Notes on the here and now

Whatever happened to the Punics?

Carthage ruins

Good and bad, light and dark, mind and matter, yin and yang, male and female, them and us, Celtic and Rangers — who doesn’t like a telling binary opposition? But given the supposed value placed on diversity in our current culture, it’s noteworthy that talk about race also hinges on binary opposition now. The discourse assumes a fundamental distinction between People of Colour (good, oppressed, undervalued) and White People (bad, oppressive, overvalued). It’s straightforward enough to determine which category you slot into and which you can slot others into (apart, perhaps, from those tricky Jews, some of whom may pass as POC but whom are all really White).

This is all quite odd, given that race is one area where genuine diversity not only exists but should be acknowledged and celebrated. Yet the culture warriors have made their stand with this particular alignment of forces. It suits almost everyone —‘them and us’ is a handy guide to action, even if it erases the human diversity most claim to value.

But it’s easy enough to forget one’s own ignorance. I tend to think of North Africa as a collection of Arab lands, though I have a faint awareness of the Berbers. This ignorance was underlined recently when I read a piece by the Oxford academic Marie Daouda on the current Rhodes statue controversy (it’s a sensible, sensitive take on the matter, to which I can only add Amen – you can read it here). Dr Daouda is Moroccan and mentions that ‘Morocco is a country with no statues — all the artefacts reminding North Africa of its complex palimpsest of Punic, Roman, Jewish and Christian past have been wiped out by the Arabic colonisation’.

Of course, North Africa was colonised by the Arabs and yet many don’t think of them as colonisers in the way that they do the Europeans. Indeed we think of North Africa simply as Arabic in a way we don’t think of North America as simply European. But before the Arabs came, a range of ethnic groups inhabited these vast reaches of the southern Mediterranean, including those notable Punics.

The fall of Carthage is one of the standout events in ancient history, the point at which Rome destroyed its fiercest rival and opened the way for its complete control of the Mediterranean. The inhabitants of the city were either slaughtered or sold into slavery by the Romans. But this wasn’t a genocide. There were other Punic cities and settlements in North Africa. The Punic language survived into the 4th century AD and probably later.

The ancients talked of blood, whereas we talk of genes. Punic genes have not disappeared from the Earth. How many ‘Arabs’ walking the streets of Tunis and Tangier, or living high in the Atlas Mountains, carry those ancestral markers today? Thousands, tens of thousands? The Punics live!

[The photograph at the top of this post is of the ruins of Carthage. Credit: Calips/CC BY-SA (]