St Maurice Chapel in Milan is known for its sumptuous fresco paintings representing Biblical scenes.
Among them is Abraham’s sacrifice: The patriarch, in order to show his faith to God, was prepared to sacrifice his son Isaac, but an angel stopped him at the last moment and invited him to slaughter a lamb instead.
“The same story is told in the Quran, where Abraham’s son is not called Isaac, but Ismael,” Mohammed al-Hamadi told The New Arab.
Born 74 years ago in Homs, a city now in ruins because of the war in Syria, Hamadi is the first Muslim in Italy to volunteer as a tour guide in a Catholic church.
He started his tours two years ago, after retiring from an import-export company based in Milan.
“The starting point for any inter-religious dialogue is to be found in what the Quran and the Bible have in common. It is not a secret, the Bible was written several centuries before the Quran. It is normal that the Quran takes inspiration from this group of religious texts of Judaism and Christianity.”
The history of Islam is becoming a more popular topic in Italy. Here, populist and far-right parties are on the rise following the arrival of hundreds of thousands of migrants and refugees, particularly since 2015.
Visitors on Hamadi’s tours are also impressed by his lessons on Renaissance art, accompanied by explanations of different religious texts.
“Tourists from Arab countries are always surprised by my activity here. Of course they are not expecting to see a Muslim – who his named like the Prophet – explaining frescoes in a church”, Hamadi says.
“I remember a couple from Saudi Arabia. They immediately understood that I was a Muslim. I started my explanation about the connections between the chapel frescoes and the Quran suras. They were shocked.
“Some Egyptian tourists have focused on the representation of Saint Rita, who appears with a wounded eye. They were affected by the violence of the painting: I took the opportunity to speak about religious-based violence. I underlined that it must always be condemned, against any religion or minority.”
Hamadi is collecting these conversations in a memoir, in which he also shares his memories of the religious tolerance taught in his youth. Syria has hosted many peoples and cultures over the millennia: Phoenicians, Persians, Romans, Ottomans and the French. This, as Hamadi said, makes him a “citizen of the world”.
“I attended primary school in a Christian village,” he says. “I decided my son should do the same here in Milan. It was difficult to explain to the nuns that my child had no problem staying in a Catholic school and he has no problem to respect their prayer time and to eat ham in the school canteen.”
Hamadi fled Syria in his twenties; he had already been in prisoned twice and tortured.
He fled to Beirut, then Kuwait (where he worked as a magician), on to Spain and finally came to Italy – where he married an Italian woman. But his political activity has been almost a secret for his family here.
“I’ve been in jail twice but for all these details you have to ask my son, Shadi, because I have never talked about it to anyone outside Syria.” Shadi has written a book of his family’s experiences living under Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s notorious father.
“One day the phone rang. It was Shadi from Syria. He said his mother had discovered that I had been in prison, so I had to admit that I had been a political dissident.”
Hamadi was part of a young Syrian generation who supported the pan-Arabist dream of the United Arab Republic – the political union between Syria and Egypt born in 1958.
The new state entity lasted a few years, buit in 1966, after the Baath party coup, all other political parties and movements were banned across the country.
“I went to Syria for the first time in 2009,” said Shadi.
“My father received an amnesty from the Syrian government. At that time I found out from my family that my father was tortured in jail by the Syrian secret services. In 2011, when the revolution started, I decided to write his story. I thought the people in Italy had to know more about Syria.
“When my father told me he joined Touring Club [a non-profit cultural organisation] as a volunteer guide, I thought it was a good idea. Since I was a child, he used to tell me about the importance of the dialogue between all the different faiths. He still thinks that you can’t be a good Muslim if you don’t accept the other religious backgrounds.”
Hamadi’s civil commitment has been continued in Italy.
“Was I a dissident? Yes, I am still today,” he admits. He was a city councillor in Sesto San Giovanni and he volunteered to help Syrian refugees in Milan who had fled the war back home and arrive exhausted and disorientated in northern Italy, hoping to travel on to Britain or Germany.
“I wanted to do something for my town. Since I speak four languages [English, French, Arabic and Italian], some people recommended I should join Touring Club.
“I can follow my passion for art and show that religious dialogue is possible. In Syria, when I was a boy, Christians and Muslims lived and studied together, without distinction.”
Hamadi is one of 2,000 volunteers – 800 in Milan alone – who volunteer in churches and museums that would otherwise remain closed to the public.
“When we met Mohammed for the first time, we thought he was the perfect man for us, not only for his linguistic knowledge but because he is such a welcoming person. He reflects the spirit and the goal of our project perfectly,” said Nadia Pellacani, who runs the Touring Club’s “Aperti per Voi” [Open for You] project.
“He is our first Muslim volunteer, and at the beginning, we didn’t think that he would attract so much attention. For us, it was just a normal thing. We are happy because Mohammed is becoming one of our flagships – and his work is a lesson of integration for our whole country.”