Thursday Feb 18 Dr Naor Ben-Yehoyada

Thursday Feb 18 (5pm Seminar Room)

The Mediterranean Incarnate: fishing and region formation between Sicily and Tunisia

Dr Naor Ben-Yehoyada


Mazara del Vallo, a fishing town at the southwestern tip of Sicily, 90 miles northeast of the tip of the Tunisian shore, boasts millennia of connections to and tensions with the other side of the Channel of Sicily. More recently, it has hosted the largest Italian fishing fleet after WWII. The talk is centered around the ethnography of life aboard a fishing boat from Mazara. I describe how the space onboard a motorized trawler in the Channel of Sicily, as well as the authority it displays and relationships it encloses, becomes both a key and an emblem for processes that lie beyond them, and in which they participate. I show how people scale up their “here” and their “now” and conjure up the wider spaces of the Channel of Sicily and the Mediterranean.

Beyond the trawler’s deck, the manuscript focuses on Mazara’s recent turbulent history: from a relatively unimportant viticulture town in the 1940s to a central scene in Fish Wars, clandestine migration, a trans-Mediterranean gas pipeline, and the rising importance of the Mediterranean in Italian politics since the 1970s. I examine this region formation by showing how Sicilian poaching in North African fishing grounds transformed transnational political action, imaginaries, and relations in the central Mediterranean: how Sicilians and Tunisians came to regard each other as related.

In their endless fishing voyages, the Sicilian and Tunisian fishers of Mazara personify both the reemerging Mediterranean imaginary that their fleet’s expansion has conditioned and the current decrepit, diseased, disillusioned, and internally torn shape their craft has taken. The stark contrast between nostalgic tales of joint catches, gains, and exploits, and the stagnant, tense-ridden, and trying present, reveals the consuming effects that the fleet’s mode of operation has had on people, relations, and the sea. Both in the daily on-board routine, which Tunisians and Sicilians call “slavery,” and in their versions of what being Mediterranean seafarers entails nowadays, they offer a complex perspective—moving both temporally and spatially—on the vicissitudes and tolls of the sea’s reemergence.

On the basis of this analysis, I make a case for treating regions like the Mediterranean as the medium and scales of transnationalism. I argue that the historical processes through which transnational regions form should become objects of anthropological analysis. I propose to view such spaces as ever-changing constellations, which form and dissipate through the interaction between cross-boundary practices and official region-making projects. And I show how we can attain this viewpoint from the moving vessels that weave these constellations together and stage their social relations and dynamics in full view.