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Street Boy, I Think of You – Part 2

Croton-on-Hudson, NY

Well, Rodriguez has made it into my daily routine. I remember his lyrics, his riffs, his pauses. It’s time to post a review of his second and last album so far, “Coming From Reality”.

There is little doubt that if “Cold Fact” didn’t make it into the US charts, there would be no game for “Coming From Reality“, which came out only one year later in 1971. Rodriguez was playing around in Midwestern bars while Jimi Hendrix was already a legend and the Beatles had already disbanded. Johnny Cash was The Man In Black and Bob Dylan was living his fame. Rodriguez was to become only a musician by night: his new album sold only few copies in the US and his record label dropped him… two weeks before Christmas, as he mentions in “Cause”, although the song was recorded months before the release and the sacking. He would move on to work in factories in pre-crisis Detroit.

“Coming From Reality” is a dark album. There are almost no cheerful lines in Rodriguez’s poetry here. Climb Up on My Music seems a call to the listener, it’s about trust, Rodriguez says: there was a girl named Christmas, / Did I tell ya she drank gold?. Not much sense, just blind trust is what Rodriguez needs from his audience. At least at a first glance. His guitar laments his way into the next track A Most Disgusting Song, which is perhaps the cleverest, reflecting on the craft and the stress of being a musician. The simplicity with which he treats his audience is reflected in the casual name-dropping (Jimmy “Bad Luck” Butts, old playboy Ralph, Mr. Flood, Linda, Tim, Tom, Martha…). The message targets the routine, the dullness, the literally disgusting never-ending present: everyone’s drinking the detergents / that cannot remove their hurts … every night it’s the same old thing / Getting high, getting drunk, getting horny. Then, oh, a sweet love song… about a lost love; I Think Of You is not a song about the break up, but tracks the nostalgic feeling that comes months, years after the end of a relationship. A psychedelic trip starts suddenly thereafter with Heikki’s Suburbia Bus Tour, a crazy ride, with verses that chase each other in a hectic and messy manner: Rodriguez warns to look out for the cops and the itchy trigger fingers, but no-one disagrees that happiness is free on Heikki’s suburbia bus tour ride. A lullaby-like love song turns the mood back to sad-mode: Silver Words? is about the odd feeling of having a chance with the person that made you fall in love. The violin gets introduced by the end of the song and comes back in the next track Sandrevan Lullaby – Lifestyle, back to the real blues, but with string instruments resounding like an orchestra. “America gains another pound / Only time will bring some people around / Idols and flags are slowly melting” – it’s always winter in Rodriguez’s calendar. To Whom It May Concern is actually addressed pretty accurately, despite the title, to those who are waiting for love. The song would thematically fit perfectly in between “Silver Words” and “I Think Of You”. Then It Started Out So Nice throws you into a magic world… of sorrow and melancholy, of course, but still magic. Again some name-dropping, this time mythical: Genji, the Ixea mountains, Orion, etc. From the sea to the skies, it was a great love, remembered with the words of somebody who knows, that love is lost. Coming from fantasy, back to reality, Halfway Up The Stairs is another song about missed opportunities, half-baked ideas, unfinished tasks. Here comes the masterpiece of the album: Cause. From his oft-cited inner city to the local factory, the working class seems to cry through Rodriguez’s voice: Cause they told me everybody’s got to pay their dues / And I explained that I had overpaid them. The album ended here with an Estonian Archangel, Molly McDonald, Willy Thompson, and Annie Johnson, the common names of common people, exceptional figures of the constant, flat present.

Three more songs were added in later editions of the album, particularly in the bootleg version distributed in South Africa, where Rodriguez was a constant feature on the radio (the few allowed tracks) and in basements. I’ll Slip Away, Can’t Get Away and Street Boy are about journeys, of course. In the first track, Rodriguez communicates the uneasiness of conformity and the inability to continue a relationship, be it a sentimental or a political one: Now I’m tired of lying and I’m sick of trying / Cause I’m losing who I really am / And I’m not choosing to be like them. In the second song, Rodriguez explains his origins with a touch of color: Born in the troubled city / In Rock and Roll, USA / In the shadow of the tallest building / I vowed I would break away, but he can’t. Then, my personal favorite, Street Boy, which speaks of a nomadic and innocent life, perhaps naive. The singer gives some grown-up advice to the boy, but acknowledges his need to get away and find himself. The last word is a warning though: you’ll never find or ever meet / Any street boy who’s ever beat the streets.

This concludes my two-part praise of my new favorite musician and songwriter. Click here for the first part and here for more guesses on the meanings of his lyrics.

Street Boy, I Think of You – Part 1

Croton-On-Hudson, NY

I met Rodriguez only three weeks ago, on a lazy post-graduation morning. It shattered my views on American ballads and protest songs in one, jaw-dropping experience. I wanted to watch the documentary Searching for Sugarman for a year, since I saw the poster and the mysterious aura around it in the streets of Tallinn. Only three months ago, I was concentrating on Viktor Tsoy’s Russian lyrics, which are bare-boned and melancholic. Then Rodriguez blew my mind.

Rodriguez, Sixto, Jesus, whatever his name, is better than Bob Dylan, better than Johnny Cash. Who’s Neil Young? Why is Paul Simon not showing up, overshadowing this little known songwriter? How does a blue-collar working man-turned musician (and/or the other way around) get to #1 in someone’s 2014 ranking by releasing only two albums in 1970 and 1971?

The quick answer is: I have no idea, but it did.

I saw the documentary, almost in tears for both the story and the depth of the lyrics in his songs, masterpieces of songwriting. I’m of course not a musician or a songwriter, but my brain and my ears keep exchanging high-fives. Every word is spelled out as if it was the last one coming out of Rodriguez’s mouth. Every song has a rhythm that fits the verses, which are built carefully, like a domino structure: once you hit play, something beautiful unravels. Here’s my take on “Cold Fact“, released by Sussex in March 1970 in the United States, which sold only a few thousand copies until success hit back in the 90s and after the release of the documentary. Thirty minutes of awesomeness buried deep in radio station archives, until better PR got it to the masses.

