[This article was written while I began to research my genealogy and discovered a lot of things about where my family originally came from. Not only was I exploring my own family line, but the history of the place where they came from. At the time of this writing, I didn’t know as much as I do now - but I still have a long way to go. While doing this research, I stumbled upon a few websites and message boards that dealt with Sicilian culture and identity and found a disturbing amount of posts discussing Sicily’s Arab and Islamic past - a fact of history, that were - let me just say violently in denial. The following grew out of that and I suppose it was a way to set the record straight among those I had been posting with who were adamant that the Arab/Islamic past of our forefather’s country simply didn’t exist. This was one of those articles where the topic interested me personally - and also, this was one of the one’s that died stillborn on the site in which it originally appeared. No comments, hardly any votes, no discussion - proving to me that it may have only been interesting to me and me alone. It also represents some of the themes that I eventually incorporated into my novels.]
“Recalling Sicily provokes pain, it fills my heart with regret. The land which turned silly youths into noble men of talent - that land is now gone. A paradise! And I was expelled from it. I grieve for that land with tears which I would call a river, if they were not bitter.” - Abu Mohammed ibn Hamdis, Sicilian poet, 1078
“Sicily has a different life, different blood, a different nature, different customs, different needs, different sensitivities, different feelings.” - Luigi Pirandello, Sicilian author, 1932
The Arabs invaded the island of Sicily in the year 827 and that invasion and settlement of the island has left a huge imprint on Sicilians and Sicilian culture in general. Despite the “history lesson” Dennis Hopper’s character gave to Christopher Walken’s in that very memorable scene in Quentin Tarrantino’s film “True Romance”, the Arabs who invaded Sicily were not sub-Saharan Africans but Berbers and Arabs from North Africa, most of them from countries known today as Morocco, Algeria, Libya and Tunisia. Some also came from Spain (known to them as Al Andalus) where they had been ruling since the year 711 A.D. This was no mere conquest where the conquerers would invade, loot the country of its wealth and women and be on their way. No, these invaders decided to stay and stay they did - for nearly three hundred years; and three hundred years is enough time for any group of people to leave their mark on any culture. Think of it this way: that’s nearly one hundred years longer than the United States has been a nation.
That once scene from “True Romance” seems to have touched a very raw nerve with regard to Sicilian-American identity in the twenty first century. I’ve come across many message boards and websites in which there is a furious debate over whether or not there is any truth to this story. Well, yes there is. A lot of truth. A truth many Sicilian-Americans are deeply disturbed by, apparently. Many messages on these boards react very violently to the idea that some of their ancestors may have had Arab blood or may very well have been Arabs. It’s not a definite thing, of course. Unless you have a detailed genealogy or a DNA test, there really isn’t any way to know for sure. But it is likely and this fact seems to disturb a lot of people who have joined in on this very contentious conversation. My personal feeling on the matter is that if this is a fact of history there isn’t anything you can do about it, for one; secondly, as I stated above, there is really no way to know for sure; and third, even if it happens to be true, why be so disturbed by the idea? I think a lot of current events and a lot of the perception on who Arabs are have everything to do with this violent reaction to this distinct possibility. For some, the idea that some Sicilian-Americans may be descended from Arabs is a deeply disturbing proposition.
From the year 827 A.D. through around 1092, Sicily was for all intents and purposes part of the Caliphate of the growing Islamic empire and they had imposed Islam as the major religion and way of life. The Muslim rulers were somewhat tolerant of the Christian and Jewish residents, of course with some restrictions as they had done in Spain. Although they were not forced to convert to Islam, the Muslims allowed their Christian and Jewish citizens to worship as they pleased - only not out in the open. Any proselytizing meant certain death. Also, no new churches or synagogues were allowed to be erected, although existing ones were to be left alone. However, many mosques were built all throughout Sicily. The capital Palermo (then Balram) had as many as three hundred mosques in the city, almost as many as they did in the Spanish city of Córdoba. Some of these mosques were actually converted Christian churches. Many of Palermo’s cathedrals and churches still show Arabic inscriptions on its walls. It is not too dissimilar from parts of southern Spain where you can still see the legacy of Moorish rule.
