by Peter Byrne
Valentina Loiero: Sale nero, Storie clandestine (Black Salt, Illegal Tales), Donizelli, Rome, 2007, ISBN 978-88-6036-118-9, 164 pages.
(Swans - August 27, 2007) Salt is white. If we suddenly find salt in our shaker that's black as pepper, our nerves tighten. We call for the protection of the law. There was no immigration law in Italy before 1986. Tinkering with legislation then went on till 2002 when the Bossi-Fini law was passed. (Umberto Bossi leads the xenophobic Northern League and Gianfranco Fini heads the ex-Fascist party.) Its proponents promised in typical inhumane language that their law would "improve the quality and limit the quantity" of immigrants. In practice it made lawful admittance to Italy extremely difficult and increased the number of illegal entries to a flood. The Prodi government, in power now for over a year, has moved to change the law.
Valentina Loiero, a journalist based in the far south of Italy, has a fervent interest in clandestine immigration. It's precisely her unusual warmth toward immigrants that makes her writing so valuable. Her point of view isn't that of the native resident scrutinizing the strange newcomers, but that of the immigrants themselves surveying their new environment. She actually shares their lives and anxieties, and, importantly, strives to know about their existence before they crossed the frontier into Italy.
Loiero was on hand in October 2003 when a boat that sailed from Libya with a hundred immigrants arrived in Lampedusa with only fifteen survivors. (The little island off Sicily is only a hundred and seventy miles from North Africa.) Her job entailed photographing them. The sight of the still breathing skeletons being disentangled from corpses marked her forever. In 2006, learning that two women among the survivors were in Palermo seeking a place to live, she invited them to share her home. The ensuing friendships let her see beyond accountant's lingo and the quality-quantity dimension.
Her younger guest was a Somali girl of eighteen whose impoverished mother, with six other children in tow, had entrusted her to another woman. The girl and surrogate mother made their way to Cairo. For four years they worked and saved. Then, alerted by hearsay, they proceeded to the Libyan coast where people traffickers dispatched boats to Sicily. They paid $800 each for their passage, which included bed and board in a so-called "prison house" while they waited to embark. The wait lasted eight months. When a boat was ready, the traffickers insisted the two women had not paid their passage. They had to make up another $1600 from their savings, which, unlike those of many of the other sojourners, hadn't been stolen by their hosts.
Loiero's other houseguest in Palermo said that boarding the flimsy craft was the happiest moment of her life. The long wait and the dream of Europe keyed her up, and she felt all previous horrors were behind her. These included leaving her husband and children in Somalia, crossing the Sudanese desert on foot only to be returned by the Libyans, and paying to cross the desert again in a broken-down truck. On that two-week ride, she was the only woman among thirty-six men. It topped her list of ordeals to be forgotten. She had only been kept from jumping off the vehicle by the sight of the bodies of other aspiring immigrants along the desert road.
The euphoria and haste of embarking had been such that the passengers left most of the food and water provided for the voyage on the beach. The crew of the craft had no mechanical or sailing experience. They were immigrants working their passage. The traffickers armed them, provided a compass, cans of gasoline, and advice to sail north and then northwest. The voyage, they said, would last two days.
After forty-eight hours the motor broke down and the boat drifted. Finally other passengers disarmed the crew, which had brooked no interference, and managed to repair the motor. But the following day it broke down again, this time for good. The agony of the next thirteen days of drifting is easy to imagine. Eighty died for lack of food and water. The only surprise was that during the journey the drifting vessel was passed by ten fishing or merchant craft, none of which stopped.
Another friend of the author was Sayed, a Moroccan who had entered Italy legally in 1984, two years before an immigration law was in place. He'd made a decent life for himself in Sicily. In 2006 his young sister decided to join him but, given the Bossi-Fini law, had recourse to traffickers. On an August night she was aboard a boat carrying one hundred and twenty immigrants that the Italian Navy Corvette Minerva in a mistaken maneuver cut in two. Fifty-three passengers died. Loiero helped Sayed with the formalities of returning his sister's body to Morocco but couldn't explain to him why his entry to the country had been trouble free while his sister's had led to her death.
