Islam and Me by Shirin Ramzanali Fazel
In this extract from ‘Islam and Me’, written and translated by Shirin Ramzanali Fazel with assistance from Simone Brioni, the author reckons with Italy’s systemic racism, and her experiences with family, assimilation culture, and immigration. Who has the right to exist, she asks, and the right to nationhood?
Wasafiri 111: Translating Lives, examining the nuances and meaning of translation across the world, is available for order here.
I am at Venice Airport, having travelled back from England, where I live, to see my daughter Salima. The immigration official is in his thirties, he has a goat-like beard, thick glasses, and dark eyes like the black olives of the Mediterranean. He is scrutinising my Italian passport. Then, overcome by curiosity, he asks me, ‘Signora, how long have you been an Italian citizen?’
Encouraged by his young, smiling face, I reply, ‘From back when Italian TV shows were still in black and white.’ In my heart, I’m thinking, ‘Long before you were born. Is my nationality printed on my brown skin or my hijab?’
I am an Italian of Somali-Pakistani origin. I am Muslim. Unfortunately I don’t feel represented by those newspapers, politicians, and TV programs that depict us with stereotypes: immigrati, terroristi, criminali, people coming to Europe to steal jobs, bringing disease. I feel rejected, insulted, censored. I hear people say, ‘Italians are Italian by blood; immigrants can’t become Italian.’ What an insult!
I do not deny my origins, my culture, my religion. I bring them with me; I am proud of them, and I live them daily. I am the result of many life experiences, many encounters, which have enriched my identity. I have changed so much in my life that I am still able reshape my way of thinking, if necessary. I feel good in my skin. That’s who I am.
I grew up in Mogadishu during the 1960s. We all knew each other in the neighbourhood. The doors of the houses were open; we had uncles and aunts who took care of us, even if they were not blood relatives. We played in the alleys, and we felt protected. My childhood was happy. I grew up in an independent Somalia. Independence was celebrated, and there was great enthusiasm towards building the country after decades of Italian colonial rule.
At that time, I had no idea that the African countries’ borders had been determined by the colonial powers and their interests. That the Europeans, the colonisers, had indoctrinated us in their language and their culture. We had been taught a history that was solely from their point of view.
I didn’t go to Italy, it was Italy that first came to me. It had come into my hometown of Mogadishu, and I was crossed by that border. The streets, schools, churches, military barracks, monuments, shops, movie theatres, restaurants, bars, hotels, all had Italian names. Even after independence, Radio Mogadishu still broadcast news, songs, and daily programs from Italy. Milan, Inter, and Juventus football teams had their fans. The national newspaper, Il Corriere della Somalia, was printed in Italian. Italian was still the country’s official language until 1973, when Somali became the official language, written with the Latin alphabet.
My family wanted to give me the best education possible, so I went to kindergarten and elementary school at the Regina Elena Institute, run by the sisters of the Consolata Missionary Order. This school followed the same curriculum as those in Italy, and was recognised by the Italian Ministry of Education. It was primarily for Italians living in Mogadishu, but it also enrolled a limited number of children from the local elite, including children of the Somali and foreign bourgeoisie and foreign government officials.
My parents were both Muslim, but I never heard them speak badly of the nuns or of Christians in general. Somalia is a predominantly Muslim country, but the capital has the Cathedral of Mogadishu, which was built and inaugurated in 1928, the same year my mother was born. The cathedral is in the Norman Gothic style and was copied from the Cathedral of Cefalù in Sicily. This was not the only place of worship for Christians in Somalia: Mogadishu also had the Church of the Sacred Heart, and important cities, such as Merca, Barawa, Kismayo, and Baidoa also had Catholic places of worship.
At my school, there was a room for prayer, complete with an altar, a tabernacle, and candles. There we knelt on the cold marble floor, the smell of frangipani in the air. In the garden, there was a statue of the Virgin Mary holding the Baby Jesus. At Christmas the nativity scene was set up, and the performances were prepared. In the morning, before starting the lesson, we had to stand up, make the sign of the cross, and recite the Hail Mary.
