Being Muslim And Moroccan In Italy: An Interview

What is it like to be Muslim and Moroccan in Italy? We spoke to Amina about her experiences, as part of a larger research project with MIDIC.

Amina Interview about being Moroccan in Italy
Photo by cottonbro studio from Pexels.

Amina is 21 years old and was born in Italy to Moroccan parents. She grew up in the province of Lodi, Lombardy, and is studying Modern Languages and Cultures. She is fluent in five languages: Italian, Arabic, French, English and Spanish. She is Muslim and has both Italian and Moroccan citizenship.

After Awa and Eddie, we spoke to Amina as part of the research project MIDIC – Migrant descendants’ intercultural competence and their recognition in the English and Italian labor market (GA 841716 and GA 874979), funded by the European Commission through the Horizon 2020, Marie Sklodowska-Curie funding scheme. The research project is lead by Annavittoria Sarli at the Institute for Research into Superdiversity (IRiS), University of Birmingham and explores how the descendants of migrants, growing up at the crossroads of multiple ethnocultural environments, understand and face intercultural interaction.

In this context, Amina tells us about her experiences of Isalomophobia and xenophobia, but also cultural enrichment that comes from being a Muslim and Moroccan woman in Italy.

Tell me about an encounter with a person who seemed very different from you.

It immediately comes to my mind a girl I studied with in high school. The first conversation we had was about religion. She is an atheist and thinks that religion puts too many strings on people who believe. She once told me that sacred texts like the Bible or the Koran have as much worth as the Harry Potter saga. She is a spontaneous person who says what she thinks, and I really appreciated our discussion, but her point of view still surprises me: it is fine to think that God does not exist, but is it possible to believe that all people of faith are so gullible as to give so much relevance to something that is nothing more than fiction?

Are you often challenged with ideas that are far from you when it comes to religion?

I often observe that religion is seen as a somewhat démodé thing, for people with old-fashioned ideas. An ‘old man’s’ thing. For a young person it is rare to be firmly convinced on a religious level. In high school there was this trend that everyone was an atheist. Even those who went to the church on Sundays were ashamed to say so [laughs]!

How effective do you feel you are in interacting with people from other cultures?

Very effective! When I interact with a person, I don’t tend to just notice the differences, I like to observe and catch points of commonality as well. Then, having grown up immersed in multiple cultural environments, on many topics I have different perspectives in my head. It often happens that in a conversation two people have different points of view and I understand both of them because they resemble something I already know. So, I try to intervene to facilitate understanding. Just yesterday I was between two girls confronting each other on the headscarf. Explaining the point of view of the one wearing the headscarf is not easy. It is important to deeply understand one’s doubts in order to be able to clarify them.

You don’t wear a headscarf. Why?

I know that if I wore it, I wouldn’t get a job or, anyway, not the job I want. It’s sad. We talk a lot about freedom, but freedom means being able to choose, including whether to wear a headscarf or not. I know girls who have been asked not to wear it in the workplace. They have agreed, but it is bad, because it means giving up an important part of yourself.

My diversity often goes unnoticed. My name and the way I look do not immediately reveal my origins. When I feel treated as if I were Italian and my name were Elena Rossi [a typical and common Italian name], I always ask myself, “Would it be the same if I wore a piece of cloth on my head?” Ultimately it is a piece of cloth that covers my head, not my brain! Yet when I used to go out with a headscarf to go to the mosque, the way they looked at me was completely different. Then you get these weird questions, “Did someone force you to do it?” A bit like when in school, during Ramadan, they would say, “Come on, eat, no one can see you anyway!” [laughs]

How did having migrant parents impact you?

It allowed me to see things that people with parents born here often fail to see. When I did an internship as an interpreter in Social Affairs and Immigration office, I realized that I could empathize very well with the stories of the people who passed by. I felt there was an understanding, an empathy, while I noticed a certain superficiality on the part of the social workers. For example, the fact that someone did not speak a good Italian was seen as a form of laziness. Even an Italian person in China would struggle a bit to express themselves, even after five or six years!

You mentioned empathy. Can you explain further what you mean by that?

Having migrant parents has pushed me to put myself in other people’s shoes, to be willing to understand why a person has a behavior or holds a different view than I do. It fascinates me to understand perspectives I didn’t even suspect existed, and even when a point of view seems absurd to me, I try to go deeper and not to look down on it. I certainly avoid mocking or denigrating, because I know how that feels!

Do you mind that your being Moroccan often goes unnoticed?

No, I actually use it! It’s a bit like going undercover. It often happens that those in front of me have something to say about people of my own nationality. I let them talk because I am interested in knowing what they really think. When I then give my opinion, pointing out that it is authoritative because I am also Moroccan [laughs], they are a bit taken aback.

Have you ever wanted to hide your origins?

I know girls who have tried to Italianize even their names. My mother told me, “May it not come to your mind! You must be proud of your origins!” And indeed it is better to learn to accept one’s origins. The fact is that sooner or later they always pop up! You can never feel that you are 100% Italian, there will always be someone there to remind you that you are not.

Don’t you sometimes feel bad listening to so much prejudice?

I used to feel bad about it, now it doesn’t affect me anymore! When I talk to people who have ideas that are a little different from mine, I never get angry. I always try to have a dialogue, because if I get upset I only give evidence of what they believe. As long as they don’t say anything too offensive I stay quiet and try to analyze. I try to understand that if you grow up in a closed-minded environment and you always get confirmation of a given worldview you can only develop certain ideas.

Being a daughter of people who have other backgrounds has helped me to reason. On television they give a distorted idea of Muslims, as if we were all… I don’t know…Taliban. The same could be true for many other issues, so I have learned not to take what people or the media say for granted, but to analyze and delve deeper before making any beliefs. For example, I have always wondered why in some cases the origin of a criminal is highlighted and in others it is not. Have you ever heard on the news, “Italian kills” or “American kills”?

Do you think you’ve ever changed anyone’s mind?

I remember in high school there was this guy who said that foreign people who come to Italy live off their income. I replied that I came from a Moroccan family and yet I wasn’t actually living off my income. He said, “You don’t count, you are Italian!” I notice this a lot: when you do something positive you are Italian, when you mess up you are Moroccan [laughs].

I was the only Moroccan in that class… and you feel a little bit like an ambassador of your country. Whatever you do you try to be careful, because you might trigger prejudices.

Did you think from an early age that you were somehow different?

Yes, of course, starting from Catechism or the Sunday Service. I used to wonder why I didn’t go there and attended Arabic class instead. Or when, during our religious holidays we skipped school and in the “giustificazione” we had to write “for family reasons.” I would ask, “But what family reasons? I was home to celebrate!”