Silvia Finzi yells in Tunisian Arabic to her secretary down the hall before turning to her colleague and switching to Italian. Sitting in her office on Avenue de la Liberté in downtown Tunis, Finzi sighs, lights a cigarette and apologizes, “A busy day,” she explains, in impeccable French.
Finzi is one of the last of what she calls “la Tunisie plurielle” — the multi-ethnic Tunisia that prevailed for about a decade after the country gained independence in 1956. She descends from an Italian family that has lived in Tunisia for five generations. Once the country’s largest foreign community, Italian Tunisians, and their heritage, began to dwindle in the mid-20th century.
The history of Italian migration to Tunisia has mostly been forgotten, though it is not dissimilar to that of the many Tunisians now attempting to reach Italy, Finzi observed. During Italy’s last parliamentary elections, she campaigned vigorously to oppose Matteo Salvini and his far right Lega Nord.
Salvini’s victory and the unnerving climate of xenophobia it unleashed deeply troubles Finzi, especially since he was quick to berate Tunisia and Tunisians. Forty-eight hours after Salvini's nomination to be interior minister, he called Tunisia an “exporter of galeotti,” “galeotti” being Italian for “criminal convicts.” His comment sparked a brief diplomatic crisis between the two countries. It also struck a sensitive cord as it coincided with the sinking of a boat overloaded with Tunisian migrants near the Kerkennah Islands that left 122 dead.
“Many Italians who came here were illegal!” Finzi remarked to Al-Monitor. “Some should be reminded that migration across the Mediterranean went in the opposite direction not that long ago!”
In a July 4 op-ed for the Italian daily Il Manifesto, Finzi wrote, “I feel the obligation to apologize to Tunisians for the minister’s disparaging comments.” She added, “Tunisia is experiencing a terrible tragedy. Such statements are simply unacceptable e basta!”
Finzi's own family was one of the many that emigrated from Italy to Tunisia over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries. The history of Tunisia’s Italians, little recalled today, is one of political asylum and economic migration.
Italians began settling in Tunis in the early 19th century. Most were so-called carbonari, political exiles fighting for the unification of the Italian peninsula. Their arrival was encouraged by the beys, the autonomous, Ottoman-affiliated rulers of Tunisia. Ahmed I (r. 1837-1855), in particular, sought elites from Italy to implement his program of modernization.
An Italian colonel founded Tunisia’s first military school in 1837. One of the most influential figures during that period was Giuseppe Raffo, a Tunis-born Italian who served as foreign minister and adviser to the beys. Economic migrants, primarily from Italy’s south, also ventured across the Mediterranean. After the French protectorate was installed in 1881, more Italians arrived from Sicily and Sardinia, most of them finding work in the mines of Gafsa and Metlaoui in the south.
“The French colonial authorities needed labor, but nobody from France would come to Tunisia, so they resorted to Italians,” Finzi remarked. As a result, Italians surpassed the French in number. In the early 20th century, the Italian community boasted 100,000 members compared to 70,000 French. As the French grew in strength, however, the rights of the Italians were diminished.
“We were the poor whites,” Finzi explained. “They paid us one-third less and resented us. After the [rollback of fascism in Europe] in 1944, they even forbade any display of Italian-ness. We were regarded as having sided with Mussolini. So our newspapers, schools and organizations were closed down. Much of the community’s property was also confiscated.”
After Tunisia's independence in 1956, the national leader, Habib Bourguiba, treated residents with citizenship in Western countries as colonialists. Thus, many of Tunisia’s Italians were deported.
Finzi’s first ancestor, a carbonari, arrived in Tunis in 1829, having fled Livorno for belonging to the revolutionary movement. Shortly after his arrival, he founded the country’s first printing company. In 1869, the family launched an Italian-language newspaper, Il Corriere di Tunisi. The printing company has since closed, but the paper, produced in a tabloid format, still publishes, bimonthly, after being suspended during French rule and resuming after independence.
Il Corriere exists today mostly due to Finzi’s single-handed efforts to keep it afloat. Although a professor at La Manouba University, on the outskirts of Tunis, she still finds time to edit, write stories, print the paper, and every few days, update the website.
Omar Bellicini, a Rome-based Algerian-Italian journalist, recently contributed a column in which he urged Italians living in Tunisia to serve as a bridge between the opposite shores of the Mediterranean. Omar grew up in Tunisia for the most part, though not as a member of the historic community. “I’ve always read the Corriere,” he told Al-Monitor. “It’s an institution for Italians who have lived in Tunisia.”
Il Corriere, mainly covering Tunisian news, is today the only Italian-language publication in the Arab world. Its readership does not exceed 3,000. Finzi concedes that it is at times difficult to find the funds to sustain it. The Tunisian Italian community amounts to less than 800 people.
“Few still read it, but the paper is like an umbilical cord to our history,” Marcella, a Tunisian Italian of Sicilian and Genoese lineage, told Al-Monitor. Her ancestors first came to Tunisia in the 1860s. Though most of her relatives now live in France or Italy. “We’re the last ones here. There is nothing left of our past except for memories.”
Among the few things the Italian immigrants left behind is an architectural legacy. Strolling around La Goulette — the port town were most Italians settled — one notices the rococo-style houses and the whitewashed church that testify to their past presence.
The Tunisie plurielle is particularly conspicuous in La Goulette. Italians, Jews and Arab Muslims lived together in the neighborhood. The cinema icon Claudia Cardinale, known for her roles in Sergio Leone and Fellini classics, hailed from a Sicilian family in La Goulette. She grew up speaking the Sicilian dialect along with French and Tunisian Arabic.
The director Férid Boughedir vividly captured the demise of Tunisian pluralism in “A Summer in la Goulette." The film depicts a cosmopolitan society in which the communities live peacefully alongside each other until relations begin to fray with the outbreak of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.
“There were no boundaries between the different groups back then,” said Marcella. “My grandmother used to read newspapers in Arabic and discuss politics at the Medina! We all lived together. There was nothing abnormal about it.”
Finzi, going through old files in her office, mentioned her project to create an official archive dedicated to the memory of Tunisia’s erstwhile plurality. Bent on defending tolerance, she is engaged politically on both the Tunisian and Italian fronts, be it against Salvini’s xenophobia or “intégrisme” in Tunisia.
“I’m Italian but glad and proud to be from Tunisia, ” she said. “We’ve been here for 160 years. Why not 200?”
As for Il Corriere di Tunisi, Finzi will battle to keep it going as long as she can. She promised her father she would. “I’m doing this so our history does not completely disappear, but I’m afraid it will have to die with me,” she said.
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