Swans Commentary » swans.com August 10, 2009  



No Red Carpet To Sulfur City


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - August 10, 2009)   Coming out of Bari train station I felt the southern January like a breath of spring. I wheeled my bag through the green piazza and into King Murat's city, at ease again in its geometry. I looked for the tip of my studio along the roofline. At my porte-cochere I stopped to read a fresh poster. South Italy's most efficient communication system -- after gossip -- are these announcements of a death in the house. By some preternatural feat the printed posters get pasted up beside doorways before a fresh corpse is cold. Angelo's ailing wife had died ten days before.

Lugging my bag up three flights gave me plenty of time to think. The protocol of dying was rigid in these parts. Having missed the funeral I'd better pay a condolence call on Angelo before opening my studio door. The niece who I'd seen helping the couple let me in. I began mumbling the long, sonorous, empty Italian words that take possession of such occasions. Going to embrace Angelo I saw that he was far from himself. He backed away with an unaccustomed start. He was ruffled like a bird with all its feathers awry. Rage like that I'd never seen in his eyes before. There was no place he could retreat to in the one-room studio. He went around to where the huge matrimoniale bed was pushed against the wall and sat down with his back to us.

The niece shrugged and saw me out. Stepping through the doorway for a word, she told me Angelo was moving in with her family. He was arrabbiato, she explained with a glint of admiration. Elsewhere he might have been put into therapy, but the locals were awed by this sort of passion. I was in no doubt that Angelo was angry -- hadn't he almost bitten me -- but angry with whom, against what injustice?

Since his studio remained untenanted I had plenty of time and solitude up there on the roof to consider an answer. But other events came knocking on the porte-cochere and I had to cut short my meditations. I concluded that Angelo blamed Death and would cling to a lifelong grudge with a capital G. That sounded noble enough, but hid my delusion. The man of the seven seas and high places turned out to have no wings after all. He was down in the fish market with the rest of us, arguing prices.

The new commotion was the arrival of the Albanians in Bari. Sixty miles across the Adriatic, Albania had remained the great unknown to Italians and indeed to most of the world. In 1945 its partisan fighters had driven out the Axis and set the country on the road to autarky. Albania went its own reckless way breaking with Tito's Yugoslavia in 1948, with Khrushchev's Soviet Union in 1960, and with Deng Xiaoping's China in 1979. Enver Hoxha ran this fantasy realm with a voodoo version of Marxist-Leninism from 1946 to 1985. He built seven hundred fifty thousand concrete bunkers -- one for every three Albanians. As far as twentieth century dictators went, none had gone further in gratuitous spite. Sitting on a population less than that of Los Angeles, he had nothing but disdain for the seven hundred million Chinese of the People's Republic. He highlighted Albania's spurning of China by the publication of his personal reflections, a collection of insults and racial slurs. (He called Mao a self-infatuated Methuselah.) Graphomania was perhaps Hoxha's least bloody but most sadistic crime. Italians, who after their colonial fiasco in Albania only wanted to forget their somber neighbors, were spooked to find Italy full of luxury gift editions of Hoxha's opera omnia in translation.

In view of the summary execution of the Ceausescus in Romania, it was Hoxha's good luck to die in his bed in 1985 before the meltdown of Eastern Europe became a tidal wave. Warsaw Pact countries with some flexibility couldn't change direction fast enough to save their governments and keep their citizens from simply walking away over the border. Albania, which was still basically Hoxha's, with its muscle-bound bureaucracy and self-punishing isolation, hadn't a chance of weathering the storm. In July 1990, four thousand five hundred Albanians invaded the Western embassies in Tirana and demanded to leave the country. The departures would continue during the acute winter crisis. The unemployment rate was fifty percent and rising.

That Bari had been a focal point of arrivals was obvious as soon as I came down from my rooftop. In the nearest bar, talk was all about the migrants. Looking through the national press I found that the Martelli Law was making news. It was hurried legislation to close Italy to "economic" immigration. Proof of a job and lodging would be necessary for legal entry. But the barman and the regulars around his espresso machine preferred watching the street to reading about it. One of them would emit a low, sharp ehh, as if someone has stepped on his toe, to alert the company to the passing of an Albanian on the pavement outside the bar.

What characterized these passersby was their innocence. Whatever their rank on the morality scale, they were treading in a fairyland and put their feet down lightly. It was a precious and fragile place, still quite unreal to them, and they didn't want to damage it or their chances. They tended to be fairer in feature than local people, with a different proportion between length of leg and body trunk. Their clothes too were different. They'd dressed for the crossing in what they thought were the sports clothes Italians favored. But theirs were a simple-minded approximation without the panache of imports from East Asian sweatshops. Their innocence, however, was genuine and set them apart.

Bari people, charming as they could be, were not innocent at all. They were guilty on all counts, cunning, expecting evil, two-faced as Janus and quick as a kick in the pants. One of them in the bar told us about the interview of an Albanian on television. The new arrival had been asked why he thought Italy was the Promised Land. The Albanian said it was because on Italian TV he'd seen a dog in a bow tie sitting up at a table. The dog was eating food spooned from a beautiful can by a maid in décolleté.

One item in the press perplexed me. Ismail Kadaré, the renowned Albanian writer, had suddenly gone to France and requested asylum. Along with Hoxha, Kadaré was the only Albanian I had a mental picture of. He had always accommodated himself to the regime, been published, enjoyed travel privileges, an important official job and, yes, even Albanian celebrity status. How was he going to ennoble his ducking out when the regime was falling to pieces? I got on to friends in Paris, where Kadaré had long been promoted, and had them send me the translation of Albanian Spring. This was his post-exile tell-all, written in a sweat in December 1990 and January 1991. I confess to an avid reader's attempt to get a grip on the growing confusion in the streets as more and more Albanians walked the right angles of Murat's city.

