Little Maghreb: The Arab Borderland of Western Sicily
BY NATALIE WYATT
That national boundaries very rarely do a good job of indicating the cultural composite of a place is one reality that I have found to be incredibly clear in Morocco. Borders can make it seem as if there is truly a line in the sand between where one cultural ends and another begins. As a point of exchange, countries like Morocco culturally defy the borders they are given. From each century to the next, their locations have forced them to oscillate from world power to world power, and also to serve as cultural interpreters between regions. One such cultural contact point, whose role as such is sometimes forgotten, is Sicily – the Mediterranean island that is in fact closer to Tunisia and Libya than to France, or even much of Italy.
Sicily’s southern island of Lampedusa is a mere 70 miles away from the coast of North Africa. Sicily became a province of Italy during the Risorgimente of the late 19th century, when Giuseppe Garibaldi unified the Italian peninsula and Sicily into one nation, but once again borders fail to capture the larger cultural picture. At one point or another, Sicily has experienced foreign empires from practically all places in the Mediterranean. The Greeks founded Syracuse, Taormina, and so many other ancient towns. French dynasties – the Normans, Bourbons, and Angevins — built towering stone fortresses in the style of the famous original in the mountain town of Erice. Even the Phoenicians and Arabs, first from Carthage and later from all parts of North Africa, made their way to the island. Arabs ruled much of the western half of Sicily for centuries, from the first invasion in the early 600’s to their migration back to the Maghreb in the 12th century. In fact, at one point, the majority of Sicilians were Arab Muslim.
From architecture, to food, and even language, this historical point of exchange — the direct fusion between Maghreb and Roman and Greek — feels so prevalent on the island. Many of Sicily’s buildings still retain Moorish detailing, like the swallowtail crenellations on top of Sicilian walls, or the towering minarets that have now been converted to church bell towers. Even the streets of Western Sicilian cities like Marsala and Trapani recall the feeling of walking through a narrow Medina street in Rabat or Tunis. The houses in this part of Sicily have larger roofs and fewer balconies, a style that distinctly diverges from the European Mediterranean ideal and towards the Arab. While walking down a street in one of these Sicilian towns, it is common to see couscous cooked al pesce, or to see chickpea flour pancakes that are common snacks in both Tunis and Algiers served as panelle. Tasting an orange salad with fennel or cinnamon in a piazza recalls nights in Fes, eating that very dish on a rooftop. Even the Sicilian dialect of Italian, with its plethora of elisions and ‘U’s that stud the ends of words, reflects this crucial cultural exchange. In fact, many city names are derived from Arabic, like Marsala, which is believed to have derived from Marsah el Ali, the port of Ali. All of these cross-cultural indicators make walking through a town like Marsala, Trapani, or even Palermo, the island’s present day capital, feel more like wandering through a North African medina than an Italian island town.
However, Sicily’s distinctly Arab parts, though visible to even an outsider’s eye, rarely seem to be celebrated openly by those who market the island as a tourist destination. Most tour books recommend avoiding much of the Western part of the island, and to instead visit quaint resort towns like Taormina or Cefalu that have sweeping vistas and extensive Greek influence. And if one does go to a city like Marsala, guides and books alike fail to mention the Arab influence in food, art, and architecture, instead mentioning the scant Greek or Roman ruins. One reason that this modern-day rejection has happened may in no small part be due to the fact that Sicily has struggled with responding to the flow of undocumented immigrants from Tunisia and Libya that has come into its Western shores, largely to work in the Sicilian fishing industry, or to the Southern coast by way of Lampedusa. Another reason for the lack of focus on Arab influences in the island may simply be that such influences in Sicily diverge from the European narrative that modern Italy attempts to present. But the fact is that Sicily in many ways is the most significant cultural point of contact in the Mediterranean, meaning that it defies continental categorization in a unique way. Arab, Norman and other influences make Sicily what it is. Keeping the island distinct from mainland Italy is necessary to its identity. It is something that Sicilians themselves are truly proud of.