Two paramedics, a man and a woman wearing green and blue scrubs, toss biscotti to seagulls. They glance out at the open ocean. Behind them, at the old port, their empty ambulance waits. A lone jogger, wearing a sweaty knee brace, runs around the parking lot. He, too, keeps his eyes on the Mediterranean Sea. Although he looks like a tourist, he’s probably a policeman.
The island of Lampedusa is overrun with law enforcement types and immigration agents. Along with relief workers and journalists, leery policemen fill the tourist hotels, restaurants, and beaches. The town is a town of well-muscled men, impeccably tanned. They aren’t my type, frankly. Clad in their tiny white spandex banana hangers, some even brought their girlfriends along on this phony business trip. Their job is supposed to be to police the thirty-seven thousand African refugees who’ve arrived on this island of five thousand. Later, that number will spike to fifty thousand. This massive diaspora is just one side effect of the Arab Spring; it’s also a business. To keep this refugee crisis under control—and to monitor who heads north—Italy collects money from the rest of the European Union. It’s a spectacular show when the open, wooden boats come in, people huddled against the gunwales. In this human drama, the police are the supporting actors. So are the journalists like me, struggling against the cordon to talk to arrivals. So are the paramedics. We are all waiting for refugees.
For thousands of years, Lampedusa has served as a garrison for empires—including, for a time during the 1980s, America’s. On this island, the Romans made garum, a rancid fish sauce. Third-century Christians left a cemetery here. Thanks to other old bones, it’s possible to trace the island’s passage between Christian and Muslim hands until the 1840s, when Tomasi di Lampedusa—ancestor to Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa, who wrote The Leopard—sold the island to the Kingdom of Naples.
The island is politically Europe, but geographically Africa. This is the problem.
What am I doing here?
Reaching the island isn’t simple. I began this notebook in late June on a train traveling south from the Umbrian town of Perugia to Rome. From Rome I traveled to Sicily, and then on to Lampedusa. As a companion, I took along my friend and colleague, Eileen Ryan, who’s writing her dissertation at Columbia University on Libya. She lives between New York and Rome and speaks fluent Italian. My capacity for the language could be described as remedial restaurant, lots of grand gestures and foul-mouthed nouns to compensate for all I can’t say.
On the train, it strikes me that I’ve done a very stupid thing. I’ve left the castle and fifteenth-century farmhouse belonging to Civitella Ranieri, a tiny artists’ colony near the town of Gubbio, where my only job was to read the poet Propertius, or whoever I chose, and maybe to write some poems. Propertius was born in Assisi during the first century bce. He seems to have been a bit of a recluse. A poet’s poet, he was Elizabeth Bishop in a toga. And he didn’t seem to be constantly kissing imperial ass like some of his contemporaries. His humor allowed him to see himself. “Where are you rushing to, Propertius, wandering rashly, babbling on about Fate?” Clad in a bathrobe, I read this and waded into warm, morning dirt and to zucchini flowers off the vine for truffle frittatas.
So, what, I wonder, on this train to Rome, am I doing leaving that paradise for the coming chaos of refugees? I need a break from silence and a hit of the world. Also, it’s my responsibility. Having reported in Africa for more than a decade, it’s my job to pay attention when Africa washes up on the shores of Europe. So as the crisis struck, I sent a note to one of my magazine editors (not the editor of this one), asking if I could go cover the story.
Also, I write better poems on the move and in odd landscapes. Being in unusual places allows me to feel that I have both an authority to speak and something to say. I can imagine myself as having a frank, fierce encounter with what’s real, even if this has nothing to do with the external world. It is easier to believe the poems are necessary.
Others before me have done the same double work, including James Fenton and Ryszard Kapuscinski, to name the two best. In both, a rage crops up in the poems that is fed by the reportage.
We talk about survivor’s guilt, but not about observer’s guilt. For journalists this is particularly acute, as we are paid to watch suffering and paid more during war. For poets, it’s even worse. It’s Adorno for the twenty-first century. The incomparable horror of Auschwitz has given way to Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq.
