Home Essays Italy and North Africa in the 21st Century    

Italy and North Africa in the 21st Century    

The Roman Empire in North Africa
The Roman Empire in North Africa

Rabat – Italy as a nation and as a civilisation has always been present in the life, destiny and imagination of North Africa and will always be for a long time to come, vivid and omnipresent. For the South Mediterranean people, Italy is more than a country and a culture, it is a sort of an icon.

Many times when lay people are asked about Italy, they would say, without thinking, “they are very much like us,” meaning:

  • They look like us physically;
  • They think like us;
  • They feel like us;
  • They act like us; and
  • They react like us.

In short, the North Africans see the Italians more like Mediterraneans and certainly not like Europeans: the common denominator being the Mediterranean identity and the Mediterranean culture, which is the groundwork of a tacit understanding irrespective of creed and social level.

Do the North Africans feel the same for the Spaniards and Spain where the Arab culture thrived from the time of its conquest by the Berber general Tariq Ibn Zayad in 711-718, to the advent of the Reconquista and the fall of Grenada in 1492? Both Spain and the rest of Europe were in the past seen as dar al-kufr as opposed to dar al-Islam. As for Italy, it is seen and has always been seen in good light: humanistic and friendly, open and respectful.

However, one wonders if this is due to a shared past or to the common present or to the hopeful future?

Shared past: the Roman Empire (27 BC-476 AD)

When the Roman Empire extended its axis romanus to Africa, it occupied a coastal stretch extending from Morocco all the way to Egypt and divided this large expanse of diverse land into regions bearing the following names: Mauritania (Northern Morocco and Algeria), Numidia (Eastern Algeria), Africa (Tunisia), Cyrenaica (Libya) and Aegyptus (Egypt).

Roman Empire in North Africa
Roman Empire in North Africa

They latinised this part of the world and imprints of this are still present today in the Amazigh language in its different dialects:

Latin words in Tarifit dialect:

Pirus              firas               “pear”

Filum             firu                 “thread”

Asinus            asnus             “donkey”

Hortus           orthan           “orchard”

Pullus             fullus              “chick”

and in Arabic language, too:

Latin words in Arabic language:

Cuppa            qubba            “dome”

Scapha          saqf                “ceiling”

Tellus             till                   “hill”

Sigillum         sijil                  “seal”

In the administration of the territories of North Africa, the Romans were extremely flexible in their approach, they allowed the indigenous people to hold important positions in the administration and in the army as indicated by E. Guernier:[1]

Un fait parait dominer toute l’administration romaine : une extrême souplesse dans l’application des mesures législatives et des règlements. D’autre part, une place importante est faite aux indigènes dans les rouages impériaux aussi bien dans l’administration civile que dans les cadres militaires.”

Economically speaking, the Roman colonisation did not improve the living conditions and standards of the population that was in its majority made of peasants and nomads. Already under Carthaginian rule the North Africans were used to the techniques of the cultivation of wheat, barley, vines and olive trees which are still somewhat the basic crops of the area today.

However, the most remarkable achievement of the Romans in the region is undoubtedly the introduction of sophisticated irrigation systems and techniques.[2] They built aqueducts for the cities, cisterns for the farms and artesian wells for the oases. The most well-known irrigation works the Romans left behind are: the aqueduct of Carthage and that of Cherchell, the dam of Kasserine and the cisterns of Cirta and Hippone.

The Romans, also, taught the locals techniques to collect rain water in valleys in order to use for agriculture, when needed, and to build irrigation ditches along rivers and streams to use the water for the neighbouring lands. It is, also, a known fact that the Roman legion had in its ranks many engineers who provided advice and, also, built underground canals like the one in Bougie, Algeria. It is thanks to the experience of the Romans that Berbers developed their own techniques in irrigation such as the famous khettara-s in the plain of Marrakech and the water towers that organise the distribution of water along the two sides of the Atlas chain of mountains.

The Romans, also, built several roads to secure the control of the territories and allow the exchange of goods between the people. Some of the known roads of the time are:

-the Carthage-Thevest road 275 km long;

-the Carthage-Tripoli road 823 km long.

These roads necessitated a good knowledge of bridge-building over rivers and streams and wadi-s.

Among the other Roman influences, still present with the population of North Africa is a certain obsession with cleanliness. Indeed, the Romans built baths everywhere, and encouraged people to bathe frequently, and they made out of them public places of intellectual discussion and commercial transactions and political lobbying.

