Evident in its cuisine, places of worship, language and culture, this Italian island boasts Arab DNA
By Stefania D’Ignoti in Catania, for Middle East Eye
On a late summer evening in the Sicilian seaside village of San Vito Lo Capo, Anna Graziano plumps up cushions in a corner of her family’s restaurant, Tha’am, meaning “couscous” in Algerian dialect.
She lays down pale-blue, macrame-style knotted tablecloths as they prepare to open up to evening diners. “Everything needs to be perfect for our guests,” she tells MEE, with a welcoming smile.
The steam rising from the terracotta tajines fills the air, wafting all the way out into the street. It’s Friday night, and a belly dancer wearing a purple and golden costume dances to the rhythm of live Arabic music, to entertain guests. Silver lanterns on tables and cosy sofas decorate the main entrance, where customers can enjoy their choice of flavoured shisha.
A waitress carries a few appetisers elegantly presented in ceramic bowls to a table of tourists from northern Italy. Elettra Arban and her two friends from Milan dip into their hummus and babaganoush, then take a sip of Tha’am’s signature tea with mint and pine nuts.
“It really feels like you’re in an Arab country, but then you realise you haven’t actually left Italy. It’s special,” Arban, an Italian tourist from Milan, says, taking a selfie with her friends to post on Instagram.
Even with the coronavirus pandemic slowing business, summer has been busy at Tha’am, the oldest and most famous Arab restaurant of San Vito lo Capo.
The numbers signal an immigration trend built on Sicily’s history, which has been a melting pot of cultures for centuries
Graziano’s grandparents, who were Sicilians born and raised in Tunisia, opened this restaurant in the early 1990s. At that time, it was the only Arab restaurant for miles, Graziano says. But today there are dozens scattered along this stretch of Sicily’s coast, and hundreds throughout the island.
This village mirrors the overall demographics of Sicily, Italy’s southernmost island, where about five percent of the total population are immigrants. Around 22,000 of Sicily’s 200,000 immigrant population are Tunisians and 16,000 Moroccans, making North Africans the second-largest immigrant group.