It is not what they built. It is what they knocked down.
It is not the houses. It is the spaces between the houses.
It is not the streets that exist. It is the streets that no longer exist.
It is not your memories which haunt you.
It is not what you have written down.
It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget.
What you must go on forgetting all your life.
And with any luck oblivion should discover a ritual.
From “A German Requiem,” by James Fenton
I wrote stone
I wrote house
I wrote town
I shattered the stone
I demolished the house
I obliterated the town
From “I Wrote Stone,” by Ryszard Kapuscinski
The Africans arriving from Libya aren’t Libyans. They’re citizens of Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Nigeria, among other nations. Many are refugees who fled to Libya from their home countries. For years they’ve been trying to outrun Muammar el-Qaddafi, who, in turn, has been blocking their passage to Europe. Along with Libyan oil, Qaddafi’s horrific immigration prisons guaranteed him friends in Europe.
Two months after I visited Lampedusa, twenty-five Africans arrived dead in one boat. Five months later, a stunned Qaddafi was murdered by a Libyan mob.
At the time of my visit, however, such events were beyond imagining. Qaddafi was carrying out his threat to swamp Europe with Africans in a kind of human body warfare reminiscent of Fidel Castro’s 1980 Mariel Boatlift, when Castro allowed 124,000 Cubans to flee by boat and overwhelm south Florida. The Libyan ambassador in Italy, Hafez Qaddour, said that Qaddafi “wanted to turn Lampedusa black with Africans.”
It’s impossible to ask new arrivals questions about any of this—or about anything else. As soon as they arrive on, or even near, the island, Italian coast guard ships approach most of the vessels, load the refugees up by the hundreds, ship them into port and deliver them to shore, where they are numbered before being run through a waiting line of police, Red Cross, and other emergency workers, and boarded onto repurposed tourist buses. The buses take them to “centers,” which are immigration prisons, surrounded by barbed wire. Filo spinato sounds less punative in Italian.
The refugees arriving from Libya spend between a few days and a few weeks on the island until their numbers swell to two thousand. At that point, they are loaded onto a ferry and taken to the island of Sicily and to the Italian mainland to yet another center, and another, until eventually, they are granted asylum and allowed to stay in Italy or travel north to other European countries.
The refugees arriving from Tunisia are a different case. Because their lives aren’t at risk if they’re returned to their country, Tunisians are regularly sent home against their will. This is one reason why they’re generally more unruly than the newly arrived sub-Saharan Africans: they have nothing to gain by being cooperative. Two years ago on Lampedusa, someone set fire to the Tunisian immigration prison. I hear different things about who started the blaze. First, it was lit by very pissed-off Tunisians. Second, it was lit by very pissed-off locals, who didn’t want their island, which survives on tourism, to become a safe haven for African refugees, especially Tunisians. Four months later, hundreds escaped from a center and marched around calling for freedom.
“Tunisians are like extreme Sicilians,” Francesco Luciforo says. “Put them on the surface of the moon, they will survive.”
I meet Luciforo, forty-five, whose last name means what it looks like, among the crowd at the dock awaiting the arriving sinking boats. Behind the wheel of the tourist bus-cum-refugee transport, which he drives, he’s wearing a yellow hazmat suit. It’s not in my notes, but I remember him smoking.
The Africans arriving from Libya have been so poorly treated under Qaddafi that they are terrified. They do what they’re told. Luciforo says: “Poor things, if you tell them to stay somewhere, they’ll stay there. Even if the end of the world comes, they won’t move.”
Luciforo has been driving this bus for more than a year. Before that, he worked for a Christian volunteer group called Misericordia. Workers collected on the dock during refugee season. The name Misericordia is familiar. I realize I heard it last week when I was with fellow Civitella artists touring the Umbrian town of Sansepolcro. There, in the famous Piero della Francesca triptych, a hooded man kneels at the base of the cross. He looks like a hangman, but in fact he’s a member of this group, Misericordia. While they were doing charity work among the sick and dying, they wore black masks to protect against disease, and to protect their identity so they couldn’t be thanked. I imagine Luciforo in his yellow hazmat suit and a hood.
