Thousands of Africans, physically displaced and economically disabled by postcolonial dis-order, confront daily the violence of passage to, across and within borders of relative safety. Tagged all manner of other: temporary, foreign, homeless, opportunist, ephemeral, 2nd generational, thief, fence jumper, black… they arrive, are birthed, reborn—regardless of birthplace, status, story—as Europe’s “migrant crisis”; moving targets for xenophobes, organised criminals, nation state mafias… and LeoLuca Orlando, the sitting mayor of Palermo, fearless critic of Italy’s anti-immigration policies (Europe’s creeping economic racism), and architect of the ‘complete port’, the borderless city of welcome and renewal. A speculative trilogy by Roberto Alajmo, Stacy Hardy and Moses März profiles the mayor dubbed “il morituro”—the walking corpse— and the potential demise of the nation state.
I. THE MARTYRDOM OF MAYOR ORLANDO
Elected four times as mayor of Palermo over a period spanning more than 30 years, and holding various posts as public servant and European statesman in between, Leoluca Orlando’s first political opponent was the mafia and its affiliates in the Italian political establishment. When his former friends and fellow anti-mafiosi Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino were assassinated in 1992, everyone thought Orlando would be next in line. He was affectionately called il morituro, the walking corpse, by the people of Palermo. With their support, particularly support from women and the youth, he managed to first rid the city of the taboo of speaking about the mafia, and slowly regained control over the city, house by house and street by street.
Mayor Orlando’s reputation as a fearless anti-mafia fighter was rarely questioned until, in the late 1980s, the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia, in a Corriere della Sera newspaper article, dismissively referred to Orlando and Borsellino as “anti-Mafia professionals” shortly before his own death. Sciascia claimed that the mafia was content to play along with what they perceived to be show court trials organised by Orlando, serving as effective cover for their general change in strategy. In fact, in the 21st century the Sicilian mafia, Cosa Nostra, was still alive and well, even after Orlando had announced his victory in 1999. By then the mafia no longer claimed as many lives as it had in the previous two decades, where the body count reached levels comparable to the conflicts raging in Belfast and Beirut at the time. The mafia had effectively been driven out of local government structures—leaving Palermo open for business with the globalised economy, and for hundreds of thousands of tourists arriving on cruise ships every year—but it still thrived in the world of business. Going with the times, Cosa Nostra teamed up with the Nigerian mafia on the trafficking of heroin and sex, while they themselves specialised in dealing in weapons and human trafficking.
Throughout these internal transformations, immigration never featured as a prominent issue in the mayor’s political life. Palermo, at the centre of the Mediterranean, had for centuries been a crossroads for cultures from across the world, who lived side by side without attracting much attention. This was to change when the so-called “European migration crisis” reached Sicily in the aftermath of the assassination of Libya’s president, Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. As Gaddafi had prophesised, his removal effectively opened the Libyan ports for travel across the Mediterranean. In the following years, half a million migrants passed through Palermo, a city with barely more than half a million inhabitants. In the summer of 2018, the crisis hit fever pitch and the mayor’s reputation and power was put to test. The Aquarius, a ship carrying 629 migrants who had taken the route through Libya, was approaching the harbour of Palermo requesting permission to dock. Matteo Salvini, Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister from the right wing party Lega Nord, who had been voted into power the same year as junior partner in the Five Star Movement’s three-party-coalition, announced that the Aquarius should be sent back to Libya if none of the other EU countries was willing to take in the migrants. Following Salvini’s announcement, the conflict among European heads of state reached levels not witnessed since three years prior, when Germany eventually granted millions of Syrian refugees asylum in violation of the already-defunct Dublin Convention.
In defiance of Salvini’s order, Mayor Orlando went on national television and declared that, “Palermo in ancient Greek meant ‘complete port’. We have always welcomed rescue boats and vessels who saved lives at sea. We will not stop now.” Along with Domenico Lucano, the mayor of the small town of Riace in the neighbouring region of Calabria, Orlando had earned a reputation as among the most outspoken opponents of the xenophobic discourse upheld by European states. In the Charter of Palermo in 2015 he called for the abolishment of the residence permit and for the recognition of mobility as a human right. His practice of personally welcoming new arrivals whose boats were rescued or intercepted by the Italian coast guard, and symbolically bestowing on them the civic status of Palermitans, was viewed as heroic by a section of the European left, but could be dismissed by a larger audience as eccentric and utopian. The brief showdown between Salvini and Orlando underlined the fact that the mayor’s actual realm of political influence did not even include the harbour of his city. The Aquarius was denied entry and had to travel another 1,296km to the coast of Spain before its passengers were sent to France following an offer by President Emmanuel Macron.
