Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

img_1441_edited-1Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

Italian language is a big part of my life these days. My study of it originated in Riyadh, in 1992, after I returned from my first trip to Italy, where I met distant relatives for the fist time, and felt as though I’d come home.

Back in Riyadh, I enrolled in an Italian class offered through the Italian Embassy. Our original class attracted a dozen women– an assortment of expats plus one Saudi – but by the end of the term, just six of us remained. We stayed together as a class for the next two years, studying, visiting each other’s homes, accepting invitations from the Italian Embassy,  and sharing our lives in broken Italian.

Our instructor was generous enough to bring a nice selection of books from one of her Italian trips. I ended up with an anthology of nineteenth and twentieth century Italian literature. I learned a lot from that book, but one segment, in particular, captured my attention– pages from a well-known book entitled  Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), written by Carlo Levi, a Jew from Turin who had been exiled to southern Italy as punishment for holding anti-fascist principles. The fragments fascinated me, not only because of the poetic writing, but because certain aspects of the narrative sounded familiar, as if Levi had been writing about life in Saudi Arabia rather than the southern Italy of the 1930’s. I asked my instructor to bring me the entire book, and she did.

I persevered reading that book for three months, surrounded by two dictionaries and three grammar texts, every day, even on weekends. Not only did I learn Italian, but also some of the history of the area of my ancestors. I never knew that Arabs had colonized southern Italy way back in medieval history. Levi’s portrayal of the character and customs of the people left no doubt in my mind that Muslim Arabs had indeed spent enough time in Southern Italy to leave strong marks– genetically, culturally, and religiously.

Notable was the way in which the Italians practiced Christianity, as if Islam had been superimposed on top of it. Distinct gender roles prevailed there, as did the prohibition of mixing of the sexes. Women were  accompanied by their male relatives if they had any occasion to be in the company of other men. When moving about in public, women wore black dresses and black head scarves. Every aspect of their lives was governed by their interpretation of Christianity. These similarities testify, almost superficially, to the melding of the two cultures. The entire book weaves Italian and Arab culture, not deliberately, but as a matter of essence.

Ironically, Rome had evolved into the world seat of Christianity, but the title of the book refers to the villager’s conclusion the teachings of Jesus did not penetrate into southern Italy. The southerners  endured extreme poverty, while the rest of the country developed economically. They knew that true Christians would not have abandoned them, yet there they were, isolated and scratching the ground for survival.

My intention here is not to give a review of the book, but to draw attention to the connection of the book, and of southern Italy, to Arab and Islamic culture. Although Arab influence can be seen throughout the history of Europe, it remained distictive in southern Italy until after the 1930s. Even the people of today bear such a striking resemblance to Arabs that they could pass for each other in any country.

Anyone having an interest in both cultures will be enriched by this book.

The book can be purchased from Barnes and Noble:

and Amazon:

The movie version does not do justice to the book, and should not be watched as a substitute for it.

Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli was my first full length Italian book. I am now on my third! Slowly but surely, I am becoming comfortable in this language. I thank my Riyadh days for giving me a good start.

About Marahm

At first glance, I may appear to be a middle-aged American woman with kids, grandkids, retired from a job in a hospital, gratefully relieved from the responsibilities that come with all of that. Behind the image, which is true enough, I am fairly unhinged from much of American mainstream living, having spent twelve years in Saudi Arabia, years that sprung me from societal and familial impositions, and narrow bands of truth. I have learned to embrace my identity as a seeker, an artist, and a writer. I study Arabic and Italian language, because I love them, and I love their people. I still dream of spending more time in the Middle East and Italy, though the dreaming now seems more real than the possibilities. I am a photographer. I write, and sometimes publish, flash memoir, and now a blog or two.
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12 Responses to Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

  1. Chiara says:

    Great topic, and a great literary introduction to the influence in Italy of Moorish culture. Southern Italian appearances, customs, social norms and cuisine certainly show a marked influence still.