The Romans, also, washed excessively before, between and after meals. Indeed, slaves passed between the beds on which lie their masters and guests and poured on their fingers fresh perfumed water.[3] Later on, when the Muslims arrived they had no problem, as they did in some other areas, in introducing the concept of cleanliness and the idea of ablutions before prayer. Today, it is a common practice in North Africa to offer guests, on arrival, to freshen up and, also, to wash before and after meals.

Among the celebrations and the rituals still common in North Africa and especially in Morocco, there is the Boujloudia known in Berber as bou-ihidorn, bou-ilmawen or bou-isrikhen[4] that often takes place during the religious celebration of l-aid l-kbir « the feast of sacrifice ». On the first day of the feast, a ram is ritually slaughtered in remembrance of God’s request made to Abraham, in a dream, to sacrifice his son Ismael to him.

Julius Caezar

In fact, this practice is quite common in many areas in Morocco and in some parts of Algeria and Tunisia and its existence is traced back to ancient Greece and ancient Rome. It used to take place in the summer at the end of the agricultural cycle, when the crops have been reaped, as gesture of thanksgiving to the gods for their generosity and a prayer for more fertility for the coming year.

However, in the Jbala region of north-western Morocco, in the village of Tatoft among Ahl Srif, an arabised Berber clan, there is a professional group of musicians known as the Master Musicians of Jahjouka who have given the rites of Bou Jelloud a special significance because they believe that their rites hark back to pre-Islamic times and derive from the rites of Pan.[5] Their origins stem from Greek and Roman influences and correspond – in the wild chase of Bou Jelloud (the father of skins), the instigator of a fertility dance – to various fertility traditions found in most Mediterranean countries. There is even a reference to this tradition in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act1, Scene 2):

 Forget not,

In your haste, Antonuis,

To touch Calpurnia,

For our elders say

The barren touched in the holy chase

Shake off their sterile curse

Even today, the ceremony still involves Bou Jelloud, emerging from his place of concealment on hearing the sounds of ghaita-s,[6] and dancing himself into a trance while flailing women with branches to make them fertile.

The location of these rites is a small village situated in the Jbala region of Northern Morocco, in the piedmont area leading, further east, into the mountains of the Rif. The village of Jahjouka is still the home of Pan, the goat like god and his persisting presence is a challenge to time space and religion.

The tradition emerged from Egypt and, despite transformations of nomenclature and culture it has been transmogrified into the practices of the Master Musicians and their practice of the Pipes of Pan. A crucial factor in this development was the fact that the introduction of Islam in the Jbala region did not destroy the pre-existing traditions. Islam was introduced in 800 AD by the eastern mystic, Sidi Ahmed Sheikh, who allowed local practice to continue unhindered and even managed to dignify it by granting it baraka.[7] The musicians involved were, therefore, able to depend on their music to earn their living. Today, the musicians receive a tithe – ziyara – from local people for their music and it is this on which they survive. In return they play ghaita music in the courtyard of Sidi Ahmed Sheikh’s shrine, which is located in the village of Jahjouka.

Visitors come to the shrine – kubba – every Friday to seek baraka from the saint. The musicians, also, fulfil a psycho-medical function for they cure the sick and those with medical disorders. Those afflicted are tied to a tree in the courtyard of the shrine and the ghaita and tbel [8] are played by the musicians to drive out the demons supposed to be responsible for the illness- whether physical or mental.

Joujouka Masters Musicians, The Healing Power of a 4000 year old Music. (Photo Courtesy of querrillazoo.com)
Joujouka Masters Musicians, The Healing Power of a 4000 year old Music. (Photo Courtesy of querrillazoo.com)

The major celebration in Jahjouka is the Pan festival which takes place during l-aid l-kbir. For the ten days of the feast, local villagers attend the musical celebrations and participate in its climax, when Bou Jelloud emerges from his cave to seek out, according to the myth, his lover – Aisha l-hamqa- « crazy Aisha » – identified by her goat like feet (a typical attribute of female in Morocco). Bou Jelloud ‘s arrival in the area before the shrine is heralded by the screams of women and children whom he flails as he passes by – a feature that recalls some of the traditions of religious brotherhoods such as Hmadsha [9] and Aissawa.

The Pan festival is not the only cultural practice and ritual inherited from ancient Greece and ancient Rome and still is in use in the popular culture of North Africa, we find such bizarre rituals as dancing around fires and jumping over them as well as throwing buckets of water at passers-by during the celebration of the Islamic New Year – fatih Muharram -.

What this means in other words, is that inter-cultural communication and exchange between North Africa and the ancient civilisations of Europe were so strong that subsequent civilisations and religions have been unable to erase them from the memory of the local population. On the contrary, Islam aware of their appeal to the people attempted to Islamise most rituals by introducing Islamic concepts in them as is the case with the Pan festival in which the character of the Haj « Muslim pilgrim », dressed in white, dances around aimlessly while Bou Jelloud runs after his lover Aisha l-hamqa.

