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"He was looking for a book on Maradona when he came across the Quran"


New film Napolislam tells the story of Muslim converts in the Italian city

Walking in the streets of Naples, a foreigner might be surprised to hear Arabic sounding music sung in a language that is not Arabic. These melodic tunes are quintessentially Neapolitan, they have not been influenced by any migration flow in the last 20 years. The formidable blend happened much, much earlier, more than 1,000 years ago, and it has affected both traditional music and, subsequently, pop songs. The same Arabic elements are present in Naples’ food, in its architecture and in the features of many inhabitants of this Southern city. Against this backdrop, the fact that a substantial amount of people, particularly among the local underclasses, are converting to Islam is surprising yet almost natural, even if in a slightly uncanny way. Some of their stories are told in Napolislam, the first film documentary made by the 34-year old Italian journalist Ernesto Pagano. It was awarded best Italian film at the Biografilm festival in Bologna and has already started catching the attention of the media in Italy, a country whose public opinion is profoundly divided on multiculturalism and its consequences. Islamophobia, just like in the rest of Europe, is sadly very common. 

Pagano read Arabic at university and lived in Cairo, working as a freelance journalist and TV producer. He came across his first Neapolitan convert in 2007. “It was in the San Gennaro neighbourhood, close to the crime-ridden area of Sanità, and his name was Ciro (a quintessentially Neapolitan name) Capone Muhammad”, he says, pointing out that before he had only met educated and well-read people who converted to Islam following a fascination with its teachings, often after having travelled extensively. “But with Ciro Muhammad I discovered people who did not go further than primary school, who became Muslims in order to improve their social condition through a new identity. They gave themselves stricter rules and new values to find dignity, empowerment,” he recalls. Many of those recent converts are unemployed and live in places which are run by local bosses. They turn to Islam trying to distance themselves from the old system. “It is a pan-European phenomenon, but in no other place people will tell you their stories the way they do it in Naples”, Pagano maintains. The ingenuity and sense of humor of Neapolitans is well known in the rest of Italy. Take the prompt adaptation of their food culture to Islamic precepts: their favourite dishes, often fried in lard like zeppola or containing pork like casatiello, have been swiftly made available in a tasty halal version. 

Exporting Islam

Naples is city where religion often verges on superstition, and where the most important rite is the annual liquefaction of San Januarius’ blood. If, at the end of a very emotion-laden ceremony, the saint's dried blood, held in a reliquary, does not turn to liquid, it means troubles for the city. Taking up new traditions like Ramadan seems natural, almost a way of revamping spirituality. “Look at them, they stop working and start praying every day. We do it just in case of emergency”, says a shopkeeper who works next to the mosque, admiringly. One of the main characters in Napolislam, a young pregnant woman on her way to convertion after she started dating a Muslim, shows her perplexed mum how to wear an headscarf and tells her how she feels safe and comfortable in it. The mother’s reaction is a mixture of curiosity and a more conflicted feeling she never really manages to put into focus. “Will I be allowed to be myself in front of my niece? Can I swear?”, she asks in an awkward and tender conversation. The young father-to-be replies to her queries with lots of dos-and-don’ts, while the girl and her mother are really open to any option: they just want to better understand what is expected from them. “Mixed marriages remain the first reason of conversions,” says Ernesto Pagano, who sees this trend as the ultimate form of rebellion from an old way of life which did not keep its promises in terms of happiness and social cohesion. As the young lady tells her mother: “It is not only a religion, it is a whole lifestyle you embrace with Islam”. Adopting a new set of rules can prove reassuring in a city which has worrying levels of crime and where the underclasses are possibly more neglected and hopeless than in any other part of Europe. When an angry young unemployed says on camera that sharia is better than the lawless way Naples has been ruled so far, the public sees how exporting Islam there was possible at all.

The Quaran via Maradona 

Even from the "bassi", the small windowless ground floor flats where many of the city’s underprivileged live, international events are not too far away. “With the Charlie Hebdo massacre they felt that they had to say something, even though for all the people I have interviewed their convertion fulfils spiritual needs and social empowerment, not political concerns”, says Pagano. He deliberately decided not to focus on the issue of foreign fighters widespread in Northern countries, but on a different, subtler topic; how Islam can appeal to an underclass with a very strong identity like the one in Naples. In some of the people interviewed the "rage against the machine" side is very visible, particularly for those coming from the extreme left: “Isis provides a sort of counterweight to what they perceive as the American imperialism. In that it almost replaces the Soviet Union."

One character was looking for a book about footballer Diego Maradona – still an object of worship in Naples – when he came across the Quran. Danilo Ali Marraffino is a gifted rapper who embraced Islam. He provides the film with much of its very captivating soundtrack, where the two cultures, the Neapolitan and the Arabic, are so intertwined that you don’t know where one starts and the other ends. But this has always been the case. The city under the Mount Vesuvius is such a powerful place that in the end, Pagano says, “It’s a film about Naples more than about Islam." 

Cristina Marconi is a freelance writer, journalist and researcher based in London. After six years in Brussels as a correspondent for Italian media, and a fellowship at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalist in Oxford, she co-wrote Reporting the EU: News, Media and the European Institutions (IB Tauris 2014) with John Lloyd of the Financial Times, and worked as the head of research on a documentary about the European Union commissioned by the BBC.

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