North of North Africa
by Farah Abdessamad
Fratelli d’Italia, a national-conservative political party led by Giorgia Meloni established in 2012, won the September 2022 Italian general elections.
During the month of September alone, the International Organization for Migration recorded 319 missing and dead in the Mediterranean Sea. Dehumanised humans, desperate asylum-seekers, criminalised as “dangerous migrants.”
I spent a week in Italy, 8-15 October 2022, briefly lingering in the abyss of constructed sites of alterity, one train stop at a time.
Pantheon’s robust columns, extracted from Aswan and Jebel Fatira in Eastern Egypt, maintain its austere elegance. I wanted to see seasons pass through its famed sundial eye, the Oculus, and the grace with which light breaks the boundaries of earthly architecture, transforming man-made structures into chambers of the sky.
I sit by the Fontana del Pantheon, on Piazza della Rotonda, tired after a return to Tunis following a 12-year absence. I observe the magma of the international crowd—queuing, posing, eating, arguing, standing—in the shadow of another Egyptian relic, an obelisk, which Pope Clement XI had added to the fountain 300 years ago.
The 15-meter-high towering monolithic block of stone (called “tekhenu” in ancient Egyptian), belongs to Heliopolis, a sacred city long associated with the god Ra, now relegated to a Cairene suburb. The obelisk, largely ignored by 21st-century tourists in Rome, was erected by pharaoh Ramses II (“Ramses The Great”) over 3,000 years ago and later placed in a shrine honouring ancient goddess Isis. Part of a twin structure, I pause to consider how much it misses its other half.
Rome turns into the saddest city. I’m homesick. I feel guilty that I couldn’t stay longer with my family. In the old Forum, a site of complex and fragile vocations, I walk along the sacred path that the brilliant Cleopatra once strolled, her mind devoured with oneiric aspirations of uniting Rome and Egypt by blood to her kin. I admire the arch of Septimius Severus, this Libya-born 3rd-century Roman Emperor who never abjured his North African ties. A full moon rises.
I weep quietly at the spectral memory of these figures, at the obscene splendour of Rome, a fortuitous capital that prospered on the genocide of Carthaginians.
Without its perpetual wars, no wheat, no gold, no glory. Dust. Dust of dried blood, dust of eroded marble.
Fogginess wraps the lake, just as it did in 217 BCE during the Second Punic War when Hannibal’s Carthaginian army launched a victorious attack against Rome. It’s one more battle in the prolonged bloodshed of the conflict that opposed these two great cities.
“Hannibal continued as before and marched through Tuscany towards Rome with the city of Cortona and its surrounding mountains to his left and Lake Trasimene on his right,” Polybius, 2nd-century Greek historian sent to Rome as a hostage, recalls in his Histories (Book III, 82.9).
Hannibal marched along the side of the lake and through the pass, and then personally led the occupation of the hill in front, on which he set up camp with his Spanish and Libyan soldiers.
I cycled over 25 kilometres to reach the ancient site near the appropriately-named Sanguineto. It’s all ecotourism farms and ruby-coloured wines now.
About 15,000 Romans fell that day in the narrow pass. Unable to adapt to the situation or take any effective action, they stuck doggedly to their traditional code of military honour, refusing either to flee or to break ranks.
In the open-air cemetery, a clover field replaces the commotion of battle and the shock of troubled destinies. I search for commemorative plaques, explanatory signs, and saw none. Victors and victims erased. Hannibal Barca, one of the greatest conquerors who ever lived, disappeared—dead again, barred from marauding and roaming the interstices of memory.
It had been less than a week since I admired the old Punic port of Carthage, north of Tunis. I had met fishermen and literature lovers, badauds, and the usual police officers in civilian clothes. Bougainvillea and jasmine bushes on rue Hannibal, off the Carthage Hannibal metro stop.
People and nations have their way of remembering, regurgitating, kneading, and reshaping history—the oldest form of storytelling. French philosopher Paul Ricœur wrote about the slim boundary between history and narrative fiction. As a living fabrication, our perception and relationship with time expands, shrinks, flees, expires, liquefies.
The night after visiting the battlefields of Trasimeno, I dream of victories and the aching defeats we don’t want to remember. The Carthaginian triumphs at Trasimeno and Cannae preceded the pain of Zama and the annihilation of an entire civilization, the undoing of Hannibal’s desired legacy.
