Mediterranean Cousins: Tunisia and Italy on Opposite Shores

February 21, 2020
Mediterranean Cousins poster

In October 2019, CMES Director William Granara spent part of his sabbatical year convening the first international symposium organized by the Tunisia Office of the Center for Middle Eastern Studies: Mediterranean Cousins: Tunisia and Italy on Opposite Shores, designed to examine kinship, exchanges, and divides between Tunisia and Italy across time.

“Much of modern scholarhsip has focused on Tunis and Tunisia as part of the broader Maghreb in the context of French colonial history,” says Granara. “But I and some of my colleagues in Tunisia wanted to think about ways in which Tunisia and Italy have been connected as Mediterannean neighbors without really dealing with the French colonial period. Their bilateral relations go way back and much of them don’t have anything to do with the French colonial project.”

Relations between Tunisia and the central Maghreb and Italy have been long and complicated, and much of their history—human history, mercantile history, political, military, artistic history, culinary history—has been interconnected. During Roman times, Africa Proconsularis, the Roman province roughly comprising what is today Tunisia, western Libya, and eastern Algeria (the area known as Ifriquiya in the medieval period) was the “breadbasket of the Empire,” and wheat production and import/export has played a big role in Italo-Tunisian mercantile relations. And the Italo-­Tunisian connection goes back even further, to Carthiginian times. For this symposium, however, organizers made the decision to focus on the medieval and modern periods.

The intention for the symposium was to explore Tunisian–Italian relations through creative media, such as literature, folklore, art, cinema, or music, and points of cross-cultural contact—or conflict—including food and drink, trade, diplomacy, slavery, or intermarriage. The main goal was to examine and question the many ways in which Tunisians and Italians view self and other as Mediterranean citizens across linguistic, religious, and cultural divides. “There’s been a lot of work done on political relations and economic relations between the two countries, both in Italy and in Tunisia,” says Granara. “But we wanted to bring together scholars who think about the Tunisian–Italian relationship in different ways, ways that aren’t usually done.”

In the first panel, Francesca Maria Corrao, Professor of Arabic Language and Culture, LUISS University, Rome, talked about a “wise fool” character of Mediterranean folklore who has played a major role in the folk literatures of both Tunisia (with the Arabic name Juha) and Italy (where he appears as Giufà). Alfonso Campisi, Professor of Romance Studies at Manouba University, Tunis, spoke on tensions in the relations between French and Italians in Tunisia during World War II. And ­Mohamed Ouerfelli, Assistant Professor in Medieval History, Aix-­Marseille University, spoke on negotiations and peace treaties between Ifriqiya and the Italian maritime towns at the end of the Middle Ages.

In panel two, Ahmed Saadaoui, Professor of Art History at Manouba University, spoke on the Italian baroque in Tunis and the Maghreb during the Ottoman period. Leila Blili, Professor of Ottoman History at ­Manouba University, gave a talk about a family of notable Tunisians of Genoese origin. And Youssef Ben Ismail, a PhD candidate in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations at Harvard, talked about the Italian port city of Livorno and it’s relationship to Tunis and Istanbul during the Ottoman period.

Ahmed Saadaoui, Leila Blili, Youssef Ben Ismail


In panel three, Adnan El-Ghali, a PhD student in Philosophy and Social Sciences at ULB in Brussels, explored Italian influence on Tunisian political life from the foundation of the Husseinid Dynasty to the establishment of the French Protectorate of Tunisia, in 1881. Silvia Finzi, Professor of Italian Studies at Manouba University, talked about the Italian presence in Tunisia in the nineteenth century and the tensions between colonialism and migration. And Gabriele Montalbano, of the University of Bologna, talked about the idea of citizenship, an idea that appeared in many of the talks: what does it mean to be a citizen, of what state is one a citizen, and how does free passage and legal status work between these two countries. “With Tunisia and ­Italy there are a lot more gray areas regarding citizenship than there would be with, say, Tunisia and France,” says Granara.

Mediterranean Cousins, Silvia Finzi
Silvia Finzi

Mediterranean Cousin, Gabriele Montalbano
Gabriele Montalbano


“Of course we did end up going back to some of the old narratives: we couldn’t avoid the idea that there was a colonized and a colonizer, European versus Arab. And Italians did play a part in European colonial history, particularly in Libya and Somalia and Ethiopia. But in Tunisia that wasn’t really the case. Unlike the French and Tunisian relationship the Italian and Tunisian connection doesn’t fall neatly under the rubric of colonizer and colonized. I think the conference fleshed out some really interesting gray areas of the relationship. Many of the papers touched on different aspects of how Italy became a neutral or gray area between the colonizing Europe and the colonized Arab world and played a kind of intermediate role between the two.

“What we tried to show was that as much as there’s a romanticized view of the relation between these two countries, there’s also been a realistic one. Sometimes they contradict each other and sometimes they play off each other. Italians like to say that they’re the brothers and sisters of the Tunisians—there’s shared blood, there are similarities in food and dress and physical features—but there’s a lot of anomosity that goes on between the countries as well.” The talks, says Granara, “were all very smart in the way that they navigated between the romanticization and the realism of Italo–Tunisian relations. And thinking about the ways in which the relations have been romanticized and realized is really what the symposium was about.”

Granara says that it was particularly beneficial to have this kind of conference in the CMES Tunisia office because organizers were able to tap into a large community of scholars of central Mediterranean language, literature, history, sociology, and art history who deal specifically with the question of Tunisia’s longterm historical and cultural relationship with Italy, but who may not all have easy access to the financial resources that would allow them to travel to conferences in the United States.

In March, Granara will be back at the Tunisia office, to run a more practical, hands-on workshop with Tunisian graduate students. Three prominent scholars in the field of Mediterranean history, including one who works especially on North Africa, and a Harvard PhD student will work with Tunisian graduate students to help them think creatively about developing their profiles as scholars in contemporary Mediterranean social sciences and humanities beyond the confines of the Tunisian academy or the Francophone academy. Topics to be considered will include how to think about English sources and how to look for primary sources in American and other Anglophone institutions, how to write proposals for conferences, how to put together CVs, and how to apply for jobs, “Our goal is to open up the CMES Tunisia Office more and more to the Tunisian academic community, to present occasions and sites in which a young generation of scholars who are less interested in French can think about how to pursue their work in English. It’s one of the few places where young Tunisian scholars working on Tunisian history, and Mediterranean studies in general, have close access not only to American scholarship but to the wider world of English-­language scholarship. It’s a new territory for young Tunisian scholars to think of their own history, which has played a central role in Mediterranean history, beyond the confines of French, which can be limiting. It’s a widening of perspective on Tunisian history.”

Mediterranean Cousins symposium 1
William Granara and CMES Tunisia administrative manager Sihem Lamine with symposium participants