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Translated by Lucy Rand.
I start to walk…
I always walk when I need to think. I walk the congested streets of Rome and my heart, my extravagant little heart, is instantly at ease. Only in Rome am I able to walk so well. We belong to one another, she and I. We love each other, hate each other, know each other, we are all jumbled up. Rome and I are eternal sisters, eternal friends, and eternal accomplices. We go way back. Together we are a brand new being, sparks fly from us, or so we believe.
Paris is beautiful, New York vivacious, Rio de Janeiro seductive. But Rome is Rome. It has something more and often something less. Rome is the center of me and the center of the world. Maybe even of the entire universe. My Rome is now so inadequate, so totally imperfect. She has aged. In Somalia they would call her Ajuza. Roma Ajuza who can no longer hide her years. Her ancient wrinkles blend into the decay. And her aches and pains torment her from morning till night. Rome is one big blemish. An illegible scrawl that shines infinite light over our wearied lives. Rome, with her secrets and unspeakable hysteria. Rome who has never told me her deepest buried truth.
I walk. One foot after the other. Quickly. Brusquely. I overtake tourists with their pocket-sized video cameras and psychedelic smartphones. I pass men selling trinkets made in who-knows-where. I pass the costumed gladiators swindling tourists and the city alike. I pass the cats that have made a home of the Theater of Pompey ruins. I outflank buses overloaded beyond every limit. Today I have a destination and I want to get there soon, before I lose my courage.
My foot falters, and suddenly a cramp. Ow, damn foot, are you trying to boycott me? I won’t allow it. I slow down. I give it a massage. I show some care and attention. But I have to go again, get back into my rhythm, reach my destination. I need to reach the heart, the real heart, of Rome.
Soon … soon … soon.
My foot, however, is in ambush, it’s trying to change my direction. It’s cajoling me, distracting me with the Palatine, the Colosseum, the pines reclining tenderly at the top of the world. But there’s no time for such monumental delicacies today. I need to get to Piazza di Porta Capena.
And I need to get there straight away. Immediately.
I’m here, finally… I don’t know how, but I’m here…
Out of breath, yes, but sure as God made little green apples, I’m here. My foot still hurts, but I pretend everything is under control and nothing can come between this strange piazza and me. Cars hurtle around an anonymous grass verge. Ah, the grass verge, that’s the one, there it is. I cross the road onto the neglected scrap of land. This is indeed my destination. This is the reason my heart is beating so fast. It’s for this verge that my stomach is twisted up like a freshly grilled mutton skewer. I forget the pain in my foot. I even forget myself for a moment. There’s a cypress. Tall, majestic, imposing, unhappy. I look at it and feel like crying. The cypress is a symbol of immortality, of life after death. Its utter verticality makes me feel so small. The cypress is like an elevator. An elevator of souls trying to reach God and the unknown within us. It was the tree of Hades. The tree of sadness and pain.
There are some plaques next to it. I’m curious, I read. The words “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” stand formally on a greyish-brown slab. The phrase (it says on the slab itself) belongs to the Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana who died in Rome in 1952. It’s a simple, incredibly powerful phrase. There’s weight behind it. If I had a hat, I’d tip it. But my curiosity moves me on. I look at the two columns framing the plaque and my eyes stray to another piece of text.
In memory of the victims of the massacre of New York and Washington on September 11th, 2001. The city of Rome stands for peace against all forms of terrorism.
My lip trembles this time. Trembles uncontrollably. Huh? September 11th? I’m perplexed. So … so … these two columns are supposed to be the Twin Towers? So they’re talking about New York? They’re remembering New York?
I wonder how many people in Rome know the true meaning of these two little columns abandoned amid the chaos of the city’s traffic. The Twin Towers … who’d have thought. Maybe nobody in Rome knows. Nobody… Sure, I had wondered about the meaning of these solitary columns as much as the next person. But what with all the commitments, distractions, I had forgotten to look into it. But it turns out I needed to. Damn laziness.
