“The story of humankind is a story of movement and dissemination between cultures. In the 8th century, the Moors crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and within a few years had occupied almost all of the Iberian Peninsula. This was followed by eight centuries of coexistence and mutual exchange between orient and occident. As Christians and Jews were viewed as “people of scripture”, they were awarded the status of dhimmis: protected people whose religious practice was respected. Consequently, they were able to work together on new transcriptions of ancient texts that Muslim scholars had translated into Arabic, a task made easier by the paper production techniques Islamic culture had introduced to the Western world. As a result, Europe (re)discovered many ancient treatises on philosophy, medicine and mathematics that otherwise would have been lost. How can it be that despite this long, lively and fruitful exchange, the disappearance of over 17,000 refugees in the Mediterranean Sea since 2014 (according to the IOM) has left behind just one image and one name: Aylan, the young Syrian boy found dead on a beach in Turkey. The others, the thousands of others, are just anonymous black and orange shadows drifting between the waves. While exploring the magnificent city of Florence during an artist residency at Villa Romana in 2018, I couldn’t get the story of the diplomat and explorer Al-Hasan al-Wazzan, known as Leo Africanus, out of my head. He was born in around 1494 in the city of Granada and fled to Morocco with his parents after the Reconquista. In 1518, on his return from a pilgrimage to Mecca, he was kidnapped by Sicilian corsairs in the Mediterranean Sea and was presented to Pope Leo X, who was residing in Florence. Pope Leo X baptised him (a second time) and gave him the name Johannes Leo von Medici. During his time in Italy, under the byname Leo Africanus, he studied Italian and Latin and taught Arabic in Bologna. At the pope’s behest, he wrote his famous Cosmographia de l’Affrica, the first book about the geography of Africa to be published in the Western world, one that served as a reference to explorers in this region of the world for years to come. During my residency, something happened that on the surface had the semblance of local news, but which illustrated the devastating consequences of divesting people of their identity. On 5 March 2018, Roberto Pirrone, a 65-year-old, highly indebted Florentine man, left his home with the intention of ending his life. At the last minute, however, he decided not to turn the gun on himself but instead on Idy Diène, an unknown Senegalese street vendor, who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Idy Diène was shot six times and fatally wounded. Comparing the story of Leo Africanus with the tragic
odyssey of the nameless thousands who disappear in the Mediterranean in search of a better life points to thesad realisation that intercultural exchange has actually regressed. The walls between people are becoming ever higher in the name of a system that devours itself in the refutation of the other.” F.M.