II. FROM ORLANDO TO ORLANDO
Background: The ship Mendelsshon—referring to an NGO, and having on board 20 crew and 155 migrants rescued offshore Malta—has been drifting in the Straits of Sicily and the Ionian and Tyrrhenian seas for 12 days in its quest for a landing place; an odyssey caused by prohibitions and proclamations of the Italian government that came to a conclusion in Palermo’s port, where landing and disembarking were at last authorised.
Situation: On the dock, everything is ready to welcome the shipwrecked people. Twelve ambulances, throngs of healthcare professionals, cultural mediators, police officers, journalists, photographers, cameramen, and about ten additional characters who are difficult to label. As well as the authorized personnel, there is a small crowd of curious onlookers and/or layabouts, kept at a distance by a set of barriers and by the watchful eye police. Many hold their mobile phones and want to make sure they work properly, in order to take some pictures or shoot a video.
In a preeminent position, surrounded by a ring of collaborators first, and then another ring of journalists and photographers, stands the mayor Leoluca Orlando wearing a mayoral sash displaying the Italian flag, a detail that emphasises the official character of his presence. It is not the first time Orlando stands on the dock to highlight his personal commitment and the whole City of Palermo’s efforts in welcoming migrants.
Some minutes prior, some operators wearing white overalls and gauze masks boarded the ship Mendelsshon. Now, the first of them is back on the steps of the ladder, and is immediately followed by a second one. Each one of them accompanies a black person wrapped in a golden thermal blanket. They begin descending.
The attack: Orlando take two steps forward, preparing to welcome the migrants. In such circumstances he usually does not deliver a public speech, but shakes the hands of each new-comer, one by one. He is about to do that, and everybody is expecting that: a simple gesture conveying a strong meaning.
But this time, things are different.
First, a buzz is heard. Then, a woman screams.
Everyone turns around in an attempt to understand what is happening.
It happens: a guy, an ordinary guy, of average age, average build and average crazed expression has avoided police detection and climbed over the barriers.
Now he is face to face with the mayor. A hostile face-to-face confrontation, but not too hostile if we consider only the looks they give each other. However, the guy is holding a big gun in his hand. That gun changes everything.
Two shots are fired in rapid succession. Orlando’s Twitter consultant is the first to realise what is going on. His response is straight out of an action movie, he uses his body to shield his Chief. But he’s too quick off the mark, before the gun actually fires. As a result, he is on the ground the very moment the bullets plunge into the mayor’s chest. The mayor stumbles, his collaborators try to support him but they are only able to accompany his body falling to the ground.
One hour later: News about the murder of Mayor Orlando spreads around the city, the country and the world.
The New York Times online edition, just thirty minutes later, declares: “
PRO-IMMMIGRANT MAYOR KILLED IN PALERMO”.
The people of Palermo are dismayed, touched, they cannot believe it. Everyone looks for news on the web, but the reporting is always the same. The killer, who was immediately arrested, is found to be a degenerate, a former militant of a xenophobic, extreme-right movement, from which he was expelled some months earlier due to repeated and disorderly intoxication.
Within a few hours, two rallies are organised: one at the port and another in front of the Town Hall. The respective organisers represent two incompatible factions within public opinion, both attributable to the left wing. The rally at the port is dispersed by police, who are also leading the investigation and have restricted access to the crime scene. So, the port demonstrators have decided to join the other rally (initially criticised as reformist), and the crowds are massive. When the gathering is at its peak, a huge picture of smiling Orlando is displayed from the central balcony of Palazzo delle Aquile, the Town Hall. Many people cannot hold their tears.
III. EVERY JOURNEY IS A READING
My cover is easy. There are a million roles I can assume. A thousand identities to choose from. But they are all the same. Worker. Foreigner. Non-resident. Non-citizens. Visa. People. A Million. More. Homeless. Visiting. Residing. Born. Brought. Arrived. Acclimatizing. Homesick. Lovelorn. Giddy. Tailor. Solderer. Chauffeur. Maid. Oil-Man. Nurse. Typist. Shopkeeper. Truck Driver. Watchman. Gardener. Temporary people, as Deepak Unnikrishnan calls them. Smuggler. Hooker. Tea Boy. Mistress. Temporary. Illegal. Ephemeral. People. Gone. Deported. Left. More. Arriving.
