A walk through the Porta Palazzo market in Turin was all it took for Abir Shili, a 27-year-old Tunisian woman, to realize that Italy didn’t have streets paved with gold, as it had seemed from the images she saw as a child on RAI 1, which was broadcast in Tunisia until the end of 2010.
“While they were taking apart the stalls, I saw a Moroccan gentleman picking up the food left on the ground to take it home. I was shocked, because I didn’t think I would see such scenes there too,” explains the young woman, originally from Sfax, 300 km southeast of Tunis.
This experience from 2016, when she moved to Piedmont for a year with a scholarship, would not have been so unsettling if she had already done her Italian studies course before. Shili began studying Italian Language, Literature and Civilization at La Manouba University in Tunis the following year, where she realized that “there are differences between what we dream of and what’s really there.”
Abou El Alaa Dabboussi also had to revise his idea of Italy. He is a former student of the same department, now 30 years old, teaching Italian in a high school in Tunis. He has memories of when he was a boy, when Italians from Sardinia would come to buy coral in Tabarka, his coastal hometown in northwestern Tunisia.
“They gave me the idea of a distant, happy, exotic world, of which I understood almost nothing, despite the fact that my cousins had emigrated there,” he explains, blaming the lack of communication. “I only got to know if they had obtained documents, found work or bought a car.”
Over the years, Dabboussi has moderated the exoticism of his adolescent memories of Italianness: “Only at university did I understand its concrete dimension,” he explains.
For instance, when he studied comparative literature, for example analyzing Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a Piazza Vittorio, a 2006 novel by Amara Lakhous, an Algerian-born naturalized Italian writer. The protagonists of the story, people from various cultures living in an apartment building in Rome, each tell the police their version of the facts regarding the murder of a man found dead in the elevator. The different reconstructions each of them comes up with highlight their stereotypes and prejudices towards the other, whom they struggle to accept.
“I realized that Italian society is complex, sometimes polarized, not always so different from Tunisian society, even if the latter is more conservative,” the teacher explains.
The university department at La Manouba is the only one in the country that offers a Master’s degree in Italian studies, and since 2016, it has joined up with the Cattedra Sicilia, the first academic institution in the world teaching Sicilian language and culture. “I knew there were a lot of Tunisians in Italy, but I didn’t know that the relationship between the two sides of the Mediterranean was so close,” says Shili, who attended the latter as well.
She discovered that Mazara del Vallo, in the Trapani area, is home to Italy’s most identifiable Tunisian community. Now she knows that this is a place where the Tunisians who once settled to work in fishing failed in their migration project of making a fortune and returning home. “Now I understand why in Mahdia—a coastal town 200 km southeast of Tunis—there is a neighborhood nicknamed ‘Mazara,’ where there are the houses of those who emigrated to Italy.”
Shili, Dabboussi and many others like them weren’t born yesterday. They don’t come from the remotest parts of Tunisia, they are internet-savvy and they come from middle-income families. They know that today, for many Tunisians, Italy is only a bridge to reach other destinations in Europe. And they also studied Italian in high school, when they chose it as their third language in their penultimate year.
“It’s because it’s considered easy, like a macaronic French. It actually fascinates many young people,” says Mouin Camano, 25, an archivist at the Dante Alighieri Cultural Institute in Tunis and a graduate student of Italian studies at La Manouba. “But young people lack real opportunities for comparison, and all they see of Italy is the face of the professors who teach them the language at school.”
Camano, who comes from Gafsa, in the Tunisian hinterland, had no idea of the existence of Italian dialects and the north-south differences across the peninsula: this was “a special discovery” during his studies. And he thinks back to when one of his fellow countrymen who had landed in Lampedusa, together with Algerians and migrants of other nationalities, told him that he had been among the first to be picked up by the police for repatriation. He could have explained to him that it wasn’t because of hostility towards Tunisians, but due to the bilateral agreements between Italy and Tunisia.
Nonetheless, “the perception that Tunisians have of Italy is often more correct than the perception that Italians have of Tunisia, including some from the upper-middle class,” explains Alfonso Campisi, professor of romance philology at the University of La Manouba, Trapani and founder of the Cattedra Sicilia. “Sometimes, a part of our own intelligentsia has even compared Tunisia to the Libyan type of setting.”
While at La Manouba the topics approached in Italian studies don’t focus primarily on current affairs, “the insights into the present are wide-ranging, and the course on Sicilian culture, in particular, is one of the few in the local academic world that offers a snapshot of today’s reality in Italy.”
Camano hopes he’ll be able to see it all in person: “The University of Bari has offered me a scholarship for a one-month Italian course in September. Who knows if I’ll be able to go,” he says. Hope often dies at the Italian embassy in Tunis, where students, professors and workers are refused visas even though they meet all the requirements. Many end up going to France, or even Hungary, to study Italian.
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