“Not everyone can write a novel,” remarks Francois Beaune, “but everyone has a story to share.” This is how the French writer summarizes “Histoires Vraies de Mediterranee” (True Tales of the Mediterranean), the cultural and literary project that has brought him to Beirut. Beaune says it all started when he read “True Tales of American Life,” by U.S. novelist Paul Auster. In 1999, Auster had called listeners on an American national radio to send him true tales of their lives, stories that they would like to share. Auster had no idea what a huge response his public call would provoke. He received more than 4,000 stories, which he subsequently edited and brought together to form “True Tales.”
After reading Auster’s compilation, Beaune was inspired to make a similar call within a different geographical region. He wanted to assemble stories from people living in the Mediterranean region. Beaune says the aim of his project is “to create a living library of true tales, in many languages.” The impending European Capital of Culture celebrations, Marseille-Provence 2013, provided a framework for the initiative.
Beaune said he chose the Mediterranean region because it has an “interesting geographical unity.”
France has a long political, economic and cultural relationship with the Mediterranean basin, of course. Back in the 18th century, before he assumed political power in France, a Corsican-born general named Napoleon had his sole extra-European military adventure in (then nominally Ottoman) Egypt.
The French republic went on to set up more lasting colonial outposts elsewhere in North Africa – creating protectorates in Morocco and Tunis and making Algeria an integral part of France proper.
Long before France carved its mandates of “Greater Lebanon” and “Syria” from the carcass of the Ottoman Empire, at the end of World War I, the French consular service had considerable commercial and political influence in this region.
Beaune isn’t only interested in towns of historic French influence. He intends to stop in 13 Mediterranean port cities over the next year. Before commencing his monthlong residency in Beirut, he’d spent time in Alexandria, Algiers, Tangier and Barcelona. After Beirut, he hopes to collect more tales in Izmir, in Turkey, Benghazi and, if possible, Latakia, in Syria.
The project is interested in tales that are more than anecdotes and less than novellas. Anyone interested in sharing their stories can do so on a multilingual website via three means: in writing, by audio recording or video.
Beaune feels his project has an educational facet in that it brings people together – citizens of countries officially in a state of war, for instance. With the support of their teachers, students could gather true tales from people in remote villages, for instance, who don’t have access to Internet technology.
People can post their tales anonymously or sign them. There are no specific conditions to participate to this project, no themes to respect. The only matter is the will to share a story.
“Histoires Vraies de Mediterranee” is a multicultural and linguistic project that goes beyond the geographical borders. To this point, Beaune has assembled stories in several languages, including Spanish, Berber and Greek.
What matters for him, Beaune insisted, is not the country but the people. He said he has only one question in mind: “Who are the people living in the Mediterranean region?”
Marseille-Provence 2013 will commence on Jan. 12, 2013. As the European cultural capital, France’s principal Mediterranean port city will host exhibitions, workshops, theatrical events, as well as the launch of Beaune’s project. Like Auster before him, Beaune intends to write a book compiling the true tales he’s collected.
Beaune hopes that “Histoires Vraies de Mediterranee” will become a resource for future cultural production. Anyone posting a tale on the tales website is informed that his or her contribution will become an open resource for the future. If a playwright wants to use some of these tales for a play, Beaune explains, then she or he will be free to do so.
“This way the stories will travel and be transformed,” said Beaune. “Maybe in the end, inshallah, we will have a mosaic portrait of the people living in the Mediterranean region.”