The repetitiveness of Sugar Man closely resembles the addict hailing the pusher for more. This song is the formal entrance by Rodriguez into your veins. Only Good For Conversation brings you to a harsher sound of protest towards some customary behaviors, more to come, undoubtedly. Crucify Your Mind is the masterpiece: Was it a huntsman or a player / That made you pay the cost / That now assumes relaxed positions / And prostitutes your loss? Again, the entrance punches you at each pause. Then a long title that would never make it through radios, charts, or memories This Is Not A Song, It’s an Outburst: Or, The Establishment Blues, a protest song that reminds me of Simon & Garfunkel’s The Only Living Boy In New York only because it has a better weather-related verse: Public gets irate but forget the vote date / Weatherman complaining, predicted sun, it’s raining […] I opened the window to listen to the news / But all I heard was the Establishment’s Blues – try to get more contemporary than that. Hate Street Dialogue is against the state’s monopoly on the use of violence against its own citizens: A dime, a dollar they’re all the same / When a man comes to bust your game. / The turnkey comes, his face a grin / Locks the cell I’m in again. There’s one or two things Johnny Cash could learn from Rodriguez’s crude images here. Thanks for your time, then you can thank me for mine, that’s the first verse of Forget It, about love that has worn out. No begging, like to the local sugar man, just forget it. Inner City Blues is another angry song which repeats the album title Cold Fact over and over, while building clever braids with lyrics that could make sense even if you listened only to one every two verses. Will it ever all be straight / I doubt it, says Rodriguez, while making again Christian references. Then comes the bass. The supporting band for his first concert in South Africa played the riff for minutes, while the crowd was cheering  their idol, before he could finally open the song with the now-famous verse I WonderI wonder about the love you can’t find / And I wonder about the loneliness that’s mine – an uneasy song, less lyric-focused but an incredibly catchy tune. Like Janis is again a great ballad with snappy and clever verses that are better served with the music. A bit more disturbing to the ear is Gommorah (A Nursery Rhyme) is a surprising blues track with an actual nursery rhyme within. Help your kids to dream with a Biblical tale about hate, says Rodriguez. Once more, a protest song follows. Rich Folks’ Hoax has an ironic take on the class-system: Rich folks have the same jokes / And they park in basic places. Jane S. Piddy is a weird song that will be repeated in its concept in the second album. Among incredibly poetic lyrics, random name-dropping happens. Who are all these people, nobody knows and nobody cares, I guess that’s the message.

I saw my reflection in my father’s final tears
The wind was slowly melting, San Francisco disappears
Acid heads, unmade beds, and you Woodward world queers

If this has not been enough for you, then don’t bother to wait for the next post, which will take on Rodriguez’s second and last (so far) studio album.

Stampa estera, Foreign press, зарубежная пресса

Almaty, Kazakhstan 

This is a trilingual post, perché non mi capiscono когда по-итальянский говорю.

Dieci giorni fa, un blog kazako ha ripreso un mio articolo apparso su “L’Indro” sull’Affaire Ablyazov.Fin qui, ero contento.

Poi ho scoperto, che per un problema di interpretazione dei pronomi utilizzati, il curatore dell’articolo aveva fondamentalmente travisato il messaggio che avevo scritto.

Avrei detto che un giovane imprenditore sarebbe diventato il prossimo presidente del Kazakistan. E lo sapevo solo io?

No, secondo il blog, la loro fallace interpretazione delle mie parole rifletterebbe un sentimento condiviso nella stampa estera.

Di nuovo, contento di essere letto con attenzione in Kazakistan, ma contrariato dall’incapacità di tradurre per bene (dall’italiano al russo).

Ho lasciato un commento sul post, ma solo dopo che più di 4.000 persone avevano visitato la pagina.

Ora capisco come si creano i cicloni di false notizie.

Andiamo avanti.

Ten days ago, a blog in Kazakhstan reported an article of mine on the Ablyazov Affaire, published on “L’Indro”.Up to this point, I was happy.

Then I discovered that, due to a problem with the interpretation of the pronouns I used, the person that blogged the piece fundamentally missed the point of my message.

I apparently said that a young entrepreneur would have become the next president of Kazakhstan. And was I the only one who knew?

Not according to their blog. In their opinion, the fallacious interpretation of my words reflects a feeling common in the whole foreign press.

Again, I’m happy that people in Kazakhstan read me, but I’m grumpy, for they are incapable of translating well (from Italian into Russian).

I wrote a comment on the post, but only after more that 4,000 people had visited the page.

Now I know how small mis-interpretations become hurricanes of false news.

Let’s go forward.

Десять дней назад, блог в Казахстане сообщил, мою статью на Аблязова Affaire, опубликованным на “L’Indro”.До этого момента, я был счастлив.

Тогда я узнал, что, из-за проблем интерпретации местоимений, которые я использовал,  блогер существенно ошибился мысль моего сообщения.

Я, видимо, сказал, что молодой предприниматель стал бы следующим президентом Казахстана. И был я единственный, кто знал?

Не по их блога. По их мнению, ошибочна интерпретация моих слов отражает общее мнение, которое можно увидеть на зарубежной прессе.

Опять же, я счастлив, что люди в Казахстане меня читают, но я я недоволен, потому, что они не смогли хорошо переводить (с итальянского на русский).

Я написал комментарий на блоге, но только после более 4000 человек посмотрили страницу.

Теперь я знаю, как маленькая плохая интерпретация становятся ураганы ложных новостей.

Давайте вперед пойдём.

