Monthly Archives: May 2013

Habiba Elaschi: Working for Ethics in Sicily and a Voice for Those Who Have None

Habiba Elaschi is a remarkable woman who has had the talent to reinvent herself in many ways.  She is a woman of great inner and outer beauty, a caring and talented individual who is not content to live in her own little world.  She sees much work to be done and is intent upon helping others.

Habiba is a  political candidate , one among many, in Siracusa, Sicily who are vying for a seat in local government.  The streets are strewn with political flyers, head shots of so many candidates,  all with different platforms and different promises, but Habiba’s platform is a simple and good one.  Habiba, in her own words, wants to truly be “the voice for those who have none.”  And there are so many who do not have a voice, who have no political power, who are not even really “seen” by others:  the downtrodden, the immigrants and the refugees.

Habiba Political Poster

Habiba, who I have profiled on this blog before, came to Italy from Tunisia.  And while she holds her Tunisian identity very dear she  is well integrated into Italian society, and wants others to feel the same.

” I have lived a rather closed life,” Habiba told me outside at a cafe where we sat in the sun drinking coffee with our good friend Antonino. ” In so many ways  I have been preparing for 26 years, for this new role,” she says, referring to her political role.  “This has felt like a natural process for me and I feel strong and able to do this. ”

The Interview

Habiba acknowledges the rampant corruption in Italian politics at all levels, even the local one where it is quite common while asking for someone’s vote, for the person to expect to be paid.

” I don’t need everyone’s vote.  I need only good , decent Sicilians to vote for me. People buy votes in Sicily.  This is corrupt.  But they cannot corrupt everyone in Sicily.  I tell people who expect me to pay for their vote ‘I don’t need your vote.’

Habiba’s sincerity is evident. Her warm , brown eyes sparkle. She is a good and gentle soul.  She tells me that she is without fear and read for whatever comes next.  “This is not a paradise,” she warns. “It is up to us.”

Habiba, Antonino and Me

When I ask her what she will do if she does not win, she shrugs her shoulders slightly in that very Sicilian way and gently touches my arm. She smiles and says, “Then, I will simply live my life.”

I she wins a seat as councilor in Siracusa, then there will be so many who will be the better for it.

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“Time to Turn the Tide of Italian Racism”

If you listen to the right-wing groups in Italy, —or anywhere in Europe for that matter,  who vehemently oppose immigration , what you will really hear is that they are opposed to anyone who is not like them.  More accurately, those that do not look like them.   Immigration is rarely mentioned when  those entering the country are white.

The so-called “Emergency” of immigration most notably during the interestingly named “Arab Spring” was , really, no “emergency,” at all, but rather Italy’s failure to put in place any kind of measures that would be able to handle those coming to their shores.  How is Italian society culturally interpreting immigration?  We know that the hegemonic structures in place call the shots by naming things as they see fit. And those names are not good.  So in no time at all, waves of (not unexpected ) immigration become ” a human tsunami” and those vulnerable are “clandestino’s”  (yes, by all means, let us keep them in the shadows) and those selling their wares become the “vu cumpra,”  not simply men and women trying to survive by their wits like so many others.  This his how the discourse amongst the “gente” shape reality.  Difference creates fear, doesn’t it?  And where do Italians get the   idea that they are  and have been some mono-cultural entity?  So much so that the culture must be “protected”against the modern “African” invader?  I have yet to get a satisfactory answer to that question.

Is this a "human tsunami"?

Is this a “human tsunami”?

When my Italian ancestors came from Italy they were bowed but not bloody. They worked hard despite the insults , degradation and exclusionary practices that were so firm in place, they could live no where but the margins of the town in which I still live.   Italians and African-Americans lived side by side , most notably in the south of the town that I grew up in .   They banded together, cared for one another , looked out for one another because the enemy was a common one:  anyone who was against them.  And if anyone thinks that this was easy because they still were able to make a living and raise their families, think again.  There was no shortage of misery.   In an attempt to blend they stifled their language—-the most plausible reason I know of why so many Italian-Americans do not speak Italian, and why my grandparents  and so many others spoke of the “old” country—they  tried, some quite reluctantly,  to put Italy behind them. Their children would scorn the old , traditional ways, because the pressure to assimilate, to be a “real” American was very real.  It would not be until one or two generations later where Italian-Americans could feel comfortable with their ethnicity, with their dual mindset.  “Home”, the United States, though, was a  place where one often felt they were not really accepted.

Italian comic

People begin to act in ways that are expected of them.  So of course, Italians banded together.  No one but your family and your paesani could understand who you really were, what was in your heart.  I read a long time ago that when Mario Puzo received an advance for his infamously successful novel “The Godfather” his mother,  unable to conceive of such a large amount cautioned him: “Don’t tell nobody.” Italians were not supposed to make that kind of money. They were not capable.   That kind of money not only put them on equal footing with “real” Americans, it did something worse: it put them above some of them.

Puzo's Godfather

The media in Italy is an amazing machine—and often one of great distortion.  My friend Ramzi has expressed great irritation over the fact that I often post on those who have made the perilous journey to Italian shores in rickety little boats, often being rewarded with death for their efforts.  He once told me that these voyages , horrific as they are, are such as small percentage of immigration.   “The Italian media at work,” he said to me one day.  Then:  “Don’t be fooled.”  And , in fact, he is right.  I know a fair amount of immigrants in Sicily.  None of them are treated as outsiders.  All of them have jobs.  None of them have encountered any kind of racism.  All of them are white.  And so , the  media is not immune from an inherent or expected kind of prejudice—in fact, they keep it alive.  It is sensational.  It feeds the fear.  It sells the papers.  Fear is  influential.  It perhaps pleases certain politicians.


