MARCH 4, 2018
A NEW EDITION of Alessandro Spina’s The Colonial Conquest, the first volume of his monumental series of historical novels and stories collected under the banner of The Confines of the Shadow, comes at a critical and highly symbolic juncture for Italy, whose disastrous meddling in Libya has degenerated into a humanitarian catastrophe of criminal proportions. While public opinion for the most part remains conveniently oblivious to the country’s colonial past, the very presence of the Italian army in Libya drags that particular skeleton out from the closet of history in an assault on Italians’ national amnesia. Spina’s literary oeuvre is one of the few non-celebratory accounts of a chapter in Italian history that historian Angelo Del Boca, Italy’s preeminent scholar on the subject, has described as “the least known and most mystified.” As such, Spina’s masterwork is timely commentary.
Born in Benghazi to an industrialist family of Maronites from Aleppo, Basili Shafik Khouzam was a preteen when he moved to Italy with his mother at the outbreak of World War II. It was there that he started writing his first stories and adopted the nom de plume Alessandro Spina (the chances of an Arab author writing in Italian being published under his own name in 1950s Italy were, one suspects, slim). In Milan, he graduated with a degree in Italian literature by writing a dissertation on Alberto Moravia (The Conformist), who had advised him to avoid colonial subjects in his books lest he alienate Italian readers (Moravia would publish Spina’s first story in his literary journal Nuovi Argomenti). Spina became an avid punter at La Scala, where he cultivated a love of opera, a stylistic influence that permeates his writing. More of a librettist than a novelist, Spina often wrote dialogues that are erudite expatiations way too articulate and ornate for his characters’ cultural standing. Using the syntax and grammar of European high culture, Spina deconstructed its hegemonic vocabulary.
Though some of his early novels received critical acclaim — The Young Maronite was shortlisted for prestigious literary prizes such as the Strega and the Campiello — Spina had an erratic and underappreciated career in publishing. His reticence about appearing in public and distrust of journalists, as well as the deeply unpopular nature of his subject matter, contributed to a literary life confined to the shadows. It would not be until much later that writing became a full-time occupation. Upon returning to his native Benghazi in 1954, Spina ran the family textile factory until Gaddafi nationalized it in 1978. He then returned to Italy, where he dedicated himself to the written word until 2013, the year of his death. Not even the publication in 2006 of his Libyan epopee (six novels, a novella, and four short story collections) in the omnibus edition The Confines of the Shadow brought Spina much popularity, even though he was awarded the Bagutta literary prize. His name and books are not featured in any of the histories of Italian literature curated by leading publishers Garzanti, Einaudi, and Mondadori.
Spina was always outraged that Italy, a country that enshrined anti-fascism in its constitution, had such total disregard for the struggle against fascism fought by Libyans, who along with Ethiopians were the first to oppose Mussolini and his army. The Colonial Conquest, which comprises The Young Maronite, The Marriage of Omar, and The Nocturnal Visitor, starts with the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911. In the Italian edition of The Young Maronite, each chapter opens with quotes, proclamations, edicts, and articles lifted from historical documents and news clips of the time. André Naffis-Sahely, who has elegantly translated Spina’s prose for this English-language edition, decided not to include these to keep the narrative flowing. Though history remains somewhat relegated to the background, merely hinted at in peripheral passages, Spina refracts its significance through his characters’ dialogues and ascertains its implications through dramatic turns of events.
The novel begins with the titular character, a young Syrian merchant named Émile Chébas, coming ashore in Benghazi with his small cargo and being taken under the wing of Hajji Semereth, a former Ottoman functionary “playing the role of a merchant to fill the void of his days.” The Italian officer Captain Martello and his wife have recently arrived in Libya too, though for different reasons. Their lives will intersect in unexpected ways with that of Émile, his unreliable brother, his petulant uncle, and others. It is through human interaction that the author observes the cultural traits of his characters and the societal symptoms they present. Martello strives, even expects to be granted access to the recondite essence of the civilization he’s been tasked to erase. His disappointment will mirror that of his doting nemesis, Hajji, who marries a young girl that remains totally uninterested in him despite all his efforts at “winning her heart.”