Albanian Spring turned out to be --with a vengeance-- Kadaré's side of the twisted tale. I wrestled dutifully with the book and dug back for clues as far as his first novel of 1963. The more I read the less sure I was about getting at the truth. I'd never know the extent he agreed, or played the hypocrite with Enver Hoxha. I became convinced that Kadaré didn't know himself. The only truth was that he had been a storyteller from the beginning and his aim had always been to let nothing interfere with the flow of his stories into print.

Kadaré set his fiction in the past, often as misty allegories, which made ambush by ideologues more difficult. He shaped it as ageless national myth either from conviction or in order to match the chauvinism of the regime. He let himself be labeled a social realist. He even wrote a sickening seven-hundred-plus page plea for the regime, a book he now called "the price of his liberty." Liberty for what? Not to tell any so-called truth, but to go on storytelling. From Paris he boasted that he had never been a dissident. Dissidents under Hoxha, he said, were stood up against the wall and shot. In 1991, with no little braggadocio he claimed that he had been much more than a dissident. In the aridity of a murderous dictatorship, he'd provided nurture in many, many pages for his people. That sounded very much like an afterthought, icing on the cake. The real, sweet substance underneath was certainly that he'd managed to get his stories out.

In March, twenty four thousand of the people whose culture Kadaré said he worried about arrived in Italy in one three-day period, some of them on nothing more than rafts. Brindisi, down the road, had born the brunt, and its citizens had been generous with help. Italian officialdom had also not been unwelcoming. The newcomers had been dispersed around the country. Camps had been set up for them.

But as summer approached, curiosity about the migrants turned to hostility. The media insinuated they were inclined to theft, prostitution, unbridled sex, and Mafia recruitment. The Rome government changed its position too. Albania was declared a "democracy" and no longer a legitimate source of political refugees. The Martelli Law could be applied literally. When on August 7-8, seventeen thousand Albanians arrived in the port of Bari the scene had been set for a brutal reaction that would ignore basic decency.

I hurried to the port in the morning. People were perched on every inch of a rusty freighter called the Vlora. The police prevented disembarkation. I hung around for a while and then went for a nervous lunch in Old Town. The locals were not friendly and I smiled a lot and tried to talk football with the waiter. But I kept thinking of the Vlora as the spine of a fish covered with a million flies. The afternoon saw me wandering back to it. The sun was high and the temperature in the nineties. The police had reinforced their lines on the dockside. Some migrants had been jumping into the bay and swimming for shore. They feared they would be sent back across the Adriatic. Patrols rounded the strays up, forlorn figures in wet Albanian underwear. I went home but the radio and TV news was more confusing than the scene in the bay. Unlike the visitors I had a good sleep.

Next day I went back to the port but the Vlora had disappeared. A barman told me out of the side of his mouth that the Albanians had been taken to the old football stadium. I set out immediately as if I had business there. The police formed a tight ring around the stadium. Soldiers were arriving in trucks. I smelled tear gas. A pair of nervous cops looked me over and told me to clear out. I tried my smile and a leading question but only provoked a threatening gesture.

I stopped in the first bar I found with the television going. Someone had a camera inside the stadium. It was like a bad dream in there. Every seat was filled with an Albanian stripped down to his shorts. There were some distressed women and children. I sat mesmerized in front of the screen for the rest of the day.

As the hours passed, the seated people tried to move about. But there was no space and a crush occurred in the small roofed area out of the sun. The water supply had been cut off or broken down. There had been few toilets in any case. Skirmishes started and in no time a full-fledged riot broke out. The Albanians threw rocks at the police who then fired on them. Several wounded adults and a few sick children were let out the barred gates and put in an ambulance. It was like an uprising in a prison. But the prisoners weren't criminals and the guards had no idea of how to handle a crowd.

Late afternoon the helicopters came. The only way to distribute bottled water or bread was to drop it from the skies. The ferocity of the individuals in what had become a big cage was such that the police couldn't even risk handing in food or drink. The word now was that the Albanians, who had smashed up the stadium, would be left to "calm down," i.e., be rendered amenable by heat exhaustion, hunger, and thirst. Then they would be shipped back. Each would get a T-shirt, pants, and forty dollars.

I walked home feeling very tired. I also felt defeated. Cops in twos and threes kept crossing my path. They were in a hurry to round up the loose migrants now that darkness had fallen. They never gave me more than half a glance, writing me off as a tourist from the north that risked showing up their sketchy English. I felt better as I got into my city-stroller's stride making all the angles with gusto in the heart of Murat's city.

As I turned into Via Nicolai, I saw him. He was looking into the window of a takeaway pizza joint. He didn't see the Fiat patrol car parked at the edge of Piazza Umberto. Three cops were silhouetted in the headlights smoking. I could hear their radio calls.

I slapped the Albanian on the back and asked him in Italian about the state of his health. He smiled. I linked arms and started to talk to him loud in French about Ismail Kadaré. The name didn't seem to mean anything to him. We picked up speed, turned sharp before the patrol car and walked along the side of the tree-lined piazza toward the station. The cops gave us a bored look. One of them thought he was clever and told the others we were French.

There was an army vehicle parked in front of the station and more cops inside checking the papers of ticket buyers. We went down through the dark underpass and came up on the northbound platform. The Trieste train was ready to depart. I found an empty compartment and pushed the Albanian into a corner seat. I took my return ticket to Venice out of my wallet and put it in the clip above his head. Then I put my finger on my lips and left. The joke was that the Albanian found all this normal. From the platform I looked in at him in his seat. He smiled. I waved goodbye. Could it be that he too had a sailing man's idea of time and space? Anyway, he was innocent. I was as guilty as any Barese.


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art15/pbyrne106.html
Published August 10, 2009