is no doubt, however, that the Mediterranean Sea is also the world’s deadliest border (Albahari 2015a).

Is this dreadful status reflected in practices of public mourning? And is the Mediterranean doomed to being a mass grave? On a darkened wall in the historic center of Naples, not far from “L’Orientale” university’s classrooms, cubical graffiti promises passersby that “the future has not been written.” I suggest that by better understanding the emergence of Mediterranean responsibility for Mediterranean [End Page 275] deaths, analysts can understand one of the keys being used to rewrite the European present.

Years ago, a priest involved with the assistance of maritime migrants thought it was necessary to share with me that Otranto, on Italy’s southeastern coast, “is closer to Istanbul than to Milan.” Both as a local citizen and as a social scientist, I was not the only one who needed this simple reminder. Like most people in my generation, my back was turned to the sea. Our gaze was oriented exclusively toward the north, where the dominant moral and political-economic cartography locates prospects for higher education and jobs (Albahari 2008). And while transnational proximity and a complicated history bind the Mediterranean basin, the scholarly tenet of a “Mediterranean” cultural unity has been exhaustively challenged (Herzfeld 2005) as orientalist and even as instrumental to colonialism.

In other words, the factual acknowledgment of proximity lends itself to multiple uses and interpretations but does not mean much in itself. Failing to note this, there is the risk of perpetuating the reifying rhetoric of Italy as Europe’s “natural bridge” to Asia and Africa, for example. Even attaching a label—any label—to the space I focus on in these pages is complicated. The Mediterranean, southern Europe, and the Euro-Mediterranean area, among other designations, present a variety of contested implications. The lived mythologies and stereotypes that place Europe and the Mediterranean in opposition have been largely disassembled (Herzfeld 2005; Dainotto 2007; Chambers 2008; Ben-Yehoyada 2011; Albahari 2008, 2015a). Still, scholars and policymakers may continue to build productively on Antonio Gramsci’s analysis (1971, 70–1) and to question whether “the South” (any South) provides within itself the explanations for the challenges that distress it, or whether one needs to study the asymmetrical relationships between South and North. We are not talking about spaces, clearly. We are talking about hierarchical relations among people, and their spatialization. Whether one studies life or death in Mediterranean mobility, there is little use in focusing on the unforgiving [End Page 276] elements and on physiology, and much use in focusing on economic, geopolitical, and more generally political choices and mechanisms.


The Mediterranean is not an idealistic abstraction. It serves as a strategic crossroads for global energy, telecommunication, security, trade, and fishing interests. Thirty percent of worldwide maritime mercantile traffic transits through the Mediterranean Sea. At any given time, there is an average of 1,500 commercial ships sailing in its waters, including at least 200 oil tankers and several military vessels. Certain economic circles characterize the Mediterranean as the world’s “next growth frontier,” precisely in light of its integration into the African (and particularly West African) economic and demographic potential. In fact, it is relative growth in cultural, social, and economic capital that is enabling many African youth to...


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