Interview with Professor Raimondo Fassa
Edited by Ilaria Taddeo, Margherita Marziali and Annarita Guidi
Our ‘Lettori per l’italiano’ column continues with the Italian language Lecteurship at the University of Manouba in Tunis.
Raimondo Fassa is a tenured professor of Italian and History in high schools and contract professor of Public Policies of the European Union at ASERI (Alta Scuola di Economia e Relazioni Internazionali – Graduate School for Economics and International Relations) of the Catholic University. He has been the Italian Lecturer at the Manouba Campus in Tunis since 2015 and has been carrying out extra-academic duties for the Italian Cultural Institute since 2018.
Looking at the most recent data on the diffusion of Italian in Tunisia, language lecturers play an essential role for the promotion of our language in the country, in the face of the central positions of Arabic and French and competition from other foreign languages. What is the demographic profile of the Italian courses, in light of this particular learning environment?
In terms of those who make use of Italian courses, a prefatory remark must be made concerning the general structure of education here. After finishing secondary school, students who want to enrol in university are asked to rank their preferred choices in order. The most sought-after departments are those that open up the most promising employment opportunities, which are therefore the technical and scientific ones (for example, medicine, engineering, computer science and economics). The humanities are, so to speak, at the bottom of the ranking. But this assignment to university courses by the state is based on the score obtained at what for us is the Maturità (upper secondary school graduation examination). As a result, students enrolling in foreign languages are generally not the most gifted. This is not good, as the general standard of studies in the humanities tends to get lower and lower.
There is also at least one other critical factor, which is also linked to the Tunisian school system. Since in 1987 (that is, during the early years of Ben Ali’s regime), the study of history in secondary schools has essentially been excluding the ancient world. Both of these considerations assume particular significance at the Manouba Campus (the university to which I was assigned as language lecturer), which, in terms of the study of Italian, is profoundly different from other universities in the country. Manouba is in fact the only university that offers a complete Italian course, including the License (three years, corresponding to our Bachelor’s Degree), the Master (two years, corresponding to our Master’s Degree) and the Doctorat (corresponding to our Doctorate). Moreover, Manouba is the only university to give Italian studies a specifically humanistic slant: the curriculum also includes courses in Italian literature, medieval, modern and contemporary history, history of language, linguistics and philology. The country’s other universities only offer Licence courses, with a more ‘practical’ orientation, mainly in technical and commercial fields.
Are the motivations for students to enrol therefore of a ‘residual’ nature?
As far as Italian is concerned (I don’t know about the situation with other languages), I would say no. Every time I have asked, ‘Why, out of so many foreign languages, did you choose Italian?’, the answer has always been: ‘because Italian is a musical language’. And when I tried to get further clarification on the meaning of the term ‘musical’, I was answered (by some students) with near synonyms, such as ‘melodious’ or ‘harmonious’. But the ‘real’ answer must be sought at a deeper level, which can only be arrived at through more private discussions. The love Tunisians have for Italian is the result of a genuine fascination that Italy exerts on them. For many of us Italians (who are always a little too willing to be self-deprecating) this might seem incomprehensible. But for my students, Italy is a sort of ‘country of innocence’, full of art, beauty, harmony and – why not? – wealth, which is something that they would like to be a part of. And this only reflects the ‘general attitude’ of average Tunisians, who, for example, when our national team plays against any other team in the world, always cheer for us. After all, many of them know our language, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, because they learned it on television! The first transmissions broadcast in Tunisia in the early sixties were in fact those of our RAI… In short, everyone here seems to consider us Italians as… Tunisians who made it! For them, Italy is a sort of ‘promised land’, to which many aspire, but which only welcomes a few. In the six years that I have been here in Tunis, only four students (as far as I know) have managed to ‘expatriate’, having been awarded scholarships that have enabled or will enable them to obtain a Master’s Degree from universities in our country. There are many difficulties, mainly of an administrative and economic nature.
Turning to teaching, what is the usual format of a lesson in your courses?