“Luciforo, what have you seen that you can’t forget?” I ask.
“One night, I watched mothers throw their babies into the sea. They popped up like corks,” he says.
Midway down the island’s main drag, Via Roma, I find the American Bazaar. The gift shop’s shelves are lined with sleazy seashell ashtrays, canvas bags, pastel sea turtle T-shirts. Owning the American Bazaar is Luciforo’s far less lucrative job. These days no one comes in. His Sicilian grandfather sold American goods, garters. And that’s where he got his nickname. Now Omericano is Luciforo’s nickname also. It sounds like half Homer, half American.
Across Via Roma, there’s another shop called Pakistani Bazaar: a successful street corner of globalization. I stop in. The owner, a rich man from Lahore, sells high-end shalwar kameez as beach cover-ups. Business is terrible. “I tell other Pakistanis not to come to Europe now,” he says. “But they think I’m trying to keep something good for myself.”
Hoping for refugees. Rough winds. No one comes.
We are always watching the sea.
The first sign of their arrival is a disappearance. The hulking gray coast guard boats that wait in the harbor cast off from their moorings. They head out to sea to escort the wooden refugee boats in to shore. I am growing desperate. To try to speak to the refugees, I rent a boat. It’s an unusual measure and has to be handled with some tact at the dock.
“We’d like to rent a boat,” my friend Eileen tells the man at the boat stand.
“That’s fifty Euros plus a captain—you need a captain,” he says, looking us up and down. We don’t look like journalists, partly because Eileen has insisted we pull ourselves together.
“The captain will cost you nothing—a regalo—a gift,” a man behind him in the shack says.
Pino, our captain, is a laconic fisherman who would be shuttling tourists, but none are coming thanks to the news, broadcast by journalists like us, that the island is overrun with refugees.
He asks us where we want to go and I lay it out straight: we want to go close to the coast guard boats of refugees. We want to talk to them. He’s disappointed. He’d hoped we were tourists. We compromise.
First, he takes us swimming in caves the ocean has scoured out of the base of white, limestone cliffs on Isola dei Conigli, Rabbit Island. Where the water meets the rock, the cliffs are the color of sulfur. The salt must create this hideous color in reaction to limestone.
“Ci sono medusas?” Are there jellyfish? I am petrified of being stung after an incident on the Aeolian island Stromboli.
Pino peers over the gunwale and sees none. “If you’re going in, go in,” he says. We dive in the cold water. Back on the boat, he talks politics with Eileen.
“Since there are no tourists, maybe I should advertise trips to see the immigrants,” he says in dark Sicilian humor. “I’m just joking. Don’t write that down.” I smile and write it down. “The refugee problem isn’t only Muammar el-Qaddafi’s fault,” he says. “Qaddafi is just one crazy man. This government is shit.”
Berlusconi’s government is failing. To shore up its base, the prime minister came to Lampedusa a few months ago and promised to bring the situation under control. Keeping refugees off the streets is a political necessity. Apparently, Berlusconi said he’d buy a house here on the island, too, as if that would be any solution. That promise hasn’t materialized.
Refugees are just living widgets in this human commerce that surrounds us. We are part of it. Italy gets cash from the European Union. The private company that runs the centers is paid well per head. The people (like Luciforo) who work in the centers are paid well, too. Everyone knows this.
“The refugees are a business,” Pino says, echoing my thoughts. Beyond the basics of his conversation, I can’t catch his dark jokes. Eileen laughs and translates what’s especially telling. Their conversation becomes a backdrop, impersonal as the sound of waves. I have no responsibility to it. Sometimes I love not speaking a language. I find conversation exhausting much of the time, and the excuse not to participate can be a relief.
