“Grazie Napoli!” read the sign. Written by hand on a legal-sized sheet of white paper, it was taped to the end of a small wooden table in the middle of the square. Surrounded by young Italian families and neighborhood shop owners nibbling on aperitivos, drinking matching plastic cups of red wine, our neighbors repeatedly made toasts. A squad of Italian soldiers looked on at the crowd, expressionless. The contrast was a bit unnerving.
It was only when I turned on the news that I realized what was going on. Silvio Berlusconi had just been defeated in local elections. Hence, the sign about Naples. Though the city was already run by the opposition, a new center-left mayor was voted into office, helping seal a nationwide defeat for the Italian Prime Minister. Berlusconi’s party had even been removed from power in its hometown, Milan, which it had run for the previous eighteen years.
Judging from the noise outside, the party was continuing to grow. By the time I took myself out for dinner, the crowd had doubled in size. Before closing the front door, I took stock of the scene, wondering if I should go back upstairs and grab my camera. Though it had darkened considerably, the sun hadn’t completely set. I so badly wanted to capture the feeling of exuberance in the air, the sense of relief I could see in everyone’s eyes.
If you want to understand how profoundly Berlusconi is loathed, this party was as good a sign as any. No newspaper editorial or scholarly appraisal of his failings, breaking down his transgressions against Italian democracy, against the integrity of the country’s judicial system, or his caveman-like attitude towards women, could match this emotional display. Pleasure, particularly in the form of exhilaration, is the most damning form of criticism.
The location of this particular gathering, held in a square named after author Primo Levi, Italy’s best-known Holocaust survivor and a native Torinese, added to its ideological significance. So did the 19th century synagogue on its southern side. No Italian Prime Minister has been as synonymous with racism as Silvio Berlusconi. Primo Levi is his antithesis, as a million Italian activists, mostly women, reminded Berlusconi, by employing the title of Levi’s novel If Not Now, When? as the slogan of the January rally in which they demanded his resignation.
Piazzetta Levi tied the legacies of these two ethnically distinct Italians together like none other, as there are few comparable public spaces in San Salvario. The only other neighborhood square where one could hold a similar gathering hosts a church and a Northern League infoshop, replete with anti-immigration and anti-Islam posters. Not that they always share the same politics. The Catholic Church has frequently gone out of its way to defend Italy’s Muslims, going head to head with government policy. Nonetheless, the site of this celebration made it especially resonant.
Particularly if you consider the festivities in light of the harsh — some analysts deemed it unprecedented — cultural politics of Berlusconi’s spring election campaign. Contending that if the left won Milan’s election, it would become “an Islamic city, a city of Gypsies, full of Roma camps and swamped by foreigners, a city that gives voting rights to immigrants in municipal elections,” the Italian Prime Minister relied on a political platform deliberately designed to stoke ethnic anxieties.
Adding fuel to Berlusconi’s fire was the equally negative rhetoric employed by his deputies, such as Milanese mayoral incumbent Letizia Moratti, who used the spectre of mosque construction in Milan to instill fear in city voters. A mosque would “create a centre of attraction for Islamic groups from all over Italy who then would not be controllable,” Moratti stated, just before losing her reelection bid to a former Refounded Communist Party MP, attorney Giuliano Pisapia.
In such a context, it would be difficult not to appreciate the magnitude of my neighborhood celebrations. At the same time, one should also take care to not overestimate their importance, either. As is often the case, such events can be as isolated as they are imbricated in a larger national debates. For example, two months later, following Anders Breivik’s racially motivated Oslo killings, Mario Borghezio, a Northern League MEP, felt no inhibition in calling the Norwegian terrorist’s ideas “great.” Then, on August 2nd, an Italian parliamentary committee approved draft legislation banning burkas.
The fact that anyone in Europe could get away with passing such a ban immediately after the attacks in Oslo is shocking. It is the very extremity of such legislative proposals, and their fundamental dismissal of precedent, that makes electoral conflicts in Italy much more charged than they outwardly appear. Consciously or not, my neighbors are obviously aware of that. Here’s to crashing more parties in Turin. If not now, perhaps later.
Photograph by courtesy of the author.