A new book sheds light on migration and belonging

The region of Umbria in central Italy is known for its picturesque rolling hills and medieval villages, but for the many migrant Moroccan men who travel there, Umbria is better known for the tobacco fields, construction sites, small industries and weekly open-air markets where they work. Marginalized and far from their homes, these men turn to Moroccan traditions of music and poetry that evoke the countryside they have left behind –l-‘arubiyaor the countryside.

In The voice of the countrysideMusic professor Alessandra Ciucci examines the lives of these Moroccan workers and unfolds the way they share a particular style of music to create a sense of home and belonging in a strange, inhospitable country. Along the way, she discovers how this culture of belonging is not only the product of the migration struggle, but is also linked to the reclaiming of a masculine identity inaccessible to Moroccan migrants in Italy.

Ciucci talks about her book with Columbia Newsalong with where – and what – she likes to read, which musicians she most admires and how she plans to spend her summer vacation in Italy.

Q. How did this book come about?

A. I stumbled upon a local understanding of the countryside (l’arubiya) in music, poetry and sound through the vicissitudes of fieldwork more than ten years ago in Morocco, in preparation for my dissertation on a class of female artists (shikhat† It was there that I developed a strong interest in sung poetry and in particular two interconnected, musico-poetic genres (‘aiṭa and ‘abidat r-rma) considered the epitome of the countryside.

The rural experience re-emerged with unforeseen intensity in the compelling tropes used by migrant Moroccan workers in Umbria and beyond. I was interested in exploring the listening practices of these migrants in which the countryside unfolds during moments of conviviality in both Italy and Morocco. The farm laborers and unskilled laborers I write about in the book are not artists, and yet, if you listen carefully, music, poetry and the voice of the countryside are ubiquitous in their daily lives. By focusing on how they listen to and understand this voice, I advocate for migrants as agents acting instead of despicable workers.

As an Italian, born and raised in Rome, I am well aware of the appalling conditions and treatment of migrant workers, especially Moroccan men. I focused on men because: (1) the Moroccan migration to Italy until at least the mid-1990s had been predominantly male, and (2) a collective trauma caused by a colonial encounter between the so-called French expeditionary force and the Italian population of the end of the Second World War. This encounter had a profound impact on the stigmatization, racialization and humiliation of Moroccan migrants.

Research on migration needs to take into account the culture of origin, the circumstances of departure and the attitudes towards migrants in the host society in order to understand the lives of migrants – both musically and non-musically. For these reasons I have also chosen to focus on migrants from the same region (the Atlantic plains and plateaus of central Morocco), a rural population that is considered backward, unrefined and in turn historically denigrated in Morocco as well. Right now, the rural voice is getting significantly entangled in a construct of masculinity and what it means to be a ‘real man’.

Finally, I chose Umbria – especially the Alta Valle del Tevere – because I wanted to complicate the region’s perceived rural and idyllic green character. Rarely discussed as a major migration site, Umbria supplies about 30% of Italy’s tobacco, a national product for a multimillion-dollar industry in which the country is the largest producer in Europe. However, tobacco could not be manufactured without the work of migrants. Tobacco has played a key role in attracting Moroccan men to Umbria as this seasonal crop requires a large workforce (Moroccans make up about 70% of the migrant workers). The Umbria that I discuss in the book is very different from the touristic image of the green heart of Italy.

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