Word choice

Oakland, CA

As the date of my departure from the United States approaches, I look back at some reading I did a week ago and how it crystallized my opinion on the importance of words. Of the many that our bottle-shaped brain contains, only a few words emerge in times of excitement, i.e. lack of thoughtful planning (for example when we speak or when we write a blogpost off sudden inspiration). Sometimes words go missing, sometimes they are misplaced. But what makes it through the neck of the bottle sometimes would be worth keeping under the cork.

“The great enemy of clear language is insincerity.” So let’s be sincere: I like George Orwell (pen name for Eric Arthur Blair, an Englishman who lived the earliest 47 years of the past century). So when I found his archives on the internet, I chose to read his short article ‘Politics and the English Language’ (Horizon London April 1946). With his attack vis-à-vis the twilight of the language (an expression I here use on purpose to show what he was going against,) Orwell tries to make sense of a language that is perhaps the youngest, most lively, and most influenced of all. He acknowledges the poetic appeal of Latin, Greek, or foreign words. Nonetheless, he draws a well-defined border between poetry and prose: while poetry could be the art of playing with words, worshiping or slaying them, “in prose, the worst thing one can do with words is surrender to them.” He speaks to the writer, begging s/he to “let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.” It’s very hard to do so in a world where all we get from the mass media is sensationalistic headlines and synomyms and acronyms have substituted (and simplified) phrases and concepts on Twitter.

Times change: true, “but if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Orwell is very wise on this point. It is politically relevant to consider what words are being put after another. Sometimes we think there’s no better way of phrasing our thoughts than with a weird roundabout of meaningless foreign-sounding buzz words. In fact, there’s almost infinite ways of phrasing what comes to mind, especially because the second it pops up is probably a yet-underdeveloped thought. Think more about it and you’re going to use more words to define it. Put it on paper and you’re going to cross out some of those words and add some others to specify what you are thinking. Then you define your audience and you choose whether to adjust to it or try to impose your way of understanding and defining your concept. It is the writer (or the speaker) who defines the standard of effectiveness. To publish a best-selling book is not a big deal once you’ve been chosen by a major editorial company, which can operate a giant advertising machine for you. To write that book well and to reach the goal of entertaining, stimulating, and educating people – which goes beyond statistics and royalties – is a much harder task, which most of the times is not reflected by the ranking of the book on the New York Times or Amazon charts.

When it comes to politics, the whole lingo of specific parties and the politically-charged semantics activate a whole sector of academia (political discourse analysis) and deviate the attention from the actual meaning of the propositions. Politicians and political writers are also conscious that the public’s ears need to be unlocked by a few keywords and they are willing to carefully review the “impact factor” of certain words in their oratorial flow in order to both attract consensus and to maintain their “branded” standard on record. Obama is not going to say “job creators” as well as Romney is not going to spell out “government intervention”, although neither of them thinks either concept is too far away from their politics. The official political discourse sometimes seems artificially constructed in order to create a rift in the way politicians refer to issues as opposed to their actual position on them.

All things considered, I agree with one of Orwell’s main points: the reason of the impoverishment of the language and the possible remedies. His analysis is far from being a defense of archaism and of pretty and well-thought styles. He thinks the goal of a writer should be to “make pretentiousness unfashionable” and gain back the meaning. Towards such purpose, he proposes a few rules that should accompany the craft of writing (and I would add: of speaking). Here are his rules, posted here as a friendly reminders, to my readers and to myself:

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I just wish I had a deeper knowledge of the English language to make this post sound as it should according to those rules. However, a question arises: should romance languages, (or for that matter any other language) have the same kind of goals? Who decided that prose can’t be poetic? Darn, I just circled back into the atavistic dilemma of the genuine motive behind the kidney of language… Oops! Orwell just threw up in his own grave.

Capitalist Anti-Semitism

Oakland, CA

Jean-Paul Sartre tickles my mind. So, when I come across one of his books that I haven’t already read, I grab it and I  take it home. There it sits for a while, until the time is ripe (and my mind is free). This time I didn’t go for either a novel or a theatrical piece. I approached a libellum titled “Anti-Semite and Jew” written in France in 1944 (date and place are important in this respect). Knowing that Sartre is not Jewish and that he is politically a Marxist, I couldn’t answer the riddle that the title created until I read the first pages. In line with much existentialist literature of the time, JPS chose an issue of current socio-political relevance in order to abstract the fundamental question further up to a more general level. Just like Sartre in his narrative, here I would like to express my pleasure for reading the book and my take-home lesson with a very simple language.

Jean-Paul Sartre’s Anti-Semite and Jew (here I include free versions: html and pdf) was written in 1944, after the Nazi occupation was over in France, but well before the war ended and the crimes against the Jews were fully disclosed and accounted. The title in French is more elusive: Réflexions sur la question juive is less provocative and more to the point. In this book, JPS deconstructs anti-Semitism and portrays the customs of (French) society for what these really are. Jewness is harder to spot in a person than skin color. For this reason, the reading that I filtered through from the book is more far-reaching than what one can imagine at the beginning. At one point, especially if you’re just starting to understand race in a more systemic way like I am, you can read beyond the characters on the pages and play more with the crude words of the French philosopher.

Sartre, apparently using Instagram

Sartre starts by making everybody in France who carried the book – or read part of it in Les Temps Modernes – feel anti-Semite. There aren’t anti-Semite opinions. There are just anti-Semites. People who buy into stereotypes of street culture (and fascist propaganda),  people who turn a blind eye on the issue, people that cannot shake off from their mindset the prejudices against a race-less, nation-less (at the time) community. JPS also marks the distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic Jew. The latter being someone who denies himself, his roots, his personality, in order to appear less of a Jew to his fellow compatriots, who in addition advocate for the universal man, the Frenchman, devoid of any characterization besides his nationalism. [note: here I use the same gender courtesy that the translator used in the version that I read. Both the anti-Semite and the Jew are male types – French is a romance language and the masculine is commonly used as a neuter gender.] Crooked noses and curly hair are simply not enough to define a Jew, but are chatacteristics that can be singled out in a Jewish person. The path of the deconstruction of anti-Semitism is very long for JPS, who winds to all sides of human behavior and psychology.

