Somalia and Italy across a Century

The United Nations Refugee Agency has calculated that, by the end of 2016, there were almost 68 million “persons of concern” (refugees, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable groups) living on this ...

The United Nations Refugee Agency has calculated that, by the end of 2016, there were almost 68 million “persons of concern” (refugees, asylum seekers, and other vulnerable groups) living on this planet, more than the population of California and New York combined. If this unprecedented crisis is indeed, in James Wood’s apt phrasing, “the central moral question of our time,” it is also a question we need to contextualize historically.1 This is possible only if we locate individual stories of migrants within collective political histories, and if we acknowledge, beyond mere anthropological curiosity, their struggles, ambitions, and irreducible desires.

In a 2015 interview, Somali Italian author Igiaba Scego recounts her distress upon learning that long-settled migrants refer to fellow countrymen who land on the coasts of Italy—after crossing the Mediterranean in shoddy, overcrowded dinghies—as “Titanic.”2 Yet as Ahmed—the young Somali refugee who marries the titular protagonist of Scego’s latest novel, Adua—makes clear, the moniker is a fortunate instance of imprecise nicknaming: “I know that Titanic is a movie where everybody dies,” he tells his wife. “But remember that I’m not dead.”

The three main characters of this imaginatively dense novel are all survivors: they have struggled for social and economic emancipation and escaped the appalling violence of those who should have helped them. Yet Scego does not just relate the trajectories of three marginalized subjects; instead, she explores the historical causes and personal repercussions of racial and gender oppression, the gray area of collusion with its perpetrators, and the pervasiveness of power asymmetries among and within social collectives, often occurring despite a shared cultural background.

An unusually short historical novel, Adua moves from Mogadishu and Addis Ababa under Italian colonial occupation, to Magalo in the 1970s during Siad Barre’s ferocious regime, to present-day Rome, a city that seems incapable of finding ethically sound and socially adequate solutions to the ongoing refugee crisis. To intertwine these historical moments and geographies, Scego focuses on the lives of Zoppe, a Somali translator who worked for the Italians in Rome and during the Fascist invasion of Ethiopia in 1935; his daughter, Adua, who fled Somalia with the dream of becoming a film star in Italy; and Ahmed, one of the thousands of refugees who have landed on the Italian coasts in recent years, whom Adua has married because “he needed a house, a teat, a bowl of soup, a pillow, some money, hope, any semblance of relief.”

With “Adua,” Scego offers a potent and historically nuanced account of the aspirations and defeats of three generations of Somali migrants.

The novel’s temporal and geographic expansiveness is controlled by its tight structure: each chapter of Adua’s first-person narration is followed by shorter chapters—titled “Talking-to”—in which Zoppe speaks, mostly to rebuke his daughter and her deceased mother, as he tries to come to terms with the psychic wounds of his past. Talking-to chapters are in turn followed by longer accounts of Zoppe’s story, narrated in the third person.

The iteration of this arrangement and the consequent shifts in narrative voice allow Scego to compellingly alternate linguistic registers while maintaining a solid formal coherence. Stylistically, the coarse depiction of violence connects the novel to a long tradition of Italian literary expressionism, inaugurated by Dante in the Divina Commedia; and this seems to be confirmed by an explicit quote from the Inferno—“Through me is the way to the city of woe”—whereby Scego pays homage to the highest authority of Italian letters and simultaneously seeks legitimation for her literary endeavor.

The invocation of Dante is not coincidental, and it can be read as a response to explicit and implicit pressures that the Italian literary field has placed on writers like Scego, as if they had to prove their full membership to Italian literature. The daughter of a Somali political leader who sought refuge in Italy when the dictator Siad Barre seized power in 1969, Scego was born in Rome and grew up in a bi-cultural environment and between two mother tongues, as she often puts it. Her books have been variously categorized as letteratura della migrazione, italofona, minore, afroitaliana (literature of migration, Italophone, minor, Afro-Italian), labels that have proved useful for gaining visibility, but which have also relegated her to a literary niche struggling for critical recognition.

A prolific writer of novels, short stories, and essays for Italian newspapers and magazines, Scego belongs to a group of contemporary authors of African descent who have been articulating fraught dynamics of belonging to Italian society and literature—among them Gabriella Ghermandi, Cristina Ali Farah, Shirin Ramzanali Fazel, and Amara Lakhous. In her 2010 fictional autobiography, La mia casa è dove sono (My Home Is Where I Am)—which has been hailed as “a manifesto of [Italian] migrant literature” (yet another label)3—Scego explored the contradictions of her Somali Italian identity and related them to Italy’s repressed colonial past, registering the entanglements between Somalia and Italy, collective histories and individual narratives, and the urban geographies of Rome and Mogadishu. With Adua, Scego delves deeper into these themes and offers a potent and historically nuanced account of the aspirations and defeats of three generations of Somali migrants.

Zoppe’s dreams are repeatedly crushed: first in 1934, when he arrives in Rome, a city he had imagined “to be an open-air palace,” only to discover that “a Negro in Rome had to keep vigilant.” However, circumspection is not enough, as he painfully learns when he is arrested after a specious accusation and tortured in a Roman prison by Fascist henchmen. Physically and emotionally shattered, a year later he is sent to Addis Ababa to work as a translator for a Fascist count. Here Zoppe, who yearned to be “a linguistic ambassador, a mediator” and hopefully make “a nice chunk of change,” ends up being instrumental to an alliance between the Fascists and an Ethiopian warlord who had supported the 1935 Italian invasion of his country in the hope of dethroning Emperor Haile Selassie.


