California Italian Studies
A Mediterranean Woman Writer from Naples to Tangier: Female Storytelling as Resistance in Elisa Chimenti
- Author(s): Re, Lucia
- Roso, Kelly
- et al.
Italian-born author and scholar Elisa Chimenti (Naples 1883—Tangier 1969), still virtually unknown to English-language readers and scholars (and scarcely known to this day even in France and Italy) devoted much of her life’s work to recording and translating the oral traditions of the people, particularly the women, of Morocco, the country where she elected to spend most of her life, living and teaching Italian and other languages in Tangier and effectively becoming at once Mediterranean-Italian and Tangeroise. Chimenti’s cosmopolitanism contrasted deeply with Mussolini’s Mediterranean agenda, and the Fascist regime effectively confiscated her school in Tangier. As a young woman, Chimenti traveled extensively across Morocco, eventually mastering several indigenous dialects of Arabic and Berber. Her prodigious linguistic abilities laid the framework for much of her scholarly and literary works, including multiple collections of indigenous folktales, songs, and oral poetry such a Èves marocaines (1935), Chants de femmes arabes (1942), and Légendes marocaines (1959). She also wrote a series of stories about the European “Petits Blancs,” working-class immigrants, merchants and entrepreneurs–including Italians–who lived and worked in Tangier in the early twentieth century. Chimenti published primarily in French and occasionally Spanish (although she also wrote in Italian), a choice that not only allowed her works to reach a greater readership, but that also reflects the author’s perennial interest—similarly evident in her pedagogical and journalistic endeavors—in facilitating transnational cultural dialogue within and beyond the Mediterranean. Myriad explanatory footnotes and a glossary of Darija Arabic accompany each of her texts and are a testament to the transnational ambitions of Chimenti’s projects. The same is true of the author’s only published novel, Au cœur du harem (1958), translated into Italian in 2000 as Al cuore dell’harem. As in her non-fiction texts, Chimenti’s novel blends influences from Jewish, Muslim, Christian, and pre-Muslim North African beliefs and folklore, in a manner that reflects the cultural métissage of Chimenti’s beloved Tangier, at a time when it was a veritable crossroads of the Mediterranean. Though her influences are many and varied, Chimenti’s texts share a recurrent theme: a focus on women’s voices. Female storytelling and song are central to both the poetic rhythm and the plot of her novel, which is a polyphonic tour de force that captures the oral quality of Chimenti’s diverse transnational influences with remarkable poetic dexterity. In this article, we examine Chimenti’s text as a work of feminist Mediterranean literature that presents female storytelling and community as a means of resisting two interrelated forms of violence: domestic abuse and enslavement, as well as the historical silencing of Moroccan women through the exclusion of their voices and stories from public discourse. In situating her novel within a domestic harem, Chimenti also works on a symbolic level to demystify a space where systems of colonial and gender domination have historically coalesced into an Orientalist, voyeuristic narrative. In Au cœur du harem, this female space is the site of transnational dialogue and debate, where contrasting Mediterranean cultures and value systems intersect, in a manner that reflects the author’s own transnational heritage and work.