Home News Izzedin Elzir: I wanted to study Italian fashion – Anna Momigliano

Izzedin Elzir: I wanted to study Italian fashion – Anna Momigliano

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Izzedin Elzir: I wanted to study Italian fashion – Anna Momigliano
Illustration by Marcello Crescenzi

When he arrived in Florence in 1991, Izzedin Elzir first asked where the mosque was. But that was not there, given that in those days immigration from Islamic countries was a new and limited phenomenon. “If I asked about the mosque, they would send me to the Russian Orthodox Church, which was very beautiful but it was not a mosque. A gentleman directed me to the synagogue, and when I realized where I was I turned my heels, because these were tense times, and seeing a Palestinian walking around the synagogue someone could get the wrong idea “, he says jokingly, in front of a cup of mint tea.

Today Elzir is the leader of the Islamic community in Florence: about 30 thousand Muslims, even if the active faithful, those who participate in the prayer of the end of Ramadan, are only five thousand, he explains to me. Elzir is also one of the central figures in Italy for dialogue between religions: he holds meetings in schools together with the chief rabbi of the city, Gadi Piperno, and his predecessor, Joseph Levi; he is one of the founders of the Florentine Higher Education School for interreligious and intercultural dialogue, aimed at journalists, teachers, health personnel and other figures who need to understand an increasingly multicultural Italy.

I meet him at the Atomic falafel in via Cavour, a restaurant specializing in Middle Eastern street food, run by a Palestinian and an Arab Israeli. Here they make hummus with ful, the dressing of beans and oil, and serve pita with zaatar, the mixture of spices based on thyme and oregano, just like they do in Jerusalem, the Jewish or Arab part of it.

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And to think that when Elzir moved to Italy, being a religious guide was not even remotely in his plans. He had come to Florence to study fashion at the Italian Academy of Art, Fashion, Design and, in fact, he still works in the leather clothing sector today. “Being an imam is more like being a rabbi than being a priest,” he explains. “One gets married, has a family, and may even have another job.”

It was the first intifada, the Palestinian revolt against the Israeli occupation that broke out in the late 1980s, that pushed him towards Italy, and also towards fashion. Elzir was born and raised in Hebron, in the West Bank, where a community of Israeli settlers also lives, one of the places where the tension is strongest, marked by violence.

His father had a grocery store that also distributed kosher bread imported from Jerusalem, which the settlers bought. He tells me that when he was a kid he used to have a chat with one of them, a doctor who immigrated from the United States. He was called Baruch Goldstein.

“I was curious that he was from New York, I said to him ‘but why did you leave New York to come to Hebron, while we who are from Hebron would like to go to New York?’, And he replied that for him Hebron was the promised land”. Years later, Goldstein would go down in history as a brutal terrorist: in 1994 he entered a mosque in Hebron and killed 29 faithful. “I could never have imagined such a gesture from him,” recalls Elzir.

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After high school, Elzir wanted to study physics at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He managed to pass the psychometric, the very tough test for admission to Israeli universities, and even a first Hebrew language exam. In order to begin the academic year he lacked one last test, that of scientific Hebrew, but he never managed to give it: there was the intifada, and the Israeli curfews prevented him from moving.

“I would have had to wait a year, so I went looking for a job and found it in one of those shops where young brides buy underwear and dresses before they get married.” It was an epiphany: “I realized that people were spending a lot of money on these things and I decided I wanted to study fashion. And where is fashion studied? Obviously, in Italy! ”.

A mosque in the bishopric

Once he arrived in Florence, in addition to enrolling at the university, he also enrolled in an Italian language course for foreigners, held by the local diocese. There he met about fifteen other Muslims, mostly university students like him, Palestinians, Jordanians, Egyptians and Somalis. At that time, mass economic immigration had not yet begun, but “there was a whole tradition of Arabs who came to study in Italy, especially medicine and architecture”.

Lacking a place to pray, the group asked the diocese if they could use one of the rooms as a mosque. And so, in the spaces of the bishopric, the first Islamic community of Florence was born.

Also in an event organized by the Catholic Church, twenty years ago Elzir met Joseph Levi, at the time chief rabbi of Florence (today he is rabbi emeritus, since he was replaced by Gadi Piperno): “We became friends and together we wondered what we could do for our communities ”. This is how the idea of ​​meetings in schools was born: “Often it is religion teachers who invite us. The students are always very interested and respectful, they convey to me the idea of ​​an open Italy, different from the one presented to us by the media ”, he says.

A high school student once asked a question about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, an anti-Semitic document that accuses Jews of world domination. “The question was addressed to Rabbi Levi, but I said that if the rabbi was not offended, I would have liked to answer,” Elzir recalls. “Instead of explaining to the boy that it was a fake, I said to him, ‘Look, Jews are a few tens of millions, on Earth we are seven billion, how do you think they can dominate the world? He would like to say that we are seven billion fools! ‘. Sometimes it is enough to use the brain ”.

Atomic falafel
Via Camillo Cavour 116, Florence

2 Hummus con ful €15,00
1 Falafel €5.00
3 Cups of hot tea with mint leaves € 3.00
1 Pita with free zaatar

Total € 23.00

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