He argues that anti-Semitism is driven by passion. One not justified by a direct provocation, causing anger not through logic. But, as he notes, one must “consent to anger before it can manifest itself.” So the anti-Semite has chosen to hate. In opposition to a concept, not something real. The anti-Semite’s Jewish friends are never a direct target of his anger. But when the crowd shouts: “I hate the Jews”, he joins. Sartre also discusses the reason for Jews’ attachment to money and possession, as the only legal, tangible means to emancipation that an outcast of society can seek for. Here’s the twist: JPS portrays the anti-Semite as member of the middle-class, angry at the Jew, member of the nonproducer, burgeois class. But “The Jew is free to do evil, not good” and therefore he is also a ruthless Bolshevik ready to destroy France in the name of Socialism. The anti-Semite’s arguments are very hard to sort out: he believes in Good and Evil and is certain of his position and of the position of the Jew in this configuration. JPS’s Marxist soul appears here to throw light on the essence of the class struggle is between two world orders, alternative in their administration of humanity and nature, both far from the perfection typically associated with the archetypal symbols of Good and Evil. Sartre pulls also the existentialist card by noting that the anti-Semite is afraid of himself, his consciousness, and his liberty, not of the Jew. The anti-Semite is a coward who would rather be a stone than a man.

One-third of the book is already gone and JPS has just acknowledged what the XXI century reader has already figured out: the anti-Semite only needs the Jew as a pretext; his counterpart elsewhere “will make use of the Negro or of the man of yellow skin”. The second chapter is dedicated to spiting the democrat, the universalist, the enlightened, etc. who only recognizes man, “man always the same in all times and places”. The democrat’s acceptance of the Jew as a man leads to the denial of the latter as a Jew. What follows is the creation of the inauthentic Jew as a way of mini-salvation for the Jew. Sartre aptly describes this condition in Part III as a conscious choice and dwells philosophically and pragmatically on it (the term is of course devoid of any moral blame, as the philosopher clearly states). There, he also rejects the definition of race as “that indefinable complex into which are tossed pell-mell both somatic characteristics, and intellectual and moral traits.” At the same time, JPS slashes those who “can’t see race,” but only individuals. Then he goes on against the defenders of the true France and the purity of the Frenchman. As usual, Sartre takes everybody to court. Interestingly, the theme of the judgement comes in the book with the assimilation of the condition of the Jew to that of the hero of Franz Kafka’s The Trial.

For JPS, however, there is a clear culprit: “It is our eyes that reflect to him [the Jew] the unacceptable image that he wishes to dissimulate. It is our words and our gestures – all of our words and all of our gestures – our anti-Semitism, but equally our condescending liberalism that have poisoned him. […] It is we who force him into the dilemma of Jewish authenticity or inauthenticity”. The choice of inauthenticity stands before the Jew who is “haunted by the spectre of violence”, and chooses to deny himself in order to be left alone.

One of the chief problems with Sartre’s argument is the treatment of Zionism just as a byproduct of all this hatred. It becomes harmful for the authentic Jew and an additional weapon in the anti-Semite arsenal. JPS only lightly touches upon the issue of the colonization of Palestine under Zionist principles. But our dear philosopher could not imagine that the course of the events would have taken such inflexible path.

The fourth, and last part sums up the argument and deals with solutions. The “regressive social force” of anti-Semitism is to be countered by propaganda and education, which alas will not prove effective enough. Let’s not forget that the anti-Semite is the champion of legality in France. Anti-Semitism is the product of the burgeois division of society in classes, communities, and sections. The Jew cannot accept assimilation in such a world – he must fight for a society without anti-Semitism. “What is there to say except that the socialist revolution is necessary to and sufficient for the suppression of anti-Semitism? It is for the Jew also that we shall make the revolution.”

The revolution indeed. What struck me the most about this book is the possibility to cross out and substitute the words anti-Semite and Jew with analogous oppressor-oppressed dynamics (white-all other colors/types; even rich-poor, although most of his reasonings remain relevant through racial arguments). Only a change in the type of society we live in may bring about the obliteration of such dynamic. White oppression is synonymous with capitalist oppression. It’s about time that we realize it.

In the words of Richard Wright: “There is no Negro problem in the United States, there is only a White problem”. There’s no poverty, racism, inequality, exploitation, pollution… there’s just their root-cause: capitalism – the Evil we should fight against.

Noi non siamo razzisti

Oakland, CA

Questa è la traduzione di un’articolo che ho scritto di getto, tra autobus e metropolitana, dopo una illuminante discussione sul razzismo negli USA, con alcuni amici. Dopo aver letto un articolo su La Sicilia dove compariva una citazione di un assessore comunale di Giarre che mi ha spinto a scrivere l’intero articolo sul cellulare, senza mai staccare le dita dai tasti o lo sguardo dallo schermo. Sì, mi sono perso la vista di San Francisco, per una volta, ma spero serva a qualcosa.

Il modernissimo consigliere comunale Josè – che è anche mio padre – aggiorna il suo status su facebook incollandovi un intero articolo di giornale. Sono sicuro di avergli mostrato almeno una dozzina di volte come inserire links oppure scrivere delle “note”, molto più agevoli e meno ingombranti di uno status-papiro. Ma tant’è. Scorrendo tra le righe leggo le solite vecchie notizie sullo stato dell’arte dell’incompiuto siciliano. Poi un lampo, un virgolettato. Ma qui mi fermo e fornisco un po’ di informazioni utili a chi non è familiare con il tema in oggetto o a chi avesse le idee confuse.

