Caserta is a city in the Campania region known mainly for three things: its royal palace built by Carlos III of Spain; buffalo mozzarella, White gold of the region, and for being the homeland of the Casalesi, one of the most powerful mafia clans in southern Italy. In the annual ranking of the most livable cities compiled by Il Sole 24 Ore, one of Italy’s national newspapers, based on indicators such as wealth, consumption, business, work, justice and health, Caserta ranks ranks 100th out of the country’s 107 provinces.
In ancient times it was part of Campania Felix, a rich and fertile region straddling Campania and two other Italian regions, Lazio and Molise, but today it is a depressed industrial place of exploitation and unemployment. In the caserta municipality of Castel Volturno, on September 18, 2008, the Camorra killed six African migrants, victims of a dispute between clans. But it is also an area in which the Nigerian mafia, the infamous Black Axe, has been fully implicated, making deals with local criminal groups to share drug trafficking and the exploitation of prostitution.
According to this description, it looks like Caserta is the gate to hell. But to paint it that way is unfair, because behind what is being said there is also a civil society, a healthy body of citizens and local administrators who work together to get things done, and many honest inhabitants who work every day to improve the situation. It is precisely here that a particular community is established for which the words integration and sharing acquire a deep meaning.
In the middle of industrial buildings and agricultural fields, near the motorway interchange, is the most important brotherhood of Senegalese Muridis in central and southern Italy. This is the Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba Mbacké Touba association of San Nicola la Strada, a suburban town of around 20,000 inhabitants, near Caserta.
muridism (muridiyya in Arabic) is one of the most widespread Sufi Islamic brotherhoods. In Senegal, it brings together more than a third of the population, mainly of the Wolof ethnic group, and in Italy, it is the largest congregation represented in the country. And here, in San Nicola la Strada, it is an established and recognized presence. Murid means disciple, one who aspires to the path of initiation to follow Sufism, the path of the heart. Today, at the headquarters of the brotherhood, dozens of people are waiting to receive parcels of food and basic necessities intended for families and those most in need. Many of them are Italian.
“For us, the word ‘sharing’ is the foundation of our community. From a cultural point of view, the term solidarity is part of the nature of our people, and wherever we go, we put it into practice. By sharing, a person learns and teaches many things. Here we distribute food to those in need. At first, only Senegalese and foreigners came, but now, as you can see, it’s open to everyone,” explains Moussa Diallo, intercultural mediator. The items, provided by the Catholic charity Bank of Caserta, are distributed once a month.
“With covid-19, the percentage of people who need help has visibly increased. This pandemic has had consequences. The first is that there are more people who don’t work and yet have to bring food home. Without work, a person cannot ensure that his family has food on the table. The positive side, to find it, is that it stimulates our human aspect, that of solidarity, which should exist whatever the health crisis. Sharing what we have is a necessity, not an option. We all need help.” Moussa Diallo came to Italy from Dakar 12 years ago. At the time, aid to migrants was left in the hands of individuals or associations, and he never was not easy to identify with the institutions.
“I am a man who left his country hoping to find something better. Here, in Italy, I went through many difficulties, like so many others who arrive without any landmarks. However, the survival instinct I acquired in my home country kept me going. Going to school and learning Italian was the first step towards integration. In this society, I found many open arms, and on the contrary, others who reject you”, says Diallo.
The founder of the Muridi brotherhood was Cheikh Ahmadou Bamba, a mythical character and founding element of Senegalese identity and peaceful resistance to French colonialism at the end of the 19th century. In 1895, Bamba was arrested by the French administration and deported to Gabon for seven years, from 1895 to 1902.
The congregation rests on three pillars: love, work and knowledge. “As our spiritual leader said, our doctrine is to work as if we were never going to die and to pray as if it were the last day of our lives. For us, this means that work and prayer must always go hand in hand, in this lies the dignity of the human being. This is how we, Muridis, live Sufism. We are human beings like everyone else, but we want to be as close to God as possible. If I have to compare Sufism to something, I imagine two roads: one is a national road and the other is a highway. In the first, you pay nothing, but it takes longer to reach the destination. On the other hand, on the highway you pay, but it’s faster. Sufism is a highway to God”, illustrates Assane Ouad, president of the association.
As he speaks, one of his brothers pours tuba coffee into a cup. It is a spicy, particular and strong coffee. “We use it to stay awake during prayer and chanting sessions, which can last all night long,” he explains. The structure that houses the congregation is a building that was purchased for approximately 300,000 euros. “Here in Campania we bring together about 1,500 people and soon we will renovate this site because we want to use part of it as a hostel for those who need a bed and for guests, and we also want to create an open library Most of our members sell in the market, but there are also brothers who work in the fields.
Malik Diaw, psychologist and trade unionist, knows well the working-class reality of this forgotten corner of southern Italy. Diaw is the spiritual assistant of Serigne Mame Mor Mbacké, the highest religious position in the Senegalese Muridi Islamic community, and also the coordinator of the Muridi brotherhoods in Europe. “I came to Italy in 1989 to study psychology at the University of Naples. I started as a volunteer in drug treatment centers. I was the first to bring my whole family here, which was not well regarded at the time, even in our community. Now I have been working for several years in the foreign office of a trade union, the General Labor Union (UGL, for its acronym in Italian),” he says.
And he continues: “Throughout the south, but especially in Campania, there are circumstances that make it difficult for immigrants to be autonomous, to have self-esteem and to organize themselves. My brothers who work in the fields have to face forced labor and exploitation, even by their own compatriots, which is the greatest tragedy, and what we are trying to fight with other local rights movements. It is a very complicated area, we know, but through the institutions we also try to act in areas that were previously impossible to penetrate, by promoting initiatives through schools, for example”.
As he speaks, Malik continually shakes the beads of his Misbaha, the prayer instrument similar to the Christian rosary. The muezzin calls for Friday prayers. “Sufism is the mystical act of Islam, it is exclusion from the outside world. It is an interior life that one tries to cultivate in oneself and to transmit not only with words, but also by demonstrating the inner faith that one lives. To become a Sufi means that there is nothing but God. I hope to be. Work comes first for us, we have to live it, feel it and be satisfied with it, because for us, the Muridis, the satisfaction of living can only be brought by work”.
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