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Italy and the Islamic World: From Caesar to Mussolini

May 20, 2024 at 7:14 pm

Version 1.0.0
  • Book Author(s): Ali Humayun Akhtar
  • Published Date: March 2024
  • Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • ISBN-13: 978-1399519625

Italy’s relationship with the Middle East and North Africa and Islam spans millennia.  Throughout the ages, the Mediterranean country has played a role in these nations and these nations have played a role in Italy. Going all the way back to the Roman Empire and stretching to Benito Mussolini’s attempts to invade Egypt during the Second World War, Ali Humayun Akhtar’s new book, Italy and the Islamic World: From Caesar to Mussolini, aims to explore the nature of this relationship. Akhtar argues that Italy has a long history of being entangled in the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa; the story is complex and very diverse. It played a role in shaping Italianness during the 19th century unification of Italy and attempts to build a national identity.

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In 1384, 3 Florentine merchants, including one with the iconic name Giorgio Gucci, arrived in Cairo. The fall of the Roman Empire, Akhtar argues, resulted in merchants from different Italian city states who could ‘communicate in multiple varieties of vernacular Latin – French, Genoese, Tuscan, Venetian – as well as languages such as Greek, Turkish, Arabic and Persian.’ Even during the Crusades, Italian merchants were traversing the Muslim world for trade opportunities. Leonardo Frescobaldi, Simone Sigoli and Giorgio Gucci travelled together in the hope to visit sacred sites and to make pilgrimage. Their accounts of the trip provide a fascinating glimpse into Italian life on the other side of the Mediterranean. Frescobaldi hired a dragoman who acted as their guide and translator. The dragoman was Venetian, who was married to a Florentine woman. The couple had settled down in Cairo, converted to Islam and learned fluent Arabic. The Venetian-Florentine couple who, as Akhtar says, would have been a site of astonishment in modern times, were of no particular surprise to Frescobaldi. ‘To him, their Venetian Muslim dragoman was simply “a renegade Venetian” married “to one of our Florentines”, suggesting that the phenomenon of Europeans living and working as Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa was not rare.’ Indeed, there is evidence of a substantial community of Italians in the region.

There is a long history of Levantine Italians who played a critical role in the function of the societies they were in and facilitated connections to the Italian peninsula. Many were very proud of their local community and saw themselves as part of the local fabric in Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Palestine and elsewhere. The diversity and religious toleration meant the Levantine Italians could live quite openly, but this situation began to change in the 19th century. After the Napoleonic wars, the emergence of an attempt to build a shared national identity in the Italian peninsula would have a long-lasting impact on the lives of Levantine Italians. Interestingly, the initial impact of the unification of Italy would increase the size of the Levantine Italians as many Roman Catholic Italians moved to Istanbul or Alexandria in search for better economic opportunities but, by the 20th century, the forces that began to spring up during the period would see the downfall of the Levantine community as insistence on having one citizenship, nationality and belonging turned the hybrid local-foreigners into simply foreigners. The Levantines were integrated members of these Muslim societies and they were involved in ‘insurance, banking, publishing, healthcare, food and beverage production, sales in food and beverage industry, military manufacture, architecture and design, and various forms of design and aesthetic taste-making from apparel to architecture.’ Essentially, they were a big part of the modernisation of the region.

Aside from the rise of nationalism, Italy’s growing imperial appetite harmed the presence of the Levantines. As Akhtar points out, ‘The Italian-Ottoman War of 1911-1912, which was sparked by an Italian invasion of Ottoman Libya, resulted in the Ottoman administration expelling to Italy anyone who acquired Italian citizenship and who was working in the Ottoman Levant.’ By 1923, many were expelled from Turkiye, but the community continued to have a presence in Egypt until the 1950s. Interestingly, in 1937 after the Montreux Convention was signed, all foreign residents in Egypt would lose their legal privileges and be subjected to local laws, ending centuries of capitulations. The local Italian consulate expected to see their citizens returning to Italy but, much to their surprise, many Alexandrian Italians applied for Egyptian citizenship. It would be the rise of Egyptian and Arab nationalism, specifically Nasserism, which would see this community come to an end. After the 1956 Suez War, Nasser embarked on an Egyptians first policy, which would see Levantine Italians losing their business and assets.

Italy and the Islamic World makes for fascinating reading and enables us to think about the history of the Mediterranean and the interconnectedness of societies over the centuries. It does make me ponder whether nationalism de-diversified the Mediterranean, or whether it simply changed the nature of its diversity? The book should be seen as an introduction into a complex area and is sweeping; we start off in ancient Rome and end in Nasser’s Egypt and so it is a generalised narrative history. This is ideal for the casual reader and, for the more specialist reader, it might provoke a new way of thinking about these communities and connections between countries. Italy and the Islamic World is a fun, brief and easy read that gently introduces the reader to this history.

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