Habiba is a beautiful woman. Upon meeting her one cannot help but notices her eyes, expressive in an almost indescribable way, save for the sadness there. Her immigration story is one fraught with overtones of not only displacement and regret, but is also one of immense personal sacrifice.
Born and raised in Tunisia, Habiba was a very famous actress in her home country, a career that began in 1967. Despite her international fame, she exudes an extremely humble nature. Habiba speaks softly as she tells me of her acting career, a success story by any standard, and how she continuously was forced to abandon what she loved the most—screen and stage.
Her first marriage in Tunisia was to a man who was a singer. She divorced him because of extreme pressure to stop working. In 1989 she married an Italian man who quickly put an end to all of the various cultural activities that she was engaged in. Again, her instinct for self-preservation was strong and she wanted to flee. Fate, though, is a funny thing. Her husband had been diagnosed with stomach cancer and so she realized that she needed to stay and take care of him. While she thought that coming to Italy would have helped her to follow her dreams she found that slowly, over time, other concerns prevailed. Everything that she wanted to do creatively was once again stifled until it became non-existent.
Sitting across from the table with Habiba, I was struck my the fact that here was a woman who played a role in Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zefferilli , and both acted and directed in numerous productions, an accomplished woman, to say the least, but still, with so much regret. She sat with her head tilted slightly to the side, carefully considering my questions, her hands folded in front of her—very little expression save for her beautiful eyes.
When I asked her about her immigration process and life in Sicily, she chose to paint this part of her life with a wider brush and does not really elaborate. She realizes, now, that she could have had a better life in Tunisia, for sure. In fact, her only child was raised in Tunisia for precisely that fact: because she knew he would have a better life.
Although I pressed, she displayed a bit of reluctance to dwell on her life in the present, in Sicily, though I know her to be most beloved and respected. I read a bit of resignation in her tone and attitude. She tells me that her coping mechanisms are patience and poetry—-she is a great practitioner of both. She is kind to people and expresses herself, creatively through many different venues and projects and is well integrated in the society of her chosen home.
I ask her if it all was worth it. Characteristically, she gives me a gentle shrug. She said, “ I would love to be able to answer you, but I don’t know what to expect outside of the life that I have. I came here and restarted my life around the system.”
When asked if she has any advice to other Tunisians who come to Sicily and who are struggling to make it, she demurs, shakes her head gently. She says, only, “You can’t go back to where you came from—the pressure too succeed is so strong.”
Finally, she says, in her gentle way, “I cannot believe how time has slipped away.”