Loiero befriended other survivors of similar incidents and relatives of those who died. Occasions were many. The arrivals at Lampedusa numbered 18,500 souls in 2006 alone. But one meeting shook her confidence in her own altruism, and transformed her book into something more than sensitive reporting on individuals in difficulty.
Shivan and Bayan were Iraqi Kurds who had suffered every sort of hardship for years in an attempt to bring their two-year-old daughter Shorash to Europe. She was desperately in need of heart surgery unavailable elsewhere. Shivan himself walked on crutches due to poliomyelitis, and Bayan had had one leg amputated from the knee down in childhood because of a birth defect. Loiero came forward to help them and became attached to the little girl. A noted surgeon at a Palermo hospital offered to treat Shorash but said it was necessary to operate immediately.
Here cultural differences that Loiero had always made light of kicked in with a bang. Shivan was away and, though Italian law permitted the operation to go ahead on Bayan's signature alone, she refused to sign. She said she wasn't an Italian and it was her husband who had to decide. Loiero found herself execrating this backwardness that reminded her of a southern Italian woman of the 1960s. When Shivan finally did turn up he objected to the operation, perhaps simply out of misunderstanding. But Loiero felt he was sacrificing his child to a plan he had in mind to proceed to France. The authorities had to be brought in to allow the operation, and Loiero ended up at odds with both parents she had wished so much to help and was prevented from seeing the child she had come to love. Her lucidity impresses:
In the space of twenty-four hours, all my rock-hard certainties on helping others, making them feel welcome, and accepting their diversity crashed. I had no intention of trying to understand his [Shivan's] motives. I felt that he was wrong, and that was all. I couldn't bear to look at this man who refused to hear opinions different from his own. (Page 103)
The following insight should be inscribed in every do-gooder's heart or at least on the cover of his checkbook:
Suddenly I felt indispensable, than which nothing is more dangerous. Helping others, as I would come to understand, is extremely delicate. It's like walking in a minefield. You can't improvise. Any of your decisions might be wrong beyond repair. In the beginning you're deceived by the feeling of well-being that goes with being useful. It's a well-being accompanied by the certitude of being right, on the right side. It's a short step from being a benefactor to becoming the champion of a cause. The illusion of omnipotence waits around the corner. (Page 101)
Perhaps it's time for novelists to add the weight of art to the question of illegal and legal entries. As Laura Boldrini of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees points out in her preface to the book, journalists of the Italian media have not managed to make it understood. The improvised arrivals by sea have been considered only in their sensational aspects and as threats to the comfort of solid citizens. While parts of the country cry out for manpower to keep the modest economic recovery going, those same well-rooted Italians -- not very prolific anymore at making bambini -- have been presented with a completely negative view if immigration.
To wind up, Loiero includes her conversation-interview with Andrea Camilleri, the dean of Sicilian writers. He brings up the recent murder of four family members at Erba near the Swiss border. The media immediately pounced on the absent father, a Tunisian who had married into an Italian clan. The man's verbal lynching followed. But the real monsters -- a two-year-old's throat had been cut -- were an Italian couple who lived next door and objected to the domestic racket of the Italo-Tunisian family. Camilleri explains:
The non-native is seen as a foreign body. Something different. The Tunisian was guilty because he wasn't like us. It's something that on the one hand frightens us because it makes an immigrant into a menace. But on the other hand it reassures us. Italians are honest and hardworking and don't do things like that. (Page 154)
Camilleri then touches the live nerve of the current European malaise. We can't continue to look on arriving immigrants as adversaries, he says. If we are to live together, both of us must yield part of our identities. He describes what should happen with the homely image of mutual adjustments in marriage. Of course he's right, but wedding bells are not ringing out in the European Union just now.
Sale nero's value is in letting us into the minds of poor voyagers on the trek towards Europe. It does so in something like their own words. Loiero is too self-effacing a writer to make the jump from journalism into art. Novelists will do that thanks to trail blazing like hers.
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