By Antonella Palermo
They met at the end of August 1992, on a flight from Beirut to Rome. He had a student visa for Italy. She had been attending a group of the Equipe Notre Dame Movement, led by a Lebanese priest. Both of them were in their twenties, and both were secretly hoping they would soon meet the right person, to love for life.
The prison of stigma
Mustapha Hussein lived in a mixed neighbourhood of Muslims and Christians in Tripoli. He came from an open Muslim family and, as a child, he made friends easily with everyone, and without distinction. The word 'free' was one he used often, along with his companions, and his parents. Simona experienced more difficulty when she tried to get her friendship with Mustapha accepted. Her family was afraid of Muslims: they were prisoners of stigmas handed down from generation to generation. Even when a religious friend of Simona vouched for her young friend’s goodness and integrity, her mother was not convinced. "With my mother the battle was painful”, she says, “it distanced us, it made us lose so much time and so much energy. Her greatest fear was that I might be forced to abandon my religion and even my studies". This rigidity on the part of her mother was partly due to unresolved issues in her own life’s story: Simona's mother had suffered a lot because of cultural differences and loneliness, after she married and moved to Rome from southern Italy, years ago.
Praying together is possible
Mustapha always lived his love for Simona with patience and confidence: "I was sure the nonsense would not have the last word”, he says. “Of course, I felt uncomfortable when I went to her house for the first time. I felt under the spotlight. Our strength was our love". Paradoxically, Simona realized that Mustapha was stronger, even more mature, than she was. “Through him, I saw Jesus”, she says. “It was surprising. He was more Catholic than I am!”. Simona showed great sensitivity when, in Lebanon, during their engagement, Mustapha’s uncle died. She found she was the only Western, Christian, woman at the funeral. She struggled to show her closeness to the pain of the family’s loss. Then she spontaneously took out her Rosary and began to pray. "My grandmother still remembers that scene”, says Mustapha, describing it as a happy memory.
"Simona has transmitted her attachment to the faith to me. She always repeats that God is love. I find this thing increasingly fascinating, it's beautiful. I have explored the foundations of the Christian faith. I go with her to Mass. I feel her faith. Despite everything". Simona describes their spontaneous prayers, or their shared reading of the psalms: "The impressive thing is to experience that the Holy Spirit blows where He wills, and there really is no barrier to contain Him. No one else but the Spirit could have induced him to behave so perfectly and in such accordance with the teachings of Jesus. Love has no boundaries. I am convinced of that. What also helped us was his great curiosity".
Integration beyond discrimination
"I have come to realize that those who seek peace actually find it”, says Mustapha. “For years I attended an Ignatian spiritual journey group, where Simona had found orientation. The group welcomed me and always made me feel at ease". "For me it wasn't really so difficult to integrate myself, more so from the bureaucratic point of view. I went to play basketball with the Jesuits of the International College in Rome. Playing the game, we were fair and trustworthy. This made us think we could be the same in our everyday lives, regardless of who we were and where we came from". There are also less pleasant memories of more bitter experiences, like that at a television channel: "Unfortunately, I must confess I was not treated well. It was a very closed environment. There was a lot of discrimination at work, and it was very bad. Precisely because I was married to a Christian, I was considered like a foreign body that didn’t fit in".
Persevering, without resentment
They put everything back into God's hands. Then they decided to marry in church, with different rites and in mutual respect. "I underwent the interviews planned for the preparation of the marriage," says Mustapha. "I felt put to the test, I had the impression that sooner or later I would give in”. That is not what happened. In the end, it was the mother of his fiancée, Grazia, who gave in. “I couldn’t have imagined it, yet she came to think of me as her adopted son. I never held a grudge. That was crucial”.
Transcription of video:
Mustapha: I'm from Tripoli, Lebanon. I met Simona back in 1992, on the Beirut-Rome flight. It was for me, I say for me, a love almost at first sight, because after a few days I confessed to her that I would marry her.
Simona: I lived this love of mine, this first, long awaited and desired love, with so many hopes and with a vocation to being open, to internationality, something I also felt capable of. But what I had not taken into account was also the religious diversity, therefore a further, even greater, challenge. And it was surprising to see the points of contact in the diversity, the humanity that unites us, the principles, the values. Unfortunately, my family did not understand all this for the first ten years of our story. My mother totally rejected, and did not understand it. We lost something that took a long time to recover. Let's say that, in some way, she apologized: when she understood, when she appreciated him, she was very proud of us... Unfortunately, mom is no longer with us, but she was really happy.
M: I have to thank my family because it really is an open family. It's not fundamentalist at all. They always left me free, even when we played with friends, they didn't say: this is Christian, this is Muslim, absolutely not. We were almost all the same and that helped me a lot to get to know Simona and when I took her to Lebanon, they met and accepted her and, when we decided to get married, they gave us total freedom.
S: If you think about it, how many problems have there been during our journey?
M: Many, many....
S: Of all kinds...
M: So many, so many problems. But thank God, there was always the right person at the right time. I always thank God, until today, for the gift that my wife has given me, here in the present. Because we have always overcome problems with love and patience.
S: I would put at the centre the fact that God is with us in marriage. He is the one who unites us. We accepted to make a mixed marriage precisely because we believe that there is one God and we wanted to make this promise before God.
M: I accepted a mixed marriage because in our Muslim religion, mercy is at the centre of Islam. It's not true that only hatred exists.
S: An experience that marked us was the funeral of Mustapha's uncle. Practically the house in mourning, men and women separated, I found myself the only Christian, alone, the only Westerner in a room where there were all the women, praying, and I didn't know how to show my solidarity. So I pulled out my Rosary and began to pray the Rosary.
M: My grandmother, still today, when I call her, always tells me that she loves Simona very much because she still remembers the funeral of 2010, nine years have passed, but she never forgets Simona with the Rosary and really loves her to death.