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Zoppe has helped the oppressor, betrayed for money, and entered the morally ambiguous zone of collaboration. Through the figure of the interpreter, Scego revitalizes, by making it literal, the rather trite and etymologically inaccurate equivalence of tradurre and tradire (“to translate,” “to betray”). Zoppe will be unable to forgive himself, despite his awareness of having been caught in the gears of history. And as his harshness toward his wife and daughter turns into self-contempt, Zoppe’s interiority is brilliantly rendered by alternating a crude, hyper-realistic prose with sections in which Scego’s diction is attuned to his visionary imagination, which he has inherited from his father, a soothsayer.

Haunted by regrets, Zoppe decides to name his daughter “after the first African victory against imperialism,” the 1896 Battle of Adwa, in which Italy experienced a crushing blow to its imperial ambitions. Although Adua grows up in an independent Somalia, neocolonial relations with the former occupiers bring to her small town, Magalo, an Italian film crew looking for Somali actresses. Hoping to become a star, she flies to Rome, where she is sexually abused and forced to act in Femina Somala, a tacky erotic film that stereotypes African female sexuality.

The vivid representation of Adua’s humiliations highlights a certain cyclicality of violence, which makes the novel’s emphasis on the historical and cultural causes of oppression particularly cogent, notwithstanding a few passages of somewhat heavy-handed explication. When a seagull rips away the turban Adua stole from Zoppe, which he’d worn while serving the Fascists, she comments: “It was the sign of my slavery and my old shame, that turban. It was the yoke I had chosen to redeem myself.”

Scego is at her best when rapidly switching among registers, as in this self-reflective passage from Adua: “Mi guardai e con tristezza vidi l’opacità del mio essere. Treccine sfibrate, un sacco di patate come abito buono, ciabatte mezze rotte che umiliavano la vista. Ero spenta come una lampadina difettosa.” Jamie Richards translates: “I looked at myself and sadly noticed how monotone I was. Scruffy braids, a potato sack as my only good clothes, half-broken clogs that were a humiliating sight. I was as dingy as a defective lamp.”

L’opacità del mio essere,” literally “the opacity of my being,” is here rendered with a periphrasis (“how monotone I was”) that levels the expression to the informal register of the rest of the passage. Except for a few instances in which these purposefully stark contrasts are flattened, Richards cleverly replicates Scego’s variations in tone and diction, as in this description of Addis Ababa: “Addis Ababa was a puzzle of worlds in a yard of cloth. Addis was a carnation in bloom, a happy girl, a proud Oromo standing tall. A whore like few others, Addis Ababa.”

We must locate individual stories of migrants within collective political histories and acknowledge migrants’ struggles, ambitions, and irreducible desires.

Through the entwined stories of Zoppe and Adua, Scego retraces the colonial and postcolonial relations between Somalia and Italy during the long 20th century, thus aiming to make Italy’s colonialism, which is still largely ignored within national public debate, finally legible. In turn, the figure of Adua’s husband, Ahmed, reminds us that, despite a substantial media presence, the current European refugee crisis is much more complex than what reductive representations fueled by political rhetoric and binary thinking might suggest. Commenting on her decision to marry him, Adua declares: “There are lots of us now who have gotten a second youth with these fresh arrivals. No one sees anything wrong with it. It’s a perfect trade. They get a roof and we get a little attention. They kiss us and we sew their holey socks.”

Their relationship is premised on profound ambiguities and shifting power imbalances: Adua calls him Titanic, yet Ahmed tells her she is an “Old Lira,” referring to the former national currency that brought her to Italy in 1976 and “intoxicated [her] with promises of wealth.” Scego’s exploration of the labile boundaries between solidarity and egoism, affection and vanity, gives the lie to humanitarian pietism and self-congratulating discourses that deprive vulnerable subjects—particularly refugees—of their psychological complexity, portraying them as passive beneficiaries of “First World” philanthropy.

The novel ends with an epilogue titled “Piazza dei Cinquecento”—the name of the piazza in front of Rome’s main train station, where Adua sees off Ahmed as he begins to make his way illegally to Northern Europe. It is here that all the narrative threads converge: in a piazza that was dedicated to an Italian battalion defeated by Ethiopian anti-colonial forces and later reappropriated as a social space by the Somali community of Rome, and is now the departure point for the next stage in Ahmed’s precarious journey.

Interrupting the novel’s tripartite structure, the epilogue opens with a quote from Frantz Fanon: “Je demande qu’on me considère à partir de mon Désir / As soon as I desire I am asking to be considered.” Ultimately, Adua encourages us to take seriously—at both the macroscopic and the personal levels—the hierarchies that structure social interaction, to trace their deep historical causes, and to acknowledge that no ethics is conceivable without the full recognition of other desiring bodies. icon

  1. James Wood, “A Novelist’s Powerful Response to the Refugee Crisis,” New Yorker, September 25, 2017.
  2. Igiaba Scego, “Il sogno dell’Italia,” Rai Letteratura.
  3. Chiara Mengozzi, Narrazioni contese. Vent’anni di scritture italiane della migrazione (Carocci, 2013), p. 133. Translation mine.
Featured image: Lido Beach, Mogadishu, Somalia, November 9, 2012. Photograph by Stuart Price / Flickr