In a sense, it was the meeting of a major contradiction. The gathering of 60-70 journalists from Italy, Albania, Portugal, Turkey, Morocco, Afghanistan, Switzerland, Holland and Romania to discuss the most burning and current issues linked to the Mediterranean Sea basin took place against the stunning background of the beautiful southern Italian port city of Otranto.
We spent three days here, touching on the barbarism that is sweeping through parts of the Middle East, the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the relationship between Islam and democracy, and the highly tragic immigration crisis that is sending ripples into the depths of Europe, threatening the political mindset. Many of our colleagues had come with their own bags of experience from the field; they had stories of their coverage of the conflict and the humanitarian drama that involves desperate people fleeing war and death.
We also had the opportunity to meet with Italian officials. High-ranking officials from the Italian navy and coast guard shared with us their coverage of the rescue operations and personal experiences.
The contradiction was visible: Listening to stories and sharing experiences made the beauty and tranquility of the historic city of Otranto and the hospitality of its people something to be thankful for. The significance of the choice was clear: Otranto, the easternmost part of the Italian Peninsula — on its “heel” — is a point that opens to the east. More than 500 years ago, Ottoman flotillas invaded the area, an act still vivid in the collective memory. The pirates, sent by Sultan Mehmet II, conqueror of İstanbul, ravaged the area. The skulls of some of the locals slaughtered, subsequently declared “martyrs,” are on display in the magnificent cathedral of Otranto.
The castle, overlooking the east of “Mare Nostrum,” as the Mediterranean is known in Latin, stands symbolically as a point of meeting and separation.
In a section, I had the pleasure to see a celebration of one of the masterpieces of 20th-century Italian literature. It highlighted the memory of the great Maria Corti, a critic, author, essayist and academic. Her masterpiece, a novel dating back to the early 1960s, titled “Otranto” (“L’Ora di Tutti” in its Italian original), tells the story of the Ottoman invasion in 1480 from the perspective of the locals. I was very happy to see the “grand lady” of Italian humanism looking at all of us with her keen eyes, as if to remind us how precious the lives are of all who share this fantastic sea, wherever they are.
More recently, Otranto has been a key point for all those fleeing conflicts in the Balkans — mostly Albanians. But, this time, the crisis is much larger, with unpredictable magnitude and consequences.
We also had time to celebrate our profession. The purpose of the gathering was partly to applaud the Caravella awards, part of the Journalists of the Mediterranean competition, which is organized by the Terra del Mediterraneo association based in Bari in Italy’s Puglia region under the direction of Tommaso Forte.
This was the seventh ceremony of an event that is attracting growing attention beyond the borders of Italy, inviting powerful debates about our role across the basin.
I felt deeply honored to be amongst this year’s winners, which included Italian and North African colleagues. I was told that the reason for my prize was my “passionate following of politics and attempts to bring a deep perspective to its cause-effect relationships and the role for triggering public debate over geopolitical issues.”
Humbled, all I could offer as a message was this: “I come here with the salutations of my colleagues in Turkey, those who struggle to remain independent from and critical of all forms of power. As much as in other parts of the Eastern Mediterranean, Turkey is going through a particularly delicate period. It is now hosting around 2 million refugees from Syria and the escalating armed conflict between the Turkish army and the [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] PKK threatens social stability, which is of great concern to all of us.”