I pick up my notebook:
Garrison island, let me find
in your deprivation, my love
of deprivation, in your bleakness,
my bleakness, in your frank cliffs
the same. Teach me to align
my will with what is.
They’re coming. Crammed onto the foredeck of a gunmetal coast guard boat, around three hundred men and a handful of women from Ghana, Sudan, Somalia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Eritrea and Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh grin and wave. They wear fake fur-trimmed ski parkas, woolen hats, backpacks, bandanas, the silver and gold mylar blankets given to marathon runners and hypothermia victims.
“Where are we?” a man shouts down to us on the deck of our rented boat. He, too, is wearing a cap and ski parka to ward off the brutal blue sky.
“Lampedusa! You’re safe!” I shout back. “Where are you from?”
I try to shout more questions as a coast guard shoos our gnat of a white boat away. Pino complies. I watch the boat dock, and the arrivals file quietly one by one from the vessel. They drag wheelie suitcases, carry white plastic bags and babies in snowsuits. A Red Cross worker shouts out their number as they step onto firm earth: “Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven.”
Immigranti is the polite term. It’s the one islanders use when speaking to outsiders. Turki is the actual name for the arrivals. It’s slang for invaders. The Turks captured the island so many times throughout history that the harbor is named for them: Baia Turkia—Bay of Turks. This is another invasion. A huge yellow sign atop a hotel, Hotel Baia Turchese, dominates the harbor and serves as the proscenium for arriving refugees.
A leather-hued man wearing a sea turtle T-shirt marches down the bobbing dock toward the Sky tv News crew. He’s upset. Their ninety seconds of stand-up over, they’re shutting down their cameras. The reporter replaces her baseball cap. The man she’s just interviewed, the head of the coast guard wearing a dress-white uniform and Ray-Bans, relights his cigarillo as he walks down the dock toward a green convertible.
The man in the turtle T-shirt begins to shout, although he’s clearly trying to restrain himself. “It’s right that you are filming them,” he says, pointing to the departing buses of refugees in the background. “Now turn your cameras around and film them, too.” On the Hotel Baia Turchese beach behind our small crowd of reporters, scantily clad sunbathers dip their Mediterranean toes in the Mediterranean Sea. They’re policemen, of course, but that’s not his point. From this distance, they appear to be tourists. “This is not a crisis!” he continues. The Sky tv reporter called the refugee situation just that—a crisis—about an hour ago. All of us now on the dock watched her broadcast at the port’s nearby cafe while we stood at the bar drinking our morning coffee.
Tan turtle T-shirt goes on: “While you’re paying attention to all of these immigrants, we’re getting into debt. No one is coming to Lampedusa. When this situation ends, and you go away, we’re going to end up in prison.” He thrusts his wrists towards the reporters, gesturing as if wearing the manacles of debtors’ prison. The summer season begins within days. The arrival of good weather is supposed to mean the arrival of tourists. Instead it means safe passage for refugees.
Among the chocolate-haired Italians still on the dock, one sprightly red-bearded man stands out. He squints from beneath a floppy farmer’s hat as if the sun was an assault. Andrew is a forty-one-year-old New Zealander who won’t give his last name or his phone number. “This work is too controversial.” It’s not like he’s working undercover: he’s wearing a bright yellow crossing guard vest that reads “Christian Century.” He’s a missionary here to preach to African Muslims. Still, Andrew’s irritated at being approached by a reporter. I couldn’t help but spot him. I’ve spent so much time in places where missionaries are the only white faces other than mine, I’ve developed a kind of ecclesiastical radar.
Before several months ago, I knew of Lampedusa only as the ancestral home of the charismatic aristocrat who wrote The Leopard. I once stayed with his elegant nephew in Sicily, where he runs a hotel with his wife. Here I learn that it was Qaddafi who put Lampedusa on the contemporary world map. In 1986, to challenge the United States, Qaddafi lobbed missiles at the Loran Base, a us military listening post. Suddenly, the world turned its attention to this tiny imperiled island.