I remember how frightened I was by the nun’s face as she stared down at me through her glasses, and said accusingly, ‘Whoever isn’t baptised goes to hell!’ I was not baptised. The image of the devil – half-man and half-beast, with horns and a long tail, disdainfully pushing sinners into the flames of hell with a pitchfork – terrified me. I’d never had the courage to talk about baptism at home. Sitting at the family table, having lunch, I would watch my mom and dad as they ate — they weren’t baptised either. With each bite, I swallowed my doubts and my fears.
As a child I received a great deal of conflicting information. Catholics argue that those who are not baptised carry the original sin, but the Qur’an maintains that Muslims do not carry original sin. I did not know what the Trinity was, but I knew my Catholic friends believed in it. I needed time to process the whole matter. Fortunately, my daily life intertwined with Islam, a religion that is also a way of life. I did the five daily prayers and fasted during the month of Ramadan. My parents taught me that Islam is ‘wanaag uu samee deriskaga’ — above all, doing good for others. I watched my mother helping those in need as best as she could. She would take groceries and well-kept clothes to the widow and her children who lived just a few steps away from us; comfort the family that had lost a child. Prepare lunch for the children whose mother was in the hospital. Give to the poor person who knocked at the door begging for a hot meal or few coins. During the Eid festivity and in the month of Ramadan we also shared our food. We visited our sick neighbours. We prayed and attended the funerals of people we were not very close to. During the wedding ceremonies women cooked, danced, and sang together. New babies were showered with gifts. There was a strong sense of community, and this helped me to develop an empathic attitude towards others.
Today unfortunately I live in a world where Islam is demonised, and hostility towards Islam has become the norm. Newspapers in Italy defame and attack Muslims as if they were a monolithic mass, undifferentiated; they equate them all to a small group of terrorists. ‘Bastardi Islamici’ was the main headline in Libero, a major national newspaper, after the November 2015 Paris attacks. On the pretext of free speech, the media foments hatred of Islam and legitimises violence. And physical and verbal attacks against migrants, asylum seekers, refugees, and Muslim Italian citizens have increased. Muslims are forced to pray in garages and basements, not to mention on sidewalks: they are often even denied the right to open a mosque. Terrorism kills Muslims every day, but in the eyes of many, these lives do not count — they believe that all Muslims are terrorists.
Politicians and journalists discuss Islam without having any specific background in it or having done research. They associate the term jihad exclusively with terrorism against the West. Jihad, for a Muslim, is the daily struggle and inner spiritual striving to live as a Muslim. Sharia – a code for living that all Muslims should adhere to, which recommends praying, fasting, and donating to the poor, and which regulates inheritance rights, and marriage and divorce – is largely presented as signifying stoning, cutting off hands, and beheading I ask for nothing more than my rights as an Italian Muslim citizen to be respected. I ask for a little reciprocity.
I’m watching Italian television and inevitably the people on it are talking about Islam, or rather Islamists. It is one of those televised debates, which, whatever the channel, tries to attract the largest possible viewership. The speakers, the tone, the words used, however, are always very similar. There is a host and a panel of guests, including the ‘expert’ who raises his voice to shut down the others if he does not agree with their opinion. It’s a screaming match, a format aimed at valorising fearmongers and Islamophobes. The TV guest keeps repeating, ‘Muslims must adopt the values of the Western world.’ But how they can they judge what Islamic values are if they don’t know Islam? Islam is built on universal human values such as the sacredness of life and property, equality, justice, and peace. Is intolerance a fundamental value in Western culture? Of course I know not all Westerners – whatever this label means – would agree with that.
