Money laundering in Malta, Mafiosi in Calabria, olive blights in Puglia, cave dwellers in Basilicata and blood feuds in Albania, not to mention pelican hunting and turtles swallowing plastic. Then, in the second episode, the partition of Cyprus, Christian refugees in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s “terrorist Disneyland”, Israeli desalination plants, and recycled bricks in the Gaza Strip. Well, this is definitely a different view of the Mediterranean. It’s been extremely interesting so far, and there are still two episodes to come. It’s also been rather worrying.
No-one uses the term “Levant” any more, do they? It used to be a term for the Eastern Mediterranean. Then it came to mean parts of the Middle East. It’s quite telling that there aren’t really any words in common usage that refer to both European countries and Middle Eastern/North African countries: it’s as if people can no longer think of them as having anything in common. The term “Maghreb” is used for the North African Mediterranean countries, and, when we say “Mediterranean countries”, we generally just mean European countries bordering the Mediterranean. It’s sad, really. I was made extremely welcome in Egypt (2007), Israel (2008) and Morocco (2010). Do most of in the West even think of the Middle East and North Africa when we hear the term “Mediterranean”?
And even the image of the European Mediterranean as one big holiday resort, sun, sand and sangria, is well wide of the mark, as this programme set out to show. It wasn’t exactly cheerful, but it didn’t pretend to be. Simon Reeve can actually be quite annoying, because he’s so determined to get his personal political views in there. Obviously he’s entitled to his views, as everyone is, but he’s making travel programmes for the supposedly neutral BBC, not political broadcasts. Having said which, he’s genuinely enthusiastic and genuinely entertaining, and his programmes are always very watchable.
The series kicked off with Malta. The George Cross island. Very popular holiday resort. But now, sadly, a major centre for money laundering. There’s been quite a bit in the news about this. Low tax rates have attracted all sorts of businesses there, and some of them are more than a bit shady. Dodgy goings on with gambling. Sales of passports. It’s now been two years since investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, after exposing corruption at the highest levels of government there. Something’s seriously rotten there. It didn’t make for pleasant viewing.
The role of the Mafia in Sicily and parts of the southern Italian mainland is far better known. It’s unfortunately got quite a glamorous image in the West, thanks to Marlon Brando and Al Pacino! Great film, but it really isn’t glamorous at all. Simon went for a change from the Sicilian Mafia, and instead told us about the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia, said to control 3% of the Italian economy, and now the most powerful Mafia group in Italy. They’re not even just in Italy: they operate all over. They’re the ones linked with the kidnapping of John Paul Getty II, the subject of another recent TV series. They are super-powerful. And they’ve got an incredible underground warren of tunnels, big enough for cars to use as well as people. It’s like something out of a James Bond film, but it’s real life. Frightening stuff.
Frightening in a different way were the tales of Xylella, the blight affecting olive groves in the Puglia region of Italy, and of the turtles being affected by all the plastic in the Italian part of the Mediterranean. People were in tears as they told Simon of the effect that Xylella’s having on olive groves that have been there for centuries. Parts of Spain and France have also been affected. It’s very worrying, and, as yet, there’s no effective solution.
Seeing turtles who’ve almost choked on plastic was distressing as well, but at least something can be done about that. Simon spoke to two people who are running a turtle sanctuary, and it was heartening to see one turtle being released back into the sea after being effectively treated. Plastic pollution’s big news at the moment. Maybe something will be done about it. Efforts are at least being made. Matera, Basilicata was a symbol of hope as well – as recently as the 1950s, people were living in caves there, in one of Italy’s most deprived areas. But times have changed, and it’s now enjoying quite a boom. I gather that there is some concern about Disneyfication, especially as the caves have been used as a film set on several occasions, but the horrific poverty is hopefully a thing of the past. More positive news came from Albania, where the hunting of pelicans has been banned – although unfortunately it’s still legal elsewhere, notably Egypt and Lebanon – and pelicans are now thriving in huge wetland lagoons.
But the other section on Albania was just horrifying. I’ve heard about the blood feuds there, but I don’t think I realised before just what the practical effects can be on people’s lives. These blood feuds between families go on and on for generations. It sounds like something out of the Middle Ages, but it’s still going on. We were told the horrendous story of a teenage boy who cannot leave his house for fear that members of a family embroiled in a longstanding blood feud with his family, over something that happened decades ago, might kill him. Just a young lad – just a kid. He was sat there, doing his schoolwork – he’s being home-schooled, by a visiting teacher, because he daren’t risk leaving the house to go to school – and talking about how he wants to play football and his favourite player’s Ronaldo, like any young lad might. He can’t leave the house in case someone murders him. He’s “in blood”. And he’s hardly the only one. Many, many people in northern Albania are in the same position. In Europe, in 2018. Bloody hell.
