The Saint Movies

Even before I became a Muslim, I was never Catholic. I knew very little about Catholicism or the lives of the saints, nor was I interested. Now, I am interested.

Several years ago, I stumbled across a movie entitled, “Papa Luciani.” This movie was available on-line via http://www.rai.it/, the Italian network. It was one of a handful of Italian language movies I could watch on-line as an exercise in improving my Italian. This biography of Albino Luciani, who became Pope John Paul I, engaged my heart and mind. The acting and photography was so excellent I watched the movie repeatedly. Not only did I improve my comprehension of Italian, but I learned about a most remarkable man who continued to inspire, years after he died under mysterious circumstances in 1978 the age of sixty-five years.

After digesting this film, I discovered another film biography of a Catholic saint, this one called, “St. Giuseppe Moscati,  Doctor to the Poor”.  Moscati was a physician whose compassion and bravery made an indelible mark upon the subsequent development of medical care. Many people have never heard of this man, who was declared a saint in 1987.                   

After seeing these two films, my motives for watching them expanded. Not only was I interested in improving my Italian, but also now interested in exposing my spirit to the examples of human beings whose lives of love and sacrifice transcended religious constructs. These saints lived using Roman Catholicism as a matrix because that’s what they knew. The ultimate verity of Catholicism, Islam, or even Buddhism, for that matter, does not matter. The messages in these films transcend the incompatibility of theologies. In fact, most of these saints endured harsh criticism and even torture because they did not adhere to the decreed set of contemporary (for their day) Catholic rules.

As a Muslim, I can appreciate these saints and take lessons from them, apart from ideological dogma that drags upon all organized religions. I am not interested in leaving Islam or embracing Catholicism, but I am always interested in the lives of people who exemplify the most simple and universal of religious truths:  Love each other.

I’ve since watched other “saint” films— all extremely well done artistically and philosophically– documenting the lives of the saints. Among my favorites are:

 

Bakhita

From Slave to Saint

 

Padre Pio, Miracle Man, starring Sergio Castellito, one of Italy’s most respected actors.

 

Saint Francis

(of Assisi)

 

Saint Philip Neri, I Prefer Heaven

This one made me cry.

I

 

St. Giuseppe Moscati

Doctor to the Poor

(and one of the most handsome actors!)

 

All are available at http://www.ignatius.com and http://www.amazon.com.

If any reader happens to see one of these movies, please let me know your thoughts about what you saw.

Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

img_1441_edited-1Christ Stopped at Eboli– The Arab Connection

Italian language is a big part of my life these days. My study of it originated in Riyadh, in 1992, after I returned from my first trip to Italy, where I met distant relatives for the fist time, and felt as though I’d come home.

Back in Riyadh, I enrolled in an Italian class offered through the Italian Embassy. Our original class attracted a dozen women– an assortment of expats plus one Saudi – but by the end of the term, just six of us remained. We stayed together as a class for the next two years, studying, visiting each other’s homes, accepting invitations from the Italian Embassy,  and sharing our lives in broken Italian.

Our instructor was generous enough to bring a nice selection of books from one of her Italian trips. I ended up with an anthology of nineteenth and twentieth century Italian literature. I learned a lot from that book, but one segment, in particular, captured my attention– pages from a well-known book entitled  Christ Stopped at Eboli (Cristo si è fermato a Eboli), written by Carlo Levi, a Jew from Turin who had been exiled to southern Italy as punishment for holding anti-fascist principles. The fragments fascinated me, not only because of the poetic writing, but because certain aspects of the narrative sounded familiar, as if Levi had been writing about life in Saudi Arabia rather than the southern Italy of the 1930’s. I asked my instructor to bring me the entire book, and she did.

I persevered reading that book for three months, surrounded by two dictionaries and three grammar texts, every day, even on weekends. Not only did I learn Italian, but also some of the history of the area of my ancestors. I never knew that Arabs had colonized southern Italy way back in medieval history. Levi’s portrayal of the character and customs of the people left no doubt in my mind that Muslim Arabs had indeed spent enough time in Southern Italy to leave strong marks– genetically, culturally, and religiously.