Looking more closely at the coastline, I notice it’s littered with wwii bunkers. Unlike most of the beautiful, clean lines of fascist architecture of that period, these bunkers are right off the set of Dr. Who: the concrete imaginings of someone who designed modern warfare to look forbidding. The military ruins are impossible to enter; their broken steps steeped in pee and human shit. I wonder whose—maybe refugees on the lam? Who else would hike out to these desolate trenches to micturate?
There’s a sign in the new port addressed to journalists like me. A lefty youth organization posted it a couple of years ago. Eileen and I translate aloud:
A smile for the press: While you follow aid and immigrants, Lampedusa runs the risk of discounting this emergency, which you compose of summary information that’s reductive and sometimes false. You present the immigrants’ arrival as an aggression, a threat we should fear. Furthermore, you have no respect for those who arrive in inhuman conditions, and suffer in vain. This includes the economic/touristic effects on the inhabitants of Lampedusa, despite their tireless work. Stop the reality show.
Everyone here is an immigrant. Everyone came from somewhere else.
The man-made cave is a hollowed-out boulder scorched by centuries of fire. Fig and olive trees, papery bougainvillea blossoms line the walkway between the grotto and a nearby church. From Christian to Muslim to Christian again, this island has changed its religion as empires have risen and fallen since the third century.
At the grotto, our unlikely tour guide is Jaafar Kriden, a Tunisian refugee who has just been granted political asylum in Italy. Eileen and I meet him by accident in front of a hair salon near the old port when we stop to ask him directions. He proposes a tour of the island, and we accept.
He describes his plight as a political refugee, assuming that we will find him sympathetic. He sees himself as a victim of history. If he goes home to Tunisia, he might be targeted as a former lackey of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, the country’s recently overthrown dictator, who held power for more than twenty years. Jaafar Kriden served as the party’s treasurer in his town. To save his skin, once revolution broke out on January 14, 2011, Jaafar Kriden asked his parents for a few thousand dollars and hopped the next boat out of the country.
As we walk the mile up and back from town to the grotto, Kriden tries to convince us that single party rule—dictatorship—is the best system for Tunisia. He says eyebrow-raising things like: “Arab countries aren’t ready for democracy.”
I’ve noticed that tyrants the world over love that line; it transforms their repression into benevolence, caretaking. I’ve also noticed that in the soporific heat of many such equatorial nations, I find myself nodding along to such statements, lulled by seeming common sense until I remember to whom I’m listening.
There are three boat graveyards on Lampedusa: one inland at the town dump, one by the harbor, another in the water. The wheelhouses of wrecked vessels poke out of the water. The refugee boats could belong to Lampedusa’s fishermen, except for the Arabic names scrawled on their blue hulls and the green dates spray-painted on each, the dates of their landing. The boat graveyards are so rife with facile poetry that I avoid visiting them until the very end of my visit. When I do, I attempt to record the physical details, the tinsel of used Mylar blankets, the names—Hajji Hassan, Basam—and none of the wistfulness the ruined boats imply.
While the refugees are hidden away, there are two black faces visible on Lampedusa. One belongs to the woman on the napkin dispenser at the port cafe. She smiles from every table, her face emerging from a sea of coffee beans: “The Pleasure of Black” reads the slogan beneath her disembodied head. The other face belongs to Father Vincent Mwagala, a Catholic priest and very different kind of missionary who has come from Tanzania to work among the refugees and islanders here.
Above his desk there’s a cross made of two ribs of sunk refugee boats. Orange crosses blue. The priest is as frustrated as I am about the impossibility of speaking to arriving refugees. “We know they’ve arrived but we don’t have contact with them,” he says. On rare occasions he talks to arriving sub-Saharan Africans coming from Libya. “Life is difficult for them there. They are poorly treated in different ways. Their labor is unpaid and when they go to report it, the police pay no attention to them. It’s worse if you don’t speak Arabic.” I ask him if he’s suffering here, and he says something odd. It’s in English, so I’m sure I’ve heard it right:
“I’m suffering like a woman who is bearing a child.”