It’s a far cry from the image of “the Mediterranean” as a place of sunny beach resorts … but that’s the whole idea of this series.
The first episode was, whilst troubling, free of controversy. Hopefully, most people aren’t going to come up with any arguments in favour of organised crime, money laundering, pursuing blood feuds and destroying wildlife. The second episode was different. First up, Cyprus. Simon spoke to both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and also to British UN peacekeepers patrolling the buffer zone in the middle of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided city. There was a barricade literally in the street.
I was expecting to hear Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots calling each other, but what I wasn’t expecting was everything that was said about the tensions within the Turkish zone. This isn’t something that’s been widely reported here. Comments were made about the frustration of being cut off from the rest of the world, and of everything having to be routed through Turkey, but more worrying was the “social engineering”, as Simon put it, being carried out by the Turkish government. I’ve got considerable sympathy with the reasons for the 1974 invasion, but not with this. Thousands of people from Turkey, mainly from rural areas where the culture is conservative and strictly Islamic, are being offered incentives to settle in Turkish Cyprus, and the government’s funding the building of mosques. The native culture of Turkish Cyprus is far more secular and liberal. This is quite frightening, given what we know about Erdogan’s regime in Turkey. I really hadn’t expected that.
Then on to Lebanon. I thought this was going to be all about Beirut, but it wasn’t – we got some fascinating shots of an ancient Maronite monastery. I was fortunate enough to visit a Coptic monastery in Egypt in 2007, and there’s something quite special about Middle Eastern monasteries. They just … go way back. But the Coptic Christians of Egypt are being increasingly persecuted, and so are Christians in Syria and Iraq. It was interesting to hear about the influx of Christians into Lebanon, but also rather upsetting. This is a huge problem now. It’s not so long since most of the countries of the Middle East had sizeable Jewish and Christian populations. Things are very different now. It’s not good.
Worse came when he headed south, into the area controlled by Hezbollah. And they really do control it – “a state within a state”. He visited an extremely strange “tourist attraction” which Hezbollah have spent $20 million building – the “terrorist Disneyland”. Full of spoils of war from the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel. Talk about gruesome. And at least you can cross the border between the two parts of Cyprus. To get from Lebanon to Israel, he had to travel via Jordan.
The Israeli section of the trip was actually far more positive. We saw people enjoying themselves on the beaches in Tel Aviv, and we heard about the technologies which Israel’s developed for extracting gas from the Mediterranean and for turning sea water into drinking water. We hear about desalination plants in the Gulf sometimes, but I hadn’t heard much about those in Israel before. The Israeli processes are very energy efficient, and don’t use chemicals. Impressive.
The point was made that Israel, because of the issues with its land borders, is more reliant on the Mediterranean than probably any other country. 99% of its imports arrive by sea. 99%! It’s obvious when you think about it, because they’re hardly going to arrive via Lebanon, Jordan, Syria or even Egypt; but I’d never really thought about it before. One of the Israelis interviewed said that Israel felt like an island. It wasn’t dissimilar to what Turkish Cypriots had said about feeling cut off. All this conflict, around what we think of as a sea for swimming in and cruising through.
And from Israel to the Gaza Strip. Going through a very long and strange border crossing, Simon said it felt like being dehumanised and going into a cage.
Since 2007, land border crossings on both the Israeli and Egyptian sides are closed, and a sea and air blockade’s been enforced by the Israeli authorities, with buffer zones existing along the borders with both Israel and Egypt. The concerns about terrorism are quite understandable – the BBC guys, travelling in an armoured car because Westerners are at risk of kidnap there, were rather perturbed to be told that they’d just passed an Islamic Jihad post – but the blockade’s taking a terrible toll on civilians there.
However, there’s still some hope. Simon spoke to an engineer – a female engineer, I’m pleased to say! – who’s invented a type of brick made of recycled coal and wood ask, to circumvent the problem of import restrictions. She’s doing a great job. And yet she’s hampered by constant shortages of electricity. And the fishermen to whom he spoke next said that there are no fish within nine miles of the coast, but that they aren’t allowed to sail beyond six miles of the coast. They didn’t seem to feel that there was much hope. It’s a horrible mess.
Simon said that he didn’t want to take sides, and that he just feels terribly sad to think of all the opportunities for peace that haven’t been taken. I think a lot of us would go with that. It’s a very distressing situation. So are most of the others covered so far in this series. Crime. Blood feuds. Environment damage. War, terrorism, dangerous borders. It’s not really what we associate with the Mediterranean – and that’s the point of this programme, and it really is including some very interesting material – the final two episodes will presumably bring more of the same – and making the viewer think long and hard about it all. Well done to Simon Reeve and the BBC for drawing attention to all of these situations. This series is well worth watching.