Women, Activists, Citizens of the Mediterranean

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The Museum of the Civilizations of Europe and the Mediterranean Sea was inaugurated this year in Marseille – the city named the European Capital of Culture for 2013. Indeed, Marseille, with its 2,500-year history, has long been known as one of the largest ports on the Mediterranean, a gateway to Europe, an economic and cultural meeting point, and a destination for immigrants. What location could be more fitting to showcase the cultures of the Mediterranean region?

Over the past several thousand years, many rich cultures have developed along the shores of the Mediterranean. Its various groups have traded with, warred and conquered one another. The monotheistic religions first arose in these countries. Through a permanent exhibit revealing the history of the development of the region from Neolithic times to the present, as well as temporary exhibitions on various topics, the museum addresses questions that still affect the Mediterranean area today: What ties the Mediterranean cultures together? What separates them? How are they affected by their shared history? What challenges – historical and current – divide and unite the northern and southern halves of the Mediterranean basin?
Top (from left) Meryem Cherkaoui, Dalila Nadjem, Caroline Ayoub. Center: Désirée El Azzi, Faouzia Charfi, Esmeralda Calabria. Bottom: Panayota Karampatou, Rachel Mamlok-Naaman and Shahinaz Abdel Salam

An exhibit created for the museum’s opening, attended by France’s President, François Hollande, was called Citizenships and Human Rights. The exhibit featured nine women, from different walks of life and nationalities, who have made significant contributions to society. Among them was Dr. Rachel Mamlok-Naaman of the Weizmann Institute’s Science Teaching Department.

In the exhibit, each of the women told her life story and described her philosophy in a filmed monologue; the films are continuously screened on a wall in the museum. One, for example, features Caroline Ayoub, a political activist who fled her native Syria to found an independent Syrian radio station. Another shows Dalila Nadjem, an Algerian children’s book publisher who has clashed with religious authorities over the right of children to read comics. Meryem Cherkaoui is a Moroccan chef who works to improve nutrition in her country. Esmeralda Calabria is an Italian filmmaker who made a documentary film on the mafia. The other women are Faouzia Charfi, a Tunisian professor of physics; Désirée El Azzi, a Lebanese professor of biogeochemistry; Shahinaz Abdel Salam, an Egyptian computer scientist who took part in the recent uprisings in her country; and Panayota Karampatou, a Greek businesswoman who has founded a baker’s cooperative for women in economically disadvantaged areas.
Exhibit opening. France’s President, François Hollande, is second from right
Dr. Rachel Mamlok-Naaman promotes science education – not only in Israel, but around the world, from South Korea to Tanzania. She is also involved in various efforts to bring together scientists from Israel and the Arab world.

In her film, Mamlok-Naaman explains the importance of science education, which spans borders and cultures, and advances humankind as a whole. For her, learning science is an inseparable part of general education – not just a subject for “future scientists,” but knowledge that is crucial to all citizens of the globe who want to understand the world around them or even make rational choices in their lives. “A broad education that includes science may not be the quickest route to economic success, but it is a sure one, and one that enriches the spirit of humanity. It is the essence of what makes us human,” she says.
“Watching the filmed monologues, one sees how women, each in her own way, can help bring people closer together and initiate dialogue,” says Mamlok-Naaman. That bringing together of people was more than a theme running through the films on the museum’s wall: Close relations developed between the nine women, who all came together for the opening in Marseille. For Mamlok-Naaman, personally meeting the other accomplished women was moving and inspiring, and she describes the special kinship she felt with the women from Arabic-speaking countries: “Because we live in geographic proximity, we are all familiar with the conflicts arising from the differences in regimes and world views; we all deal with issues of individual freedom and the separation of religion and state. They understand the Jewish-Arab conflict, and I, as an Israeli, understand what is happening today in the Arab world. Despite the would-be disagreements and tensions, we found a basis for close friendship, ultimately, in our common, universal experience – family, career, daily life.”