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Poetry-quoting ministers aim to bridge Mediterranean divide

The Zitouna mosque towers over the medina, a Unesco cultural heritage site in Tunis Getty Images/Flickr/Alexandre Moreau

Culture ministers from 10 Mediterranean countries convened Friday in Tunis to discuss building cultural bridges between European and north African countries. Organisers said that this dialogue is particularly important at a time when the region is experiencing tensions due to migration as well as unrest by armed groups.

The meeting, held on Friday in Tunisia, brought together culture ministers from the 5+5 countries, an informal group is made up of five European Mediterranean countries - Italy, France, Spain, Portugal and Malta - and five north African countries - Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Mauritania and Libya.

The 5+5 group has been meeting regularly since 2001 for dialogue on everything from defence to education. Friday’s meetings discussed how to build on the region’s shared cultural history.

About time, was the reaction of Hela Ouardi, the director general of books at the Tunisian Ministry of Cultural Affairs. Ouardi, who is also an author in her own right, acted as the moderator for the opening event of Friday’s dialogue.

“Culture was supposed to be on the list, too, but in the past decade and a half it’s mostly been overlooked as countries prioritised security-related topics,” Ouardi said

But she insists that recognising shared culture could contribute in fact to security by improving relations.

“These days people perceive the Mediterranean like a wall,” Ouardi said. “Regional challenges such as terrorism and the influx of migration deepen these divides. But it isn’t a war zone. We should spend more time focusing on what brings us together.”

Human and universal

If Friday's meetings were anything to go by, bridges across the Mediterranean were already being built.

“Culture makes people feel comfortable,” Ouardi said, stepping out of meetings to smoke a cigarette and speak to RFI. “It’s not like political or security meetings where the tension is palpable. When ministers of culture have a meeting, you hear them citing great poets. We talk about what is human and what is universal. It’s the happy side of politics.”

At the end of a day of meetings, the cultural representatives from each country released a list of concrete measures for collaboration - the Tunis Declaration.

Libyan sites in danger

This includes provisions for the preservation of cultural sites in Libya, which has descended into chaos since Moamer Kadhafi was overthrown in 2011.

“These sites might be on Libyan soil but they belong to all of humanity and we need to protect them,” Ouardi said. “We are also launching projects to improve mobility for artists between the two sides of the Mediterranean and for literary and artistic prizes for creators in the 5+5 countries.”

This cultural exchange could have real effects on the public perception of regional identity, says Jaakko Hameen-Anttila, a professor of Arabic and Islamic Studies at Edinburgh University.

“I think that the general public usually perceives a dichotomy between European culture and Arab-Islamic culture and they are unaware of the deep historical roots they share,” he said. “But culture can play an important role in shaping perception. After all, if we understand the culture of the other civilisation then we are also closer to them as human beings.”

In a government meeting where poets are cited and ministers talk about the universal and humanity, the objective of “bringing together human beings” seems quite fitting.

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