I ask him to repeat it.
“I’m suffering like a woman who is bearing a child.”
I ask him to elaborate.
“Look at the faces of those arriving. The world has to change. It’s time to look in the face of one another and learn the needs of one another. Poor people in this world don’t even have a blade of grass.”
His boss enters: Father Stefano Nastas—portly, smoking. Around him swirls a ponytailed, self-styled manservant who makes a steady stream of espressos in tiny plastic cups that remind me of the dentist’s rinse-and-spit variety. Nastas seems irritated by this Italian gadfly. He’s as down to earth as they come. He’s a Franciscan, and I notice a replica of the San Damiano Cross of St. Francis on the wall, the one that spoke to the saint centuries ago.
I ask him if, in his opinion, Lampedusa is more Europe or Africa.
“Geographically this is Africa but politically this is Europe.”
“What side of the story is the press missing?” I ask.
“The human side,” he says.
He allowed five thousand Tunisians to sleep in the church when the boats didn’t stop a few months ago. Although they were Muslims, they came to Mass and made their own gestures in front of the cross when it passed before them.
In the foyer of the ugly church, there’s a bit of an ancient gravestone. It says, “Here lies someone who died of the plague.”
Across the piazza, there’s a little museum for the found leavings of refugees. Here are the things that wash up: plates, water bottles, prayer books in every imaginable language. Its curator is Giacomo Sferlazzo, in dreadlocks, who is a painter and musician (he gives me a cd). These few photographs, the odd shoe, and water-warped id cards are most of what he sees of the refugees.
“The refugees are like ghosts,” he says, “you don’t see them on Lampedusa. You see them in Rome, in Milan. This island is a frontier—a bridge between Africa and Europe.”
Immigration is a kind of sham, he thinks.
“We’re the ones who arm dictators and terrorists in Libya and Eritrea, so we’re the ones at fault. All of this is a consequence of post-colonialism. No one cares about Africa. They follow their own interests in maintaining control to exploit resources.”
I am not going to write an article about this trip. I am going to write only this notebook, because I don’t think that what I’ve seen here, the story I’ve been able to gather with the refugees at such a distance, is a matter of news. What I’ve seen is a complicated set piece, a drama, which I’ve watched only as a member of the audience sat before the false proscenium. I’ve experienced violence firsthand that far outstrips what I’ve encountered here on Lampedusa. But this violence is equally sinister—it’s aboard the ships, it’s in the prisons, it’s in Tripoli. I think of what Wallace Stevens says in The Necessary Angel. A poet has no moral role. A poet has to use imagination to press back against the violence of reality. I don’t agree. He also wrote that reality was growing more insistent, more violent. I agree with that.
From the farmhouse porch, I read his poem “Farewell to Florida”:
Go on, high ship, since now, upon the shore,
The snake has left its skin upon the floor.
Key West sank downward under massive clouds
And silvers and greens spread over the sea. The moon
Is at the mast-head and the past is dead.
High ships. High ships. High ships.
High ships come in bearing black strangers
who call over the harbor, Where are we?
Arrivals, it will get worse.
The island is running out of water.
Prison awaits. From some distance,
you saw the steel lintel of Europe’s doorway
standing open. There is no door—
a yellow hello hung with your forefather’s shoes,
a cross nailed from the ribs of your sunk ships,
paper prayer scraps, one million calls
to the wrong God. Be grateful
you wear that fake-fur parka,
the violet, pompomed hat; you drag
that odd wheelie bag, the snow-suited baby.
Among defunct bunkers on this tropical rock
it’s difficult to conceive of winter.
And you, giddy with surviving war elsewhere,
unsure of who you should please,
grin at every white face
and wave wildly down to me
as I shout welcome from a rental skiff.
My job is to learn where you’re from.
I’ve come by water to reach you
before the police. We have seconds.
Ignore my pleasantries.
Demand what my straw hat costs,
how much I pay for my skin.
I don’t say go north. Stay off the train.