LAMPEDUSA - THEY FISH PEOPLE:
Giovanni Ferrò’s essay
Autumn is coming. You can see it in the sea squills, which bloom when the fierce heat no longer scorches the block of limestone and sandstone that takes the name of Lampedusa. The white plumes of these wild lilies, erect and crooked like deranged toy soldiers, stand to attention like a regiment nursing a hangover, spread amongst the rocks and at the edge of the strip of concrete that divides the island.
The eye encounters no obstacles to left or right. The sky, some clouds and then rock. Crumbly rock eroded by the wind, hard and dusty earth that varies from light grey, to white, to cream. Rock that drops suddenly, almost vertically, straight down into the sea. Or it’s channelled into a winding Saharan wadi that leads to a bright white beach. It’s an alien, vertiginous, dazzling panorama. Prolonged exposure distorts your sensory perceptions, and you can no longer tell if it is the alien or you are.
With its Sicilian language and African colours, Lampedusa is an alien island because it escapes any easy classification, rejects any stereotype. Too far south to be fully European, too organised to be Tripolean. The roads are twisting but defined, the houses simple but well-finished. It’s as though through these small deeds, man has tried to stave off the cosmic disorder that breathes through this land, and which fills your lungs with an ineffable, unconfessable vertigo.
Lampedusa is a stray land in the middle of the Mediterranean, like the dogs that lie in the shadows of the tables at the bar: brothers of all, sons of nobody. The same is true of its residents. Like Costantino, the builder from Trani who moved here for love many years ago, and who one October morning in 2013 went fishing for bonito with a friend and found himself hauling men and women on board his boat, migrants who had been shipwrecked just off the beach of Tabaccara, and who were drowning, engulfed by isolation and the silence of the world.
With bright eyes and his face carved by the sun, Costantino immediately addresses you with the informal tu, as though you had grown up together, but he speaks little and only when he has something meaningful to say. He smiles warmly and listens patiently. But his eyes darken when he recalls that terrible morning when he had to vie with death for who could win more human bundles floating in the sea. ‘The laws of European countries would have us ignore the migrants, would have us stand idly by as people drown. But I don’t accept a law like that,’ he protests. ‘When I’m on my boat, I recognise no other law but that of the sea, which obliges me to help a victim of a shipwreck, a brother in humanity struck by misfortune.’
The son of a cruel fatherland that has forgotten its most noble offspring, Costantino is an alien in Italian society. Newspapers and broadcasters searched high and low for him after the shipwreck of 3 October 2013, but he didn’t want to use his fifteen minutes of fame to become a media personality. Despite some backache, he continues to work at the construction site every morning. And while he races past on his scooter, he casts a glance at the wind, the clouds and the sea: perhaps there’s just enough time to throw a line and catch some bonitos?
Lampedusa is an island full of aliens. Outsiders without flags, foreigners without borders that have put down roots on this coarse, sun-drenched rock. Like Paola Agheorghesei, Romanian by birth but Sicilian by religious profession, belonging as she does to the Sisters of the Poor of Don Morinello, a small congregation from Palermo. Sister Paola has lived on Lampedusa for three years, and is the island’s only veil-wearing woman who is not Muslim. Lacking a real convent, she lives in a flat in the historic centre, just next to the post office, and when she stands on her balcony, she can see right down into the port. Her job should mean going to Church and praying. But here on Lampedusa, God cannot be penned in, harnessed inside sacristies, kept locked up in the tabernacle. And so the Romanian nun with her innocent gaze looks for Him in the streets: in the houses of the elderly and poor of the village; at the Favaloro pier, in the exhausted faces of the refugees who disembark half-naked and frozen stiff; in the disoriented eyes of the Syrian mothers who have lost their children in a shipwreck and whom she welcomes into her home as though it were an Airbnb of universal fraternity.
If it weren’t clear already, this is an island of those who tilt at windmills, healthy carriers of quixotism. Like Francesco Piobbichi from the migration observatory Mediterranean Hope, who in these years – to deal with the suffering of the landings and the shipwreck survivors – has taken to painting with a Michelangelo-esque furore, to the point of being the de facto official artist of Lampedusan solidarity.
This is a world at complete odds with politico-religious decorum, allergic to dogmatic prescriptions and the tidy writing on the pages of history. Even the legends from these parts have a vaguely punk flavour to them. Like the one dating from the 16th century that tells the story of a slave rower on a Turkish privateer, who, having escaped from captivity, became a hermit with a double identity: a marabout to the Muslims and a monk to the Christians. Andrea Anfossi, this strange spiritual father of the Lampedusans, is still remembered in the only sanctuary on the island, dedicated to the Madonna of Porto Salvo. The little church is nestled in the tuff, and looks like one of the ancient Franciscan missions in California. Inside, there is an icon of Mary, venerated as the protector of slaves, fugitives and refugees.
It’s strange how a temple that is so modest from an artistic point of view can contain such a subversive message. But in a land of uncertain borders and mixed identity, this too can happen. And so for four hundred years, these rocks have witnessed the whispered passing on of the idea that religion – even during the dark times of the crusades – can be liberation from chains, not submission. And the Madonna has become the paladin of ‘Porto Salvo’ (Safe Harbour), a no-man’s land where one lives under a truce and sets down one’s weapons. Fraternity, liberation, sobriety, care for others: it is a difficult task for such a small island to become a megaphone for such great and forgotten words. And yet, somehow, it happens. Because Lampedusa is like the sea squills that bloom at the sides of its roads: it stands up as best it can, getting by with the essentials for life, putting down roots between rocks and asperity. But it remains upright, its back straight. Like these poor wild lilies, it blooms despite the burning of the times. And its white, downy puffs seem like the feathers of secret angels knocking in the night at the Gates of Europe.