The Solitude Of Sicily's Tunisian Wives And Widows

Most Tunisian men in the Sicilian port town of Mazara del Vallo work in the fishing industry. But while they're out at sea, their wives stay home, where the rules of tradition leave little room for integration.

A woman on the Foro Italico in Palermo, Italy
A woman on the Foro Italico in Palermo, Italy
Jacopo Lentini

MAZARA DEL VALLO — In her home in this historic fishing port in western Sicily, Habiba Harrazi prepares three different types of makroud, the typical sweets of Tunisia. "Dates, chickpea flour and sorghum," she explains to those who want to place an order.

Cooking used to be a pastime, but since her husband, Salem Alilou, died in 2018, it became much more than that. Her son is a college student in Siena, and Habiba's monthly income consists of her 500-euro survivor pension. And so, to make ends meet, she cooks. "I also embroider clothes for weddings," she says in her blue and white tiled living room, which overlooks the street.

Originally from Mahdia, a coastal city 200 kilometers southeast of Tunis, Habiba Harrazi, 63, is the oldest of her neighbors. Raised in a family closely tied to the customs of the Tunisian tradition, she inspires authority.

"It was my father who introduced me to Salem, telling me he was the man he had chosen for me," she explains. "Salem came to the meeting directly with the engagement ring. Within three months we got married and he took me to Mazara in 1980."

Habiba's home has become a meeting point for the Tunisian women of Mazara del Vallo, and at least 10 of them are also fishermen's widows. Among Mazara's Tunisian men, roughly four out of five work in the fishing industry. Deaths and injuries are common, according to Italy's Institute for the Insurance for Injuries on the Job.

The Mediterranean's unstable political situation makes things riskier still. Just last month, 18 fishermen working in Italy, including six Tunisians, were arrested by the so-called Libyan coast guard, which follows the order of strongman Khalifa Haftar, who controls much of eastern Libya.

Be it injuries or war, the dangers leave Mazara's women in limbo, in particular because, as local sociologist and journalist Francesco Mezzapelle explains, the Tunisian wives don't integrate. "They came to Mazara only to join their husbands," he says.

Once this bond has disappeared, Mezzapelle explains, the initial reaction of the widows is to close themselves off even more. "The men they married are the only link they have with the city, even if they are always absent because they are at sea," the sociologist says.

Ali Jmar's house​

Mazara del Vallo is a town like no other in Italy. A short walk from the city center will take you from Baroque buildings to the casbah, the old Arab town that sprawled around the fortified citadel. It is a maze of short alleys and courtyards that sprung up after the Arabs conquered Mazara and Sicily after 827 AD. Today, this part of Mazara del Vallo still has strong Tunisian vibes, and a substantial Tunisian community — most of the town's 3,000 Tunisians live here.

Near Largo Mahdia, a couple argues in Arabic in front of their house. A Mazarese on a bike interrupts the conversation to complain about the noise they made the night before: "We must stop with this loud music at all hours!"

In the heart of the alleys, along via Pilazza, Ali Jmar's house is a must for tourists. Paolo Ayed, a local guide, explains to a group from northern Italy the origin of the red and blue decorations that everyone wants to photograph.

Mazara del Vallo is a town like no other in Italy.

"Ali's wife didn't tolerate him smoking indoors and he didn't want to be on the balcony. So Ali made the ground floor his refuge, decorating it in his way," Ayed explains. "From the inside, he moved on to decorate the outside. As a former fisherman, he managed to be a craftsman."

The Tunisians arrived in Italy in the late 1960s, and many settled in Mazara where the fishing industry was booming. They arrived thanks to the relations maintained with the Sicilians who emigrated to Tunisia from the second half of the 19th century and returned to their homeland after Tunisian independence in 1956.

Until the 1980s, Tunisian immigrants were almost exclusively men — then women arrived through family reunification policies. Today, women make up 40% of the community. After the earthquake of 1981, many buildings of the Casbah, damaged and abandoned, were occupied by the Tunisians who settled in the neighborhood.