I confront the multi-layered meaning of being one more other, barbarian, and savage body strolling through these fields. I whisper—sounds, blurred incantations—between tired breaths, my heart opened to a Carthaginian Sea, a Punic continent worshipping Tanit, Baal, Astarte…
The following morning, I bask in the warmth of an autumnal sunrise. Birds abound by the lake shore. Their murmurs channel the elusive grace of an inherited dance. Gentle waves lick the hard sand. People say that we die twice—physically, and when our names are forgotten. I find a rock on which I lean and stare at the shifting clouds.
Biannually, local men from the Tuscan city of Arezzo dress up in the costumes of their ancestors.
The town’s four historical neighbourhoods sport their colours—green and red for Porta Crucifera, the quarter which has scored the highest; white and green for second highest scorer Porta Sant’Andra; yellow and blue for Porta Santo Spirito; and yellow and crimson for Porta San Lorentino.
Folks gather at the inclined main square, on Piazza Grande. Canon salutes. A flag-bearing procession. Men-in-arms. Neighing horses. Trumpets and ancient banners. The crowd cheers.
In the middle of the square stands a rotating dummy in armour—a Buratto. His extended right hand holds a distinctive flail called a mazzafrusto. He holds a shield on his left arm. The protagonists (knights defending their quarters) need to strike a scoring plate on the dummy’s shield to win the 3,55-metre-long Golden Spear. This dummy, a passive simulacrum, represents a Saracen, an Arab, a Muslim. He consists of a bust—a disembodied presence with exaggerated darker facial features. “Saracen attendants” look after the Buratto, dressed in “Muslim clothes.”
The Joust of the Saracen (Giostra del Saracino), over which the Mayor of Arezzo presides, harks back to medieval times, symbolically re-enacting the parochial fight between Crusaders and so-called Infidels, perpetuating the notion of a visceral, perennial enemy native of inherently violent lands, east and south.
The people of Arezzo dedicated their June joust to local 4th-century patron San Donato (penultimate Saturday, night time) and the September one to the Madonna del Conforto, whose plaque reportedly glowed as an earthquake ceased to shake Arezzo in 1796 (first Sunday, day time).
They forget that the West should first protect itself from its worst belligerent tendencies. The Roman army led by Titus destroyed Herod’s Temple in Jerusalem (and the city) in 70 BCE, crushing a Jewish uprising. Crusaders killed tens of thousands of people when they sacked Jerusalem in 1099—exalted, mad, merciless. Ankle-high streams of blood from the mass atrocities committed flooded the streets of Jerusalem for days.
They forget, too, that the notion of jihad is first a struggle within oneself, an ethical inner combat for the believer to overcome sinfulness and depravation.
I remember Florence as a fateful accident. Braving my chronic agoraphobia, I opt to visit instead of seeing its relegated name passing by the outside window of a slow train. Florence, a head-spinning world-city of half a day.
I leave the train station and head straight to its breath-taking 15th-century Duomo. During a dark New York wintry weekend, I had read about the Duomo’s architectural prowess, a construction left idle for almost a century until it found a renewed hope, incarnated in Brunelleschi’s ingenuity. The beauty of the cupola’s impossible ascent, this combined feat of art and science, strike and embalm me.
Muslim architects already elevated structures using double-shell domes, the same technique that Brunelleschi would later apply to the Duomo’s cupola. One wonders, for instance, whether monumental accomplishments in the Islamic world at that time, such as the Dome of Soltaniyeh built over a century before Florence’s Duomo in Iran, may have added to the engineering options available to Brunelleschi.
Basra-born mathematician Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen in Latinised form) also greatly contributed to Western pictorial art. The 11th-century Muslim scholar revolutionised the field of modern optics; his treatise on optics was known to and read by Leonardo da Vinci, Galileo, and Kepler. Ibn al-Haytham’s proposed approach to vision, along with Islamic works in geometry and symmetry, likely improved the visual dimensionality of Early Modern art.
At the Uffizi Museum, the halo of the Virgin Mary in Adoration of the Magi, a 15th-century large-scale painting from Gentile da Fabriano, contains Arabic-like golden inscriptions recalling that a colonial mind-set consigning the Renaissance as an insulated cultural miracle remains anachronistic. Noble Florentine families used to acquire Islamic metalwork, glass, textiles and fabrics, ceramics, and more. The transmission of key Greco-Roman texts—Euclid, Aristotle— via the Islamic Golden Age attests to significant inter-faith and intercultural exchanges.