In the meantime a hysterical claxon pierces my eardrum. The traffic is ferocious, restless, solitary. A curse floats into my ear. Perhaps there’s been a collision, but I’m not sure. I didn’t notice anything. I fear I’d be a terrible eyewitness. “I was just so enthralled by the grass verge, officer, that I didn’t see anything else.” Yes, that’s how I’d justify it to the police. And they probably wouldn’t believe me. But I really didn’t see anything. By that point the verge had, fatally you could say, occupied the entirety of my cranium.
I felt confused. My mind skipped back and forth painfully between thoughts. The cypress, sensing my bewilderment, tried to console me. And perhaps it was the cypress that whispered the recent history of the place into my ear, or perhaps it was me thumbing through my phone and finding an explanation on the Internet, the all-knowing, all-disclosing Internet. And that’s how in just a few seconds I went from total ignorance to knowing more than I wanted to.
These columns, which at Porta Capena symbolized the Twin Towers, had been moved from the fountain of the Curia Innocenzianain Piazza di Montecitorio. Having transited through a warehouse on the Aventine, now they found themselves here, angelically sealing a pact of memory between Rome and New York.
The United States Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, came for the inauguration. Flowers were put down. The then mayor, Gianni Alemanno, described the composition (plaques, columns, unhappy cypress, Santayana quote) as “a silent call against all intolerance and all forms of fundamentalism.” Their commitment was to water the grass and illuminate the plaques.
Their commitment was to memory. What a strange word, memory. We must remember, people often say. Even Santayana reiterated it in his quote. Remember, so as not to repeat. So that it doesn’t happen again. Enough of death, massacres, murders.
Enough of torture, violence, rape.
Enough of subjugating people, blackmailing them.
All this was memory. But as the years had passed I’d learnt that not all memories are treated equal.
There are B-list memories and C-list memories. Memories that nobody wants to remember because they are too uncomfortable, too true.
I looked at the grass verge, so sad and alone, once more. I laid my gaze on the two columns, the plaques, my friend the cypress. I read Santayana’s quote for the hundredth time. And everything felt wrong. It was like in those puzzles in the newspaper where you have to connect the dots to complete the picture. But there were some dots missing in this story, as if somebody, feeling ashamed, had stuffed them into his jacket pocket. Without dots, without lines to trace, it was impossible for the complete picture to materialize. It was like a fetus slowly rotting in a dried up womb.
There was something deeply untimely about that place. Of course it was nice to know that Rome had a monument for the victims of September 11th. That wretched attack had left a mortal wound in all of our hearts. Our lives changed forever that day. Not only the lives of those who died, but also of those who lived. Nothing has been the same since September 11th. For a while nothing made any sense. So it was right to have the plaques, the flowers, the memory. But there was something deeply wrong about it nonetheless. I felt uneasy. It was as if there was a lack of oxygen on that grass verge. I felt like I was suffocating.
I felt an absence … a huge absence… And everything was so close to home, too … too close. Sure enough it was my Africa that was missing. That was it. My Africa had been slaughtered in that place. Yes, justice required another monument next to the September 11th one, another memory. I felt that what was missing was a plaque (even a small one) dedicated to the victims of Italian colonialism. Once upon a time, even if many Romans no longer remember it, the Obelisk of Axum stood there. An obelisk that Fascist Italy had brought back from Ethiopia as war booty.
Ah, Italian colonialism. An unhealed scar, an unstitched wound, an obliterated memory. Italian colonialism pretended to be good; the myth of the Italiani brava gente (“The Good Italians”) was well entrenched in the popular imagination. But it exterminated as many as – sometimes more than – the other colonialisms. I was struck suddenly by the thought of the victims of Yperite poison gas in Ethiopia. The victims of that horrendous war ordered by Benito Mussolini. Bodies lacerated by the chemical. Black skins made white by a cowardly death. A death that didn’t give them the chance to fight a fair game, but eliminated people like insects, with gas that was banned by the Geneva Convention. I thought of the Eritrean and Somali women forced to sell themselves (if they weren’t victims of rape already) to an Italian master. I thought of the concentration camps, like the one in Danane, where people passed the remainder of their lives between beatings and hunger. I thought of the headless, hanged, violated bodies. And there, exactly where the cypress stands now, Italy celebrated the triumph of that barbarism. Mussolini, wanting to crown his African empire with a rhetorical flourish, made Piazza di Porta Capena the center of his imperial liturgy.