Giarre è la capitale italiana delle opere incompiute. Stadi, piscine, teatri… a voi scoprire cosa non abbiamo finito. C’è anche un “campo di polo” dove i cittadini vanno a correre e i ragazzini vanno a scuola calcio, presso le sparute società che sono ancora vive nell’area etnea. L’intera struttura fu costruita grazie al denaro fluito da Roma per i Mondiali di Calcio del 1990. Nei pressi di questa struttura non potrebbe essere organizzata alcuna attività o alcu, eccetto centri di raccolta in caso di emergenza e atterraggio per l’elisoccorso. A Giarre, una cittadina di appena 27.000 abitanti, in pochi hanno visto un elicottero atterrare al campo. Pochissimi hanno mai sentito parlare di “polo” in riferimento a uno sport, e non a magliette o caramelle. La struttura non è mai stata compleatata perché il denaro destinato alla sua costruzione è passato attraverso il filtro della corruzione politica, indubbiamente scortato dai vasi di ferro della mafia.

Spesso, quando mi trovo in Sicilia, visito la struttura e ultimamente ho notato che i ragazzini che giocano per la scuola calcio che mio padre ha fondato con alcuni amici sono costretti a correre su una superficie decisivamente peggiorata rispetto a quella che, ricordo, calpestavo dieci anni fa. Oggi, le stanze che ospitano gli uffici della società (non ufficiali, non registrati e non assicurati) sono costantemente oggetto di vandalismo. Dietro gli immensi e vuoti spalti riposano dozzine di campane per il riciclaggio di rifiuti, che una volta, quando l’amministrazione fingeva di riciclare i rifiuti urbani e invece trasferiva tutto negli stessi camion della nettezza urbana, si trovavano in molti punti della città. Accanto a questi giganti assonnati, alcuni spacciatori sprecano i loro pomeriggi indisturbati, troppo vicini ai bambini e agli adolescenti che giocano a calcio venti metri più in là.

Il campo di “polo” dove i ragazzini sognano l’erba

Un altro elemento importante per completare la descrizione storica è la caduta di cenere vulcanica dalla vicina Etna. Dal 2002, i fenomeni di parossismo si sono moltiplicati e continuano a molestare la tranquilla vita del paese.

L’amministrazione comunale è stata conquistata per due mandati consecutivi dalle forze conservatrici che lasciano che i “favori” dettino le priorità di gestione municipale e che hanno permesso una dura crisi di bilancio. Adesso, infatti, non sono rimasti neanche i fondi necessari per le pulizie “ordinarie” degli spazi pubblici, il che è un dovere primario per le istituzioni locali (“la manutenzione ordinaria è nella funzione dell’amministrazione pubblica” ricorda Josè, intervistato dallo stesso giornalista). Anche la pulizia della sabbia vulcanica dovrebbe rientrare tra i compiti di un’amministrazione diligente. È invece toccato ai calciatori e ai corridori portare scopa e paletta per utilizzare la malandata pista d’atletica. Uno sforzo di grande valore, che non è stato neanche notato o applaudito dall’amministrazione, che ha preferito nascondersi al fine di evitare di lasciare traccia dei suoi misfatti e delle sue omissioni.

La goccia che ha fatto traboccare il vaso della mia pazienza, però, non è arrivata né da Milano, né da Londra. Da Milano, alcuni ragazzi pieni di creatività (che tuttavia relego nella categoria etnografi* zoologi umani) hanno portato alla luce dei mass media la questione dell’incompiuto, sottolineando l’incapacità tutta siciliana di finire ciò che si comincia. Da Londra, invece, gli etnografi zoologi umani britannici hanno pubblicato un documentario su di noi, sui siciliani più pigri. No, ciò che mi ha fatto incazzare (perdonatemi l’espressione) è stato un virgolettato innocente riportato nell’articolo che menzionavo prima.

Giuseppe Cavallaro, ormai ex-assessore allo sport, è stato ingenuo abbastanza da pronunciare queste parole:

C’è un’associazione di ragazzi del Burkina Faso, rifugiati politici, ospiti alla parrocchia Regina Pacis, che vorrebbero inserirsi e socializzare con la comunità locale. Potrebbero aiutarci a curare il verde come volontari, assicurati contro eventuali infortuni.

Ho dovuto leggere e rileggere la dichiarazione più e più volte. Una dichiarazione che arriva da un corresponsabile della crisi finanziaria del Comune, inadeguata innanzitutto perché, come già detto, è responsabilità dell’amministrazione garantire la pulizia ordinaria degli spazi pubblici. Impiegando residenti, pagando loro un salario dignitoso, mettendoli in regola anche dal punto di vista contributivo (perché sento il bisogno di sottolinearlo?), non elemosinando opere di volontariato.

Il motivo principale del mio sdegno, tuttavia, è l’imperdonabile assunto che mostra la forma mentis razzista tipica degli europei e che è stata sempre difficile da identificare per me, nato e cresciuto nella cattolica e conservatrice Sicilia. Sono africani, quindi è ovvio che debbano lavorare per poco o nulla (in quest’ultima accezione, si tratta di schiavitù, non di volontariato, perché non presuppone la libera scelta dell’individuo). Essi sono abituati a queste condizioni! Pulisci, presto, sistema il caos creato dalla natura… e già che ci sei, metti a posto anche il casino che l’uomo bianco ha lasciato dietro di sé! Sono rifugiati politici? Meglio! Almeno non sono clandestini e per sfruttarli non dobbiamo neanche andare contro la legge!