Notable was the way in which the Italians practiced Christianity, as if Islam had been superimposed on top of it. Distinct gender roles prevailed there, as did the prohibition of mixing of the sexes. Women were  accompanied by their male relatives if they had any occasion to be in the company of other men. When moving about in public, women wore black dresses and black head scarves. Every aspect of their lives was governed by their interpretation of Christianity. These similarities testify, almost superficially, to the melding of the two cultures. The entire book weaves Italian and Arab culture, not deliberately, but as a matter of essence.

Ironically, Rome had evolved into the world seat of Christianity, but the title of the book refers to the villager’s conclusion the teachings of Jesus did not penetrate into southern Italy. The southerners  endured extreme poverty, while the rest of the country developed economically. They knew that true Christians would not have abandoned them, yet there they were, isolated and scratching the ground for survival.

My intention here is not to give a review of the book, but to draw attention to the connection of the book, and of southern Italy, to Arab and Islamic culture. Although Arab influence can be seen throughout the history of Europe, it remained distictive in southern Italy until after the 1930s. Even the people of today bear such a striking resemblance to Arabs that they could pass for each other in any country.

Anyone having an interest in both cultures will be enriched by this book.

The book can be purchased from Barnes and Noble: http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Christ-Stopped-at-Eboli/Carlo-Levi/e/9780374503161

and Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Christ-Stopped-Eboli-Story-Year/dp/0374503168

The movie version does not do justice to the book, and should not be watched as a substitute for it.

Cristo si è Fermato a Eboli was my first full length Italian book. I am now on my third! Slowly but surely, I am becoming comfortable in this language. I thank my Riyadh days for giving me a good start.

Spaghetti on Sundays

113941918.jpg  (This is an essay I wrote last year, when I learned that my father would die of his illnesses. My father died Sunday, March 9, 2008, at the age of 87, with his family surrounding his bed.  It was the saddest day of my life.)

Spaghetti on Sundays

We called it spaghetti, back then, and we ate it every Sunday for the first twenty years of my life. No one called it pasta, not even the folks from Italy, who were accustomed to differentiating between the shapes. I’m sure my Grandma called it spaghetti because that was the only shape we used on Sundays. Other days of the week called for other shapes– farfalle, rigatoni, linguine, mostaccioli, penne, rigatoni, etc.

For me, going to church meant coming home to a most wonderful aroma of tomato sauce (Grandma called it “soog”) the likes of which I’ve never smelled outside our own kitchen. The sight of my father standing at the stove, apron smeared red, stove spotted and spoon poised, meant that everything was right with the world.

As a child, I honestly believed that the reason my father did not come with us to church was that he had to nurse the sauce. First, the meat had to be browned. Then the tomato products had to be evaluated by means of his experienced nose, tongue, and the resistance of the wooden spoon as he stirred. He needed to stand by, ready to add just a pinch more fennel, basil, oregano, salt, pepper, another bay leaf or tablespoon of paste. By the time we got home , his palate was exhausted, and he’d say, “Taste the sauce!” to whoever entered first.

We kids scrambled to enter first, knowing that we’d get to  grab a spoon, lift some sauce from the steaming pot, smell it, blow off the steam, and roll it around over the tongue as the  flavor registered before announcing, “It’s perfect!”

Sometimes that wasn’t good enough for Papa. “Does it need more salt?” or “Just a little more wine?” he’d ask. Another taste was in order, and another taster.

My father is eighty-six now and still makes the sauce.  As the oldest girl, I haven’t learned how to make it yet, not from lack of opportunity but from reluctance.  To make the sauce would somehow usurp Papa’s authority, his proper position as head of the family and beloved provider.  To make the sauce would mean that someday he’d not be able to do it himself. As long as I do not know how to make the sauce, he cannot die.