After one of the most wretched and devious wars, Mussolini added Ethiopia to the African colonies of Libya, Eritrea and Somalia. And a year after that conquest he ordered an obelisk to be brought from the city of Axum in Ethiopia, and reassembled in the middle of the piazza. In the same way that Augustus filled Rome with obelisks pillaged from the lands of Egypt, Mussolini – in imitation – brought back an obelisk as booty. That was where his vaudevillian power lay.
In that vile imitation. In that imperial mockery that swiftly drove the country to ruin. And then post-war Italy would spend a lifetime returning their ill-gotten gains to Ethiopia. Now the obelisk is in Axum, with its Ethiopian sisters. But what remains of that passage of history in Piazza di Porta Capena? Only emptiness, silence, absence, oblivion and amnesia dressed in an Italian salsa.
Nothing makes any sense to me.
Is it possible that I am standing on that strange tangle of history now?
Gianni Alemanno had talked of a “silent call against all intolerance.” He said those words of such paradoxical taste exactly where I am standing, with the cypress right behind him. But the biggest intolerance of all was the emptiness and silence around the painful history that linked Italy with Libya, Somalia, Eritrea and Ethiopia. Is it possible that he could’ve said such pretentious words about memory while forgetting all the barbarities committed by Italy against other peoples? Fascist violence devastated Africa. But my Rome, my matriarch, preferred to ignore that Africa was part of her, the very same Africa that is resurfacing on her streets and in her buildings, in our faces and dark eyes. She preferred to ignore it, Rome. Why dredge up those ugly stories? Why don’t we dwell on the tragedies of others instead? September 11th was the perfect way to forget. It is something close, but ultimately distant. Something that doesn’t threaten to shake the foundations of Rome. That doesn’t make you delve deep into your errors, regurgitate your disgrace.
Italiani brava gente. Many people still believe in that myth. “We were better than the French were with our colonies,” said a woman from Le Marche at the bus stop a few days ago. “We built you loads of things. Schools, bridges, hospitals, roads. It was you with all your wars who didn’t look after everything we gave you.” What? I wanted to scream. How dare she? But the woman had a placid tone. She said everything with lightness. She was convinced of every word she said, convinced and proud. “My father was a mechanic in Asmara and Mogadishu. He used to sing me a song about you black women.”
It was raining and I was waiting for a friend. But I needed to leave. The woman would soon be singing me that dance-hall song I couldn’t bear to hear. I didn’t know if I could endure it, if I’d be able to digest the pseudo-fascist dirge before lunchtime. But it was raining and there was still no sight of my friend, damnit! But I just didn’t feel like leaving the comfortable awning outside the bookshop. It really wasn’t a bad place to wait and shelter from the downpour. “Let’s just hope she doesn’t sing,” I murmured to myself. But then she sang, and she was even reasonably in tune.
The dark girl selling bananas of Mogadishu, Mogadishu,
Hears that boy and feels so cheerful, so cheerful,
Because she likes him, because she likes him.
If only she knew his wondrous tongue,
She’d say Oh exotic sailor boy,
I want to love you, I want to love you.
The song, the woman from Le Marche explained, was by Sergio Bruni and her father used to sing it to her as a lullaby. I thought of all the Italians who shared the same stories as that woman from Le Marche. Sometimes it was their fathers who had been to Africa, sometimes their grandfathers.
My friend F once showed me a photo of a fifteen-year-old girl. She was a Libyan girl covered in beads and had a childlike look in her eyes. “She was my grandfather’s girlfriend in the colonies.” My friend is a sensitive woman. She was ashamed of this episode from the life of a grandfather she had loved deeply. Her eyes asked, “But how could he?” I turned F’s photo over in my hands. And then I read what her grandfather had written on the back:
This is Kibra, a nice Aroche girl 15 years old my first sweet conquest and passion. Are you laughing? Peppino Elfoihut, Benghazi 14/01/1936 XIV.
The grandfather’s intention was to be funny. I wasn’t laughing.
