What’s foreign and Arab about Italy’s Eurovision entry?


Casualty of intolerance. Italian singer Alessandro Mahmoud celebrates on stage after winning the 69th Sanremo Italian Song Festival at the Ariston Theatre in Sanremo, last February. (AP)

There is an element of farce about the bigotry on display at the highest levels of the Italian government with respect to a song by a half-Egyptian, half-Sardinian man named Alessandro Mahmoud.

Mahmoud’s song “Soldi” (“Money”) won the Sanremo Music Festival contest in February. In its 68 years, Sanremo has launched the careers of some of Italy’s best-known singers, including Andrea Bocelli. The Sanremo seal of approval means Mahmoud will represent Italy in May’s Eurovision song contest in Tel Aviv.

Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, however, has been sniffy about the merits of Mahmoud’s song, which refers to his Egyptian father’s imbibing “champagne during Ramadan,” smoking “shisha” and includes two sentences in Arabic. Salvini was derisory about “Soldi” on Twitter and referred to the singer by his stage name “Mahmood.”

He wrote: “#Mahmood…………… meh………… The most beautiful Italian song?!?”

Soon after, Alessandro Morelli, a parliamentarian belonging to Salvini’s anti-immigrant League party, proposed a law to limit foreign songs on the radio.

What might make Milan-born-and-bred Mahmoud’s Italian-language song foreign? It has, as the Rome-based online Italics Magazine noted, “rap, R ’n’ B and elements of Middle Eastern sounds.” It has references to aspects of Arab and Muslim culture: Ramadan, shisha.

There are two Arabic lines in the song: “Waladi waladi habibi ta’aleena/ Mi dicevi giocando, giocando con aria fiera/ Waladi waladi habibi sembrava vera” (“My son, my son, darling, come over here/ You used to tell me while playing with me looking proud/ My son, my son, darling, it seemed real.”)

Wiwibloggs, a website devoted to the Eurovision contest, described the song’s Arabic markers as “a first in Sanremo and the first for Italy at the Eurovision.”

Finally, there is the singer’s ethnicity. He is the son of an Egyptian man, who abandoned his Italian family five years after Mahmoud’s birth.

The controversy over the alleged foreign nature of Mahmoud’s song challenges the timeless notion that music is universal, transcending national borders and cultural boundaries. Hans Christian Andersen once wrote: “Where words fail, music speaks.”

In January 2018, Samuel Mehr and Manvir Singh of Harvard published research that provided credible evidence that music permitted the communication of simple ideas between people even when they have no language in common. Their research included playing for 750 online volunteers from 60 countries musical excerpts drawn at random from around the world.

The music was clearly unfamiliar to the volunteers and they didn’t understand the lyrics and yet they were able to accurately deduce — from its sound — that the song was meant “for dancing” or “for soothing a baby.”

This seemed to confirm something we have long known in our bones — music is a social glue, sans language or ethnicity.

So what’s with an Italian government minister appearing to question the logic of praising (or God forbid, singing) a song by a half-Italian man? What’s with denying Mahmoud, who describes himself as “an Italian guy, 100%,” the simple and unquestioned right to belong to — and represent — the country in which he was born? Is the son-of-the-soil theory to now extend to music? And food? Is literature to be parsed for “foreign” impurities, references that reach beyond a country’s borders?

Salvini’s response to Mahmoud’s angst-ridden song about his absent father is another ugly attempt by Europe’s new breed of nationalist politicians to divide people along previously unmarked lines.

It’s worth noting that Mahmoud, who does not speak Arabic, only used in his song fragments from memory of his brief time with his father. He doesn’t, like fellow Milanese singer Ghali Amdouni, who’s ethnically Tunisian, make explicit reference to any sense of being foreign to Italy.

In his song “Cara Italia,” Amdouni describes himself as “a bit Italian and a bit Tunisian” and mentions US President Donald Trump and a politics and media environment that talks of “foreigners,” He adds, “When they tell me: ‘Go back home!’ / Oh eh oh, I reply: ‘I’m already here’.”

Few would say Amdouni is any less Italian than Mahmoud but Mahmoud does seem less inclined to raise questions about identity and belonging. Until Salvini, who has called it all into question.