The Free State
"Man, in a word, has no nature. What he has is - history."

Friday, April 04, 2008


On Monday I talked to some people at a Partito Democratico stand in piazza Vittorio. I barely time to speak to them before this short, middle-aged Black man began yelling about how Italy mistreats foreigners and “e sbagliato”. He became very agitated, yelling and screaming, spit flying with every word. He had a well-trimmed grey beard, a halo of afro hair and sickly yellow teeth, one of them, absolutely rotten, had somehow split vertically with half missing. The ladies at the stand became very embarrassed, saying that the PD wanted to change things. He responded that Romano Prodi had recently had 2 years of government.

It then happened that he was Gambian and spoke English too. I spoke to him on the side and I gave him a sympathetic ear. He became elegiac about how much better things were in France and England, how they don’t advertise jobs at all in Italy, how they don’t let foreigners integrate, how they don’t even have Black cab drivers. I told him France and England weren’t perfect either… I asked him why he didn’t live there, and he then he burst into tears... Then he said “Ho sbagliato… I made a mistake.”

Terrible. I thought it was ironic though, what with the people I’ve met in the UK who felt a similar despair. I think he said he’d been here 17 years. I told him of Frantz Fanon, the words a cheval entre le neant et l’infini escaped me though.

We then did a whistle stop tour of African countries and Black leaders from literature to the UN. He said he was studying for his Ph. D to be an economist and statistician, planning to use the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s archives in Rome, hoping to score a job with a highbrow NGO. He pulled out this big ‘book’ of printed pages held together by a spine (very thick) with endless pages of English and Italian graphs, mathematical formulas and text of (presumably turgid) economics. We spoke for a long time. He spoke with pride of higher education in Africa, how it was much more rigorous about entry than in Europe so only the brains go through, and even of the British crown that still adorns a Gambian passport.

I think he felt better for our discussion. Nothing is more maddening, both in terms of anger and insanity, than to scream in a crowded place and not a soul hear you… they might just feel something like the embarrassment one feels when one’s toddler makes a scene. Pity is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. I asked him for his email before I told him I had to leave. He had the softest handshake without being limp while I was firm as I held his arm. His name was Sylvester.


Anonymous Wyatt said...

reminds me in an odd way of our encounter of MPflug, the old Jewish guy who invited us to the restaurant in Berlin after the Reichstag visit.

Interesting people, historically relevant in their own ways.

7:11 PM  

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