Contributor: Andrea Gazzoni

Randa Ghazy is an Italian writer of Egyptian descent, living. She lives in Limbiate, near Milan. Her parents migrated to Italy, where she was born in 1986, in Saronno. In 2002, when she was just fifteen, she published her first book, Dreaming of Palestine, a short novel which met with great success was soon translated into several languages. Her following books, published in 2005 and 2007 respectively, are Prova a sanguinare. Quattro ragazzi, un treno, la vita [Try to bleed: four young people, a train, and life] and Forse oggi non ammazzo nessuno. Storie minime di una giovane musulmana stranamente non terrorista [Maybe I won’t kill anyone today: minor stories by a Muslim girl who strangely is not a terrorist]. She graduated in International Relations at the University of Milan, where she is now enrolled in a Master program in Economic and Political Science. She wrote articles about the condition of migrants in Italy for the magazines Panorama http://blog.panorama.it/italia/2009/07/10/la-scrittrice-randa-ghazy-troppi-episodi-di-razzismo-in-italia, L’Espresso http://espresso.repubblica.it/dettaglio/le-vite-negate-dei-lavoratori-clandestini/1455908, and Internazionale http://www.internazionale.it/search/?q=ghazy. She is also member of the editorial staff of Yalla Italia, a magazine focusing on second-generation migrants in Italy http://www.vita.it/pages/ricerca?cx=003337312052607024525%3Apkrasi_sil8&cof=FORID%3A11&ie=UTF-8&q=ghazy&sa=Cerca#936.

Her fame is mainly due to the controversy aroused by her literary debut, Dreaming of Palestine: it went quite unnoticed when published in Italy, but became a best-seller in France, provoking strong protests from Jewish groups who asked to put a ban on it (http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/12/world/jewish-groups-want-a-teenager-s-novel-withdrawn-in-france.html). According to them, the book was guilty of inciting violence and hatred through its harsh invectives against Israelis soldiers and its unflinching sympathy for the Palestinians’ cause and even, critics argued, for suicide bombing attacks.

And yet Ghazy’s novel on such a delicate subject as Palestine actually had an apparently accidental genesis http://www.arabafenicenet.it/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=745&Itemid=207, as she did not very much about Palestine when in 2000 she happened to watch on TV the clip of a Palestinian kid, Muhammad al-Durrah, shot dead by Israeli soldiers in the Gaza strip while his father was helplessly trying to shield him (the truthfulness of this news footage would also become a subject of controversy). Ghazy had never had any direct or indirect experience of Palestine before, and yet she felt compelled to take a stance and write a short story about it as soon as she realized, in her own words, that Palestine is a «hereditary question» for the whole Arab world, «passed on from father to son». Then she sent her story to a literary context and impressed one of the judges who, being an editor of Fabbri publishing house, asked her to develop the text into a book-length novel. Ghazy took the task really seriously, trying to make up for the lack of actual knowledge through deeply felt emotions and emphatic rhetoric.

The novel tells the story of a group of Palestinian friends living a life of destitution and despair in the Gaza Strip. All of them have been bereft of part of their families and so try to rebuild a new one through friendship, their only real support in the Intifada struggle. Ibrahim, Nedal, Ramy, Mohammad, Ahmed, Gihad, Riham, and Uilad are indeed all facing the passage from childhood to adult life, which proves more difficult and abrupt than ever in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Almost no hope remains in the end, as the protagonists die, are maimed, go into exile or become insane.

Notwithstanding the author’s vehemence, the book appears to be flawed in several respects. Ghazy’s high-pitched tone and poetry-like prose often turns into a flat standardized style, overloaded with linguistic and thematic clichés which cannot compensate the shortage of substantial variety. Besides, the absence of an actual reference to Palestine makes the setting of the novel seems just like an improvised dramatic backdrop for an otherwise ordinary tale about adolescence and its typical feelings, intensified as they can be by war.

However the novel should also be assessed also according to its original status, that is a juvenile, published in a series dedicated to young Italian readers with whom Ghazy shared not only age but also a cultural framework strongly based on media and pop culture. For instance, the Italian title Sognando Palestina echoes «Sognando la California», the Italian version of the famous song «California Dreamin’»; presenting the book Ghazy herself declared that she started writing impromptu, listening to pop music helping her to set a rhythm http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9T95ajHlFM4. Thus, beyond the weak literary value of the book and the charges brought against it, its real novelty has to do with the author’s status as a second-generation Arab migrant in a non-Arab country. Palestine, indeed, is what allows Ghazy to negotiate her Italo-Egyptian identity and re-nativize herself into a non-native historical, ideological and emotional representation. This is why the belittlement of the novel because of its non-authenticity is not much to the point http://www.nytimes.com/2002/12/28/international/middleeast/28FPRO.html?pagewanted=all, as it misses what critic Bruce Robbins pointed out, that is Ghazy’s «ability to treat another soil as her native one» http://www.logosjournal.com/robbins.htm, by the makeshift means at her disposal.

