Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 9, No. 3, 2010
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Robert J. Lewis
  Senior Editor
Mark Goldfarb
  Contributing Editors
Bernard Dubé
Sylvain Richard
Nancy Snipper
David Solway
Marissa Consiglieri de Chackal
  Music Editors
Diane Gordon
Serge Gamache
  Arts Editor
Lydia Schrufer
Mady Bourdage
Marcel Dubois
Emanuel Pordes
  Past Contributors
  Noam Chomsky
Mark Kingwell
David Solway
Naomi Klein
Arundhati Roy
Evelyn Lau
Stephen Lewis
Robert Fisk
Margaret Somverville
Michael Moore
Julius Grey
Irshad Manji
Richard Rodriguez
Pico Iyer
Edward Said
Jean Baudrillard
Bill Moyers
Barbara Ehrenreich
Leon Wieseltier
Nayan Chanda
Charles Lewis
John Lavery
Tariq Ali
Michael Albert
Rochelle Gurstein
Alex Waterhouse-Hayward




Ilaria Maria Sala is a writer based in Hong Kong.


No matter where one goes in the world, a trace of Italy – pizza parlors, high-fashion, the aroma of espresso and cappuccino – is never far. From San Francisco to Tokyo, aesthetic models introduced by the Renaissance still influence much of global urbanism and architecture. From its ancient past is revealed what created modern Italy in the now international Roman script, when imperial Rome was the most cosmopolitan place in the world. Counted among innovations from ancient Rome that spread rapidly around the world are aqueducts, fast-curing cement, umbrellas and scissors.

Today, though, Italy seems to fear the fierce energy and exchange of ideas that characterized its old cosmopolitan self, barricading itself, like a protective charm, behind its traditions. Amidst growing antipathy towards immigrants and foreigners, ethnic food, language and attire have emerged as handy targets for politicians professing to defend Italy’s traditional way of life.

Part of Italy’s population, nervous over globalization, keeps electing into power a political class that often shows an anachronistic inclination for trying to block incoming cultural influences, lest they permanently change a familiar landscape. Many voters belong to either the right-wing party called the Northern League, which advocates splitting the country into a confederation of semi-autonomous states along the lines of present-day Italian regions, or Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s the People of Liberty party.

Not that the national government is too hands-on, leaving the matter mostly to the more parochial city governments. The latter have become unstoppable in their zealous churning out of laws and ordinances that have chosen food as the terrain of greatest danger for Italian identity.

The Roman Empire built its culinary tradition on imported black pepper from India, and modern Italian cuisine cannot be conceived without tomatoes introduced from the New World. But in January last year an Italian city – Lucca in Tuscany – shot to global prominence with a bizarre form of food protectionism. The municipal government announced a ban on kebab shops opening inside the city walls, the area of town commonly referred to as the historical center (citta vecchio). After a vigorous debate (the Italian’s hunger for debate remains unmatched), the motion passed with a large majority.

The rationale for such an unusual measure was “to protect [our] culinary tradition and the architectural, structural, cultural, historic and decorative characteristics” from “food and beverage establishments whose activity could be sourced to other ethnic groups.”

In subsequent elucidations on the measure, kebab shops and Chinese fast-food outlets were singled out as prime spoilers of the city’s ancient beauty. The ban became the talk of the country: As the media covered every angle of the groundbreaking decision and its consequences, Facebook groups rapidly formed, both for and against kebab shops in ancient towns. People updated their profiles, either exhorting friends to go and eat a kebab, preferably downtown, or praising the protection of true ‘Italianity’ against interlopers. Soon, other municipalities followed Lucca’s lead, prompting an anti-kebab backlash from Rome to Venice and Milan to Pisa.

But that was not the end of it. In April of this year, the city of Florence decided that it, too, would no longer grant permits for “cheap eateries” to open in the areas of town best known for their artistic beauty. Another alien cuisine came under municipalities’ watchful eye: curries. With these too deemed threatening to Italian culture, Indian restaurants face hurdles in gaining licenses to open in city centers.

This attack against the corrupting influence of exotic gastronomy is not limited to what can be easily purchased from restaurants and shops. Less than two years ago, Mayor Gianni Alemanno of Rome announced that public preschools and primary schools could no longer be allowed to serve couscous or Chinese fried rice, which had to be substituted with “regional cuisine dishes.”

Some called it “gastronomic patriotism,” and while the majority of the press scorned the measure, the most conservative municipalities in Italy hurried to adopt the ban for themselves. The latest version comes from the northern city of Cremona, where administrators announced this April that the daily 3,600 meals served by public schools to young children would no longer include couscous, substituting local dishes like polenta -- made out of corn, an import from the Americas (not that the gastro-patriots seem to mind), – or pasta, the origins of which, though disputed, could be in ancient Persia or China, and some of which today is made with imported wheat.

Increasing cultural disquiet has delivered electoral success to a growing number of populists, who spew forth outlandish ideas on how to protect the identities of Italian cities. The zealots no longer limit themselves to “gastro patriotism,” but frown on classrooms with more than 30 percent non-Italian students, and shop signs in languages not from the European Union.

Posting shop signs without an Italian translation is already a finable offence, with penalties ranging from €25 to €500, but in the latest round of parliamentary discussions on regulating shops and commerce, a parliament member belonging to the Northern League proposed a law that would limit shop signs to Italian, EU languages or local Italian dialects. Discussion centered on Chinese, Arabic, Urdu and Albanian shops, suggesting the signs violated the character of Italian streetscapes. Since defeated in parliament, Silvana Comaroli has vowed to take the proposal to the individual municipalities, which under Italian law can decide locally on matters of this nature.

The Italian parliament is also mulling over ban on wearing the full Islamic veil in public, similar to the controversial measure adopted in France. Other recent points of conflict range from opposition to construction of mosques, to the requirement of a crucifix in every classroom and hospital ward, even though Italy does not have an official religion. On the crucifix mandate, Italy has already been reprimanded once by the European Court in Strasbourg, which will rule on Italy’s appeal on the matter in June.

Italy prepares to celebrate its 150th anniversary of reunification next year. But the nation, long a country of emigrants, has still not accustomed itself to its modern role as a wealthy nation, capable of attracting hundreds of thousands of badly needed immigrant workers. Already, more than 5 million recent immigrants – the greatest numbers coming from Romania, Albania, Morocco and China – call Italy home. Struggling to adjust to this change and fearful about losing what’s already a shaky sense of identity, some Italians have gone from grumbling about McDonalds in city centers, sulkily accepted in recent decades, to legislating against kebab shops and couscous in school canteens. Globalization unexpectedly means more than Americanization.

But lest voters forget, this agonizing over newly arrived ethnic food versus traditional cuisine remains a distraction from Italy’s most pressing issue: its struggling, indebted economy. High blue-collar unemployment goes hand in hand with a dearth of local workers willing to accept work as hospital nurses, domestic help and other posts, while a burdensome bureaucracy and an excessively regulated labor market severely limit economic dynamism. Unable to address some of the more structural flaws of its system, Italy adopts controversial anti-foreign measures in a futile attempt to prevent change and assuage its own anxiety.

Related articles:
Tolerance Misplaced
Situating Honorcide
Letter to a Muslim - Tariq Ali
Virus of Immigrantitis
Female Genital Mutilation
Phyllis Chesler: Secular Islam on the Rise
Ayaan Hirsi Ali Interview

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