Friendship Against All Odds
On the outskirts of Milan, a course was proposed for Muslim women who have been in Italy for some years. This grew to include trips, readings from literature, and visits to the theater. It’s the beginning of a mutual esteem

by Giorgio Paolucci

“We have been in Italy for ten years, but we know almost nothing about this country and its history. Will you help us to get to know it?” The request, a rather surprising one, came two years ago from a group of Egyptian women who live with their families at Ponte Lambro, in the southeast suburbs of Milan, an area with a high concentration of Arab and Latin American immigrants. Laura, a social worker in the St. Vincent de Paul Social Center who works in the area, spoke with some friends; after a few weeks they came up with the idea of a course in Italian culture for Arab women. Above all, though, a friendship was born amongst the animators and the “students,” a friendship in which each one got personally involved with her own tradition. No discussions on the lowest common denominators, no ambiguous invocations of the common God of Abraham, but a sincere, serious, and, at times, stormy confrontation on each other’s human needs and on the answers to give to the questions reality poses, including those (painful, but unavoidable) like terrorism and violence in the name of God.
But let’s takes things in order. The course was called “The Roots of Western Tradition” –a journey through history, synthetic and elementary, based on an itinerary prepared by Silvia, who teaches history and philosophy in high school–which pointed out the contributions of the Greek and Roman civilizations and of the Judeo-Christian tradition, in the realms of–the value of the person, of work and of time; democracy and freedom; and respect for others. The Egyptian women listened, then told what they had learned in school in Cairo, of the Arab Islamic tradition. During the year, we organized some trips to see some meaningful places, like the Chiaravalle Abbey, an opportunity for “immersion” in the Middle Ages and for meeting contemporary monasticism, a form of life still followed; the birthplace of St. Frances Cabrini, Sant Angelo Lodigiano, a point of reference for so many Italians who emigrated in the last century; Bolognini castle, which hosts the museum of agriculture and bread. This year, we read together Saint Exupéry’s book, The Little Prince. This gave us the chance to look at the value of friendship and to discover that “the essential is invisible to the eyes.” Then we visited the Brera Art Gallery and the AVSI exhibition on the Brazilian favelas. A visit to the theater to see Bereshit–Children of the Same Father, brought to Italy by the Israeli Rainbow theater company led by Angelica Calò Livné, struck the hearts of the Egyptian women. At the end of the performance, one of them, Akita, said, “I always hated the Israelis. I never thought I would be able to look a Jew in the eye, or shake his hand. Here, I found people who desire what I desire. Forgive me.” And the evening closed with the Jewess, Angelica, and the Muslim, Akita, locked in a stirring embrace.
As time went by in Ponte Lambro, embarrassment and indifference gave way to a web of relationships based on mutual esteem; friendships were born that opened doors that no Italian had ever entered; ethnic dinners were organized and greetings exchanged for Christmas and Ramadan; and when Aziza lost her daughter in a car accident, even the pain became an occasion for walking a stretch of road together and for talking about the meaning of death.
Last year, some Egyptian women took part in the national Collection for the Food Bank, and amidst the stares of amazement of passers by, had the experience of charitable work. This year, we will begin by reading two stories by Arab women published in a collection by Valentina Colombo. In Ponte Lambro, no conferences are held on multicultural society and on Islamic-Christian dialogue, but certainly a piece of a new world is growing, based on the sharing of needs and the flesh of a friendship.