I looked at the girl, Kibra’s, face. She was small. She looked younger than fifteen. She was naked and adorned with some horrid exotic trinkets. She looked like a little Christmas tree without leaves. A tree whose shiny decorations still hung from her now dry branches. In the girl’s eyes there was a mixture of shame and pride. But just behind her pupils you could make out a flash of daring. “I exist and I am not inferior to anyone,” Elfoihut’s little girl seemed to be telling us.
I exist and I am.
I am and I exist.
I thought of the woman from Le Marche and of her patriotism. She had never been made to look into the eyes of a Kibra, the eyes of somebody who had been subjugated, but was determined not to die a slave. How little of the truth had been told to the Italians, I thought. How little of the truth they sought… Italians preferred to forget, to erase… It was easier that way. But Kibra, with her eyes and her pain, was there to summon the guilty conscience of a country that has a lot of growing up to do.
The Ethiopian War happened, and I will not forget that, the climax of approval of Benito Mussolini’s regime. The pathological obsession with Africa was not only the fruit of Fascism: there was total continuity between Fascist Italy and the liberal age when it came to the hunger for colonies. Italy was fiercely present in Africa. But now? It’s all forgotten. All of it. My thoughts jump to the notebooks with maps of East Africa on their covers that kids, very young Balilla kids, used to carry in their schoolbags in the 1930s. I thought of the Luce newsreels that familiarized Italians with cities like Adwa, Mekelle, Asmara, Merca and Mogadishu. I thought of the Games of the Goose, the EIAR news reports, the propaganda, Mussolini’s pompous discourses “on the fatal hills of Rome.” I thought of how much the colonial apparatus penetrated the fabric of daily life on the peninsula. Then, once Fascism was finished, that whole history was locked away in a box. Forgotten.
Of course there were those who were nostalgic, those who wanted to return to Africa as masters. Those who wrote memoirs. But the vast majority of the Italian populace forgot they had ever had anything to do with Africa and Africans. But then, in the seventies, people from those ex colonies started coming to live in Italy. Women from Asmara, gentlemen from Mogadishu, rebels from Addis Ababa. Rome started to become a part of the Horn of Africa. And still today they keep coming from East Africa. The ships that arrive at Lampedusa, Catania, Ragusa are always full of Somalis fleeing the war and Eritreans escaping a dictatorship that is one of the fiercest in the world. On October 3rd, 2013 the Mediterranean devoured 369 Eritreans; women, children, young men. All the dreams of those shipwrecked people were washed away in that cold and hostile sea. But not one big newspaper wrote “those boys, those girls, those children are ours.” The historical link between Italy and Eritrea was not acknowledged, not recognized. In confronting this enormous tragedy Italy declared no responsibility towards Eritrea. The whole thing was silenced, forgotten, removed. And if the asylum seekers from Somalia and Eritrea are aware of this connection, Italy doesn’t want to hear it.
The real truth of Piazza di Porta Capena is that it exemplifies Italy’s inability to assume responsibility, to make a sincere pact of memory. Erecting a monument there for September 11th, without putting beside it a memorial for the victims of the nasty, ugly, dirty Italian colonialism, screams guilt and cowardice. The reality is that in Italy the apparatus of colonial racism has never been dismantled. The xenophobic theses stated by self-styled Fascist anthropologists in the 1930s Race Manifesto are still circulating in Italian society today. Nobody has defused this diseased machinery. Italy has gone through no process of de-fascisization like Germany. Italy has not dealt with its colonial past and its immense guilt. It has chosen instead to bury its head in the sand like an ostrich. But the xenophobic apparatus is ready to fire up at any time. In fact it already has. As Paola Tabet reminds us in La pelle giusta (The Right Skin):
A car engine can be switched off, can be in neutral, can rev at 5000 rpm. But even when the engine is off it remains a coordinated whole, the elements tuned and interconnected and, provided it is in good condition, it is ready to move off whenever the engine is started. The system of racist thought that is part of Italian society is like this engine: it is constructed, well-tuned and not always in motion or driving at maximum speed. Its hum can be almost imperceptible, like a good engine in neutral. At the right moment, in a moment of crisis, it can move away. In any case, in different ways and to various extents, it consumes information, materials, and lives.