  2. Lynn says:

    I learn something new everyday. I didn’t really know much about the history of Italy. Sicily (read ‘La Cosa Nostra’) and an Arab/Muslim connection? Wow, and a quick google told me that the whole of southern Italy did not prosper or advance as well as the non-Arab area. Interesting.

  3. iMuslim says:

    You’ve been tagged, Marahm: Bedroom Art.

  4. Marahm says:

    Yes, “the whole of southern Italy did not prosper or advance as well as the non-Arab area.”

    I was curious to know whether the Arab influence was causative, contributive or merely coincidendal to this lack of prosperty that persisted in southern Italy for so many years. A quick Google search of my own suggested that the reason for the disparity is geographical. Northern Italy had much better access to the diversity of Europe, in terms of trade and economy. The south remained isolated, much like the Arab penninsula remained islolated from the rest of the world.

    Arabs are not the only ones who’ve had a go in southern Italy. Greek influence is still strong in the very southernmost cities. It’s probably safe to say, though, that the historical developments of the two ends of Italy are paralled in the developments of the groups living north and south of it.

    The genetic influence can be seen to this day. The southern Italians resemble Arabs in their features and coloring.

  5. Countrygirl says:

    As an Italian i must tell that you get it right! The mentality of northern o southern people is diferent. The presence of Arabs for sure influenced the southern mentality. Till the 50es and 60es (and maybe right now) it was common “fuitina” if a young couple wanted to marry they simply escape together by doing so they forced they parents to give their approval for the marriage. Regarding the lack of prosperity the arab domination is one of the many reason. Here in norhern Italy (i live on the swiss border) the mentality is more similar to middle Europe

  6. Marahm says:

    Thanks, Countrygirl, I appreciate your comment.
    I’ve met a few Northern Italians (blue-eyed, besides!) who seem to support, by actions and words, that the difference between the North and South is dramatic, and perhaps difficult to reconcile. In fact, is there not a movement by the Northerners aimed at breaking away and establishing two separate countries, in preference to maintaining one Italy?

  7. That is Amazing! Absolutly facinating!

    Italian is my language that I’ve wanted to earn my whole life and it just happens instead of marrying an italian like i “dreamed” i marreid Arab and learned Arabic bits instead but I’ve always love Italy and learning italian Words (which was easier to pick up because of my slight spanish knowledge)

    SubhanAllah that you can translate a whole book!

  8. Countrygirl says:

    In part you are right Marham Lega Nord wanted for the different regions of Italy to have more power and it aimed for a fiscal federalism (keep in mind that so far a northern gave 100 in taxes and gets back far less in services) and recentely a law passed. Lega Nord is one of the main party here in North Italy. Right now Lega is fighting against incontrolled immigration.

    The difference b/w north and south are radicaded in mentality/languages (if a southern speaks in his/her dialect I can’t understand and it’s the way around) .

    I hope it helped you…if you have more questions I will gladly answer them!

  9. Marahm says:

    Thank you, Countrygirl! Have you considered starting your own blog? I think you’d have much to offer.

    Yes, the languages are different, indeed! I’ve studied standard Italian, but I could not converse with my father, who spoke Barese dialect.

    AMW, it’s no coincidence that you like both Italians and Arabs! As you learn more Arabic, you’ll automatically be learning Italian, because some of the words are the same in both languages!

  10. Countrygirl says:

    I already have my blog but it’s in Italian….i wasn’t aware that there were some common words in italian and arab….

  11. Betian says:

    I just watched the film and became curious about the book and its author. I was searching for the original uncut version of the film when I happened on your post. Although unfamiliar with the history of the area, I noticed this curious Arab like influence. Thanks so much for the information.

  12. Marahm says:

    Welcome, Betian, and thank you for your comment. The book is much better than the film, however, whether you read it in English or Italian. If you do read it, I’d be curious to know how you like it.

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