by Simoni Lu Vanu
This past summer after six long years, I returned to my homeland, Sicily. My family lives and breathes Sicily, and I was raised in a traditional Sicilian home. We usually only travel to visit family, or for school or work. The word “tourist” has a derogatory tone attached to it. This trip was special though because my father had promised to take me to Sicily after I graduated from undergrad.
When I was there, we spent most of the time with family in my village, Alcara Li Fusi (from Arabic Al Qasr, the fortress/citadel). It was great being back with family after not seeing them for a long time and also to be back in the village of my birth. But one thing I made sure we did this time was spend a few days in the capital of Sicily, Palermo, which preserves much of the diverse history of an island conquered by peoples across the Mediterranean region.
Arab traveler, geographer, and poet Ibn Jubayr visited the area at the end of the 12th century and described Palermo:
“The capital is endowed with two gifts, splendor and wealth. It contains all the real and imagined beauty that anyone could wish. Splendor and grace adorn the piazzas and the countryside; the streets and highways are wide, and the eye is dazzled by the beauty of its situation. It is a city full of marvels, with buildings similar to those of Cordoba, built of limestone. A permanent stream of water from four springs runs through the city. There are so many mosques that they are impossible to count. Most of them also serve as schools. The eye is dazzled by all this splendor.”
It will surprise some people reading this article to know Sicily during part of the Middle Ages was like Spain, an Islamic land. Sicily thrived under Arab/Islamic rule first under Tunisian Aghlabid control, then under Egyptian Fatimid control, and finally as the independent Emirate of Sicily under the Kalbid dynasty. In Sicily, there were major improvements and innovations in areas of agriculture, math, science, art, economics, and many more important areas of study, as there were in Spain, Persia, Iraq, Egypt, and other Islamic lands during the Islamic Golden Age. Sicily was also a symbol of multiculturalism and coexistence at the time with thriving Muslim, Eastern Orthodox Christian, Catholic, and Jewish communities, as well as immigrants from across the Mediterranean and beyond.
Because of my interest in Islamic Sicily, it was essential to visit and explore Palermo, which still preserves some of its Islamic architectural heritage. A couple of the early Norman kings who conquered Sicily after the Emirate period were still accepting of the Muslim and Jewish populations of Sicily. They surrounded themselves with Arab scholars, and continued to build in the Byzantine Greek and Islamic styles which preceded them. Soon however, Christian kings came into power and successfully forced Sicily to become a homogeneously Catholic, Latin-language speaking island, using forced conversations and intolerant policies.
However, many important cultural and architectural traces remain from the Islamic period. Historic masajid and examples of Islamic architecture were incorporated into what are now museums, churches, or palaces. The Sicilian language has words of Arabic origin and in nearby Malta, people speak a language directly descended from Siculo-Arabic. Sicilian food and culture in general is steeped in Arabic cultural influences, among others. Pasta, itself was developed by Arabs in Palermo who had newly introduced Semolina wheat to the island, and this later spread to other lands. At traditional Sicilian weddings, people would congratulate the bride and groom with the word “Salamalicchi” (pronounced Salamalikki) and the Sicilian greeting for hello is “Assabennerica,” which means, “Blessings be upon you.”
Before leaving for Sicily, I searched on zabihah.com for halal food restaurants in Palermo and was disappointed only one halal place, an Afghan restaurant, was listed in a large and multiethnic city like Palermo. But when I walked through the streets of Palermo, there were plenty of halal eateries on main streets. And similarly, my scouring search for a masjid online only yielded information about one main (but relatively small) masjid in a neighborhood in Palermo. When in Palermo, I attended jumu’ah prayer and found a very diverse community. The masjid was started by the Tunisian government, but at least half of the congregants were not Arab. There were Desis (Pakistanis, Indians, and Bangladeshis), Sub-Saharan Africans from East and West Africa, Turks, and Balkan people.
The khutbah was delivered in Arabic to a congregation half of whom probably do not speak Arabic. In a historically Tunisian-dominated masjid, it made sense the imam would be accustomed to giving a khutbah in Arabic.
After jumu’ah prayer, I talked to a group of Tunisian uncles who seemed to be active in the masjid community. A couple of them lived in Sicily for 40 years and spoke perfect Italian. I asked them why there weren’t more masajid for such a large community. They told me most of the masajid are not to be found online. They said wherever you are in Sicily, ask Muslims where the closest masjid is, and in Palermo alone there are about 10 (although even smaller than the main one).
When I returned to the States, I found a Facebook page for the masjid, and I commented on how nice the community was but I also asked why the khutbah was not in Italian, a language more understandable than Arabic to the mainly immigrant congregants. The person in charge of the Facebook page said he was not an organizer of the masjid but justified the Arabic khutbah by saying a masjid should follow in the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad salAllahu alayhi wa sallam and deliver the way he did—in Arabic.
Palermo now, even as I love this city, is a fraction of its splendor during the Islamic period. Corruption and colonialism have plagued the city, and it is sad to see the trash, the run-down buildings, and the condition of people living in the ghettos through which I walked. But somehow like everything in Sicily, this does not take away from the beauty of it all.