In her following novels Ghazy has brought her composite identity to the fore, shifting from the outward assertiveness of Dreaming of Palestine to an inward self-questioning which addresses her own condition as a Western citizen of non-Western origins. Consequently, the points of view multiply, as it is already evident in her second novel, Prova a sanguinare, which follows the thoughts of four young people travelling within the same train wagon from Milan to Rome. They are Hayat, an Italo-Egyptian girl, Ruth, an Israeli girl, Daniel, an American boy and Ishi, a Native American young man.

Ghazy has devised the combination of her character in an exemplary and didactic way which on the one side seems oversimplifying, but on the other side proves effective in carrying out an interplay of cultural and individual differences. At the beginning each character feels curiosity but also a sense non-involvement and even hostility for the others’ behaviours, origins and opinions; little by little, however, they open themselves to other people’s diversities and become aware of their very self. For instance, the initial silent clash between Israeli Ruth and Italo-Arab Hayat eventually turns into a heartfelt solidarity that has to do with both their conflicting historical heritages and their adolescent problems. Ghazy’s style accordingly is less forced than in the previous novel, being marked with a different register for every voice: Hayat’s is emotional though controlled, Ruth’s is inflamed and sometimes inordinate, Daniel’s is wavering and unsettled, and Ishi’s is extremely laconic and terse. [read the text] So the book may be read as a parable about the need for exposing one’s collective and individual self to the world’s otherness, so that life can freely though painfully flow, as suggested by the title itself. “Try to bleed”, that is to lay bare one’s own self, is indeed Ghazy’s advice to everyone looking for his or her own identity amid the enormous contradictions and injustices of today’s Western societies.

Addressed to adolescent readers as well as the two previous ones, Ghazy’s third novel, Oggi forse non ammazzo nessuno, is still entangled in cultural clichés, but with the intention to break through them with irony and self-reflection, as the title itself signals. Abandoning unfamiliar identities (like Native Americans, Americans, Israeli, Palestinians) and focusing on herself in a light-hearted bittersweet tone, a far cry from the angry mood of Dreaming of Palestine, Ghazy has finally developed a capacity for analyzing and depicting the contradictions of her own predicament as a Muslim girl in post 9/11 Italy. In particular she has raised the issue of gender, as Jasmine, the protagonist, struggles with a set of well-established stereotypes imposed on her both by Muslims and non-Muslims. For example, she falls in love with an Italian boy, but refuses him as soon as he showers her with the most commonplace negative clichés about Arab people; but at the same time she refuses a Muslim suitor too, as he schemes to make agreements with her family behind her back. And yet Jasmine has to cope with Muslim female models too, from a friend who becomes a seemingly submissive wife to her own mother who is proud to wear a hijab in spite of all Western criticism. Eventually she does not conform to any of them, but in time she realizes how, as fixed as it may appear, every female model is much more complex than it may seem at a first sight. As a result, Jasmine’s attitude, and Ghazy’s too, bends more and more to an ironic and relativistic stance: she puts many questions about the multicultural identity of a young Italo-Egyptian, weighs many possible solutions, and tries to strike a fair balance between opposites, but cannot end up with a straightforward solution. Critics have noticed such a subtlety in handling delicate cultural issues, and this is why their assessments of Oggi forse non ammazzo nessuno are generally favourable http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/28/arts/28iht-povoledo.1.5897085.html http://www.disp.let.uniroma1.it/kuma/critica/kuma16pettinato.pdf.

Another noteworthy feature of the book is the protagonist’s argument against Oriana Fallaci, the famous Italian journalist who soon after the 9/11 terrorist attack invoked a new crusade against Islam and Muslims, supporting her thesis with trite racist assumptions and extremely violent language (starting from her 2001 book The Rage and the Pride). Herself an admirer of Fallaci’s pre-2001 journalistic prose, Ghazy felt abused and disappointed at reading her influential Islamophobic writings, and thought up the book as a response to them.

This way Ghazy has entered into the wide Italian and Euroepan debate on multiculturalism, putting herself as a spokesperson for the young Italian of Arab and Muslim origins. In spite of her still young age and relatively slight expertise, she has already made a reputation for herself as a commentator on Arab countries and the immigrant’s conditions in Italy. In 2009 Ghazy brought a dramatic private event to a wide audience’s notice, in order to denounce the spreading of hatred and resentment against migrants: an entire Italian family attacked and beat her father (himself an Italian citizen) after a trivial quarrel on a car parking, hurling racist insults at him (see the report and Ghazy’s video-testimony on the Corriere della sera website http://milano.corriere.it/milano/notizie/cronaca/09_giugno_25/limbiate_pestaggio_razziale_padre_scrittrice_randa_ghazy-1601502815168.shtml).