Non ci sono tante persone bionde in Sicilia, così come la pelle olivastra dei meridionali è una rarità nelle province del nord. L’Europa non è abituata a mescolarsi. Adesso che più persone con diversi background culturali e geografici hanno conquistato il diritto di viaggiare liberamente in Europa, la paura dello slavo si è aggiunta alla difficile relazione tra francesi e magrebini, al problema degli italiani con i rom e con gli albanesi e al tentativo tedesco di capire come comportarsi con la minoranza turca che la Germania ospita. Per noi europei è necessario guardare i film americani per pronunciare la parola “razzismo”. Noi non capiamo le sue cause e le sue manifestazioni. Questo ci fa razzisti anche quando pensiamo di non esserlo. Mi vergogno del linguaggio offensivo e razzista usato da un membro dell’amministrazione del Comune presso il quale risiedo e mi dispiace che coloro a cui piace definirsi i discendenti della cultura democratica non riescano a realizzare che sono anche gli eredi della cultura razzista che ha causato le peggiori diseguaglianze e le violenze più aberranti della storia umana.

I rifugiati politici del Burkina Faso ospitati a Giarre non vivono lì per scelta. Loro non godono dei vantaggi di vivere in Europa, non sono agevolati dalle opportunità che il trattato di Schengen concede. No, se vogliono trovare il loro posto in società, devono chiedere l’elemosina. Devono dirigere le proprie preghiere verso supponenti palloni gonfiati che non hanno di meglio da dire che: “facciamoli lavorare come schiavi!”. Quindi ci sono due parti in questa brutta storia: 1) la dichiarazione dimostra i misfatti di un’amministrazione che non tiene conto dei suoi doveri minimi verso la popolazione che l’ha delegata; 2) la soluzione proposta è chiaramente razzista in quanto suggerisce l’uso dei rifugiati africani per compiti per cui sono logicamente adatti.

* gli etnografi zoologi umani per me sono individui che provano a giustificare la supremazia di una cultura sulla base delle tradizioni etniche dei popoli. Chiedete agli etnografi britannici, russi, francesi, italiani, spagnoli, cosa pensassero degli esotici indiani, africani, magrebini, caucasici, sudamericani…

UPDATE: Grazie ad alcuni amici, ho dovuto emendare questo articolo. Mi è stato suggerito di essere più esplicito nella condanna della frase razzista del politico locale, cosa che ho provato a fare nel paragrafo in rosso. Inoltre, ho ricevuto una spiegazione dettagliata sul mio incorretto uso della parola etnografo. La mia accezione negativa della parola proviene dai tempi coloniali, quando etnografia e antropologia stavano solo cominciando ad essere inseriti nei dibattiti accademici. Il relativismo culturale da allora ha portato a una più profonda comprensione dell’altro. Tuttavia, il razzismo e il sentimento di supremazia non sono concetti relativi. Per questo motivo, pur preferendo zoologo umano e scusandomi verso i molti validi etnografi, continuo a sostenere che provare a comprendere l’altro senza neanche un pizzico di razzismo o di sentimento di supremazia sia molto difficile per gli occidentali. Spero che ne nasca un dibattito costruttivo.

Normal, Not [ITA+ENG]

Giarre, Italy

[ENG] This short video contribution from Pasolini’s Comizi d’amore (1965), featuring one of the greatest Italian poets, is one of the most clever arguments against what I call the “cancer of normalcy”. Normalcy is the reason why many issues become socially discriminatory. It’s normal to be white, heterosexual, male, Christian, muscular, to pee standing, and to strive to prevail in the race for survival. Such a white-supremacist construct is the reason why “abnormal” things exist and are singled out on a daily basis in today’s world.

[ITA] Questo breve contributo video, estratto da Comizi d’amore (1965) di Pier Paolo Pasolini, nel quale appare uno dei più grandi poeti italiani, è uno dei più intelligenti ragionamenti contro ciò che io chiamo “il cancro della normalità”. La normalità è la ragione per la quale molte questioni diventano socialmente discriminatorie. È normale essere bianchi, eterosessuali, maschi, cristiani, muscolosi, è normale pisciare all’impiedi e lottare per prevalere nella corsa verso la sopravvivenza. Tale costrutto da “superuomo bianco” è la ragione per cui esistono cose “anormali”, che vengono additate e censurate giornalmente.

Here’s a translation for my non-Italian followers:

Research, chapter 2: Disgust or pity?

Proved that Italians, confronted with general questions, shy away with innocent and sometimes foolish “no comment”, let’s see what happens when the question is precise, sharp, point-blank, as is the case with homosexuality.

Pasolini: Ungaretti, according to you, is there such distinction as “normality” and “abnormality” with regard to sex?

Ungaretti: Listen, each individual is made differently, I mean in their physical structure. The individual is also different from the others in their “spiritual combination”. Therefore, every individual is “abnormal” in their own way. Every individual is, in a certain sense, in contrast with nature. And this [configuration is in place] since the very beginning, since the “act of civilization”, which is an act of human abuse over Nature, an act against Nature.

Pasolini: Can I dare to ask about your personal and intimate experience about normality and its transgression?

Ungaretti: Well, personally… what are you looking for?, I… I am a man and a poet, therefore I infringe all laws writing poetry. Now I’m old and I only respect the laws of senility, which are, alas, the laws of death.

The Challenge of Languages

Giarre, Italy

This post was clearly inspired by the blog series by Calvin, an American friend of mine, whose first goal is to deconstruct, analyze, and confront challenges for twenty-somethings in particular era we are living these days. His series has been going on for quite some time now (it all started on January 9, 2012) and I’m sure it’s becoming a challenge in itself.

There are many challenges life has put before me in the past years of being a “twenty-something”. Love, houses, exams and graduations, travels, money, friendship, family matters, jobs… the internet! … are only the major among many tough issues I’ve had to cope with. The feeling of being an unsettled individual is one of the most pleasant challenges I face every day.

