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A Smaller Mediterranean? Satellite TV Channels and the Arab Community in Italy

From land of emigrants to new Eldorado

There won't be streets lit up for the festivity. There won't be lanterns or local cakes or the traffic that precedes most iftars (meals taken at sunset to break the fast). But in Mazara del Vallo, the small Sicilian town that is now the largest Arab center in Italy, Ramadan will have the same rituals as in Rabat. Not just the fasting and the prayer, but also, thanks to the widespread availability of satellite TV channels in Arabic, the viewing habits. Moroccans, Tunisians, and Egyptians-the three most substantial Arabic-speaking groups in Italy-will watch the same musalsalat (soap operas), thus coming closer to a national reality abandoned for many months of the year in pursuit of a better life and to remit money to their families on the other side of the Mediterranean.

In brief, satellite TV performs more and more, even in Italy, the role of a bridge to the country of origin-a phenomenon already studied in other European countries where the migratory situations are not only more numerous but also more structured, like the Turkish in Germany, the Moroccans in France or the Indo-Pakistanis in Great Britain.

Italy however, unlike the other European Union countries, is a relatively new entrant to the world of immigration: a rich land, that has been offering work and hope to the so called "non-Europeans" for only a few decades, it was itself for more than a century a port of departure for emigrants to the Americas, Australia, Belgium, and Germany. In fact, it is only in the last thirty years that Italian coasts have become attractive for immigrants from all over the world, from the Far East to mid-eastern Europe, passing through the southern shores of the Mediterranean-a turning point in our times that has taken Italy onto the other side of the virtual barricade that separates countries of emigration from host countries.

This change explains the reason Italy (government, NGOs, and Civil Society) has only recently started to ponder not so much the problem of the "melting pot," which to date does not exist, but the problem of the immigrant and his possible integration inside the native social structure. Clearly, this is a "coin with two sides": on one side, there is the offer of integration by the hosting country; on the other, the push by foreign communities.

And the two sides of the coin are both parts of that integration strategy which, rightly, includes what we generically call communication: at school, culturally, in every day life, and in the mass media such as radio or television.

This introduction is essential to understand the reality of immigration in Italy, a country where no so-called transnational language, such as French or English, is spoken, but only Italian, which is widespread only among the native population and still spoken elsewhere only within emigrant communities; a useless language, therefore, outside the boundaries of the peninsula. Emigrants from Arab countries form a substantial portion but not the majority of migrants to the country, and the majority of these Arab immigrants are from North Africa, which provides 18 % of migrants to Italy, with Morocco contributing 158,000, followed by Tunisia and Egypt, each of which contribute a few tens of thousands. These figures do not include illegal immigrants, even though unlawful entry is an ever-present and increasing reality, with continual disembarkations on the southern shores.

North African immigrants are for the most part men with basic education who come to Italy without any knowledge of the language searching for low-level employment where no technical specialization is required. With time they acquire a knowledge of the language, though often the spoken language only, through personal and work contacts, improved, in the best of cases, by the attendance of basic-level language courses organized by the local authorities or immigrants' welfare associations. Arabic speakers coming to Italy to study or in search of a job requiring advanced qualifications are few.

Few Arabic immigrants establish families in Italy, by marrying in the country or by claiming what is called in bureaucratic terms "family re-unification," meaning permission for the family left behind in the country of origin to move to Italy. It follows that the Arab audience in Italy does not have a "normal" social structure. North African immigration is distinguished by a strong male presence.

Identity Travels via Satellite

The Italians are not the French. Even though there have always been cultural contacts between North Africans and Italians, few Moroccans or Egyptians have the language proficiency to read an Italian newspaper. The exception may be Metro, the first free press publication in Italy, which is given out in the subway stations of Rome and Milan and addressed to a public of which the immigrant represents a respectable percentage. A newspaper written in simple language, with brief news reports and in large part tied to the local situation, it may be read easily even by those with only a basic knowledge of Italian.

