Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 © Jeff Matthews   entry Jan. 2003


anthropology, Neapolitan culture

Naples, Survivor Culture

I’m reading a fascinating book entitled The View from Nebo. How Archaeology is rewriting the Bible and reshaping the Middle East, by Amy Dockser Marcus (Little, Brown and Company. 2000. Boston.) Strangely enough, I am reminded of Naples. The section that draws my attention is a chapter on the relationship of modern Jordan to the ancient Ammonites, a people contemporary of the Israelites at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in the sixth century b.c. The salient point for the author is that modern Jordanians, for various reasons, fail to realize how connected they are historically to a people—the Ammonites—who were true “survivors,” true builders of what archaeologist Oystein LaBianca has termed “indigenous survivor structures”. 

Far from disappearing from history, the Ammonites used such “survivor structures” as developing a strong sense of family and tribalism, decentralizing the administration of food and water supplies, keeping a very low profile in the face of overwhelming force (so low, in fact, that they apparently had a network of “cave villages” beneath the very ground that Nebuchadnezzar’s armies were occupying. Interestingly, also, is that one of the “strategies” was the development of a “culture of hospitality that created a network of sharing favors and information…” The key phrase in the chapter is:


Much of that applies to Naples; it is quite clearly a “survivor culture”. I think that is a positive term. “Resilient” and “adaptive” would be others. “Sponge culture”—which I have heard—has negative overtones I don’t like, implying a parasite culture, one that takes but never gives. I have heard “chameleon culture,” as well. I don’t like that one, either, perhaps because of the implication of deceit and lack of originality. None of that is true of Naples. What is true is that Naples is the oldest continuously inhabited center of large population in Europe. You can trace the steps these people have taken from the Greeks to the Romans; then through the independent duchies to the Normans, French, Spanish and on into modern-day Italy. At each step of the way, they have reinvented themselves through strategies very similar to those mentioned above: adapting outside influences to their own circumstances; bending but not breaking in the face of power; reliance on friends and family; and hospitality. 
…the Ammonites had survived for so long because they had been open to outside cultural influences and trade with their neighbors, always finding a way to adapt these things to their own circumstances.

This makes me wonder if there is less of a clash—or, at least, if there are more flexible boundaries—between “insider and “outsider” in Naples. We all know that there are things that “mark” us as outsiders in another culture. Language is certainly one of them. Again in the Bible, the Gileadites distinguished their own soldiers from the Ephraimites on the basis of the pronunciation of the word “shibboleth”. Those who could not pronounce the “sh” correctly were the enemy and paid the price. If you don’t speak the language—one huge shibboleth—you will not fit in. It comes as a surprise to many, however, that even when they do speak the language, and even if they “say” all the other general cultural shibboleths properly, they still don’t fit in. They can never “unmark” themselves. Naples is not one of those cultures. Perhaps it has cultural markers that are less rigid—or, at least, more forgiving. It’s almost as if Neapolitans change their own pronunciation of “shibboleth” to fit yours. Thus, any perception that I may have of not “fitting in” may be just that—my own perception, the result of the quirk-ridden cultural and personal baggage that I carry around with me. (Admittedly, I am embarrassed to walk into my morning coffee-bar and ask, “Say, fellows, do I fit in?”) 
It certainly seems less incongruous to me now than once upon a time to walk out of a 17th-century Spanish monastery and a concert of Neapolitan Baroque music and directly into the MacDonald’s across the street where American jazz or home–grown Neapolitan rap music is coming through the in–house speakers. There are two possibilities: none of it fits, or it all fits. Maybe I do, too—more than I think.

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