MotM Update | The News At Sea
2 May 2018
The News At Sea
“Enjoy that magic island,” a friend said after she heard I arrived on Lampedusa last week, and on a good day it is magic. On a regular day, it is Mars and we are extraterrestrials, and anything else you might imagine as normal life is lost in the wind and untraceable on your mental radar. A regular day in Lampedusa means what you know about life on earth is just in theory. I always think of that line from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971) when Charlie Bucket is scared off by the creep outside the candy plant, “Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out!” And given that you might wonder what the news is here, and how does it travel from such remote origins?
I get almost all of my news about Lampedusa from NGOs and individuals on Twitter when I am away, and from reliable friends via WhatsApp who are observing arrivals and events first-hand. Instantly I realized the value in this when a mere hour after stepping off the plane and arriving on Via Roma to check in, I met two friends who told me I was wrong, that the migrant hotspot was in fact not closed, it was open and there were people inside. In the news I had read it was closed for renovations. My friend Francesca, firebrand, and as brassy as they come said this is why you don’t trust the news.
There is no Lampedusa bureau for any paper. We are lost at sea. When you live here and forget the rhythm of the rest of the world, you can understand why there wouldn’t be.
Still, things happen that show you all of the troubles and complexities of the world are here but in microcosm. On Monday, April 23, 2018, 64 Tunisians and Algerians arrived at Molo Favoloro, the Italian coast guard dock, having traveled in a small wooden boat that appeared large enough to comfortably hold no more than ten. I met some of the men onboard a few afternoons later, speaking through one young man named Youssef (25, Tunisia) who knew enough English to translate for the group. They spent two full days and a night at sea before the coast guard got them to shore; they wanted to go direct to Sicily, but the wind had Lampedusa in store for them in the end. Youssef said it was scary at sea. He said everyone on board survived. The shop owners on the street scowl at them. There’s a history. Tunisians in the past have shoplifted, and gotten into fights after drinking beers. Lampedusans are expecting this from North Africans when the arrive now and they do not want them here. Youssef said bar owners will ask them to leave with their coffee or water in a to-go cup. They don’t want them at their tables, but I have seen some served at Bar Cristal, the sunny spot in the middle of Via Roma that seems content not to compete with the bustle of Bar Dell’Amicizia, the trendy sheen of Isola Delle Rose, or old reliable, the Royal. Youssef asked me to buy him beer because no cafes or supermarkets will sell it to him. I told him I sympathized but that I could not. Everyone was watching them. Everyone is watching me. Aside from being an outsider myself, I am also trying to make feel welcome the people Lampedusans want gone. My dear friend stopped at the cafe where I was sitting another day and told me all Tunisians are bad. I told him he was making a generalization. He discarded the notion. He said they were coming here and taking Italians’ jobs. I told him the data actually said otherwise. He discarded that with a wave too. Labor Day was yesterday and he said they should rename it because there is no more labor to be found in the country. Buona festa! As I chomped down an impromptu pizza dinner one early evening the restaurant owner wondered why I was here, and when I told her she had a fierce reaction: politics are broken in the country, and as for the migration phenomenon, we’re just tired of it, she said.
“We’re just tired of it.” The migration phenomenon is one of humanity. I said my work focused on humanity. My Italian is getting worse, I’m afraid, not better. I don’t know if that’s possible, but I am at a loss for words more than I ever remember happening before. I was too distracted by that line, “we’re just tired of it” to absorb any more. I told her before we parted ways that the migrants actually presented an opportunity, as did the low state of affairs in national politics, “How?” she asked, which was inflected to say, “Impossible.” When everything is broken this badly, when the vision you’ve established at how to look at the world and other people is this soured, there can be no other direction to go than up. It is in nobody’s best interest to feel bad, but everyone does. That’s the common point from which we pivot.
These haven’t been magic days or regular days in the past week on Lampedusa. These are tough ones. And on hard days in Lampedusa the wind is so incessant it’s antagonizing. Phone connections are weak and WiFi is unreliable. There have been almost no breaks in the gusts. The townspeople are angry at the Tunisians. The Tunisians are unhappy in the hotspot. One told me it is “stressful” inside. Another, that the food is terrible; he asked me to buy him something to eat. He showed me the video he took on his phone of their boat in the middle of the Mediterranean, before they were rescued. He is 21 years old. The sun is brighter here than in Rome, where I hope to return this afternoon, and the wind is bullying. But there is a blackout from the wind storm last night, and no running water since electricity is required to pump the water from the well. I don't know if flights are taking off. We are still here. I think by a thread. That is the flicker of news I send you from the middle of the sea.