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Europe Underground: Questioning Otherness

Jacob Grech (he/him) on how migration is inspiring new visions of Europe.

The late Franco Battiato was one of Italy’s greatest, but also most improbable, music stars. After decades experimenting with avant-garde styles, Battiato achieved major commercial success in the 1980s with albums that offered a unique interpretation of the cantautore (singer-songwriter) tradition, crafting lyrics rich in esoteric, philosophical and religious imagery. 

His best-known song, 1981’s dance floor hit Centro di gravità permanente, begins with a reference to Matteo Ricci, a 16th-century Jesuit scholar who travelled to the court of the Ming dynasty emperors. In Voglio vederti danzare, he sings about dervishes, hinting at his interest in Sufism.  ­­

Battiato went on to participate, together with fellow artist Alice, in the Eurovision Song Contest as an established musician – mainstream, but uncomfortably so. Although Eurovision is intended as a celebration of a shared Europeanness, it is also associated in the minds of many with musical reenactments of long-running conflicts between countries. 

Battiato’s entry, I treni di Tozeur, does something quite different. It invokes the landscape and history of another continent altogether. Tozeur is a town in southwestern Tunisia, and the frontier referenced in the lyrics is the nearby Saharan border with Algeria. Although the song goes on to reference interstellar voyages and spaceships, setting a Eurovision entry in part on a North African railway seems more than whimsical or eccentric, although Battiato’s music celebrates both these qualities.

In all three songs I’ve mentioned, Battiato toys with the frontiers between the orient and the occident, but in so doing, questions how ‘natural’ they are. Beyond a fascination with their cultures, there is in his music a certain identification with people frequently labelled as ‘other’ than European. 

North Africa has had a particularly complicated relationship with Europeanness – from the insistence that Algeria was as French as Paris, to the many thousands of Italians, French, Spanish and Maltese who settled across the region in the nineteenth century. This history remains a painful one to address. Subtler influences, such as the role of Islamic philosophers like Ibn Sīnā in translating, interpreting and preserving Greek and Roman texts over the Middle Ages, are seldom acknowledged. 

One element has not changed: for the purposes of defence, Europe extends far into North Africa. In recent years, this has meant strengthening barriers against migrants; the Central Mediterranean route is increasingly the main concern. With the deal between the Turkish government and Brussels to hinder migrants from making the perilous journey across the Aegean or EU-Turkey land border, it is from Libya and Tunisia that migrants increasingly depart. This is a dramatic reversal from 2015, when nearly 900,000 made use of the eastern route, in comparison to just over 150,000 in the Central Mediterranean.

Over 650,000 refugees, primarily from Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, arrived in Sicily alone in the last decade. The ability of parties like Matteo Salvini’s Lega (formerly a party that advocated for the secession of Italy’s north) to make gains across Southern Italy indicates in part the power of hostility to migration.

However, there are important counter currents. Consider the NGOs maintaining search-and-rescue vessels. National governments, when they do not refuse outright to accept these ships into their ports, frequently delay and leave vulnerable people in limbo. COVID-19 has only made this more common – Maltese authorities, for instance, first closed their ports altogether and have continued to argue that they can offer no “safe place” because of domestic infection rates – and, being on the frontline, are “full up”. 

Frequently, those who have stepped in are leaders at the local level – mayors and the coalitions of citizens they are able to rally. Palermo’s mayor, Leoluca Orlando, frequently defied Salvini when he was interior minister to admit rescue vessels and has campaigned to abolish the residence permit that restricts the mobility and employment possibilities of many arrivals. The former mayor of Riace, a small town in Calabria, Domenico Lucano, revitalised his declining community by assigning empty properties to refugees – first Kurdish refugees in the late 1990s and later people from dozens of countries.  

Besides humanitarianism, what drives these projects is frequently a recognition of the perennial multiculturalism of their own homelands. Migrants can be a source of renewal, a springboard for critical thinking. As Orlando puts it, they “helped us question that idea of state, as Europe’s constituent fathers began to after the war”, not least because they provide an opportunity to reassert an identity that goes beyond current political borders – a cosmopolitan Mediterranean identity.

This means reinterpreting Palermo’s Arab history, which lives on in its geography and Moorish architecture, and asserting the city’s connections to Istanbul and Beirut as much as Paris or Berlin. This is a call for a cultural reimagining – a long-term project to alter people’s relationships with their past and, it is hoped, the demographic changes of their present. In often surprising ways, this is already happening, with migrants themselves in the lead. 

But the outlook remains bleak – fortress Europe is institutionalised and deeply popular. Mayor Lucano was sentenced last year to thirteen years in prison for “aiding and abetting illegal immigration”. Among his offences, assigning garbage collection contracts to migrants’ cooperatives and helping a Nigerian mother gain a residency permit through marriage. Throughout much of Europe, activists operating in a similar spirit of internationalism face harassment and regular clampdowns from authorities, not to mention abuse fuelled in part by legacy media. 

It seems a truism to say that the arrival of migrants causes those already living somewhere to contemplate, however briefly, their own identity. The typical response is defensive; ‘the other’ can only dilute and threaten cultures understood as monoliths. But, as I hope this article will have suggested, perhaps it can also be genuinely inquisitive and creative, causing people to question who they were, and who they might be. 

Image: Afonso/CC BY-NC 2.0 via flickr.com

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