The same year an elementary school opened where Arabic and French were spoken. "It was born at the behest of the Tunisian government, which intended to help its citizens abroad, in anticipation of a project to encourage the return of emigrants which then failed," explains Antonino Cusumano, president of the Euro-Arab Institute of Mazara del Vallo.

Salah Omri, the school teacher, proudly explains that "the Tunisian government still wants to make its presence felt." In reality, in poor condition and with only 18 students, the school is what remains of a vanished idea, the symbol of an integration that was never fully realized.

Rules of tradition

Like Habiba Harrazi, 50-year-old Zahira Hamza is also from Mahdia. She lost her husband, Rachid, to cancer. He'd spent 30 years working on fishing boats. "In 23 years of marriage, we only spent five years together," she says. "I didn't imagine life would be like this — I didn't know that being a fisherman meant being at sea all the time."

On one occasion, because of his work, Rachid Hamza was even kidnaped in a case that sounds a lot like the Libya stalemate. In 1996, Rachid was arrested by the Libyan coast guard while he was on board a fishing boat in international waters — which Tripoli considered Libyan territorial waters — and was imprisoned in Misrata.

A part of Mazara del Vallo still has strong Tunisian vibes, and a substantial Tunisian community — Photo: Herbert Frank

Rachid Hamza was released after six months. Today the 18 seafarers arrested on Sept. 1 have been waiting for more than a month to learn their fate. The eastern Libya militias accuse the fishermen of trying to smuggle drugs and said they would release them only after Italy releases four Libyans who were sentenced to 30 years in prison after they were found guilty for the deaths of nearly 50 migrants on Aug. 15, 2005. Libyans call them the "four footballers," and say they were just trying to seek their fortune in Europe.

Unemployed and with four children to support, Zahira Hamza lives with the small amount of savings that her husband left her, while waiting to get a survivor's pension, which is not always easy. It is a slow and tortuous procedure through Italian and Tunisian red tape.

In addition to economic problems, Zahira has to deal with the judgments she feels weighing on herself. "Some would say that now I'm happy to take my husband's money, but I miss him," she says.

When one of the young daughters asked her to take a bike ride, she forbade it, even on Habiba's advice, because it was not suitable for the period of mourning. "I was always waiting for Rachid to come back to make the decisions together," she says.

Now her life is guided by her friend's advice and the rules of tradition. For the first time, she has to decide for herself what to do and discuss with the family in Tunisia about the children, the house and the type of job to look for. "I try to tell her how to be a widow with dignity," explains Habiba.

This is common among Mazara's widows. "Some women live in the shadow of their husband," says Samia Ksibi, a cultural mediator of the San Vito non-profit foundation in Mazara del Vallo.

"When they become widows, their status among compatriots changes. The community tends to pity them, identifying them just as widows," she explains. "Sometimes they despise each other because they think they can't get by on their own. But over time they turn out to be better than their husbands at managing every aspect of life, redeeming themselves. Paradoxically, in their new condition, they acquire greater autonomy, perhaps even taking a driving license."

As Zahira herself explains: "I try not to be just "Rachid's wife" anymore — just Zahira. I'm preparing to stay clear of people who tell me what to do with my life."

Paying respects

Across the sea, in the port of Tunis, the customs officer on duty must have been surprised when, on Aug. 1, a young woman arrived holding a bouquet of flowers.

"When they become widows, their status among compatriots changes."

The woman, 22-year-old Chedlia, was born and lives in Mazara del Vallo. She speaks Arabic but does not read it, which is common among second-generation Tunisians. With her mother, Fatima, she made the trip to visit her father in Bizerte, 65 kilometers north of the Tunisian capital.

"The flowers are for my father," she told the official when asked to explain.

Bechir Lazrak, originally from Bizerte, was the latest victim among Tunisian fishermen in Italy. On June 14, the 57-year-old fell from the Maleno fishing boat that was moored in the port of Cagliari and died of cardiac arrest. That same morning, Chedlia had called him to tell him of the date of her graduation in Palermo, and her father had promised he would be back for the occasion. Less than two hours later, the owner of the Maleno boat showed up at her house to report the incident.

"I am 99% Mazarese, like all of my friends," says Chedlia. "But through mourning, I rediscovered my Tunisian origins."

