Of Migrants and Mirrors

A Review of Amara Lakhous’s Divorzio all’islamica a viale Marconi

Monica Hanna

During the past week or so, an increased stream of boats carrying Tunisians fleeing their North African country as a result of the uprisings has deposited those migrants onto the Italian island of Lampedusa, which lies about halfway between Tunisia and Sicily in the Mediterranean Sea (for more information about current plans in reaction to the situation, see this New York Times article).  Because of Lampedusa’s strategic location, the island has become the point of disembarkation for many seafaring vessels transporting undocumented immigrants; the island is often seen as an African gateway to the rest of Europe. This fact has been covered and debated for years in the Italian media, politics, and streets.  It is an issue that has taken on an even greater sense of urgency since September 11, 2001 and March 11, 2004.

Amara Lakhous’s new Italian novel, Divorzio all’islamica a viale Marconi (Edizioni E/O, 2010), enters into the discussion about the role of immigrants in Italy today with an incredible comic flair and keen insight into Italian culture and history.  The novel, which is due out in English translation through Europa Editions later this year, is set in “Little Cairo,” an international phone center in the Marconi neighborhood of Rome.  Our protagonist is Christian, a Sicilian who, until a few days ago, was a court interpreter who earned his living by translating for Arabic speakers, a skill he acquired by way of his family’s connection to Tunisia (his grandfather was an Italian Tunisian, born and raised in Tunisia before moving back to Sicily) and his years of Arabic study in college.  Divorzio all’islamica a viale Marconi, which might be translated as Divorce Islamic Style on Marconi Boulevard, begins with Christian’s own migration from Sicily to Rome, where he becomes “Issa.”  This transformation takes place at the request of SISMI, the Italian secret service.  The Captain, Giuda [Judas], seeks out Christian for his language skills, and appeals to his sense of patriotic duty to infiltrate a terrorist cell.  According to the captain, this cell operates in the Egyptian community that congregates at the phone center and is spearheaded by its owner, Akram, a large Egyptian man who resembles John Belushi.

Issa “passes” in this environment not by pretending to be Egyptian like most of the international phone center patrons, but by inhabiting an elaborately constructed Tunisian identity, complete with a Tunisian “mother” who answers his phone calls “home” from the phone center.  In fact, to his friends at the phone center, Christian/Issa becomes known as “The Tunisian.” He is thus similar enough (Arab, Muslim) to be accepted by the Egyptians but also different enough not to have his authenticity questioned.  This play of multiple identities permeates the novel; almost every character has more than one name and more than one identity.  The novel has two narrators—Issa and Sofia—who take turns telling their interwoven stories in alternating chapters.  Sofia, like Issa, also has a dual identity.  On the one hand, she is Safia, the good Egyptian wife her husband wants her to be, faithfully wearing her head scarf and dutifully rearing their daughter Aida.  Yet at the same time, she is Sofia, a woman who resents having to cover her most prized possession—her hair—and works as an extremely skilled but clandestine hairdresser, idolizing bombshells like Marilyn Monroe and forging friendships among Italians and fellow migrants alike.  She also reads Nawal Saadawi and has very strong feelings against female genital mutilation.

The duality of Issa and Sofia allows each to provide both insider and outsider perspectives on various identities.  These characters are not ideologically bound because they can acknowledge differing points of view.  Issa is Italian, but he also experiences Rome as an outsider, commenting on his experiences in a Sicilian-inflected Italian.  And of course, along with his Italian nationality, he has a familial and cultural link to Tunisia.  Sofia’s covert political ideas make her an outsider in the Muslim community insofar as she reflects critical opinions of the role of women in Islam.  At the same time, she is an outsider in Italy as a foreign woman who wears a headscarf.  Indeed, she meets Issa when she is caught in a harrowing position at the open-air market as a xenophobic Italian berates her.  In this scene, Issa appears to be a well-educated Arab man who speaks Italian perfectly and thus is able to defend Sofia, becoming the Arab Marcello Mastroianni in her daydreams.

Amara Lakhous in Rome

The love story between Sofia and Issa takes some of its cues from the inimitable and hilarious 1961 Pietro Germi film Divorce, Italian Style.  The film starred Marcello Mastroianni as a bored Sicilian baron who can no longer stand his domineering (and unibrowed) wife and must find a way to get rid of her in an Italy in which divorce is still illegal (and would be until 1971) but murder to protect one’s honor is not.  The film is also one of the most important of the commedia all’italiana genre, a type of darkly comedic film that takes on some of the nation’s social ills.  Germi’s film, for example, playfully (and often darkly) attacks the illegality of divorce along with issues of class as well as the Northern Italy/Southern Italy divide.  The “comedy Italian style” films were extremely popular during the period of Italy’s economic miracle (“Il Boom” of the early 1960s), which was one of intense change that brought many social problems into relief.  In this sense, Lakhous’s invocation of the commedia all’italiana is quite fitting, in that it deals with an Italy that is undergoing another period of intense and rapid change.[1] As David Sharp notes in his article in this issue, in the past few decades, Italy has gone from a country of emigration to one of immigration.  Lakhous’s comedic style is able to hold a powerful mirror to Italian society in part by adopting its cultural references.  He also did this in his previous novel, Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio.  His 2006 novel (originally published as Scontro di civiltà per un ascensore a piazza Vittorio by Edizioni e/o) featured another interloper, Ahmed/Amedeo, and was partially structured based on the model of Italian postmodernist writer Carlo Emilio Gadda.  In Algerian-born Lakhous’s novelistic play on the Germi film, however, the author attacks not just Italian conventions, but also Islamic ones.  The novel offers equally unflattering evaluations of characters belonging to both groups, like Teresa (alias “Vacanza” or “Vacation”) who rents to foreigners,[2] but at abusive rates that finance her luxurious cruises, or Safia’s ignorant and insensitive husband, who forces her to wear a veil (against which she rebels by fashioning it in her own way, in bright colors and high fashion).

As with many commedie all’italiana, the novel ends with a happy resolution—of sorts.  The moment of extreme tension at the end, when Issa is forced to decide whether or not to sell out his lover, is smoothed over with a conclusion that looks similar to an “it was all a dream” resolution.  Yet at the same time, the relief that the reader feels is quickly supplanted by dismay at the fact that s/he might have given credence to the same doubts and suspicions planted in Issa’s head, as well as in the overall Italian psyche.

Links

Lakhous’s website: http://www.amaralakhous.com/

Lakhous interview in Words without Borders: http://wordswithoutborders.org/article/scheherazade-cest-moi-an-interview-with-amara-lakhous/

WWB excerpt from Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio: http://wordswithoutborders.org/article/the-truth-according-to-parviz-mansoor-samadi/

AnsaMed article on Lakhous, calling him “the new face of Italian fiction”: http://www.ansamed.info/en/libano/news/ME.XEF28959.html

Lakhous interview in World Literature Today: http://www.ou.edu/worldlit/onlinemagazine/2008september/Lakhous.htm


[1] Another author who writes about the situation of immigrants and invokes the commedia all’italiana is Igiaba Scego, including her short story “Salsicce” (“Sausages”), which includes references to comic genius Alberto Sordi.

[2] While googling in order to find more information on the Roman neighborhood surrounding viale Marconi, I found some apartment rental listings which actually state things like “no stranieri no studenti” [“no foreigners and no students” allowed].    Here’s one:

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