When Hajji’s child bride Zulfa falls in love with one of his servants, Spina writes, “Tradition had put her in an unfair situation and now the same tradition, and its laws, were accusing her without even first listening to her expectations.” Spina deflated Orientalist tropes by painting the complexity and contradictions of culture, be it Eastern or Western, both of which he intimately knew and treasured, which is why his anti-colonialism was never of the nationalist kind. Grounded in his prose is the awareness that as long as one culture is determined to wipe out the other, there can be neither peace nor coexistence. “Going to war in Africa is like turning an entire continent into a bordello and offering her up to our young men,” says an Italian officer at one point. Yet even when faced with the horrors of colonialism, Spina accords the same dignity and depth to all of his characters. The wealth of behavioral details with which he defines them and the empathic extent to which he travels to capture their inner plight are remarkable. There are no Manichean divisions between good and evil, though the violent disparity separating the oppressed from the oppressor is never downplayed.
The way Spina understood the cultural logic of colonialism remains enlightening. In relation to his brother’s subservience toward the Italians, Émile ponders,
[N]obody should be embarrassed by the language they speak. This is not to refute the concept of cultural exchange, but to say that imitation is only a masquerade of that cultural exchange: because one party immediately declares himself the loser from the outset.
To Spina, the ethical and political corruption of colonialism often acted transversally and in overt contradiction to its edifying prescriptions. Even his officers aren’t sure of their “civilizing mission,” whose political depravity drives Martello almost mad (“[t]he captain’s complicity in the colonial venture robbed all he’d been taught and believed in of any meaning”). The colonist is defeated mentally before he’s defeated militarily: the desert that rings the colonial outpost is populated by ghosts as much as it is by rebels. In Spina’s books, in fact, the desert is a metaphysical space of psychological introspection where all certainties about European civilization and its alleged superiority turn to dust.
The impossibility of two cultures cohabitating peacefully under colonial rule is explored in The Marriage of Omar, in which Spina allegorizes Libya’s political situation within the walls of the vice governor’s house. Therein Omar, the servant, struggles to reconcile his friendship with Antonino, the vice governor’s nephew, with the influence of his cousin Sharafeddin, a fervent opponent of the Italian presence in Libya. Almost a decade after the establishment of the colony, Italy hasn’t yet managed to crush the Libyan resistance. The country is divided, with the Italian governor holding power in Benghazi and Sidi Idris al-Senussi, the future king of Libya, ruling from Ajdabiya. Caught in a quagmire of its own making, Italy softens its presence in the hope of placating the resistance, but colonialism with a human face remains a contradiction in terms. While the friendship between Omar and Antonino is genuine and disinterested, oblivious of the distance society enforces between them, structural ethnicity-based discrimination will undermine it, regardless of their intentions and feelings.
The Marriage of Omar features the appearance of Professor Bergonzi, possibly the only character Spina accords no respect whatsoever, a man whose “ignorance of the context in which he was operating was unshadowed by questions and doubts.” Bergonzi embodies all the author detested about the vast majority of Italian intellectuals’ utter indifference to the abomination of colonialism. To Bergonzi, “books were not bridges extended across different dimensions of reality […] [i]nstead, they were bricks of an edifice surrounded by an impenetrable wall inside which he could bury himself.” The anti-colonial fervor that shines through this story is never stained by ethnic resentment. It is dictated by the very premise of imperialism, which the vice governor’s wife, Rosina, impresses on her husband:
Civilization, the end goal of all the progress you preside over, is not a fixed, timeless paradigm, but is simply the expression of a powerful clique at a given moment in history […] It’s the rubble on which others will build another edifice once they’ve reconquered their freedom.
Equally reproachful is the finale of the story, in which the vice governor, now in Milan, is returning from one of those “elegant catacombs” where anti-fascist liberals convene for “their noble, scholarly and passionate discussions.” He is astonished that his friends hadn’t mentioned the murder of Omar al-Mukhtar, “the legendary leader of the twenty-year Libyan resistance to the Italian occupation,” who had been hanged by the colonial authorities only two days earlier.