She explains that up to middle school she was ashamed of her foreign-sounding name because classmates would mock her for it, so she went by "Lucia."

"I have always been an observant Muslim, but now I am even more so," she explains.

The mother, Fatima, only works occasionally and her late husband's savings — he earned around 700 euros a month — have almost dried up. She finds comfort in her confidence in her daughter. Unlike her mother, Chedlia is more integrated into Italian society and has all the tools to understand where to go from here. Right now, though, the young women is focused not on her studies, but on trying to find a new balance to her identity.

Chedlia does not know how she'll feel upon returning to Italy. For the time being, she's ok with having brought the flowers to her father and having graduated in political science. "What should I do in Mazara now that he is gone?" she says. "It seems to me as though he might still return from the sea."

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January 15-16

  • Kazakhstan’s vicious circle of strongmen
  • COVID school chaos around the world
  • The truth behind why we lie to ourselves
  • … and much more!


What do you remember from the news this week?

1. What extreme measure did the Canadian province of Quebec take to encourage people to get vaccinated?

2. What caused a massive power outage in Argentina’s capital Buenos Aires, leaving 700,000 in the dark for hours?

3. Norwegian soldiers were asked to return what piece of clothing at the end of their military service, so that future recruits can reuse them?

4. What news story have we summed up here in emoji form? ❤️ 🐖 🏥 👨 👍

[Answers at the bottom of this newsletter]


Djokovic, BoJo, Xi Jinping: rules & power in pandemic times

It was the phrase of the week down on Fleet Street, the historic HQ of the London press corps: “Bring your own booze” — BYOB — the instructions secretly sent around for the garden party held at 10 Downing Street in blatant violation of the first coronavirus lockdown, back in May 2020.The revelations of the event (the second such scandal to emerge in the past two months) has left British Prime Minister Boris Johnson barely holding on to his job after his admission to Parliament this week that he was there … and he was, well, quite sorry.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the former British empire, Australians are following how their public representatives will resolve the latest twist in pandemic policy that has captured the sporting world’s attention. Back and forth, like a tennis match. By the end of the week, Australia had reversed a Monday court decision, and canceled Novak Djokovic’s visa that would have allowed him to defend his Australian Open title. Immigration Minister Alex Hawke said the visa was revoked on the grounds that the presence of the unvaccinated Serbian star risks fueling anti-vax sentiment on home soil.

This is high-stakes political gamesmanship indeed. The unprecedented health crisis, and associated restrictions to limit the spread of the virus, requires our elected leaders to react to ever-changing information and a chain of lose-lose public policy choices. COVID continues to make the hard job of being a public representative that much harder. The best, we can agree, are doing the best they can. The worst, well … are the worst.

The British public has rightly taken offense to the idea that the very people charged with making and enforcing COVID rules, were also busy breaking them. In the Djokovic saga, skeptics of vaccination mandates — in Australia, Serbia and beyond — will have new ammunition if the world’s top tennis player is kicked out of both tournament and country.

The good news is that in our eternally flawed democracies, the public eventually (though not always!) finds out what goes wrong, and ultimately has the final say of who’s in charge. The same can’t be said everywhere, including the country that has been cited for having the most successful methods for controlling the virus and limiting death tolls. That is, of course, China … where it all began.

Yet the authoritarian regime's “Zero COVID policy” comes with deeper questions that largely mirror the downside of authoritarianism in general: ruthless enforcement, quelled dissent and the sometimes blind following of the masses. It’s hard to imagine that Xi Jinping has had any “BYOB parties” in the past two years. But if he did, you can be sure we’d never know.

— Jeff Israely


• Makar Sankranti 2022: The Hindu festival of Makar Sankranti is celebrated on January 14 and 15 in almost all parts of India and Nepal in a myriad of cultural forms. The festival marks the end of winter, the beginning of a new harvest season, and has ancient religious significance.

• Parthenon fragment returns to Greece: A marble fragment from the Parthenon temple has been returned to Athens from a museum in Sicily. Authorities hope the move will rekindle efforts to force the British Museum to send back ancient sculptures from Greece's most renowned ancient landmark.