The television is again a problem, especially because TV gives little space not only to the situation of immigrants but also to multiculturalism in general. The only relevant exception is RAIMED, the RAI (Italian state) channel whose programs are dedicated to Arab issues. The target of the channel is, in fact, to build on the one hand a "two-way bridge,"-an information channel on Mediterranean cultural, economical, environmental or social issues, and the connection our country has with this reality-and, on the other, to give "voice" to the southern Mediterranean communities and institutions present in our country.

This has a precise meaning from the point of view of the RAIMED schedule. There are three hours of daily evening programming from 9 p.m. to midnight (re-run the following morning from 6 to 9 a.m.), of which the first hour is in Italian and the following two in Arabic. A first hour dedicated to reportage and magazines on Mediterranean themes, is followed by another 60 minutes to bring knowledge of Italian culture to the Arab audience, subdivided into fiction programs for teenagers, music, art, cinema, and cookery, according to a precise weekly schedule. At 10.30 p.m., the TV news is broadcast by the third RAI channel in the 7 p.m. evening edition with Arabic soundtrack. RAIMED is unique from the national news perspective, with Arabic-speaking journalists, usually with several years of residence in the country, on the editorial side. Another experiment started by the Italian public service produces programs such as the former "Mondo a colori," which dealt with immigration issues and multiculturalism and was broadcast by the second RAI channel. Donatella Della Ratta, author of Media Oriente: Modelli, strategie, tecnologie nelle nuove televisioni arabe (Formello, Ed. Seam, 2000), worked on the program for three years. "Mondo a colori" examined experiments such as the 2-minute news in Chinese which has been broadcast every Sunday evening since 1996 by a private television station out of Prato, Tuscany, where there is a major Chinese presence.

"The only significant experiment with Arabic," says Della Ratta, "was made by Euroma Mondo, the news broadcast out of Rete Oro, a TV station near Rome, where one could see a succession of multicultural newsreaders from the immigrant communities most represented in Italy. Based on Euronews (the European Union news station based in Lyons, France), Euroma Mondo was broadcast in Arabic, as well as Spanish, English, French, Polish, Greek, and even Japanese. The idea was to give a mix of local news (mainly of the surrounding Lazio region but also of Italy in general), plus news on major events happening in the newsreader's country of origin. This experiment pre-dated the satellite boom in Italy, a boom that was restrained in comparison to most other European countries, and especially in comparison with those of the Arab World or European countries such as Former Yugoslavia and Albania. Also pre-dating the large-scale spread of satellite antennae was the Arabic news that, in 1993, in Piedmont, was broadcast by another private television station, GPR TV. This was made by editing news clips transmitted by the television stations of Tunisia, Morocco, and Egypt, the three countries with the largest Arab communities in Italy.

"This type of news broadcast," explains Della Ratta, "is useless now, since the use of satellite antennas is spreading and immigrants can view the news from Arab TV stations without the need for re-broadcasting by the television network. With the spread on a large scale of satellite antennas and the easy access, in comparison to the access to the channels of one's country of origin, it doesn't make sense to have the news in Arabic. I believe that, with the ease an Arab immigrant has in accessing Al Jazeera versus Egyptian or Moroccan TV, the news in Arabic would make sense only if broadcasting local events, relevant to the town or region where the immigrant lives. From this point of view, local information, via the multitude of radio-television stations existing in Italy, could re-qualify, featuring as "ethnic information," for the immigrant communities, giving them that "local" element that a Moroccan or Egyptian national news broadcast is, and always will be, unable to provide."

The Al Jazeera Icon

It is hard to imagine that Italians would recognize the Al Jazeera logo. However this has happened, as witnessed by the fact that the head of the Al Jazeera's Cairo bureau, Hussein Abdel Ghani, was in Sharm el Sheik, a resort popular with Italian tourists, when a group of "normal" middle class tourists started chatting among themselves and pointing in recognition to the Al Jazeera logo. This was after 11 September 2001: "9-11" placed Al Jazeera firmly in the minds of European audiences. Even in Italy, Al Jazeera has ended up being a sort of information icon of the new century and, in a way, has drawn Italians closer to the many Arabs that have chosen to live there. The Al Jazeera phenomenon - "the palimpsest that frightens the emirs," to quote an article in a Italian daily newspaper by Tariq Ali-has become object of discussion, statements, and, of course, photo reportage, increasing the "aura" of the "CNN of the Arab World." Paradoxically, some observers point out, the same Italian media have advertised the existence of the Qatari network to the Arabs residing in Italy.