It will be easy for me. Like me, they are wanderers, although for very different reasons; nobody drove me out of my country, I have never travelled. My name is Paolo Bruno. I have a white father and a black mother. I am both African and European. For blacks, I am white. For whites, I am always a black man. You can call me Ibrahim or Saba, Matteo, Adama, Francesco, Ebongué, Claude or any other name you chose. Maybe I am merely a made-up person, an alter ego invented for my story. Or my name is really Samir or Paulo Diop Ravenna and I am a character hijacked straight from the pages of a migrant writer like Pap Khouma or Tahar Lamri to serve a purpose.
Already my words are over familiar to you. My name is Suleymane, Aymen, Tommaso, Nikita, Simon, Modou, Shukri, Taageere, Xirsi, Diriiye, Safiya, Barni. You see me with my friends on the streets. We talk in loud Italian. Every now and again we stop for a kebab or a pizza. These are our borders, the germinal points of arrival in our daily comings and goings in and out of the house. We could name ourselves a thousand other ways and be the protagonists of a thousand stories, most hard like a punch to the stomach, a few have happy endings. What’s important is that in everyday life as in fiction there exist many true Paolos.
We are the new citizens of Italy. Labeled as second-generation immigrants. It was not us who travelled. We followed in the wake of our parents’ journey and found ourselves here. Immobile travellers, eternally travelling. I know just one urban landscape and it is this one here before my eyes, or rather, here inside me, in the depths of myself. The label I bear—second rate citizen, second generation—carries within it a journey not made by me, a stigma inherited rather than earned. I have a movement without ever having gone anywhere.
Like me, my employer does not divulge his real name. I do know know who he is exactly. It doesn’t matter. I can call him Luigi or Matteo or Luca or Pietro or Roberto or Maurizio or Simone. It makes no difference. I imagine he is mafiosi. Or from the far right—one of a plethora of small parties and movements with extremist ideologies that has sprung up lately. Their names are in the papers and on TV—the National Front in Italy, CasaPound Italy, Lega Salvini Premier, Forza Nuova allied with Fiamma Tricolore to form the Italia agli Italiani far-right coalition.
I encountered many of their supporters during my years in prison. They were not unlike to me and my friends. They too are from working class families. They too have never travelled. Like me, they know nothing. They are home here but they live on the margins of society. Like me, they work various jobs. Look for work. Look and despair. Because the living is easy in Europe, as everyone knows or presumes or imagines, but only if you have some money or a scholarship or a wealthy family or even a measly casual job working in agriculture, or as petty drug pushers, pimps, or prostitutes in piazzas and urban train stations. But even these jobs are scarce these days. Like me, they live with their mothers; their bellies are full but they are hungry. It is the same for all of us. We spend our days on the streets or in bars, smoking and talking, complaining and scheming, dreaming of a future that never comes.
I met my employer at one such haunt in Ballarò. An ironic destination? No, I doubt my patron has the flare or imagination for that. Rather, I guessed, that it provided him with a handy cover for the transaction, but also spared him being seen in public with someone like me: a black man, black Italian. If the setting, with its loud music and smells of maffè, bothered him he gave no indication. We took a table near the back and got straight to business. He said he had heard of my work, that’s what he said.
It’s been a while since I worked, I retorted
It’s better this way, he replied then, without missing a beat, he placed a leather briefcase on the table and begun to open the lock. It was then that I saw the envelope. He handed it discreetly to me across the table.
I haven’t said yes, I said as I slipped my finger inside and touched the notes. It’s been a while, I insisted.
These and other stories and maps are available in the new issue of the Chronic, On Circulations And The African Imagination Of A Borderless World, which maps the African imagination of a borderless world: non-universal universalisms, the right to opacity, refusing that which has been refused to you, and “keeping it moving”.
- THE MARTYRDOM OF MAYOR ORLANDO
- FROM ORLANDO TO ORLANDO
- EVERY JOURNEY IS A READING
- THINGS THAT GO IN AND OUT OF THE BODY
- TO REFUSE THAT WHICH HAS BEEN REFUSED TO YOU
- TO REFUSE THAT WHICH HAS BEEN REFUSED TO YOU
- Dislocations in the Congolese World of Sound
- On Circulations and the African Imagination of a Borderless World
- THE IDEA OF A BORDERLESS WORLD
- No Pass, But Nine Passports