• 400 years of Molière: France honors its seminal playwright on the 400th anniversary of his birth. His influence, comparable to that of Shakespeare in the anglophone world, is such that French is often referred to as the "language of Molière."

• Vinyl surpassed CDs sales for the first time in 30 years: For the first time since 1991, annual sales of vinyl records surpassed those of CDs in the U.S, according to MRC Data and Billboard, with an estimated 41.72 million vinyl records sold in 2021 (up 51.4% from 27.55 million in 2020). This means that vinyl is now the leading format for all album purchases in the U.S.

• Kendrick Lamar teams up with South Park creators: Grammy-winning rapper Kendrick Lamar and his former longtime manager Dave Free are working with South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone to produce a live-action comedy for Paramount Pictures.


The decisions to close schools have been some of the toughest choices made during the pandemic, with students suffering both academically and socially from online learning or no education at all. It’s universally acknowledged that children most succeed with in-person classes, but the question still remains whether the health risk to students and those around them is worth it.

The Omicron wave has only caused this debate to heighten, with teacher strikes in France, rising drop-out rates in Argentina and shortages of staff in South Africa. But there are signs of hope: Uganda has finally reopened schools, ending the world’s longest shutdown, and some American parents have decided to offer more personalized education with homeschooling.

Read the full story: COVID School Chaos, Snapshots From 10 Countries Around The World


The real transition of power in Kazakhstan was supposed to have taken place in 2019. Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev, who had ruled the former Soviet Republic with an iron first since its independence in 1991, finally stepped aside to allow his successor, Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev, to take power.

However, Nazarbayev retained enormous influence behind the scenes. The real transfer of power is in fact happening only now, following large-scale unrest and protests around the country. Kassym-Zhomart Tokayev promises a new way of doing things, but his methods are strikingly similar to his predecessor. For Russian daily Kommersant, Vladimir Soloviev and Alexander Konstantinov ponder why strongmen are able to keep power in Kazakhstan — but can't ensure its peaceful transfer.

Read the full story: Kazakhstan, When One Strongman Replaces Another


Things are getting fishy over Nordic fishing regulations, as the Danish government has banned further growth in sea-based fish farming, claiming the country had reached the limit without endangering the environment. In Danish newspaper Politiken, marine biologist Johan Wedel Nielsen explained why Demark’s policy has given Norway a de facto monopoly on the lucrative salmon industry. This is particularly significant as changing diet habits are increasing demand for the nutritious pink fish, and Norway has taken advantage, accounting for about half of the world’s salmon production.

Nielsen argues that environmental concerns aren’t warranted, as fish have an inherently small impact on the environment. Denmark has the potential to establish 150 salmonid (a family of fish including salmon and trout) farms in the Baltic Sea, producing some 500,000 tons of trout per year with a value of 2.7 billion euros and employing tens of thousands. But the Danish government has so far given no indication of allowing any addition to Denmark’s 19 existing farms.

Read the full story: Norwegian Salmon v. Danish Trout: Lessons On Ecology And Economics


French start-up Airxôm has unveiled its unique respiratory device at Las Vegas’ CES tech event. Their plastic and silicon face mask is the first capable of destroying particles of all sizes and has inbuilt decontamination properties, hence protecting against pollution, bacteria and viruses including COVID-19. Oh and, as a bonus, it also prevents your glasses from fogging.


Boris Johnson memes flooded social networks this week, mocking the UK’s prime minister's excuse for attending what was quite obviously a party at the height of the pandemic: “I believed implicitly that this was a work event.” The quote was shared alongside a toe-curlingly bad 2013 video of BoJo dancing to Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” which resurfaced on Instagram, while Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair puts its own spin on the lame explanation.


A Belgian national was intercepted by the French police while riding his e-scooter on a highway in eastern France. The confused trottinette user said it was his first time riding in France, and that he’d failed to select the “no toll roads” option on his GPS.