Italy and Libya: from colonialism to mutual respect and benefit

In the great colonial Scramble for Africa of the 19th century, Italy got Libya as its share of the territorial cake, the Italian colonisation of Libya lasted for almost four decades after the decline of the Ottoman Empire and its loss of this territory in favour of European influence (1911-1943). The first concern of colonial Italy was to pacify the country.

The next move was to extend the territory and, last but not least, modernise it. Nevertheless, the population resisted the modernisation because they saw it as an attempt to christianise a territory of the Muslim world, dar al-Islam.

In 1934, Italy adopted the name “Libya” (used by the Greeks for all of North Africa, except Egypt) as the official name of the colony (made up of the three Provinces of Cyrenaica, Tripolitania and Fezzan). The colony was subdivided into four provincial governatores (Commissariato Generale Provinciale) and a southern military territory (Territorio Militare del Sud or Territorio del Sahara Libico):[10]

  • Tripoli Province, capital Tripoli;
  • Benghazi Province, capital Benghazi;
  • Derna Province, capital Derna;
  • Misrata Province, capital Misrata; and
  • Military Territory of the South, capital Hun.[11]

The resistance to the Italian occupation of Libya was led by Islamic Salafist movements, first, quietly, in the tribes because the Italian modernisation drive disturbed the millennial tribal patriarchal system based mostly on religious allegiance. Later on it became armed resistance under the leadership of Omar Al Mokhtar (1862 – 1931) who, Beginning in 1912, organized and, for nearly twenty years, led native resistance to the Italian colonisation of Libya. He was, ultimately, captured by the Italians and hanged for rebellion in 1931, to set an example to the other religious leaders opposing Italian colonialism on religious grounds.

After the Independence of Libya, The Sanusi dynasty which finds its origin in the Sufi school[12] of thought, by the same name, enthroned Idris I as king of Libya, upon independence and his regime lasted until his overthrow by Colonel Qhaddafi in 1969.

King Idris 1 established a good relationship with Italy throughout his reign. Italy responded by providing support in three important areas:

  • Diplomatic level;
  • Political level; and
  • Economic cooperation.

Quickly Italy became the first European partner of modern independent Libya providing technological support, necessary investment for modernisation and much-needed transfer of know-how either through education or technical training. The most important aspect of this cooperation was the Italian emphasis on respect and mutual benefit without any form of meddling on internal affairs.

In 1969, the revolutionary and mercurial Qhaddafi came to power, nationalised all private business and established, instead, a rentier state. Qaddafi strong with petro dollars engaged on a revolutionary rhetoric, as well as, support to all possible revolutionary movements around the world, denouncing, thereby, Western politics and policies and developing an anti-Western stance for the sake of internal and inter-Arab consumption.

Italy, in spite of the anti-imperialistic and anti-Western rantings of Qhaddafi kept a cool head and continued to cooperate with his regime at the economic level even when diplomatic relations were at their worst.

Italian diplomacy throughout the long reign of Qhaddafi (1969-2011) has shown a tremendous adroitness and dexterity in the following areas:

  • Cultural sensitivity;
  • Political correctness;
  • Respect of the culture and the creed;
  • Humanistic drive;
  • Mutual interest; and
  • Good relations.

After the downfall of the Qhaddafi’s regime, as a result of the Arab Spring, the uprisings and the chaos that ensued and is, still, in place, the Italian government did not side with any of the warring parties, on the contrary it always worked officially through the United Nations and unofficially through friendly countries in the region to resolve the conflict and form a national salvation government.

The continuous conflict in Libya which resembles more a tribal feud than anything else has a high price on Italy on the economic and political levels, because of the instability in the region, or what might be called the soft belly of Italy. The political vacuum that Libya is experiencing today has a major effect on security in the Mediterranean area. As a result, of this unrest, the warring factions are consciously or unconsciously letting thousands of migrants flow through the country to go to Italy and create a catastrophic humanitarian problem to this country. For decades the southern reaches of Italy have been the target of illegal migration and this country, out of friendship to Libya and the rest of North African countries, has shouldered this burden alone without accusing any of these countries of complicity or lack of strict security measures at their “porous” frontiers with sub-Saharan countries.

It was only when this got out of control with thousands of illegal migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea that the rest of Europe came to the rescue and provide help to Italy in managing this dreadful humanitarian crisis.