However, as I approach a new academic experience that will bring me to study in the Post-Soviet area, I have to greet, once again, the challenge of languages. The reason I use the “Post-Soviet” term to refer to Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan – the countries where I will end up living – is because they share a basic knowledge of the Russian language, which was the Soviet language for nearly sixty years. Stalin’s program of “carpet” Russification in the non-Russian Soviet Republics was felt, of course, as an imposition from abroad. The colonial attitude by Moscow towards its fellow Soviet neighbors during the Cold War helped the development of anti-Russian sentiments in the periphery.  In the last days of 1991, the Soviet Republics all of a sudden realized they were independent. Interestingly, their leadership still remained very “Soviet” inside.

Despite regrets, arguments, clashes with drunken Yeltsin, and confusion over what to do, “former Soviet” leaders transformed themselves into “newly independent” leaders. Most of them were seasoned politicians and they could seize the opportunity given by the political and socio-economic uncertainty to use their chamaleon powers and root their legitimacy in  a nationalistic rhetoric. The countries I will be visiting have been the most stable, US-friendly, and economically growing among the Post-Soviet subjects. The Aliyevs in Azerbaijan have established a quasi-hereditary monarchy (even though they like to be called “President”) and Nazarbayev in Kazakhstan enjoys the same popularity as the Pope among Catholics. In both countries, since the last days of the USSR, the nationalistic trend has gone back to the Turkic tradition. On the one hand, they strive to appear as Western as possible in order to attract foreign investments, but on the other hand, the ancient tradition is recovered by laws and day-to-day social(-ly imposed) changes.

The major reflection of these nationalistic changes is evident in the language. Russian has been downgraded as the “accompanying language” to the official one, which, in many cases is just one variety of the many dialects that the inhabitants spoke before the Tsarist and Soviet invasions. This long historical context serves as a background for my personal challenge with languages for the next few years. Here, you might find handy another set of background information.

I learned to master the Spanish language through my year in Granada as an exchange student. Then I turned my eyes to Russian, which I needed for my studies. However, having lived in Russia for less than a full week, I could never get beyond the elementary-to-intermediate swing. Then came my journey to the United States, where I did take Russian, but I started writing and speaking everything that was processed in my brain through English words. While good on the English-language side, my Russian bent spoiled. What’s to be done now? I will investigate more and more Russian-language documents as my research will still be centered on energy issues in the Caspian, but at the same time I will be living in countries where the usage of Russian is withering away.

My experience in Washington has taught me that Kazakhs are still reliant on Russian, especially for their diplomatic and political speeches and jokes. Yet, again, nationalism is kicking in: one very nice Kazakh diplomat invited me to their embassy on 16th Street, kindly answered to my questions in English, and then showed me the room with the display of traditional garment and weaponry used by Kazakh tribes “back then”, as he uttered walking me to the door. Nevertheless, I think my research experience is going to be smooth if I get back on the books and prepare myself in the Russian language.

The real challenge comes with the language for my daily interactions. I want to be able to live in these countries, even though my experience will surely be restricted to a few months, because of the structure of the program. For this reason, today I browsed a few YouTube videos with introductory courses for the Kazakh language. I will dedicate a few hours per week to a serious study of this language, which draws from many different linguistic roots (Arabic, Mongol, Greek…) and developed from many different dialects, all of which were hybernated during Stalin’s imposition of Russian. I’m sure I won’t be able to deal with the Azeri idiom as well, but my journey to Baku is still uncertain and will surely be shorter than my stay in Almaty.

Yet, as an unsettled being, I maintain a feeling of uncertainty about learning languages I might stop using sooner than expected. The challenge will therefore be to “enjoy it while it lasts”. Like many challenges faced by erratic twenty-somethings.

Ancora un momento. Sto per finire

Giarre, Italy

Ho finito di leggere un bellissimo libro. Non si può dire che io abbia proprio finito. Il libro stesso non comincia e non finisce. Anzi, inizia dieci volte e non finisce altrettante. L’unico filo conduttore è la scrittura. La lettura e il viaggio sono parte fondamentale dell’opera. Uno sforzo quasi perraultiano nel codificare, ma al tempo stesso decodificare, l’arte dello scrivere. Un tentativo di comprendere le cause che ci inducono a sfogliare carta finemente rilegata che riporta fitti caratteri di stampa. Un’avventura salgariana tra mari, monti e stazioni veri, immaginari, o verosimili. Si fa prima a leggerlo che a descriverlo – anche se a dire la verità, un attimo di scoramento e senso di sconfitta mi aveva preso circa a metà delle sue 300 pagine, ma credo che anche questo faccia parte del piano dell’autore. Ecco un estratto del libro, uno che riflette bene le mie sensazioni in volo. Non che Calvino abbia bisogno di pubblicità, ma quando qualcosa mi colpisce così, preferisco scrivere per ricordarlo.

Da Italo Calvino, Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore…, Einaudi, 1979

Ti allacci la cintura. L’aereo sta atterrando. Volare è il contrario del viaggio: attraversi una discontinuità dello spazio, sparisci nel vuoto, accetti di non essere in nessun luogo per una durata che è anch’essa una specie di vuoto nel tempo; poi riappari, in un luogo e in un momento senza rapporto col dove e col quando in cui eri sparito. Intanto cosa fai? Come occupi quest’assenza tua dal mondo e del mondo da te? Leggi; non stacchi l’occhio dal libro da un aeroporto all’altro, perché al di là della pagina c’è il vuoto, l’anonimato degli scali aerei, dell’utero metallico che ti contiene e ti nutre, della folla passeggera sempre diversa e sempre uguale. Tanto vale tenerti a quest’altra astrazione di percorso, compiuta attraverso l’anonima uniformità dei caratteri tipografici: anche qui è il potere d’evocazione dei nomi a persuaderti che stai sorvolando qualcosa e non il nulla. Ti rendi conto che ci vuole una buona dose d’incoscienza per affidarsi a congegni insicuri, approssimativamente guidati; o forse questo prova una inarrestabile tendenza alla passività, alla regressione, alla dipendenza infantile. (Ma stai riflettendo sul viaggio aereo o sulla lettura?)