Climate, COVID, Costa Concordia: why humans are wired for denial

This past week marked 10 years since the sinking of the Costa Concordia cruise ship off the coast of Tuscany. Writing in Italian daily La Stampa, Guido Maria Brera sees connections between the way passengers and crew reacted in the minutes and hours after the ship ran aground to other calamities we face that may seem to be moving more slowly:

In 2012, the same year the Costa Concordia cruise ship sank off of Giglio Island, David Quammen published his book Spillover, which predicted that somewhere in Asia a virus would be attacking the human respiratory tract on its way to becoming a global pandemic. And so it was. This terrible shipwreck, which the world watched in slow-motion exactly ten years ago on January 13, 2012, now appears to us — just like the COVID-19 pandemic, like the trailer of a horror film we are now all living for real.

Millions dead, ten of millions sick, and the psychological collapse of entire generations, the youngest and most defenseless. In the meantime, climate change is spiraling out of control: sea levels are rising, land is drying out, ice caps are melting, not to mention hurricanes, storms, floods, droughts, famines, wars, migration.

The correlation between climate change and the pandemic has been demonstrated countless times by scientists. Soaring temperatures, intensive livestock farming, deforestation and the devastation of the natural animal kingdoms have led to zoonosis: Species-hopping, in which a bacterium or virus escapes from its host and spreads to another, creating a chain reaction with devastating results.

Finding the correlation between the sinking of the Costa Concordia and the current situation is more a subtle exercise: by looking at the decisions we made to respond to the disaster — or rather, how we failed to take action.

"The Concordia has become a maze of choices in the dark, deciding whether to open a door or not, whether to move or stay put, can be the difference between life and death,” Pablo Trincia said recently in his podcast “Il Dito di Dio.” (The Finger of God). A cruise ship with more than 4,000 people, including passengers, crew and ship personnel, is a microcosm in itself: it contains everything. And indeed, in these very long and slow moments, when time seems suspended, a tragedy was in the making.

There were reported many notable demonstrations of solidarity, as strangers helped each other. There were also those who fled as quickly as possible, seeking their personal safety at the expense of others. There were those who, between the ship crashing into the rocks and the dropping of the first lifeboats, seemed not to care.

If it is true that there are lessons to learn even from the worst tragedies, then we must make sure that the terrible wreckage of this small world can help us understand and identify the rocks we are heading towards today: the climate crisis and the pandemic. Time is the discriminating factor, as always. Director Adam McKay explains it well in his movie Don't Look Up, showing us how people react as they face slow-motioned tragedies.

In this scenario, the slowness of the film is the central narrative choice: there is initially plenty of time before the comet would hit the earth, ineluctably ending human life, and there remains plenty of time to live and love and enjoy.

Hence, we also have time to expect that the asteroid is still far away, to imagine that it will deviate from its course. We even have time to forget that the impact is inevitable, and to continue to live as if nothing is happening.

This is the most common reaction to pandemics and environmental disasters. Turn your head away, pretend you don't see, don't look up.

Denial is the work of politicians incapable of questioning the only development model they know, of the billionaires who built bunkers to survive in New Zealand, (where it seems that the crisis will have less impact), of the Silicon Valley gurus have already bought coolers to preserve their bodies for eternity by cryogenics.

On the Costa Concordia, refusal to look the disaster in the eye wasn’t just the work of those who were supposed to give the alert and manage the evacuation: we are all in the same boat when it comes to denial. When a disaster happens in slow motion, it feels as though there is still too much time to bother rushing for solutions now.

We tend to think about the time we have left, about the costs and benefits to our tiny lives, without even realizing that never has the need for salvation been more collective.

Ten years ago, as today, we convinced ourselves that we are absolved of responsibility precisely because we know that everyone shares the same responsibility.


• Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov set next week as the ultimatum for a confirmation that NATO will neither expand nor deploy forces to Ukraine and other ex-Soviet nations.

• Next Sunday will mark two years since the World Health Organization declared during an emergency meeting that COVID-19 was a Public Health Emergency of International Concern.

• On Tuesday, a 3,400-foot-wide asteroid will make a safe flyby of Earth, whooshing by our planet at the equivalent of five Earth-Moon distances (still pretty close from a cosmic point of view).

• Monday is Ditch New Year’s Resolutions Day, so you still have a few more hours to decide whether that gym membership really was a good idea.

News quiz answers:

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