‘Sicilians have affinity for the Islamic world in their DNA’
A Muslim stronghold for about 200 years between the ninth and 11th centuries, Sicily bears the marks of Islamic history.
Palermo, Italy – The sound of about two dozen children practising Quran recitations fills the otherwise empty Islamic Cultural Center of Via Roma in Palermo, Italy.
Two break out of the group and start playing hide-and-seek between a curtain that separates the children’s section from the rest of the centre.
They are quickly ushered back to their place by Imam Sehab Uddin.
Home to more than 25,000 immigrants, many from majority Muslim countries such as Bangladesh, Palermo, has become a symbol of multiculturalism and integration that has been built on Sicily’s history.
A Muslim stronghold for about 200 years between the ninth and 11th centuries, the Mediterranean island – of which Palermo is the capital – still bears the marks of Islamic history both physically and culturally.
Ahmad Abd Al Majid Macaluso, the Imam of Palermo, walks through the San Giovanni degli Eremiti monastery and points to a discoloured section of wall.
He explains that was where the Mihrab used to be, the semi-circular carving in a mosque’s wall that faces the Kaaba in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam.
“Every church here used to be a mosque which used to be a synagogue which used to be a church which was a mosque,” he explains. “This is the history of Sicily.”
Imam Macaluso thinks that these symbols, like the Quranic inscription on the Cathedral of Palermo, the Arab-Norman architecture that dots the landscape, and the culture of the people make it a bit easier for Muslim immigrants to adjust to their new home.
“Surely, for Muslims that come here from other countries, Sicily is a happy exception because there is a natural disposition for unity, to recognise a brotherhood with Muslims, Jews and other religions,” Macaluso said.
“Sicilians differ from the rest of Europe in this natural disposition for diversity. Sicilians have this affinity for the Islamic world in their DNA.”
Masrur Rahim, a slim 29-year-old originally from Bangladesh, moved to Palermo when he was nine.
Now working at a travel agency in the city centre, Rahim credits the hospitality of Sicilians to their Islamic ancestry and multicultural past.
“The connection you feel is the people, because they [the Muslims] have left something inside the people,” Rahim said. “They are completely different from the northerners. They are more friendly here, they accept people, it’s better than the other places of Italy, the northern places of Italy.”
Imam Sehab Uddin also believes that there is a difference between the cultures of northern and southern Italy.
“Italy is like an apartment building,” he explains. “The people in the north are on the top floors and don’t talk to the people on the bottom floors [the south]. The people in the north, in cities like Padova and Venice, are scared of me. If I try to get their attention to ask them a question, they are scared of me. If I ask someone here, they answer and help me immediately.”
Patrizia Spallino, an Arabic language professor and director at the Officina di Studi Medievali in Palermo, explains that the Tunisian Arabic that used to be spoken on the island over 1,000 years ago is still evident in the Sicilian dialect through places and everyday words.
The port neighbourhood of Marsala in Palermo derives from the Arabic marsa Allah, meaning “port of God”.
This influence can also be seen in common Sicilian words like meskeen, from the Arabic miskeen, meaning someone who is poor or unfortunate.
Although this Arab influence is evident to someone who studies the language and knows the history, Spallino explains, most of the population is unaware of these links.
What is not lost on people, is what she calls the Mediterranean idea of hospitality.
“The idea of hospitality, starting with Greece and the Arabs and then Byzantines … is sacred,” she says. “You do everything you can for hospitality. In Arab countries, when they invite you in [to their home] they get you a tea, something to eat, this is also very Sicilian.”
But the reality of this hospitality has not been the same throughout Italy.
Over the past few years, Italy has seen several attacks against immigrants – the worst of which took place last year in the central Italian city of Macerata, where a man who ran in local elections under the far-right Lega party shot and injured six African migrants in a series of drive-by shootings.
In addition to these attacks, Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, has taken a hard line against immigration, at times forbidding those who have been rescued in the Mediterranean to disembark at Italian ports.
One of the most outspoken politicians against Italy’s anti-immigrant policies has been Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando.
“Minister Salvini isn’t against Muslims, Minister Salvini isn’t against immigrants, Minister Salvini is against Italians,” says Orlando, tapping his finger on his desk. “He is against our culture of hospitality, he’s against our Mediterranean soul, he’s against our history.”
This past January, Orlando, along with the mayors of Naples, Reggio Calabria and Florence, clashed with Salvini by rejecting the controversial Security Decree. The decree, in part, cancelled residence permits for humanitarian reasons, replacing it with shorter permits for specific incidences like natural disasters.
Orlando’s welcoming approach to immigration and multiculturalism can be seen in his office. It boasts a 200-year-old, coffee table-sized Quran, gifted to the city by the Aga Khan Foundation.
Arabic and French pamphlets on migrant rights sit neatly stacked to the side of his desk.
“When someone asks how many immigrants are in Palermo, I don’t respond 100,000 or 120,000,” Orlando explains. “I say none because the people in Palermo are Palermitans. The mayor of Palermo does not make a differentiation between those who were born in Palermo and those who live in Palermo.”
Orlando links his perspective on immigration and his policy to the city’s culture and history.
“In the south of Italy, in particular, we are not European, I’m sorry but Palermo is not Frankfurt or Berlin.
“Palermo isn’t Paris … Palermo is Beirut, Palermo is Istanbul, Palermo is Jerusalem, Palermo is Tripoli. Palermo is a Middle Eastern city in Europe. The Mediterranean isn’t a sea, it’s a continent. We have a Mediterranean identity that is multicultural.”
For people like Masur, this multicultural identity has helped him feel not just tolerated – but accepted.
“I feel at home now,” he says. “If I go somewhere else in Italy, like Venice or Milan, I say ‘no,’ I want to go back home to my Palermo.”