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  • The Mediterranean Incarnate: Region Formation Between Sicily and Tunisia Since World War II by Naor Ben-Yehoyada
  • David Loher
Naor Ben-Yehoyada, The Mediterranean Incarnate: Region Formation Between Sicily and Tunisia Since World War II. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017. 288 pp.

How can anthropology study region formation? In his ethnography The Mediterranean Incarnate, Naor Ben-Yehoyada takes the reader aboard the fish trawler Naumachos. He explores the small encounters and dramas that unfold on deck during a six-week journey while the ship ploughs through the waves in the strait of Sicily between the Sicilian port town of Mazara del Vallo, the small Italian islands of Lampedusa and Pantelleria, and the Tunisian coast. With great detail the book describes how the multinational crew of Italian and Tunisian fishermen work and live together in this restricted space lost somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean.

The carefully crafted descriptions and interpretations of this everyday life aboard the Naumachos serve as starting points for the book’s broader aim: to study region formation between Tunisia and Sicily since World War II—an ambitious project indeed. “If we turn such moving sites like the Naumachos into stages, we can make the dramas that unfold on their decks summon the spaces and histories in which these floating stages meander” (237), suggests the author. In doing so, each chapter of the book is structured around a theme that represents an aspect of life onboard. After the Introduction sketches out the argument for studying region formation, Chapter 2, “Whose Strike?”, acts as the prelude to the ethnography of life onboard the trawler. While the ethnographer is roaming around between the quay and bars in search of a contact that will facilitate access to a trawler of the fleet, the book introduces the main political forces in town: fishermen (both Tunisians and Italians), boat owners, and local politicians. The following chapters structure the ethnographic material along different [End Page 1445] types of relationships. Chapter 3, “The Craft of Expansive Navigation,” explores the themes of labor and class, focusing on the hierarchies on board. In Chapter 4, “Fish and Bait,” the author discusses how seafood is used to forge alliances and establish relationships of patronage, both in the micro-cosmos of the Naumachos, and between boat-owners and local, as well as national politicians. A related but different type of relationship—family and kinship—is explored in Chapter 5, “One Big Family,” while Chapter 6, “Pissing Rage,” focuses on honor as a means to delineate group alliances and mark boundaries. “Terms of Transcultural Affinity” (Chapter 7) finally adopts a wider perspective with the theme of cosmopolitanism. In the Conclusion, Ben-Yehoyada comes back to the main argument of region formation, emphasizing the conceptual shift from connections to relationships structured through segmentation.

Each chapter’s leitmotif draws on classical themes of Mediterranean anthropology. Starting with the description of these themes through life on board the ship, the book traces “scaling devices,” as Ben-Yehoyada terms them, that link the decks of the Naumachos to the political scene in Mazara del Vallo, all the way up to the national politics in Rome, and reaching across the Mediterranean to Tunisia. These scaling devices serve two purposes. On the one hand, they allow the author to connect the micro-perspective onboard the fish trawler with the macro-perspective of the changing relationship between Italy and Tunisia in the Mediterranean. On the other, they allow a reconsideration of the above-mentioned themes in classical Mediterranean anthropology.

The most elaborate example of such a scaling device is seafood, as interpreted through the conceptual lens of patronage. Chapter 4, “Fish and Bait,” explores how the catch is divided between the boat owner, the fishing cooperative, and the crew members according to a complex set of explicit and implicit rules combined with mutual cheating that are linked to social status, affiliations, and hierarchies among the crew members. While particularly exquisite seafood is reserved for the boat owner’s gift-giving, sardines and other seafood that do not have any market-value can be collected and sold later in town by other crew members. The chapter then continues to explore how the...


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pp. 1445-1449
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