Occasionally, the format shifts to feature a confrontation between two antagonists: one a Muslim and the other an ex-Muslim who has become a fierce enemy of Islam. My living room is suddenly transformed. I am at the Colosseum, catapulted as if by magic into ancient Rome at the time of the gladiators. I hear the crowd getting excited by words, which have the power to wound more than swords. The so-called ex-Muslim is in the armour of an ‘expert.’ He violently hurls phrases taken from the Qur’an at his opponent. It is incredible how one can make a book say anything by quoting one of its passages out of context. The anger is contagious, it spreads through the audience. The guest is screaming, ‘Islam is a violent religion! Women are subjugated by men who force them to wear the burqa. Their men kill them if they don’t comply with Islamic laws.’ The opponent is trying to explain, his rival is shouting, their voices overlap, the audience applauds.
In the general cacophony meaning is lost, but it doesn’t matter: the Muslim guest has been denigrated; his body will be dragged from the arena during the commercials that precede the next TV program. The studio audience enjoys seeing stereotypes about Muslims reinforced — stereotypes created by their own deeply held, deeply rooted prejudices.
But I’m also a fighter, and I’m not discouraged by these gladiators.
Through the Eyes of Those Who Live There
In 2010, I moved to England. I take an active part in the cultural life of Birmingham, a vibrant and cosmopolitan city. I have travelled and still travel around the world, but I’m not the typical tourist who goes to the beach, sunbathes, and takes a couple of photos. I spend a lot of time talking to local people, I read the English editions of local newspapers, I like to explore different neighbourhoods. The way people look at me on the train and on the bus, the attitude of shop assistants towards me, teaches me more about the world I live in. In short, I try to look at the cities I visit through the eyes of those who live there. This kind of approach to the other, to the new, to the different, is also the way with which I see my own country, Italy. I observe how this Italy of mine has changed in almost half a century — there are now four generations of my family with Italian roots.
Year by year I follow what’s happening in Italy through online newspapers, satellite TV, blogs, books written by academics and journalists, and the accounts of Italian friends with whom I remain in touch. I go back to Italy, where I have my home, at least twice a year. I could easily turn my back on what is happening politically in Italy – in other words, fregarmene – but I can’t. Why? I have asked myself this several times, and the answer is because I feel Italian. I love the country in which I spent my adult life, where I raised my children and buried my parents, and where my grandchildren are now growing up. For this reason, I get very upset when I read or hear such false and misleading statements about immigration or Islam. I feel entitled to point my finger and raise my voice.
When I am back in Italy I go to the mosque, and I often hear the children there speaking Italian. They laugh, play, and talk about sports and football stars. If I closed my eyes and only listened to their voices, I wouldn’t be able to distinguish them from other Italian children. They were born in Italy; their parents come from Morocco, Senegal, Pakistan, and Bangladesh. I see veiled girls shopping, chatting among themselves in Italian, like many of their generation. They feel Italian, but by law they are foreigners. In Italy the right of citizenship is acquired through jus sanguinis, the right of blood: one of the parents must be Italian, no matter where their child was born. If not, these young men and women, who were born in Italy, cannot participate in a school trip outside the country. They cannot be exchange students abroad. They cannot apply for school grants. They are now petitioning for Italy’s citizenship laws to be reformed and jus soli, the right of birth and naturalisation, to be adopted.
Have the champions of jus sanguinis ever tried to put themselves in the place of these young people born and raised in Italy? Have they ever tried to imagine what these people feel when they are rejected and insulted, when they realise that in the country where they were born and which they consider their own, their opinions and their words count for nothing? Has anyone ever tried to imagine what an Italian girl in a veil feels when the school principal decides to ban headscarves because her choice can be interpreted as a provocation and arouse contempt and ostracism from her schoolmates? Who protects her when she walks the streets of her city?
When children are brought up to get to know and respect those different from them, a society is created, which is – I won’t say ‘tolerant’, because it’s a term I don’t like – but open and multicultural. When I look through the eyes of those who want me to exist in their image and likeness, I don’t recognise myself. I don’t even recognise my country through their eyes. Looking at Italy from the inside and the outside has become an exercise that I would like to do without. This is my country, too.