Interestingly enough this humanitarian problem did not trigger a wave of racism or xenophobia in Italy, as it is the case in other countries, or some sentiment of Islamophobia, on the contrary the Italians, one and all, have shown a tremendous feeling of human brotherhood and humanism. A positive reaction that has received a lot of appreciation in the North African countries who, consider Italy as a brother country: balad shaqiq

Italy today in North Africa

Italy, today is very popular in the North African countries mainly among the population at large? because its politics towards the countries of the South Mediterranean is based on mutual respect, inter-cultural communication, understanding, humanistic values, and mutual economic benefit.

In the last decades many North African migrants went to Italy looking for better economic opportunities, they were in most of the cases illegal, but, nevertheless, the local population in most cases, unlike in other European countries, received them warmly and extended a helping hand to them while waiting to become legal. Their families were offered social services and their children education.

Now, these legal migrants have become legal and are enjoying full residential rights in total transparency, but, most importantly, their culture of origin is percolating down to the Italian way of life.

Italy, a European country that is the seat of the Vatican, has always adopted a progressive attitude towards the Palestinian cause, gave unconditional support to the Palestinian authority in international circles and in everyday life, even the Italian national soccer team “Squadra Azzura,” when last won the World Cup in 2006, offered to give the trophy to the Palestinian children for some days as a sign of solidarity and support to the Palestinian people in their plight 

Italy, North Africa and the future

There is no doubt that Italy occupies an important place in the heart of the people of North Africa. It is, also, a fact that it entertains good relations with the government of this part of the world based on the principles of realpolitik and mutual respect.

However, it is believed that Italy, in spite of this favorable disposition, is not doing enough to promote its image in the area and its popularity further.

Today, with the rise of Islamophobia in the Western world as the result of the unfortunate terrorist attacks of November 13, 2015, in Paris, France, Italy is well situated geographically, politically and culturally to play a major role in the cultural dialogue between Islam and the West, that is badly-needed today more than ever before.

This much-needed dialogue that Italy can conduct artfully with Islam must be seconded by further activities to better set up an atmosphere of inter-cultural communication and understanding. Some of these activities could be as follows:

  • Conduct field research in North Africa on Islam and society;
  • Teach North African studies and Islam in Italian universities;
  • Encourage exchange of university professors;
  • Encourage exchange programmes of primary, secondary and tertiary students.
  • Twin educational institutions; and
  • Start voluntary service for Italian youth to work among community-based associations in North Africa.

The government must, also, encourage more commercial exchange and investment in this part of the Mediterranean, bearing in mind that such enterprises are greatly beneficial for both sides and create wealth for everyone.

Political parties and think tanks of both Italy and North African countries must meet and develop cooperation in decision-making and exchange of best practices.

Geographically speaking, Italy and North Africa are separated by the Mediterranean Sea, but culturally they are very close to each other. However, Italy must investigate ways and avenues to develop further cooperation and exchange with this part of the world and play a leading role in its future relations with Europe. North Africa is the gate of Africa to Europe and that of Europe to Africa, and Africa is, in many ways, the future of humanity in development and exchange.

[1] Cf. Guernier, E. 1950. La Berbérie, l’Islam et la France. Vol. 1. Paris : Editions de l’Union Française. P. 98.

[2] Cf. Albertini, E. 1937. L’Afrique Romaine. Alger. P. 34 :

« L’aménagement hydraulique a été la partie la plus importante de l’œuvre romaine en Afrique. »

[3] Cf. Carcopino, J. 1939. La vie quotidienne à Rome. Paris : Hachette.

[4] Cf. Hammouda, A. 1988. La Victime et ses masques. Paris: Seuil, for ample discussion of this unique phenomenon which is traced back to ancient Greece and ancient Rome.

[5] Pan, in Greek religion, pastoral god of fertility. Worshipped chiefly in Arcadia. He was portrayed as merry, ugly man with horns, beard, tail, and goat’s feet. All his myths deal with amorous affairs: e.g., his unsuccessful pursuit of the nymph Syrinx, who became a reed, which Pan plays in memory of her. He was later identified with Greek Dionysus and Roman Faunus, both gods of fertility.

[6] Oboe-like pipe.

[7] baraka: divine blessing .

[8] tbel : a large and resonant drum played by beating two wooden sticks on either of the skin covered sides of the instrument

[9] Cf. Crapanzano, V. 1973. The Hamadsha : A Study in Moroccan Ethnopsychiatry. Berkeley: University of California Press.

[10] Rodogno, D. (2006). Fascism’s European empire: Italian occupation during the Second World War. p. 61.

[11] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Italian_Libya

[12] E. E. Evans-Pritchard, The Sanusi of Cyrenaica (1949, repr. 1963)

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