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Sicily, Arab world have shared history, culture: Luiss University professor
Tuesday November 26, 2013 7:24 PM, IINA

The visit of the Italian aircraft carrier Cavour last week to Jeddah Islamic Port was concluded with a lecture, titled "The History of Islam in Sicily," on board of the ship on Thursday.

Driven by the ambition to show the West and East their similarities, professor Francesca Corrao had specially come from Rome to give the lecture about the closeness between the Italian island of Sicily and the Arab world in terms of history and culture.

She also spoke about an exhibition she set up with her father on the island.

The story of Joha, with which the professor of Arabic language and culture at Luiss University in Rome began her talk with, illustrates this closeness. Originating in the Arab oral tradition, the story has spread and become engrained in the local folklore of many places in Africa, Turkey and Sicily, among others.

"The story of Joha gives us an idea of how powerful oral stories are," Corrao told the audience that consisted of Saudi officials, diplomats, Rear Adm. Paolo Treu and other people interested in the topic. "They have survived since the 11th century, and people don't know they originate from Arabs."

The story was her motive to study Arabic many years ago and to set up the exhibition in 2012, which was a "major starting point" in becoming aware of their heritage.

She added that they now invite poets, musicians and painters to Sicily regularly to spread "knowledge and respect for the other culture."

"Sicily shows how a small island was important in transmitting Eastern traditions to the West," Corrao said, referring to the Emirate of Sicily, the Islamic state on the island for over two centuries, from 831 to 1072 AD.

She said important scholars were born or lived on the island, such as Ibn Hamdis, who migrated to Seville and became a famous poet at the court.

Many important scholars, judges, poets and scientists left when the Arabs had been conquered but numerous inventions and new habits remained.

"Before the Arabs arrived, we didn't have oranges, lemons, bananas and gardens — all things Sicily is known for now," Corrao said to illustrate her point, adding that even the churches were built in Islamic style long after the Arabs had left. "The Arabs developed an irrigation system and brought yellow and green pottery to Sicily."

While admitting the coexistence of Arabs and locals in Sicily during the emirate was not always without problems, she said the Arabs introduced many positive things: "In the [western] area where they arrived, it was more peaceful, while in the eastern area there were a lot of fights, and they lasted because the Byzantines were stronger.

"We have the testimonies of historians and travelers", who transmit this possibility of peaceful coexistence between Christians and Muslims, she said.

"There were many people who converted to Islam; others remained Christian, but they could live together peacefully for centuries," she noted, adding that the Normans, who ruled the island after the Arabs had been defeated, continued this tradition of tolerance.

According to Corrao, the shared history and culture remains relevant in today's world and the problem of refugees from Africa flooding the island of Sicily and other places in Europe.

"This is in fact why we made this exhibition and we want to go around [with it]," she said. "It is a possibility to solve problems, and we have the duty to solve problems. We have the opportunity to find harmonious solutions," just by sitting and discussing together and finding a common ground, explaining that this is the reason she used the story of Joha.

"If I listen to the problem I might find a solution; if I look to the problem only from my point of view it is difficult to find a solution", she said.


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