One of the things the Arabs had an impact on in Sicilian culture was the language. Sicilian is in fact a language, not a dialect. It is much older than “Italian”, which is really the Tuscan dialect which eventually became the national language of a unified nation. The capital city of Palermo was derived from the Arabic name Balram. The city of Marsala’s name was derived from the Arabic name Mars Allah which meant “Allah’s Port.” Other city and town names were also derived from the original Arabic: Karkint became Agrigento, the Arabic word for “castle”; qual’at became Latinized in the towns currently known as Caltaniesetta, Caltavuturu, and Calatafimi; the Arabic word manzil , meaning “stopping place”, can be found in the names of the towns Mezzojuso, Misilmeri, and Mussomeli. Many words in the Sicilian language also have their roots in Arabic. One example is the Arabic word for “coffin” - tabut. The Sicilian word for “coffin” is tabutu.
The Arabs also brought scientific knowledge with them as well, things that were their inventions: algebra, the astrolabe, navigation (the works of al-Farghani would later play a role ion Columbus’s “discovery” of America), agriculture, the Zero, the Arabic numeral system (which we use today), star maps, celestial globes, astronomy, medical works, and many translations of Greek sources which would have been lost if not for them being translated into Arabic (which would later be re-translated into Latin in the following years.)
Food is another area in which the Arabs had left their mark. One of the staples of the Sicilian (and Italian) diet - pasta - was in fact introduced by the Arabs. The Arabs also introduced rice, sugar, oranges, lemons, zucchini, almonds, and couscous to the island, taking their irrigation skills they developed in Spain and transported the technology to Sicily in order to grow many of these items.
Another Arab contribution to Sicily was known as “The Book of Roger” which was written by the geographer Ash-Sharif al-Idrisi. Al-Idrisi was born in Cueta (in Spain) and and eventually settled in Sicily when he was in his mid-thirties and became an important figure in the court of King Roger II (the Norman king after the Normans expelled the Arabs from the island. The Normans had taken Sicily from the Arabs around the year 1092 but the Arab presence remained in Sicily until they were finally expelled in 1243, most of them winding up in Calabria on the Italian peninsula.) Al-Idrisi was a geographer and “The Book of Roger” was presented to King Roger II in 1154. This book was a major work of geography for its time and many navigators would use this book in their travels mainly because of its use of longitude and latitude, which was also, in fact, an Arab invention.
A thorough look across these message boards and websites reveals a lot of people who are in denial about the past. The Arab presence, influence and impact is strong and it remains to this day in many ways, especially in some of the Sicilian customs. Of course, there were other conquerers who invaded and occupied Sicily: The Normans (who were French) and particularly the Spanish, who ruled and occupied Sicily for more than four hundred years. Many Sicilian words and customs and surnames come directly from the Spanish occupation. (The Sicilian author Giovanni Verga’s surname is Spanish in origin and my last name could also be either Italian or Spanish origin.) Sicily was part of Spain at one point in history, ruled by Kings of Catalonia and Aragon. As you read these message boards, the French and the Spanish occupation and impact doesn’t disturb a lot of these people as much as the Arab one does.
For me, all of this is very interesting and intriguing, especially where my own genealogy is concerned. I still have a long way to go before learning about my own family line but all I know is that if I come to discover that somewhere in my remote past lies Arab, Norman, Spanish or even all three, it will be a thrilling thing for me to learn. The idea that some of my relatives in the very distant past may have been Arabs does not disturb me in the least and in fact I would embrace this. The Arabs contributed much to what we take for granted in Western culture. To think of Arab history and their contribution to today’s world in today’s terms where the idea that every Arab is part of some sort of “jihadist conspiracy” is just giving into xenophobic tendencies and I think what is lying behind much of this violent reaction to this ethnic possibility. What else would explain the vitriol surrounding this idea in the first place and why should some feel so ashamed as they apparently do?
Sicily has a very colorful and wonderful history and no one living today should be ashamed of that history. History does not occur in a vacuum and what happens today and who we are today has its genesis in some long ago events, often acting as a “domino effect” leading up to the present. If things had happened differently, our present wouldn’t be what it is. Who we are today has a direct correlation to the past and past events. In the end, we are who we are and there is nothing to be ashamed about. Ideas about race, ethnicity, and culture often contribute to these feelings; ideas that are often informed by those who usually feel that certain cultural elements are “contaminants” rather than something enriching.