Spina never missed an occasion to denounce the hypocrisy of institutional anti-fascism, most memorably in his magisterial afterword to the Italian edition of Knud Holmboe’s Desert Encounter, in which he criticizes the way in which Italian colonialism was first celebrated and then quickly and conveniently forgotten. Notable in this respect is the work of the Italian writers collective Wu Ming, which has exhumed, in its books, literary projects, and cultural militancy, the repressed history of anti-fascism in the colonies. Most recently, the collective launched a cultural construction site in the Cyrenaica neighborhood of Bologna that serves as a laboratory of historical memory, anti-racism, and solidarity designed to unearth the forgotten stories of Italian colonialism and those who fought against it around the world.
In Spina’s stories, the decision to fight against the occupier is neither heroic nor central, but it’s always ineluctable. Emblematic in this regard is the story of Sheikh Hassan, the protagonist of The Nocturnal Visitor. The sheikh loves the nighttime since “the day is a bizarre dream when irrelevant images preoccupy our attention and force us to take an active part in events, sometimes proving painful.” His withdrawn routine of peaceful nightly reading in a remote valley surrounded by sand dunes in eastern Libya is shaken when a crime is committed in his home and he becomes caught in the whirlwind of history in spite of himself.
What follows is a Hitchcockian whodunit of double-crosses and double identities in which almost no one is who he is thought to be. Just as the story reaches its fateful peak, history intrudes on the fictional scene: the fascist army is advancing and the sheikh is left with no choice but to join the resistance. He “displayed a great intellectual curiosity for anything that was different but he loathed imitation,” and so he simply refuses to follow those who surrendered to colonialism believing “civilization meant the imitation of whoever ruled the city.” With this gentle character, Spina captures the inviolable nature of anti-colonialism, how it’s an act of fundamental justice that has nothing to do with virile heroism.
To Spina, the history of Western and Eastern culture was one of obstinate collisions as well as synergic encounters, which is why there is no trace of sectarianism in his work. Quite the contrary, even their partial irreconcilability was to him a fruitful asset, a source of richness and diversity. What he couldn’t possibly share, let alone justify, was the superiority complex afflicting European societies, the violent arrogance and determination to erase cultural differences that found in colonialism their genocidal apogee. Eurocentrism has no place in his work, which shares nothing with the colonial literature of Rudyard Kipling, Paul Scott, and E. M. Forster beyond its “exotic” setting. Even Joseph Conrad, with whom Spina has been compared, never depicted the Other as anything more than an obscure force clouding the colonizers’ supposed enlightenment.
By virtue of a cosmopolitan upbringing that never identified European culture as the dominant one, Spina could write about the permeable borders of different civilizations and the shadows they cast without prejudicial constraint. In his masterful essay “The Intellectual Hospitality,” Spina retraces the emotional history and generous porosity of the East in asymmetrical relation to the connate provincialism of the West. As Ursula Lindsey wrote in a 2015 piece for The Nation, “he liked to shock his Italian friends by telling them that he had ‘un-provincialized’ himself by moving from Milan to Benghazi.”
Spina never declaimed the nobility and profound humanism of his anti-colonial convictions, but they found their way onto the page with a discreet yet penetrating grace. Knowing both the colonizer and the colonized helped him frame the peculiar dynamics of Italian colonialism with unparalleled insight. “While a truly great nation only needs to make a show of strength, a second-rate power is forced to actually employ it,” he noted in reference to the particularly violent, even for colonial standards, Italian occupation of Libya (which resulted in the extermination of a third of the Libyan population and the internment of tens of thousands).
A Christian who always praised the tolerance and respect Muslims showed his religion, Spina saw his temperate voice go virtually unheard in the barbaric debate Italian mainstream media specialize in. Especially now that the toxic waste of fascism has resurfaced in Italian politics and society, one wishes even a fraction of Spina’s sensible equanimity could somehow find its way into the national discourse. With a country having just terminated an electoral campaign unworthy of a developed democracy — marked as it was by racist episodes of unprecedented gravity — his books remain an invaluable source for those interested in tracing the resurgent scourge’s roots.