For twelve months, my wife and I lived in a large 1950s apartment building on Milan’s Piazzale Loreto. Not exactly a tourist destination, the busy square is best-known to historians for having hosted the bodies of Benito Mussolini and that of his mistress, Clara Petacci, after they were killed by partisans. Immediately adjacent to place their corpses were hung, our home always held a certain kind of political significance, that as foreigners, we weren’t expecting to encounter. The fact that the square was circled nearly 24 hours a day by Italian army vehicles, on the lookout for illegal immigrants, made it all that more difficult to parse.
Piazzale Loreto was as much an entry point to Europe for us as it was an introduction to the complexities of Italian politics. Arriving at a time of heightened polemics against multiculturalism and immigration, by both local Milanese legislators, and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the political environment was every bit the microcosm of European debate about these topics, today. The significance of what we were witnessing was enhanced by our perspective as an Israeli-American family, particularly attuned to debates about Islam in the Jewish community, in Israel, as well as in the Untited States.
I wrote the following essay in May 2009, in order to try and make sense of what it was we were learning. Originally published in Zeek, following the Olso attacks, it has an especially contemporary feeling to it, as it traffics in many of the same themes currently be discussed in their aftermath: European fear of multiculturalism, of Muslim immigration, and the idea that Israel is a staging ground for Western ethnic conflicts.
It was one of the most curious omissions I’d ever read. Citing an Italian analyst’s contention that Silvio Berlusconi is a “non-ideological authoritarian” a respected British news source, well-known for its dislike of the Italian leader, seemed to miss the point, at exactly the same time that Berlusconi was at his most ideological. Following ten days of media frenzy over the collapse of Berlusconi’s marriage to Veronica Lario, The Economist had chosen to overlook the Prime Minister’s increasingly open xenohobia in favor of focusing on his rising popularity amongst Italians.
Reiterating his criticisms of multiculturalism, supporting a Milanese politician’s proposal to reserve seats on public transit for “Italians only” last week, Italy’s richest man is turning out to be every bit as conventional in his dispositions as one might surmise. Nevertheless, its a forgivable error, especially for those who follow Italian politics, and can supply their own background information.
In ever-greater numbers, Italy’s voters are granting their controversial prime minister their support. How this could be the case, in a country in which over seven percent of the population is made up of immigrants, (and in which nearly ten percent of its GDP is created by them, as well) is subject to question. The obvious answer, of course, is that their rising visibility and importance to the country’s economy is stirring resentment at a time of decline, and the country’s leadership is stirring the pot to deflect responsibility. As an editorial in the same edition of The Economist states, Italy’s gross domestic product is supposed to shrink by 4.4 percent this fiscal year, and public debt will rise above 120% of Italy’s GDP by 2011. If that’s not a recipe for problems, little else is. And that’s just scratching the surface.
Flying back to Milan from Tel Aviv last night, I was seated next to an Israeli software engineer, who told me that he thought Berlusconi’s approach to Italy’s “Muslim issue” was appropriate. “The Italians are faced with the same problem with Jihad as we are,” he said. “One day, Europe will be dominated by these people, and something has to be done about it.” Replying that my wife and I lived in a largely Arab immigrant neighborhood in the city, I argued that it was hard to see how Europe wasn’t manufacturing many of these problems itself. Noting the presence of armed troops patrolling the streets here, driving camouflage Land Rovers through Arab areas in town, cradling loaded rifles in their arms, I said, “Whatever justification the security forces might feel it has to do so, at the same time its hard not to see such displays as provocative. “Bemet?” the engineer replied, in Hebrew. “They carry their weapons openly like that?”
Unsurprisingly, there is an air of familiarity to such exercises, one which Israelis know only too well. “Yes,” I said in response. “The parallels are definitely there.” In relaying this anecdote, I was reminded of a guy who used to frequent Old Jerusalem, my favorite Arab restaurant in San Francisco. Six foot two, with a consistently cleanly shaved head, whenever he’d put in an appearance, the fellow would inevitably waltz up to the counter and say to whoever was behind it in Hebrew with a big smile, “Nu, akol beseder?” (Everything okay here?) Not everyone who works there speaks Hebrew, with the exception of maybe one or two employees. I recall a friend remarking that this guy could “never get off patrol”, even though he was “in San Francisco, not Nablus,” on duty. I don’t even know if the Palestinian owner of the restaurant assumed this was some kind of unconscious role replay. Mohamed was certainly accommodating enough. Besides, he’d grown up in Jordan.
“I love visiting Italy,” said the software engineer, drawing me out of my memories. “The last time we vacationed there, we went to the Dolomites, and spent our time hiking in the mountains. You know, they speak another language up there? It sounds like a dialect of German. It makes sense, I guess. They are so close to Austria!” “Yes,” I replied. “Italy is a much more linguistically diverse place than most people realize. Every morning I walk out of my apartment, I hear as much Arabic as I do Italian.”
Though I probably should have mentioned it at the time, I meant to tell the engineer that I hear Spanish, Tamil, and, quite frequently, Tagalog too. Indeed, the area of Milan where my wife and I now live is just about the most linguistically diverse place I’ve ever resided. One which, in its depth and complexity, could easily confound anyone raised on the idea that Italy is monocultural.
Photograph by Joel Schalit