In Italy, it is the beginning of autumn, the days are still sunny and not yet cold. It is 2006, and I can’t wait to become a grandmother for the second time. That morning my daughter had called me. ‘Mom, it’s time to go to the hospital, I’m going into labour.’ ‘We’ll come at once’, I reassured her. At the time we lived within walking distance of each other. My husband and I rush to her house. It’s her first baby – I’m more agitated than she is – and my son-in-law is in Germany on business. We drive her to the hospital in Bassano, a half an hour away. Every time we stop at a red light, it seems endless to me.
At the hospital, the nurse asks her for her documents. Samira hands over her national health card and her identity card. The woman looks them over and says, ‘Signora, have you permesso di soggiorno?’ Taken by surprise, my daughter says, wide-eyed, ‘Why would I need a residency permit? I’m Italian.’
The nurse, without lifting her eyes from the forms, stutters an apology. My daughter and I look at each other. I am undecided whether to laugh or to make a scene, but my daughter is appalled. It is the first time she has ever been asked if she has a residency permit. That question was like an abrupt kick, more forceful than the straining within her. It numbed her for a few seconds. It was as if even the baby wrestling in her womb had heard it and gone still.
Samira was born in Italy, to Italian parents. She graduated in Padua. Italy is her country. The question was completely absurd and hurtful to her, but perhaps it was also a sudden awakening; it caused her to understand that to many, she is not seen as Italian.
The day my grandson Jibril was born is a joyful memory, but it also reminds us of that episode. We had another surprise that day, too. The midwives, relatives, and friends expected to see a newborn baby like those in a Benetton advertisement — one with curly hair and a caffellatte complexion. Instead, a curly-blond haired boy was born, with very fair skin — not at all caffellatte but latte, the colour of milk.
These excerpts appeared in ‘Io e l’Islam’ [Islam and Me], a text written by Shirin Ramzanali Fazel and edited by Simone Brioni. The text was originally published in Italian and included in the volume Scrivere di Islam. Raccontare la Diaspora [Writing about Islam. Narrating a Diaspora], published by Cà Foscari Edizioni and available in open access here. The text was translated into English by Shirin Ramzanali Fazel and edited by Jessica Lott and Simone Brioni. Scrivere di Islam. Raccontare la diaspora is a meditation on our multireligious, multicultural, and multilingual reality. It is the result of a personal and collaborative exploration of the necessity for rethinking national culture and identity in a more diverse, inclusive, and anti-racist way. ‘Io e l’Islam’ is the central part of this volume, both symbolically and physically. It includes Shirin Ramzanali Fazel’s reflections on discrimination against Muslims, and especially Muslim women, in Italy and the UK. This publication was made possible thanks to the Stony Brook University Presidential mini-grants for Diversity.
Shirin Ramzanali Fazel is an Italian writer of Somali and Pakistani origin. Her novels include the autobiographically inspired text Far from Mogadishu and Clouds over the Equator, which deals with the legacy of the Italian colonial government in Somalia. She is also the author of two books of poetry, Wings and I Suckled Sweetness.
Simone Brioni is Associate Professor in the Department of English and Affiliated Faculty in the Departments of Africana Studies and Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies. His research focuses on migration studies with a particular emphasis on contemporary Italian culture.
Cover photo, a postcard of Central Mogadishu in 1936, via Wikicommons.
Edited by Farhaana Arefin and Malachi McIntosh, Wasafiri 111: Translating Lives considers translation as a practice and as a metaphor for all creative writing. With fiction from Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and Chinmay Sharma, a conversation with Will Harris, a special selection of life writing curated by Nina Mingya Powles and Stacey Teague, poetry from Hu Xudong, Jane Wong, and more, it’s an issue that delves into the heart of what translation means for the writer, translator, and reader.