It has to be said that the style of teaching here – and consequently the relationship between teachers and students – is different from the Italian one. This is the impression I got of it, at least. The students seem to have a real ‘reverence’ for the professor. They listen in silence, seldom ask questions, and hardly ever intervene. In order to get them to talk, they have to be encouraged repeatedly, and generally (after much hesitation) you get little more than monosyllabic responses. It almost seems as if they are looking for the ‘correct’ response, meaning ‘what the professor expects them to say’. Only those who do not enjoy teaching or who have no experience with it would consider this an optimal situation. This attitude makes it difficult to establish a true relationship between teaching and learning. All the more so since we are at university: a place where one should acquire not only knowledge, but also the capacity for discussion and a critical sensibility. However, I have found that other types of students – those from music, drama and art schools and even Italian schools with a more ‘technical’ orientation – had a more participatory and hands-on attitude. So I believe that there are reasons more specifically attributable to Manouba, due both to its geographical location and to the social composition of its student body. Manouba is a campus located far from the centre of Tunis. This means that most of my students (especially since they are mostly female) rarely ever go to Tunis. Most of them have never visited the Bardo Museum, have never been to the theatre and rarely go to the cinema. It is clear, however, that students who have little experience of extracurricular life, precisely in the years in which their education should be consolidated, are unlikely to develop that attitude towards debate and that critical sensibility which, in my humble but steadfast opinion, should constitute the very essence of university life. It is true that students from all over the country come to Manouba. And therein lies the second reason for the difficulties in getting them involved in dialogue. In Tunisia, studying at a state university costs very little. It is clear that the public system is aimed at students whose families are in financial difficulties, and who enrol in university in search of social mobility. In Tunisia there is also considerable economic disparity between the eastern coastal strip (a strip of land about twenty kilometres wide from the sea and stretching from Bizerte to Sfax and passing through Tunis), which tends to be richer, and the inland and southern areas, which are much less developed. At least two thirds of my students come from the latter. One of them, who comes from there, confided in me one day that his parents cannot read or write…
Regarding on how lessons work, it depends on whether they are on spoken Italian or a different subject. For teaching spoken Italian, I divide the lesson into two parts. In the first part, I make them watch and listen to a traditional Italian song on the video projector. The songs are chosen so as to build up a sort of mini-history of Italy from the economic boom to today. In short, it goes from Modugno to Bennato! Immediately afterwards I give them the lyrics, which we then read and discuss together. Then I play the song again and (if there is time and there are not too many who are unwilling) we sing it together. The second part of the lesson, on the other hand, consists of watching a few minutes of an episode of a sitcom especially created for teaching Italian, dedicated to a specific grammatical topic. Students are then invited to have a conversation with each other based on the situation. The case of the other disciplines is different (in fact in recent years I have also been occasionally entrusted with courses in history, the history of Italian art and, taking advantage of the fact that I also have a degree in Law, Law understood as a form of non-literary language). In fact, here it is first of all a matter of transmitting certain fundamental concepts which the students lack. It may sound strange, but it is necessary to explain, for example, how chronology is calculated, what the basic historical epochs are, in which era the Roman Empire took place and how the scale of a map is calculated. As far as possible, I try to convey this knowledge as I go about explaining a specific topic. At the same time, I try to point out bibliographic information, especially material that can be found on the Internet, which I often print off for them.
Another problem encountered here in Tunisia is the limited availability of books in Italian. The only foreign publishers present in Tunis (and in large numbers) are French, and our ‘Sala Italia’ (although expanded in recent years thanks to the help of our Embassy) does not always have the right texts. It is clear that, in such a situation, the classical lecture from the front of the class – even if accompanied by a discussion at the end (when it can be instigated) – is the only realistic solution.
You are a language lecturer with extra-academic responsibilities. What are the main collaborations you have been a part of and are currently engaged in for the purpose of promoting Italian language and culture?
The extra-academic responsibilities were entrusted to me when I had been here for almost three years, i.e., starting from September 2018, and up to now they have always been renewed from year to year. When I took up the post, I discussed the initiatives to which I would be able to contribute with the Director of the Italian Cultural Institute of Tunis, Maria Vittoria Longhi, bearing in mind my commitments at the university. First of all, I was in charge of liaising with Italian professors from the other universities and teaching institutes present in the area, getting to know their projects and responding to their requests for collaboration. Another task was to assist the Director in monitoring the activities of EUNIC, the pool of EU cultural agencies in Tunis. Its tasks also include guiding and supervising TFANEN. The latter is an important EU programme to promote culture in Tunisia, including and especially its economic and social implications. A third assignment was the Caffè letterari (Literary Cafes), which was perhaps the one that gave me the greatest satisfaction and that has had the greatest impact. Director Longhi had recognized for some time the need to communicate the various aspects of Italian culture in an immediate and direct manner, including going beyond the numerous official engagements in which the Institute is involved. It is necessary to take into account the fact that here – in addition to the many Tunisians who, as I said, are ‘in love’ with all things Italian – there are also many Italians (especially in Tunis, La Marsa and Hammamet, which is not very far away), most of whom are retired. They will willingly take part in meetings on Italian culture, as long as these are, so to speak, ‘light’, that is, enjoyable, non-academic (indeed, deliberately ‘anti-academic’), and accessible to those who do not have a specific background in the subject at hand. The first series of meetings took place at the Institute in the first half of 2019. The initiative was quite successful (in part thanks to the advances made on the Tunisian National Radio in its broadcasts in Italian), and so we decided to present it again in 2020, for which it was agreed that I would give five more lectures.
