The Arabs put the final touches of whitewash paint on the walls of their beloved city, Benghazi. Trash was removed from the streets. Boardwalk cafes and shops glimmered under the Mediterranean sun of this North African nation of Libya. Flags blew in the breeze.
Schools let out their children and had them stand in a single file from the airport to the town center.
Shopkeepers wiped clean their storefront windows in anticipation. The year is 1937, and it’s not every day that IL DUCE (The Leader) comes from Italy to witness his Fascist empire. Upon landing, Benito Mussolini was escorted with fanfare through the streets of Benghazi. My grandfather, Joseph Duani, much like other Jews in Benghazi, welcomed the dictator. Wasn’t Italy and its Roman past the cradle of civilization? Wasn’t Italy the nation that fostered music, art and commerce with flair? Joseph looked up to the Italians; they represented all that was noble and enlightened, or so he believed then.
He and his fellow business friends took pride in learning Italian, in sending their children years later to Italian-run schools in Benghazi. Joseph wore the latest Italian suits and neckties and ordered Italian-made shoes using his Italian-made Olivetti typewriter. Joseph Duani in his youth, the ultimate bad boy, tooled around town with his Italian-made 1935 Benelli motorcycle. He had learned to correspond with Italian merchants in Napoli and Rome, to import fabrics and shoes for his Benghazi shop near the seaport. Learning of Mussolini’s state visit, he put on his best suit, held his firstborn daughter Yvonne (my mother) in his arms, and rushed to the growing-by-the-minute procession to greet The Leader.
Mussolini entered Benghazi in a motorcade to the cheers of the crowds. Arabs rode their camels. Young men displayed their riding
skills on horseback. And like any politician, Mussolini mixed with the crowd, nodded his approval, waved, then stopped in front of my grandfather. My mother, two months old, squirmed in her father’s arms.
Benito Mussolini stood on his toes–he was short and my grandfather was tall–and kissed my mother on the cheek. The kiss is something my grandfather would recall years later. It did not do him or his Jewish friends any favors. In time the Fascists rolled into town and burned all their shops to the ground. Collaborating with the Nazis, they sent 2500 Jews into labor camps in the Libyan desert, 600 died. Years later Mussolini met his violent end, lynched by an angry Italian mob at the end of WWII.
As a child growing up, my father and mother spoke Italian to keep things from me. I owe Mussolini
nothing other than introducing my family to all-things-beautiful that in later years would be termed La Dolce Vita: a sense of style, and a passion for living. My mother celebrates her birthday this week, almost 80. What the heck, Mom, I’ll kiss you on the cheek. The other cheek.
Below is a rare film footage of Benito Mussolini’s visit to Libya in 1937.
Maurice Labi is an Israeli-American who lived in Los Angeles for many years. In 2011 He returned to Northern Israel (Galilee) with his wife and twin teenage daughters. He is of two lands, of two cultures and he blogs about his experiences in Israel, particularly from Galilee where Jews and Arabs dwelled for centuries.
He has also written three novels: “Jupiter’s Stone,” “Into the Night,” and “American Moth” — available at Amazon.com
or at BN.com