Camaraderie - Southern Italy

Guest blog from Dylan Calder

Last week in Puglia and Lecce I saw something very different from the headline hate-narrative spilling out of Italy.

Migrant street-traders are everywhere in Europe’s cities; the bar-hopping peddlers of cheap gimmick lighters and trash gadgets pestering the locals and tourists, annoyances, tutted and shooed away, cursed, insulted.

But here in Puglia, there seemed to be a very different, more commonplace response to these (mainly African) guys by the locals. Everywhere I looked, they interacted. Shop, cafe and bar staff, bantering with the street traders. Fine-dressed women, smiling, inspecting their goods, politely declining. Italian kids sharing fist-bumps and more - laughter, camaraderie. I saw colleagues and friendships, between locals and migrants.

There should be nothing remarkable about this, and it felt odd to be registering this, but it IS remarkable, not just because this is firmly not the Italy that’s registering Roma and preventing boats from rescuing drowning children, but because everywhere I’ve ever seen these interactions - between black African migrant traders and white Europeans and tourists, everywhere in Europe - they’re uniformly unpleasant. No one likes to be pestered; and we all have our ways of waving these guys away; but I don’t think I’ve ever seen this scale not just of tolerance but of warmth towards these people in Europe. And what contrast, to the Racist Italian stereotype being crafted and exported by Salvini and co.

Last summer in Stockholm I met a beautiful gay man who’d fled Syria via Libya, and spent eight days in a boat in terrifying conditions until he and his friends were rescued off the coast of Sicily. We rendezvoused again, in Naples, last October, where he talked about how southern Italians had treated him with a generosity and warmth of a kind he’d not seen before and did not see again on his hard journey north to claim asylum.

Maybe this is a southern Italian trait, a cultural kindness that comes naturally. Or maybe this is about what the crisis looks like from the front line, on the southern coasts of Italy, Greece, Spain: a human tragedy that we must, where and how we can, respond to with compassion. Maybe within those varied interactions in Puglia there was an underlying common sense prevailing; an assumption, locally felt and experienced, that these people came there through hardship and violence and should be treated as fellows not pests.

I think many of us especially those of us in ‘cosmopolitan’ cities in this era, the anti-humanitarian momentum swirling so angrily around us, do see that it’s those people and communities who don’t much encounter or interact with ‘outsiders’ that hate them most. And those who do mix, interact, connect with others, we do not tend to see threat - we see kindred.

If, as a world, we are ever to get back on the path to integration and solidarity, it is surely this that educates more than anything: interaction. Let’s facilitate this everywhere we can.

Further reading:

In Italy’s ‘hospitality town’, migrants fight to save mayor who gave them a new home”, The Guardian, 7 October 2018

Ethnic shops' to close by 21:00-Salvini”, AnsaEN Politics, 11 October 2018