About a decade after her naïve and controversial debut, Randa Ghazy seems to have re-defined her position as an Italo-Egyptian writer in a more conscious way, establishing herself as an example of those second-generation migrants who are becoming part and parcel of Italy’s social, political and cultural life.

  • Sognando Palestina, Milano: Fabbri, 2002.
  • Prova a Sanguinare. Quattro ragazzi, un treno, la vita, Milano: Fabbri, 2005.
  • «Lettere volanti», in R. Taddeo (ed.), Il carro di Pickipò, Roma: Ediesse, 2006, pp. 57-63.
  • «Le vite negate dei lavoratori clandestini», in L’Espresso, online edition, December 12, 2006 http://espresso.repubblica.it/dettaglio/le-vite-negate-dei-lavoratori-clandestini/1455908.
  • Oggi forse non ammazzo nessuno. Storie di una giovane musulmana stranamente non terrorista, Milano: Fabbri, 2007.
  • «Generazione ed evoluzione della scrittura. Conversazione con Randa Ghazy», interview with L. Conte, in Trickster, 6, 2008 http://www.trickster.lettere.unipd.it/doku.php?id=seconde_generazioni:conte_ghazy.
  • «Il grido della scrittrice Randa Ghazy: “Troppi casi di razzismo in Italia. Ignorati dai media”», in Panorama, online edition, July 10, 2009 http://blog.panorama.it/italia/2009/07/10/la-scrittrice-randa-ghazy-troppi-episodi-di-razzismo-in-italia

From Prova a sanguinare. Quattro ragazzi, un treno, la vita, Milano: Fabbri, 2005, pp. 27-29; 133-134.

Ruth

To the wars

To the wars that infect the world, give off their stink and encrust children’s faces with dust from debris that crushed bodies, and with the blood that shows our throbbing and deep-rooted being, wars that spread like a carcinogenic virus and destroy from within, in a concentric expansion infecting the whole planet.

To the deep dark hatred that roots itself into ignorance, joins prejudices, draws on the past where it finds age-old grievances to rekindle, hatred that spits in the weak one’s faces and boils with contempt, that corrupts those who are cowardly and without a cause and those who sell souls to a high life, a hatred that goes beyond borders but puts up barriers and spits in your face hard and harsh.

To the hypocrisy of women and men that close their eyes and pretend to be blind, as unconscious parasites with larva eyes, that suck blood until they cannot even realize they are replete, and around them there’s only the smell of their bad deeds, of cowardice and lies.

To the desperate and breathless love that boils with anguish, the love of murderous mothers and suicide children, the love of the wealthy ones and the politicians, crazy about money and power, feverish love that’s never enough.

To this society that expects to claim a paternity on me, but it makes me sick and can’t pass on anything to me. A society where hostility is the most spontaneous feeling moving everyone’s life.

Look around and you will see people hating each other, people yelling at but not listening to each other, fighting and competing for breadcrumbs.

You will see the soul of war wandering everywhere.

Sometimes it’s faint, other it rages as it shows itself in full. It’s frightful.

To those people you’ve known only for five minutes but you already hate.

To all of this, to all of them, that’s where my mind is turning to.

***

Hayat

All this

All this – I mean, the way Ruth speaks, her way of getting in touch with me, Daniel’s deep and strange looks, Ishi’s hatred for everything happens – all this situation is ridiculous because of a thousand reasons: first, I don’t know anyone of them; second, I haven’t planned to know them; third, I am shy and by nature reluctant to lay myself open to strangers: why should I do it with them? And there are still a lot of other reasons.

I keep quiet for a while. It’s a curious thing how a train journey may make you reflect on what life itself has never brought my mind to.

Ruth, Ruth…you’re an enigma to me. And you intrigue me, as enigmas do, because I want to solve you. But there’s no solution to people. That’s the whole point.

And what about Daniel? I’d like to learn to face and intrigue people like him. Hitting them with what I am.

Ishi is too elusive for me, instead, I know I like him but I can’t understand what kind of person he is.

It seems strange to me that it’s such a short time I’ve been on this train and I’m already drawn to them… as if there were an uncertain, subtle tension binding us together, and making us all alike.

Something imperceptible makes me feel keeping on here, without moving to another compartment.

Maybe this is the challenge. The three of them are challenging me. Well, I’ll take up the challenge.