We imagine that the coordination with the IIC was also fundamental for the organization of the initiatives linked to the celebration of the 700th anniversary of Dante’s death…
Of course! In fact, significant part of the activities related to Dante’s seventh centenary involved producing videos – partly in respond to the restrictions imposed by the pandemic – the themes of which were agreed upon with Director Longhi: Dante, chi sei? “Uno di noi” o un’“icona pop”? (Dante, who are you?
‘One of us’ or a ‘pop icon’? – a journey through Dante’s portraits from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century), I mille volti di Dante (The Thousand Faces of Dante – a continuation of that journey from the sixteenth century to the present day), the video review of Raffaele Campanella’s book, Leggere Dante: come e perché (Reading Dante: How and Why), the video review of Dante by Alessandro Barbero and Dante e il suo “doppio”, Pier Delle Vigne (Dante and his ‘Double’, Pier Delle Vigne – a reading with commentary of Canto XIII of the Inferno). All of them got a good number of views, so much so that another video has just been released, consisting of my reading with commentary on the episode of Paolo and Francesca, in Canto V of the Inferno.
The greatest effort, however, was the research and the script for the docufilm Virgilio, “duca” di Dante (Virgil: Dante’s ‘Guide’), which was produced by the Institute, in association with the Corriere della Sera, for the ‘three days’ of ‘Dantedì’: twelve Italian Cultural Institutes (including the Tunis Institute) were invited for that occasion to make as many videos, focusing on the reception and presence of Dante in the country in which they operate. Virgil, who guides Dante into Hell and Purgatory, was in our view the perfect figure, both because of the famous Bardo mosaic and because of the nearby ruins of Carthage, where Dido’s unhappy love for Aeneas recounted in Book IV of the Aeneid takes place and is consummated. Still in the context of the Dante celebrations, I was involved in the organization of the Conference on Dante held in Tunis in the autumn, on the occasion of the Week of the Italian Language in the World, which had the theme ‘Dante, the Italian’. I am happy to list all these jobs, because I was really enthusiastic about doing them. It is really great to work to help spread Italian culture!
Can you take stock of this experience, also bearing in mind the impact of the pandemic on educational activities and language and cultural promotion?
The Covid emergency did not stop us; on the contrary, the Institute increased its activity online. Here I will limit myself to talking about the initiatives in which I participated, but there are many more, all of which can be seen on our Facebook page. Initially (given my total lack of experience in the sector) I ‘hand-crafted’ a series of short video presentations dedicated to moments and problems of our culture (recording them on my mobile phone with the help of the very capable secretary Myriam Mouroux), which were collected under the title of Pillole di cultura italiana (Pills of Italian Culture). This consisted of eleven small videos of a few minutes each: seven on Michelangelo the poet , one on Self-portraits of Poets (Alfieri, Foscolo and Manzoni), a reading of Leopardi’s ‘L’Infinito’, a reading of ‘Risotto alla milanese’ by Carlo Emilio Gadda and of ‘Come si appronta un pranzo’ (How to Prepare a Lunch – from La Cometa by Riccardo Bacchelli), which were commented upon favourably by the public and the local press. Then we became more ‘experienced’, and were able to start producing longer and more structured videos, which can easily be found, like the earlier attempts, on YouTube: Corto Maltese, quasi una biografia (‘Corto Maltese, Almost a Biography’ – on the occasion of the 20th Week of the Italian Language in the World, which focused on comics), Fame e fame. Il cibo nella pittura italiana – Omaggio a Philippe Daverio (Hunger and Famine: Food in Italian Painting – Homage to Philippe Daverio) on the occasion of the Week of Italian Cuisine in the World.
On the whole, I am extremely satisfied with the experience. In fact, I regret not having done it sooner. I have always had a great passion for teaching, which I have also combined with other life experiences. I think it is clear that I am a curious person who hungers for knowledge. In this respect, Tunis is my ideal city, and I have grown so fond of it that I have chosen to live in an Arab house in the heart of the Kasbah district. I attend all possible cultural events and, in my free time, I also happen to collaborate in cultural meetings promoted by the local Archbishopric. I have also had a great fortune: that of finding in Director Longhi someone who understood me and who knew how to make the most of me within the cultural framework of the Institute.