AMARA LAKHOUS (ALGIERS, ALGERIA, 1970)
Contributor: Daniela Brogi
Amara Lakhous is one of the most important contemporary Arab-Italian authors in Italy today. Both his life and his narrative are marked by the constant trespassing and crossing of boarders between different languages and cultures. Born in Algiers in 1970, Lakhous learned several languages early on. Berber was spoken at home but he was also exposed to classical Arabic, Algerian Arabic, and French, which he studied at elementary school and used as a child to help his grandmother and aunt communicate with their relatives born in France. From an early age he was inspired by authors like Mahfouz, Flaubert and Hemingway; after finishing school, he decided to study at the Faculty for Philosophy in Algiers where he also explored the roots of his Algerian identity, religion, the civil war and systems of male superiority. He went on to work for Algerian radio, where, like many of his colleagues, he had to put up with repeated threats. “I was sick and tired of waiting for my murderers”, is how Lakhous explained his decision to leave Algeria. In 1995, he moved to Rome with a manuscript in his luggage: a novel written in Arabic that would be published in 1999 (Le cimici e il pirata [The Bug and the Pirate], Arlem, Rome) in a bilingual edition (translated into Italian by Francesco Leggio). The novel tells the story of Hassinu, a 40-year-old kind of imaginary pirate who is incapable of enjoying his freedom.
In 2003, Algerian publishing house Al-ikhtilaf published Lakhous’ second novel, written in Arabic but set in Rome: Come farti allattare dalla lupa senza che ti morda [How to Be Breastfed by a She-Wolf without Being Bitten]. In the meantime, he earned a second degree at the University La Sapienza in Rome in Cultural Anthropology—his dissertation was on Muslim-Arab immigrants in Italy—and rewrote the aforementioned novel in Italian, publishing it with e/o in 2006 under the title Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio [Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, published in English in 2008]. The book tells of a small culturally mixed community living an apartment building in the centre of Rome that is thrown into disarray when one of the neighbours is murdered. An investigation ensues and as each of the victim’s neighbours is questioned, the reader is offered an all-access pass into the most colourful neighbourhood in contemporary Rome. Each character takes his or her turn centre-stage, “giving evidence,” recounting his or her story—the dramas of emigration, the daily equivocations of immigration, the fears and misunderstandings of a life spent on society’s margins, abused by mainstream culture’s fears and indifference, preconceptions and insensitivity. This novel is animated by a style that is as colourful as the neighbourhood it describes and is characterized by a seemingly effortless equipoise that borrows from the cinematic tradition of the Commedia Italiana, as exemplified by directors such as Pietro Germi, Federico Fellini and Mario Monicelli.
At the heart of this bittersweet comedy is a social reality that is typically glossed over and a surprisingly exact anthropological analysis of this reality that cannot fail to fascinate. “I lived for six years in Piazza Vittorio, it’s a kind of laboratory for the future, the prototype of intellectual cohabitation.” Lakhous doesn’t limit himself to an unadulterated perspective of the immigrant to focus on the central issues which natives overlook; he also experiments with language by enriching his Italian prose with expressions, imagery and terms from his original language: “I Arabise the Italian and Italianise the Arabic.”
Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio was a success: it was awarded various prizes (including the 2006 Flaiano Prize for Narrative and Algeria’s most prestigious literary award, the Prix des libraires Algeriens in 2008); it was translated into English, German, French, Dutch and is soon to be translated into Polish and Korean; in 2011 it was published in its 15th edition; in 2010 it became a film.
In 2010, Lakhous published a fourth novel, Divorzio all’islamica a viale Marconi [Divorce Islamic Style in Viale Marconi] (e/o, Rome). The story is set in 2005: the Italian secret service gets a tip about a group of Muslim immigrants working in the Viale Marconi area of Rome who are preparing a terrorist attack. Christian Mazzari, a young Sicilian man who speaks perfect Arabic, is sent to infiltrate the cell and uncover exactly who is behind it.
Amara Lakhous lives in Rome. In June 2011 a new version of his debut novel was released under the title Un pirata piccolo piccolo [A Little Tiny Pirate].
