Parati discussed that agenda and the reasons behind it in her lecture, “Concentration Camps, Architectural Projects and Tourism in Italo Balbo’s Libya” on Wednesday, Feb. 26 at Stony Brook University.
When fascist leader Benito Mussolini rode into Libya in 1937, he claimed that Italy, traditionally Catholic, was a Muslim country and that he was the “Protector of Islam” in an effort to buy Libya’s loyalty. Italy seized and colonized the lands that would be merged into Libya in 1920, promising peace, justice and respect for the laws of the prophet Muhammad.
But the reality of the situation was quite different. Under the leadership of figures like Mussolini and Italo Balbo, the governor of Libya from 1933 to 1940, Libya was converted into an expression of Italy’s racial fascism.
Society was stratified into “cosmopolitan Libyans” on the coast, and the rest of the country. Despite being official subjects of Italy, most Libyans, especially those who were black and those who did not live along the coast, were considered “racially inferior,” and were only given an Italian education up through primary school, according to Parati. After that, children were sent to vocational schools and trained to work as menial labor on farms and in cities, though some women were allowed to become nurses.
Libyans needed special permission from the Italian government to continue their education. Only five Libyans managed to get an Italian university degree, but they had to move to Egypt to get it, trapping the rest in a “quagmire of primitiveness” that Italy could assert its paternalistic control over, Parati said.
At the same time, Libyans were stripped of their camels, goats and farming equipment which were essential for survival, leaving thousands to starve. Rebels were kept in squalid concentration camps that killed tens of thousands. The population was cut nearly in half from 1.4 million in 1907 to 825,000 by 1933 during Italy’s violent “pacification” of the region.
Survivors of the massacre were shuffled around the country to keep them poor and unemployed and to quash the possibility of organized resistance, Parati explained.
At the same time, Libyan cities along the coast like Tripoli were being renovated into the ultimate expression of “whiteness.”
Vacation homes and farms were constructed to have gleaming white facades. Expansive streets and buildings were designed to allow ample room for tourists to proceed unimpeded. The renovated Tripoli was called “the jewel in the crown of fascism” in a campaign to turn the city into a popular tourism spot.
According to Parati, this was an expression of how badly Italians wanted to be considered “white,” after years of being denigrated as second-class Europeans.
“Right now we’re talking about buildings having skin,” she said. “And most of whatever you see built by Italians in Libya is white-skinned.”
Thirty thousand of Italy’s poorest citizens were paid to move to and populate these homes as part of a spectacle, to show the “superiority” of the white man. They believed that their “racial superiority” would allow them to survive the scorchingly hot and arid Sahara, which Italians playfully called the “big sandbox.”
Most of these Italians ended up settling in the cities along the comparatively mild coast, unable to handle Libya’s severe climate. Though Italians moved to Libya, no Libyans were allowed to move to Italy.
The lecture was attended by several members of Stony Brook University’s faculty.
Janis Mimura, an associate history professor, was fascinated by the parallels Parati’s research has with her own on imperial Japan and its occupation of Manchuria.
“Italy’s image of itself and the image it tried to project to the rest of the world was very interesting,” she said.
E.K. Tan, an associate professor in both comparative literature and culture studies, and Asian and Asian American studies, was most fascinated by Italy’s fixation on whiteness.
“We tend to just assume Italians are white,” he said. “Even then, there’s this push for Italians to be whiter, be representative.”
Although Libya declared independence from Italy in 1951, the scars of fascist Italy’s rule continue to run deep. Parati, who was born in Milan, Italy, recalled an unnamed colleague in the 1980s saying to her, “Oh, I like you. I want to get to know you because you are really Italian. You’re white.”
She said she took an ancestry test, discovering that her ancestors were from Spain, the Middle East and North Africa, without any common ancestry with those from Mussolini’s Italy.
Parati scoffed at fascist Italy’s “fragile construction of whiteness” throughout her lecture and cites herself as proof of the Mediterranean’s genetic diversity, even as “whiteness” is baked into the architecture.
“You know, this genetic pool that is the Mediterranean is anything and everything, right?” Parati said. “But culturally there’s this really strong attempt to make Italians white.”