In a moment of crisis, Paola Tabet says; like the one we find ourselves in now. A financial, moral, human crisis in Italy. We struggle to make ends meet and hate is rampant. So if somebody has a different colored skin or a different religion from the “norm”, he becomes the perfect sacrificial victim. The lamb of Christ sacrificed to the hate of the world. Tragically it happened to Samb Modou and Diop Mor in Florence. The Senegalese men were killed by an extreme-right sympathizer just for being black, just for being migrants. It is in moments of crisis that bygone ghosts emerge with their arsenal of racism and anti-Semitism. And this is why Faccetta nera is vomited out of ringing phones, and the threat of a holocaust is no longer so remote. A specter is roaming Europe … and it is not the specter of Marxist memory… This specter is adorned with the swastikas and fasces of a history we never want to see slither its way back into Europe. But oh how it slithers regardless. Hissing wickedness, the neo-Nazi and neo-fascist right is growing on the continent. In Hungary, Poland, Greece, Denmark and Italy … here in Rome.
But there is another Europe, a Europe that rides bicycles, that is made up of thousands of colors, that believes in multiple worlds. And that is the Europe that could blossom in places like Piazza di Porta Capena. The piazza is empty now, stripped of meaning. But what if we filled it?
I walk, I need to think…
One foot after the other, one thought after the other. How would we fill it?
There was an interesting experiment in Berlin. They tried to construct an idea of a city and a continent in an image that was different from the dominant one. Pantelis Pavlakidis and Maria Hoffmann (with the collaboration of the NGO Postkolonial) organized guided tours in the Wedding neighborhood to explore the traces of forgotten German colonialism in the area and the popular imagination. The neighborhood of Wedding is called the African Quarter because the streets have African names, like Togostraße and Kamerunstraße. Through tours and history the project aims to educate the neighborhood’s inhabitants, school students and citizenry towards an anti-racist society. The project organizers wanted to highlight that migration is not a coincidence, but is linked to a violent imperial history that continues to this day.
Africa is still the most exploited continent on the planet. Petroleum, coltan, diamonds, and a low-cost workforce are continually extracted from Africa. Colonialism is fundamental to making Europe understand its errors and use them to try to reconstruct itself differently. Not in hegemony, but in mutual respect and collective story telling.
Rome also has an African quarter: Viale Somalia, Viale Libia, Via Dire Dauda, Via Migiurtinia, Via Tripoli, Piazza Amba Alagi, Viale Etiopia, Via Cirenaica, Via Tigré. Rome could also run guided tours like the German ones. But it would be good to go even further.
I walk. I’m anxious.
Unbearable news spreads through the ether. At Ponte Galeria some migrants have sewn their lips together in protest against heinous detention in CIEs. It is an extreme hunger strike. A mute shout, deafening. The CIEs are lagers in the middle of our cities. But the institutions deny it, and the media minimizes it.
As the writer Erri De Luca wrote in an enlightening tweet:
Mouths sewn up with needle and wire in the pigsty lagers: this news will make the pages of History. Our vileness will be studied.
To forget the history that links Africa and Italy is also vile. Because by forgetting we forget that we were vile, racist, colonialist. Italiani brava gente, the most self-absolving tell you, and therefore the same mistakes continue to be made.
Yesterday it was the colonized, today it is the migrants, victims of a system that self-generates and self-absolves. This is why I am obsessed with places. It is from places that we must begin a different journey, a different Italy.
I am a child of the Horn of Africa and a child of Italy. I was born here and I owe that to this history of pain, passage and contamination. I cannot forget this history. I don’t want to forget it. And that is why, perhaps, in my own way, I am telling it.
And that is why, perhaps, I walk.
 Translator’s note: Balilla was a Fascist Youth Organization operating in Italy from 1926 to 1937. Luce is the historic Italian film institute. EIAR was the Fascist Italian public service broadcaster.
 Paola Tabet (1997), La pelle giusta, Einaudi, Turin, p. V.
Igiaba Scego was born in Rome in 1974 to a family of Somali origins. She is a writer, journalist and academic, and her novels published in English include Adua (2015) and Beyond Babylon (2019). This extract is from her nonfiction title Roma Negata. Percorsi postcoloniali nella città (Rome Suppressed: postcolonial tours of the city), published in 2014 by Ediesse, featuring photography by Rino Bianchi.