Excerpt from Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio [Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio], e/o, Roma 2006 [translated by Ann Goldstein for Europa Editions, 2008].
The Truth According to Iqbal Amir Allah
Signor Amedeo is one of the few Italians who shop in my store. He’s an ideal customer: he pays cash. I’ve never written his name in my credit book. There’s a real difference between him and the rest of the customers, like the Bangladeshis, the Pakistanis, and the Indians, who pay at the end of the month. I’m well acquainted with their problems. A few can afford a fixed amount every month, while the rest live like birds: they scramble for food every day. There are a lot of Bangladeshis who sell garlic in the markets in the morning, flowers in the restaurants at night, and umbrellas on rainy days. Signor Amedeo is an Italian different from the others: he’s not a fascist, I mean he’s not a racist who hates foreigners, like that shit Gladiator who despises us and humiliates everyone. I’m telling you the truth: that bastard got what he deserved. The Neapolitan concierge is also a racist, because she won’t let me use the elevator when I deliver groceries to the residents of the building who are my customers. She hates me for no reason and won’t answer when I say hello. In fact, she insults me on purpose, calling me, ‘Hey Pakistani!’ I’ve told her many times, ‘I’m Bangladeshi, and I have nothing to do with Pakistan, in fact, my hatred for the Pakistanis has no limits.’ During the war of independence in 1971, Pakistani soldiers raped many of our women. I still remember my poor aunt who killed herself in order not to bring shame on the family. Ah, if only we had had the bomb! I say the Pakistanis deserve to die like the Japanese in the Second World War. Not to mention the professor from Milan, who even asked me to show him authorization to use the elevator. I wondered if you need a residency permit just to use the elevator. When I see Signor Amedeo with his Iranian friend Parviz in the Bar Dandini I feel happy. I say to myself, ‘How nice to see a Christian and a Muslim like two brothers: there is no difference between Christ and Mohammed, between the Gospel and the Koran, between church and mosque!’ Because I’ve been in Rome a long time I can distinguish between racists and tolerant Italians: the racists don’t smile at you and don’t answer if you say ciao, good morning, or good evening. They don’t give a damn about you, as if you didn’t exist; in fact, they wish from the bottom of their heart that you would turn into a repulsive insect to be ruthlessly crushed. While tolerant Italians smile a lot and greet you first, like Signor Amedeo, who always surprises me with his Islamic greeting: ‘Assalam alikum.’ He knows Islam well. Once he told me that the prophet Mohammed said that ‘to smile at someone is like giving alms.’ Signor Amedeo is the only Italian who spares me embarrassing questions about the veil, wine, pork, and so on. He must have traveled a lot in Muslim countries; especially since his wife, Signora Stefania, has a travel agency near Via Nazionale. The Italians don’t know Islam properly. They think it’s a religion of bans: drinking wine is forbidden! Sex outside marriage is forbidden! Once Sandro, the owner of the Bar Dandini, asked me: ‘How many wives do you have?’ ‘One.’ He reflected for a moment, then said: ‘You’re not a real Muslim, so no virgins for you in paradise, because Muslims are supposed to pray five times a day and observe Ramadan and marry four women.’ I tried to explain to him that I’m poor, not rich like the emirs of the Gulf, who can maintain four families at the same time, but I didn’t see that he was convinced by my explanation. In the end he said to me: ‘I respect you Muslim men, because you love women the way we Roman studs do, and you despise gays.’ And Sandro isn’t the only one who says to me: ‘You’re not a real Muslim.’ There’s the Arab Abdu, who sells fish in Piazza Vittorio. That shit never stops hassling me’ he gets on my nerves. One moment he swears that the true Muslim has to know Arabic, the next he criticizes my last name, Amir Allah, which he considers an offense against Islam. Once he said to me: ‘My name is Abdellah and you are Amir Allah. If you knew Arabic, you would understand the difference between Abdellah, which means Slave of God, and Amir Allah, which means Prince of God.’ So I told him that that is the name of my father and I won’t ever change it, so then he called me a non-believer because I consider myself a prince superior to God. This is an extremist Arab and he deserves to have his tongue cut out. Signor Amedeo is a wanted man? I can’t believe that charge. What really puzzles me is the story that all the news shows have broadcast: that Signor Amedeo is not Italian, he’s an immigrant like me. I don’t trust the TV reporters, because they are always looking for scandal, and they magnify every problem. When I hear the bad things that are said about Piazza Vittorio I’m suspicious: I wonder if they’re actually talking about the place where I’ve lived for ten years or the Bronx we see in cop movies. Signor Amedeo is good the way the juice of a mango is good. He helps us present our appeals to the authorities, and gives us useful advice for dealing with all our bureaucratic problems. I still remember how he helped me solve the problem that caused me to have an ulcer. It began when I went to get my residency permit at the police station and realized that they had mixed up my first and last names. I explained that my name is Iqbal and my last name is Amir Allah, which is also my father’s name, because in Bangladesh the name of the son or daughter is traditionally accompanied by the father’s. Unfortunately all my attempts failed. I went to the police station every day, until one day the inspector lost patience: ‘My name is Mario Rossi, and there’s no difference between Mario Rossi and Rossi Mario, just as there is none between Iqbal Amir Allah and Amir Allah Iqbal!’ Then, with the residency permit in his hand: ‘This is your photograph?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘This is your signature?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘This is your date of birth?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Then there’s no problem, right?’ ‘Wrong, there’s a huge problem. My name is Iqbal Amir Allah, not Amir Allah Iqbal.’ At that point he got angry and threatened me: ‘You don’t understand a goddam thing. If you come back one more time I’ll seize your residency permit, take you to the airport at Fiumicino, and put you on the first plane to Bangladesh! I don’t want to see you here one more time, get it?’ I immediately talked to Signor Amedeo about it, confessing that I was afraid of Amir Allah Iqbal and that a lot of problems could arise in the future because of this change of name. Let’s say for example that someone whose name is Amir Allah Iqbal is a serious criminal or a ruthless drug dealer or a dangerous terrorist like that Pakistani Yussef Ramsi the Americans captured recently. If I adopted that new identity, how would I prove that my children are really mine? How would I prove that my wife is really mine? What would happen if they saw the marriage license and discovered that the husband of my wife is not me but another person, whose name is Iqbal Amir Allah? How would I get my money out of the bank? After my outburst Signor Amedeo promised that he would intervene to release me from this nightmare. A few days later he kept his promise and went with me to the police station on Via Genova. It was the first time I had gone to a police station without having to wait for one or two hours. His friend, Commissario Bettarini, was expecting us, and he asked for my residency permit. Then he went out of the office, returned in a few minutes, and I really couldn’t believe my ears when he said to me: ‘Signor Iqbal Amir Allah, here is your new residency permit!’ Before thanking him I glanced quickly at the first lines of the document. Name: Iqbal. Surname: Amir Allah. I drew a sigh of relief, truly a weight had been lifted. As we were leaving the police station I had a brilliant idea: ‘You know, Signor Amedeo, my wife is pregnant and soon I’ll be a father for the fourth time. I’ve decided to call my son Roberto. His name will be Roberto Iqbal!’ And so it was. My wife had a boy and I called him Roberto. It’s the only way for him to avoid the disaster of a mixup between name and surname. It will be impossible to make a mistake because Roberto, Mario, Francesco, Massimo, Giulio, and Romano are all first names, not last names. I must do all I can to spare my son Roberto these serious problems. A good father should take care of his children’s future. I don’t know where he is now, but I’m sure of one thing: Signor Amedeo is not an immigrant or a criminal! I’m positive he is innocent. He isn’t stained with the blood of that young man who never smiled. I’ve known him ever since I unloaded trucks in Piazza Vittorio, before we started the cooperative. I also know his wife, Signora Stefania, she’s a friend of my wife. He helped me find the house where I live, given that the owner refused to rent to immigrants. He even persuaded me to send my wife to school to learn Italian. I really hope that Roberto turns out like Signor Amedeo. Now I just have to decide whether to send him to the Italian nursery school or the Islamic school, where he would learn the Koran and the Bengali language. […].