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Exodus in reverse: 100 thousand Sicilian migrants in Tunisia

There was a time at the beginning of 1900s in which the number of Italians in Tunisia reached 100,000.

In those years a migration in reverse occured, reports a book called ”Memories and tales of the Mediterranean – Story of the Sicilian migration to Tunisia between the nineteenth and twentieh century” curated by MC Editions (in Italian and French) and edited by Alfonso Campisi, professor of Romance linguistics at the university of Manouba in Tunisia and Flaviano Pisanelli, associated professor at the University of Montpellier, Paul Valery.

At a time of predominant south-north migrations, it is interesting to recall a widely unknown page of Italian history such as the one of the Italians of Tunisia.

Italians, Sicilians in particular, left deep traces of their culture and traditions in Tunisia.

”They arrived with simple boats from the Sicilian coast and brought the little they had. Some left with livestock and imported the Sicilian-Sardinian breed of sheep to Tunisia, characterised by a bushy tale, called ”lia” in Tunisian Arabic; others came with a vine variety from the island of Pantelleria and launched the production of muscat wine, known in Tunisia by the name of ”Muscat de Kélibia”; those who owned nothing at all, left Italy with what they had: misery, desparation, the will to work and hope of a better future” Campisi told ANSAmed.

”These people – he added – were workers, farmers, fishermen, they knew how to build and created entire neighbourhoods which spread to the whole country with the name of ”Petite Sicile” (Little Sicily), they managed to integrate with the locals and gave birth to a Sabir-Sicilian-Arab-French language.

The book written by Campisi and Pisanelli tells the tale of the “illegal tourists” (as Sicilians were described at the time by Tunisian newspaper in French ”Le petit matin’ ) arriving in droves to the Tunisian coast between the nineteenth and twentieth century.

It’s an impassioned historical, linguistic, and cultural research tracing the adventurous trip from the northern to the southern flank of the Mediterranean carried out by the means of interviews with the Sicilians of Tunisia, nowadays scattered in France, Italy, America and Canada.

The authors also intended the book as a denounciation of the policies of the Italian authorities of the time, unable to manage the flow of migrants returning to Italy after Tunisian independence stripped them of their lands. Following 1964, many of them ended up in virtual ”migrant camps” virtually unknow to most Italians. The book – out in October – sheds light on one of the most obscure stories of Italian migration.

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