How much Al Jazeera is used by the Arab audience in Italy is hard to determine. And opinions on the matter are not unanimous.

According to Farid Adli, director of the financial news agency Anbamed, a phenomenon such as Al Jazeera does not greatly change the range of television options available to the Arab community living in Italy. Among those who own a satellite antenna, the preference, according to Adli, "always goes to the national channel, for a very simple reason. The reason why in Arab countries most people watch Al Jazeera is the substantial limitations on freedom of speech, reflected in the various information broadcasts of the many national Arab channels. In Italy instead," he adds, "the information sources accessible to Italian speakers are numerous and diverse, and are generally considered to provide sufficient knowledge of events. In brief, the TV news is enough, without counting all other available information from daily newspapers or television programs."

According to Adli, who has lived in Italy for many years, with a little spare time and a satellite antenna one can tune in to one's national channels, and people do so mainly to watch entertainment programs. Exceptions are situations such as 9-11 or a heightening of the Middle East crisis. "In this case Al Jazeera is watched, but," says Adli, "in a way not so different from an Italian watching CNN for the length of time necessary for his national TV to get the same recent pictures." This is precisely what happened on 11th September 2001.

"Lacking a detailed analysis of the phenomenon," says Adli, "it is mainly a matter of impressions. Feelings for which, however, I found proof, at different levels: speaking with the Moroccan laborer, the Lebanese engineer, or the Egyptian retailer." According to Adli, a TV station like Al Jazeera becomes a complementary phenomenon, adding but not substituting for Italian information or the local programs of the national Arab televisions. At the most, Al Jazeera becomes a chance to deepen or compare. Then Adli makes a distinction regarding access to the satellite and the user's educational level. "It is clear that in situations of social discomfort, in the presence of a medium to low level of education, or the impossibility to access a satellite, the problem doesn't present itself."

Some experts on the situation of Arab immigration in Italy believe that the Al Jazeera phenomenon has changed not only the way television is perceived, but even the way the audience watches.

According to Gabriele Mattioli, founder of the Italian-Arab Friends Association Assadaqah, the importance of Al Jazeera has dramatically grown in Italy since approximately one year ago, when, with its presence on the ground, it was able to follow the Afghan War. "I hear," says Mattioli, "that groups have been formed in the houses of friends having satellite antenna. And this is becoming a habit, even though it is only a year since Al Jazeera's news broadcasts started covering Afghanistan." But this special event has given rise to a real habit because, adds Mattioli, from one 'extraordinary' event others follow, and the majority of them are of concern to Arabs abroad. "I am thinking of Palestine or the winds of war in Iraq," says Mattioli. "Naturally we are talking about that segment of the population that has a certain level of education and culture, the same that usually own a television and, above all, a 'dish.' If for example Al Jazeera could be viewed in a public place," concludes Mattioli, "it would not necessarily be watched with the same frequency by a labourer or someone employed in catering, who probably prefers to relax after work with a football match, no more nor less than an Italian. It is certain that Al Jazeera has changed the habits of the Arab television audience even though it remains confined to a relatively limited environment."

Zuhair Louassini, a Moroccan on RAIMED's editorial staff, shares this opinion. In his opinion, television offers an appeal to an identity which is not vaguely pan-Arab but specifically national, an identity which expresses itself through its attachment to entertainment, and especially to Arabic soap operas and sport, football (soccer) above all. What needs to be heard, says Louassini, is the original national idiom. During normal and not exceptional times (such as 9-11 and peaks of the Israeli-Arab crisis), one needs to hear what is happening in one's own town or village. Of course some distinctions may be made: for example, offerings by the Moroccan second channel, 2M, are considered more modern and "nimble," and for this reason, according to Zuhair Louassini, are preferred by Moroccans in Italy.