The media helps to construct the identity or the perception of the identity of the invaders, the enemies, by implying that any number of social ills (and Italy has many) are caused not by any inherent flaw in the national character, but instead those who have come uninvited and unwelcome.  What has happened to the Italian imagination?  Can they not imagine an new society, a multicultural place in which diversity strengthens society?  Italians are not even reproducing themselves, they need the newcomers!  They have never been non-multiethnic–why pretend they can be now?  The prevailing opinion is that immigrants created a vortex of fear—that impression can actually “create” the kind of violence and crime Italians fear. How?  Because despite evidence to the contrary, any crime, no matter how small , will be reported widely in the media, complete with photos and details if the crime was committed by an immigrant—most notably those from Africa.  Crimes committed by ordinary Italians will often omit names.  The exception to this is, perhaps, crimes committed by the Mafia—from the highest capo to the most insignificant foot soldier.   Clandestini come out of the shadows only to be shamed, it seems.

There is so much work to do, but how to change a culture?  How to change perception? The growing racism in Italy is not going to go away any time soon because of fear, because of increased immigration that shows no sign of letting up, because of the fairy tale of a mono-ethnic society, which is being invaded by the unwanted , who should really just “go back to where they came from.”   Can we not see how rich immigration has the potential to make Italian society?  White, Christian and European is on its way out in Italy, there can be no denying the fact.  It is time to embrace a new culture, which should start with institutions and education.

YEAH it does.

YEAH it does.

The only thing that should be kept in the shadows is the old way of thinking and the old way of being:  racist and narrow-minded.  Time to change the atmosphere of aggression and potential violence into one of acceptance , change and education.  To do otherwise is just to stave off the inevitable and compound misery. And God knows, the world  already has more than its share.

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Here We Go Again: Cecile Kyenge, First Black Minister in Italy Faces Racist Slurs


How easy is it to integrate into a new society?  In Italy, it seems, not very easy at all.  Even if you are highly educated.  A politician. A doctor.  Married to an Italian.

Immigration into a nation that has largely and for so long been a nation of emigrants has been struggling with its identity, with its rapidly changing demographic.   If you look at the example of Italy, it would seem that many (not all) work on the assumption that Italians are all alike—one culture, unchanging over years.   We know who we are , and we know who you are but you are not like us.   The funny and all too obvious point is that Italy has never a country that was monocultural , and if  present trends continue, never will be.  By setting up distinctions of culture, divisions are created , boundaries are drawn.  Hatred breeds.

I have mixed feelings about writing about Italy  in this way—I am Italian-American.  I travel to Italy often.  Most Italians are beautiful people who have extended amazing hospitality to me.  But the truth is, the racism is palpable.  I cannot  and I will not pretend or wish it away. There is no integration.  I have argued with people about this—people who try to deny that this is a reality in Italy.  They try to deny what I have seen with my own eyes.  They are the same people that would and often do, deny the accounts of so, so many whose narratives are tell in vivid detail the suffering(s) they have experienced.  You cannot pretend the racism does not exist simply  because it is a bad reflection on your country, your heritage.


In my most recent post, Dr. Kossi Komla-Ebri, a medical doctor from Togo, living and working in Italy would counter claims that regular Italians are not racist and policies that do not help or favor immigrants are implemented against their wishes  in this way:

“I keep saying it to other immigrants: do not be fooled that the government is doing things contrary to the will of the people! (emphasis mine) Of course, there is a minority in Italy that does not agree with this policy. I do not know if it is a minority or a silent majority that does not agree. However, not expressing their dissent, this “silent majority” will always be in fact a minority of more accomplice of the other screaming.” (Interview, Sempre Sicilia, April 28, 2013)


Now the Italian government has ordered an investigation into the case of the Cecile Kyenge, a medical doctor born in the Congo , living and working in Italy, married to an Italian man and raising her daughters.  Kyenge is the first African Italian minister in the history of Italy. BOOM.  Fodder for all of the neo-fascist and ultra-right wing hawks who have already been exhibiting the hatred, stupidity and xenophobic tendencies by making bizarre claims: Kyenge would like to “impose tribal traditions in Italy,” and calling her  ugly and hateful names: “Congolese monkey” “zulu” and others.  The politicians of the Northern League could barely contain themselves with their racist allegations and vulgarities.  Kyenge is a proponent of legislation that would give children born in Italy to immigrant parents automatic citizenship instead of having to wait until they are 18 years old.   This is legislation that is vehemently opposed by the Northern League.

Citizenship for Immgrants Children

Decent people, Italian politicians and others, including Laura Boldrini, Lower House speaker have raised their voices not only against the outrageous racial comments , but in support of Kyenge.  But not for the first time, I must ask:where is the widespread outrage and indignation?

What must one do to prove themselves in a society?  How long will it take?  My maternal grandfather, a carpenter, used to tell the story over and over again about how , when doing work down south for a period of time, he was physically pushed to the back of the bus.  No, he was not mistaken for a black man.   People knew that he was Italian.  And that he belonged in the back of the bus.   This is what Italians, who left Italy for a better life, more often than not had to encounter.  How ironic, that Italians are so unwelcoming to the “new Italians” immigrants from everywhere, but most particularly Africa.

Edmund Burke is often quoted as saying :  “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”  The world has seen evidence of this so many times.

The racism that Cecile Kyenge has faced in recent days is sickening and unconscionable.  I hope that normal citizens as well as politicians condemn such racism in the strongest terms—-but that may be hoping for just too much. But we live in hope.

white:black handshake



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