Oh if I could go back I cannot calm this fire
in my heart
I cry for Andalusia
When can I ever go back? Is it a time that will ever
return? - Words from 15th century Malouf song
THE violinist who plays evenings in a band of traditional Arab musicians at the Hotel Abou Nawas in Tunis is called "Landoulsi."
"His name comes from Andalusia," says Zied Gharsa, the young leader of the five musician-singers who play Malouf, a five-century old form of Arab music heard almost exclusively in Tunisia and Morocco, and which dates from the 1492 expulsion of the Moors from their last stronghold in Spain. "It's a reminder of a common past and of the links that still bind our two sides of the Mediterranean."
Yet Mr. Gharsa is worried that aspects of traditional North African culture like Malouf, with its lyrics and instruments that hearken back centuries, are in danger of being drowned out by the mass culture of the Mediterranean's northern shore (or from farther still, America).
"Young people who are 18 or so, they don't like this kind of music, so it's slowly dying," he says. Tables at the hotel restaurant where he plays are sparsely occupied. "My father and I are about all that's left," he says.
His father, Tahar Gharsa, is renowned in Tunisia and among European musicologists. "The kids go with what they see on TV or hear on cassettes, and that's either modern Egyptian or European," says Tahar, who plays the Andalusian lute. "Europe has a tremendous influence here."
Like Gharsa, other observers of the western Mediterranean's cultural evolution paint a troubling picture. The massive diffusion of information and cultural products from Europe and the West - especially Western music, films, and European television - is having divergent effects in the South, and in some ways driving the cultures apart.
While many youths and members of the elite are attracted to Western culture, many Maghrebins are reacting against it and embracing Middle Eastern ideals, as manifested in angry street protests during the Gulf war.
The Western culture promotes itself through television and cinematic pictures, these observers say, but it is still beyond the great majority's grasp. As a result, segments of southern Mediterranean society - growing numbers of youth, the unemployed, even the frustrated middle class - are turning away from Europe toward a refuge in traditional values, including Islam.
"We are told the world is getting smaller, but the two shores of the Mediterranean are growing farther apart," says Yadh Ben Achour, an Arab law specialist and Tunisian university professor. He speaks of a "drift toward populist delirium" on the southern, Arab shore. "On one side you have scientific, rationalist thinking," he adds, "and on the other, a sinking deeper into the cult of origins and the myth of [Arab] unity. It's a deepening split that is an obstacle to understanding."
Benjamin Stora, director of the Maghreb-Europe Institute at the University of Paris, says the one-way diffusion of culture "leads to ignorance in the North and misunderstanding in the South, but in both cases it stimulates fears."
For Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, Mr. Stora says, the question is whether the "identity crisis" sparked by those fears will turn them toward their Arab identity. "The problem ... is that the elite, which has access to what the West offers, is turning to Europe," he says, "while the rest of society is turning to the Orient." Influence in Europe
While many observers lament the electronic media's one-way influence, the Maghreb does have its cultural influences in Europe. Algerian-bred Rai music, which mixes an Algerian sound with electronic rock, is one example. But it has not gained the popularity among French that Motown, rap, or other black music has in the United States, for example.
Several Maghreb novelists, including Morocco's Tahar Ben Jelloun and Algeria's Rachid Mimouni, have met with broad success in Europe, although Mohsen Toumi, Tunisian director of the Mediterranean Observatory of Regional Evolution in Paris, faults both with "giving the European reader not the reality of the Maghreb, but the picture of it that he wants to see."
A few Tunisian films have also had mild success.
But, undoubtedly, the biggest cultural influence is Islam itself, with as many as 6 million Muslims in Europe, more than half of them Maghreb immigrants and their children living in France. For Remy Leveau, an Arab specialist at Paris's Institut dtudes Politiques, Islam is to these Muslim immigrants what the Spanish language is to Mexicans in the US - "a means of self-affirmation, of saying, `I exist.' "
The problem for France is that it is not accustomed to a minority that refuses assimilation - and especially when its differentiating aspect is a publicly proclaimed religion in a society that has made secularity an obsession. "It leads to all kinds of hypersensitivity and fears about the minority's allegiances," Mr. Leveau says.
For Stora, the only way to begin resolving a "climate of mutual fears and mistrust" between the Mediterranean's North and South is through more cultural exchanges: "There must be a determined policy to encourage book exchange and publishing, to begin solving the one-way information flow, to provide possibility for discussion, and basically facilitate knowing the other side." One-way exchanges
The problem is that "cultural exchanges" have come pretty much to mean North-to-South initiatives as well, since the southern countries do not have the resources for large cultural programs.
"A lack of equilibrium means Europe remains ignorant of its southern neighbors," says Nadgi Safir, a sociologist at the University of Algiers. "What do young Europeans know about Islam, the Arab language, or the civilizations of the Mediterranean's southern bank?"
France has learned that maintaining cultural exchange programs with former colonies is not always easy. France spends almost $200 million a year on cultural relations with the Maghreb - about the same amount as Spain and Italy combined, and about 40 percent of its aid in cultural and scientific development outside sub-Saharan Africa.
The aid includes about 3,000 high-level university scholarships, teacher training, and management development. About half of the aid goes to Morocco, which is most open to it. Algeria, still the most sensitive to any suggestions of French hegemony 30 years after its war for independence, is the most particular about which programs it accepts.
French officials aim to reduce historical tensions by turning exchange and assistance programs into "partnerships," they say.
Mongi Bousnina, Tunisia's culture minister, says the southern countries have to transform their own cultural programs into "partnerships" with people who encourage plurality rather than a single vision of national culture.
"Our most important task is to develop a spirit of democratic pluralism, a culture that respects the other person, whether he's the neighbor or the people across the water," Mr. Bousnina says. "But to have the strength for that kind of respect, one must be confident in one's own heritage and national personality." National identity
Following that reasoning, the culture ministry's primary task is to "preserve and revitalize that national identity," he says, through art, archeology, cinema, music, and theater programs that support the work of Tunisia's 3,000 cultural associations.
A second priority is to create centers for "creation, study, and assembly" to bring together citizens and experts in various fields. A recent manifestation of this policy was this year's reopening of La Rachadia, an old school for the preservation and promotion of Tunisia's musical heritage, where experts and citizens can come together to deepen their interest in various fields. "We want to make Tunisia a meeting point for Mediterranean discussion," says Bousnina.
That's good news for Zied Gharsa. In other restaurants and lounges of the hotel, where Western music is playing, the crowds are larger - just as they are in the restaurant where the week's emphasis is on Italian cuisine. But for now the hotel still has a place for Malouf.