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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Ecological Angst In India, A Mining Dumpsite As Neighbor

Local villagers in western India have been forced to live with a mining waste site on the edge of town. What happens when you wake up one day and the giant mound of industrial waste has imploded?

The mining dumpsite is situated just outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat

Sukanya Shantha

BADI — Last week, when the men and women from the Bharwad community in this small village in western India stepped out for their daily work to herd livestock, they were greeted with a strange sight.

The 20-meter-high small hill that had formed at the open-cast mining dumpsite had suddenly sunk. Unsure of the reason behind the sudden caving-in, they immediately informed other villagers. In no time, word had traveled far, even drawing the attention of environment specialists and activists from outside town.

This mining dumpsite situated less than 500 meters outside of the Badi village in the coastal state of Gujarat has been a matter of serious concern ever since the Gujarat Power Corporation Limited began lignite mining work here in early 2017. The power plant is run by the Power Gujarat State Electricity Corporation Limited, which was previously known as the Bhavnagar Energy Company Ltd.

Vasudev Gohil, a 43-year-old resident of Badi village says that though the dumping site is technically situated outside the village, locals must pass the area on a daily basis.

"We are constantly on tenterhooks and looking for danger signs," he says. Indeed, their state of alert is how the sudden change in the shape of the dumpsite was noticed in the first place.

Can you trust environmental officials?

For someone visiting the place for the first time, the changes may not stand out. "But we have lived all our lives here, we know every little detail of this village. And when a 150-meter-long stretch cave-in by over 25-30 feet, the change can't be overlooked," Gohil adds.

This is not the first time that the dumpsite has worried local residents. Last November, a large part of the flattened part of the dumpsite had developed deep cracks and several flat areas had suddenly got elevated. While the officials had attributed this significant elevation to the high pressure of water in the upper strata of soil in the region, environment experts had pointed to seismic activities. The change is evident even today, nearly a year since it happened.

It could have sunk because of the rain.

After the recent incident, when the villagers raised an alarm and sent a written complaint to the regional Gujarat Pollution Control Board, an official visit to the site was arranged, along with the district administration and the mining department.

The regional pollution board officer Bhavnagar, A.G. Oza, insists the changes "aren't worrisome" and attributes it to the weather.

"The area received heavy rain this time. It is possible that the soil could have sunk in because of the rain," he tells The Wire. The Board, he says, along with the mining department, is now trying to assess if the caving-in had any impact on the ground surface.

"We visited the site as soon as a complaint was made. Samples have already been sent to the laboratory and we will have a clear idea only once the reports are made available," Oza adds.

Women from the Surkha village have to travel several kilometers to find potable water

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

A questionable claim

That the dumpsite had sunk in was noticeable for at least three days between October 1 and 3, but Rohit Prajapati of an environmental watchdog group Paryavaran Suraksha Samiti, noted that it was not the first time.

"This is the third time in four years that something so strange is happening. It is a disaster in the making and the authorities ought to examine the root cause of the problem," Prajapati says, adding that the department has repeatedly failed to properly address the issue.

He also contests the GPCB's claim that excess rain could lead to something so drastic. "Then why was similar impact not seen on other dumping sites in the region? One cannot arrive at conclusions for geological changes without a deeper study of them," he says. "It can have deadly implications."

Living in pollution

The villagers have also accused the GPCB of overlooking their complaint of water pollution which has rendered a large part of the land, most importantly, the gauchar or grazing land, useless.

"In the absence of a wall or a barrier, the pollutant has freely mixed with the water bodies here and has slowly started polluting both our soil and water," complains 23- year-old Nikul Kantharia.

He says ever since the mining project took off in the region, he, like most other villagers has been forced to take his livestock farther away to graze. "Nothing grows on the grazing land anymore and the grass closer to the dumpsite makes our cattle ill," Kantharia claims.

The mining work should have been stopped long ago

Prajapati and Bharat Jambucha, a well-known environmental activist and proponent of organic farming from the region, both point to blatant violations of environmental laws in the execution of mining work, with at least 12 violations cited by local officials. "But nothing happened after that. Mining work has continued without any hassles," Jambucha says. Among some glaring violations include the absence of a boundary wall around the dumping site and proper disposal of mining effluents.

The mining work has also continued without a most basic requirement – effluent treatment plant and sewage treatment plant at the mining site, Prajapati points out. "The mining work should have been stopped long ago. And the company should have been levied a heavy fine. But no such thing happened," he adds.

In some villages, the groundwater level has depleted over the past few years and villagers attribute it to the mining project. Women from Surkha village travel several kilometers outside for potable water. "This is new. Until five years ago, we had some water in the village and did not have to lug water every day," says Shilaben Kantharia.

The mine has affected the landscape around the villages

Sukanya Shantha/The Wire

Resisting lignite mining

The lignite mining project has a long history of resistance. Agricultural land, along with grazing land were acquired from the cluster of 12 adjoining villages in the coastal Ghogha taluka between 1994 and 1997. The locals estimate that villagers here lost anything between 40-100% of their land to the project. "We were paid a standard Rs 40,000 per bigha," Narendra, a local photographer, says.

The money, Narendra says, felt decent in 1994 but for those who had been dependent on this land, the years to come proved very challenging. "Several villagers have now taken a small patch of land in the neighboring villages on lease and are cultivating cotton and groundnut there," Narendra says.

They were dependent on others' land for work.

Bharat Jambucha says things get further complicated for the communities which were historically landless. "Most families belonging to the Dalit or other marginalized populations in the region never owned any land. They were dependent on others' land for work. Once villagers lost their land to the project, the landless were pushed out of the village," he adds. His organization, Prakrutik Kheti Juth, has been at the forefront, fighting for the rights of the villages affected in the lignite mining project.

In 2017, when the mining project finally took off, villagers from across 12 villages protested. The demonstration was disrupted after police used force and beat many protesters. More than 350 of them were booked for rioting.

The villagers, however, did not give up. Protests and hunger strikes have continued from time to time. A few villagers even sent a letter to the President of India threatening that they would commit suicide if the government did not return their land.

"We let them have our land for over 20 years," says Gohil.

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