Dante All’Inferno

Ragusa, Italy

A lazy Tuesday, full of little and carefree tasks, was interrupted a little while ago when I read a newspaper article about Dante. Inquisition, here we go again.

The only English language website with this piece of news was catholic.com, so I’ll avoid mentioning their one-sided view. A translation of Il Corriere della Sera reads:

The Divine Comedy has to be removed from school curricula: too much of its content is anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist and homophobic. The surprising request is from “Gherush92” organization of researchers and practitioners who enjoys the status of Special Advisor to the Economic and Social Council of United Nations.

I had to read it a few times, do some research, and fact-check a few things before I could finally realize this was not fake. Worse, the head of the organization is Italian, Valentina Sereni. Non-Italian schools, in the luckiest case, offer bits and crumbs of Dante’s Commedia, whereas Italian high schools have a three-year curriculum on his verses. A masterpiece that was defined “Divine” after its completion, because it both talked about and neared perfection, of the holiest kind. This piece, along with a few contemporary examples, contributed to the codification of the Italian language vis-a-vis the ecclesiastic Latin, incomprehensible to the many and used as a class weapon by aristocrats. Dante took what was vulgar, the language of the peasants, of the craftsmen, and made it lyric. Dante was also an anti-clerical, a proto-nationalist, and a white-supremacist without even realizing it. But it was the Thirteenth century, for Middle Ages’ sake!

Dante’s legacy is one of rebellion against the status quo. Just look at who’s placed in which circle in hell. It’s full of popes, noble kinds, personal enemies, and mythological characters. He saves nobody from an alleged God’s judgement, which, in fact is his own. His sharp critique of costumes and behaviors remains unmatched, to a point where Italians still cite him whenever they want to serve a witty offense to their opponent. Inappropriate and outspoken, everybody’s favorite is the Inferno. I also enjoyed the Purgatorio, where politics and medieval fights took the lion’s share. The Paradiso was too cheesy and heavenly to capture my unsettled teenager heart, so I’ll suspend my judgement until a more mature read.

Wait! If they allow me! What this ECOSOC “Special Advisor” is trying to tell the UN is that we shouldn’t read Dante, precisely because of his inappropriate language towards Jews, Mores, and gays. Failing to understand “what’s inappropriate, when”, Gherush92 bans entire chapters (Canti, oh how it sounds better!). Before stepping out and remind those people who banned or burned books in the past, we should first reason on the notion of “appropriateness” and “political correctness”. Because words have and gain meanings and I find no reason why we should also artificially impose constrictions on language.

Grammar and etymology are very dear to me. I treasure what I read and try to replicate my thoughts as precisely as possible by employing the most accurate words and structures. It is no secret that I speak and write slowly, and this is the main reason. Be inaccurate with your words and you’ll be read and heard, or, worse, classified and tagged in a way that is far from your true character. I don’t think there’s anything worse that ending up in this cul-de-sac. It’s not necessary to “brand” oneself as different all the time, but it’s healthy to define one’s characteristics with precise word choices. This choice is “political” in every sense, therefore, I loathe the pursuit of what is “politically correct”.

You can’t say “negro” in the year 2000 and you should probably bleep all the mentions of that word in radio shows, books, and articles from the past 200 years. You can’t say Jew with a derogatory tone, in any language, and therefore, you should erase, obliterate any literature that mentions that word, that way. So, dominant cultures choose to grant a dictionary salvation to “formerly” oppressed people by making words “illegal” or just inappropriate. Such practice devoids our vocabularies of words that have defined us in the past, thus impoverishing the way in which we speak and define each other in the present.

For hours, days, weeks, I had passionate and tough arguments with my loved one about censorship. It is always fun and interesting to have such arguments with a person whose opinions you care that much. She argued for no censorship whatsoever and I was more of a “politically correct”, or better “appropriately correct”, type. Today, Dante made me realize that she was right from the start. While I still think that it is very important to use words that properly (rather than appropriately) define the sought meaning, there’s no use for censorship. Cutting, bleeping, and erasing are tools in the hand of the powerful, used to constrict the dispossessed’s free speech. Appropriate talk is generally less free than its inappropriate sister. Ex post censorship, as in today’s case with Dante, represents a clear design to downgrade culture as a servant to the will of the sovereign politeness. Just a few months ago, “Shit so and so say” YouTube videos were trending. People laughed at them because they often found themselves falling in the stereotypes that such videos overemphasized. I find it inappropriate to generalize people so categorically, it underestimates differences among individuals with same gender, background, or lifestyle. However, it is key to understand that the politeness with which popular commentaries are banned is a sign of censorship. If I make a racist or homophobic comment, I would like to be defined racist or homophobic. What society should not do is to prevent people from saying what they believe in. Giordano Bruno, among others, was burned alive for putting into words his inappropriate thoughts. Dante’s Commedia was banned for many years. Galileo had to negate himself in front of a jury to save his life from the gallows pole, although what he said proved to be right (following Gherush92’s stance, we should also ban Dante for being “anti-science”, because he wrote that the world is flat).

Voltaire put into words what I think should be the maxim for illuminated people: “I don’t agree with your opinion, but I would die to defend your right to voice it.” I’m going out to buy a few copies of the Commedia now. I won’t tell you where I will hide them, so that I can sneak a few copies to young kids when darker ages of censorship and ignorance come.

note: My loved one, again, makes me realize that I didn’t mention an important fact: I do not agree with almost anything Dante has ever written. I like how he wrote and the courage he put in his writings, but I do not stand on his side on any issue (be it nationalistic, religious, or anthropological). This is not a defense of Dante for his viewpoints (that’s what catholic.com does). Rather, this tries to be a way to define censorship for what it is: bullshit.

Happy birthday.