I zigzag the busy Piazza del Duomo; it’s time for me to leave Florence and the enchanted myths of the Renaissance behind. A familiar voice, a relatable accent, catches my attention. An Algerian man spreads cheap prints and other souvenirs on the floor, haggling tourists.
The Republic of Venice participated to the sack of Byzantine Constantinople in 1204, a siege of Christians against Christians that led to widespread looting and pillages, including the ransacking of monasteries and churches. Among this razzia, a replica of the copper horses from the Hippodrome of Constantinople brought by Doge Dandolo now adorns the exterior of Saint Mark’s Basilica. (The original horses are housed inside.)
I take a direct vaporetto north, from San Mark’s square to the island of Murano. I pass by the cemetery of San Michele on the way. Famed since the 14th century for their delicate and high-quality glassmaking, the craftsmen of Murano first looked East, to Syrian glass-masters whom they imitated.
Syrians invented glass-blowing, which further expanded the possibilities of the medium as vessel and ornament. The Venetians of Murano perfected their acquired skills while at the same time, glass manufacturing declined in Syria. Today, several Damascene families stubbornly continue to preserve their heritage.
Most of the glassware exhibited in Murano’s main storefronts are factory-made. I buy a cute-looking turquoise necklace. Turquoise, from “Turks.” The West relied on the Ottoman Empire for the trade of the gemstone, notably from Iran where great deposits are still mined.
I visit the various sites of the 2022 Biennale di Venezia. In the survey placed under the sign of Surrealism features one Tunisian artist, Safia Foudhaïli Farhat, and her textured dreams.
Born in 1924 during the French protectorate of Tunisia, Farhat was one of the few woman indigene to access formal education. Her large-scale tapestry Gafsa & ailleurs (1984) remembers the late years of Bourguiba’s Tunisia and bread riots. Following independence, Farhat became the first Tunisian woman to teach at the Institut supérieur des beaux-arts in Tunis. Her weaving ruminates about the old and new, and I join her in a meditation on craft and culture. I decipher in her tapestry the familiar outline of camels and I long for borrowed time in the desert, giggling with friendly ghosts.
I find myself in the courtyard of Juliet’s house. People queue to access the famous balcony.
In the city’s historical centre, I walk between unpleasant scents of ham and donkey ragout as others take precious selfies in the name of passionate fantasy and Shakespearian drama. I watch this circus with bittersweet delight; it’s my last day in Italy.
I roam in the evening near Piazza Bra by the Arena, the third largest Roman amphitheatre in Italy after Rome’s Colosseo and Naples’s Capua Amphitheatre, built in 30 CE. Verona’s Arena is only a few centimetres wider than the amphitheatre of El Djem in Tunisia.
Long before summer-long operas, and routine performances of Aida and Carmen, the Arena hosted more sinister forms of entertainment: gladiator fights. In addition to man-to-man combat, ancient Romans also appreciated watching gladiators set up against wild animals, “beasts” usually trafficked from African colonies.
The North African lion, a species now extinct in the wild, was particularly sought after for these deadly games. Older generations of North Africans remember the respected animal and legends associated with it, a frightening and magnificent big cat with a long dark mane that lived in the forests. Experts date its last sighting in the wild to the 1960s, in Algeria’s mountainous Aurès region (Aurès comes from the Amazigh name Awras, which means lion).
In 1943, as winds turned towards an Allied victory during WWII, Italy’s Grand Council of Fascism, voted to strip Benito Mussolini of his function of Duce and National Fascist Party leader. Placed under arrest, Nazi special forces rescued and reinstated him at the helm of the country. A witch-hunt followed to find the “traitors” from the Grand Council’s vote of removal and sentence them to death.
Castelvecchio, a 14th-century castle in Verona, hosted this show trial over two days in January 1944. One of the men charged with treason included Gian Galeazzo Ciano, former Minister of Foreign Affairs and Mussolini’s son-in-law and touted heir. Ciano died with four other accused, tied to a chair and shot from the back by a firing squad.
Soon after his brutal invasion of independent Ethiopia (Abyssinia), Mussolini inaugurated an Italian consulate in 1938, in Egypt’s Port Said. On the plaque of this abandoned Casa d’Italia reads: “Rome once again at the heart of an empire.”
Denouncing Italy’s aggression, Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie had unsuccessfully appealed to the League of Nations. “It is us today, it will be you tomorrow,” he said.
About the Author
All photographs courtesy the author.