Della Ratta says, "The more attractive offerings for the Arab communities abroad are those instigating an identity bond, a link with the mother country. The best example, in my opinion, is the Egyptian musalsal (soap opera), thus entertainment, an essential element in relation to the national identity of the communities of each Arab country. Also, entertainment is the real genre specific to Arab, and especially Egyptian television; the latter, as you know, is the queen of Arab mass communications. Even in the oldest and best integrated expatriate communities, such as the Arab communities of France or Great Britain, the tendency to tune in to old Arab movies or entertainment and fiction channels has been noticed. The first thing one looks for when switching on national TV is a bond with one's origins, one's roots, with something local. This contradicts the existence of a vague pan-Arab community, a global gathering following in many ways the religious Islamic ummah, the image around which the Saudis have built their large satellite networks (MBC, Orbit, ART) in Europe. It follows that the local should win out over the global."

Yet, according to Della Ratta, this is only partly true. The real difference is made by the content. To put it simply, there is a "before" and an "after" Al Jazeera with regard to the Arab audience in the diaspora and the choice of news programs. Before, the choice of entertainment and sport over news was made mainly because of the way the news was made and presented.

"The news content," explains Della Ratta, "still followed too much and too monotonously the pro-governmental Arab national palimpsest, meaning that the news did not tell what was happening but the official version of the event. This obliged Arabs in the diaspora to get information from western networks such as BBC and CNN and entertainment from their own channels, creating a personal mixture of global and local daily TV provision."

Then Al Jazeera arrived, taking the form from the western news-making model, to re-interpret it and elaborate it in a pan-Arab version. With this, everything changed.

"All the Arab immigrants that I happened to meet, from France to Italy to Holland," say Della Ratta, "watch Al Jazeera and acknowledge it as the 'Arab' information channel. Apart from the national differences between a Moroccan, a Saudi, or a Syrian, they recognise themselves in the version of the news given by Al Jazeera. I therefore believe that Al Jazeera is a pan-Arab information channel, in the true meaning of the word, and the success it has achieved among Arabs abroad and in their homelands shows that a regional feeling exists despite the considerable national differences, that, in order to unfold, must find the right contents. Al Jazeera found them and has been able to talk about something of interest to all Arabs in and outside the region, irrespective of their differences.

Students of other situations, such as North America, confirm the importance of Al Jazeera on the changes in television habits of the Arab diaspora audience. Mohammed El-Nawawy and Adel Iskandar, authors of Al Jazeera, How the Free Arab News Network Scooped the World and Changed the Middle East (Westview Press, Cambridge MA 2002), describe a situation identical to the Italian, even though Arab immigrants to the United States and Canada differ in their social origins, migratory and working trajectories, and integration from those of Moroccans or Egyptians in Italy. The authors write:

"The tension experienced by Arab audiences, Al Jazeera's advocates, and critics are part of the Arab people's experience of globalisation, migration, and emigration. Al Jazeera is a major stakeholder in such processes. The connections that bind the 300 million Arabs in 22 countries are often abstract. It's not a military alliance, a political truce, an economic cooperative, or a simple linguistic tie. It may not even be reduced to a common religion. Instead, what brings Arabs together is a notion of joint destiny." (pp.19-20)

El Nawawy and Iskandar [see in this issue The Minotaur of 'Contextual Objectivity'] touch on a feature common to all expatriate communities, not only Arabs, that bond with the national and linguistic identity of the country of origin. This is the tendency to reinforce bonds among the like (in this case expatriates and their compatriots in their own country) and to create barriers among the unlike (in this case, expatriates and hosts). Pan-Arab channels such as Al Jazeera may not only help to create a pan-Arab audience but also reduce the chances an immigrant in Italy has to integrate more fully. Thus the opportunity for an immigrant to increase his mastery of the host language may be reduced by the availability of such channels and the immigrant's consequent neglect of local channels. Acquisition of this ability through such a channel could go further than mere language knowledge and extend to sharing the daily culture of a population, albeit filtered through television. Without a satellite antenna, the Arab immigrants would have been able to see Italian entertainment instead of Arab soap operas, not in order to become Italian, but to know Italy better.

About Paola Caridi and Emanuele Giordana

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