“Would you like to hear a story?”
(The incredible life of Sami, tailor of Jerusalem)
(translation by Raffaella Rossi)
The sun is setting behind the green hills of olive groves that surround Jerusalem, we are walking uphill on a narrow deserted street of the old town, the cold biting our cheeks. Indifferent and discussing our dinner plans for the night, we walk past a small shop with a lot of colourful scarves on display, the only one in the whole street. A few meters passed the shop, an elderly gentleman approaches us asking our nationality and we tell him we are Italian. We expect it straight away to be another selling attempt, so frequent from the many vendors of the old city, but the second question is more intriguing and catches our attention “Would you like to hear a story?” he says. We can’t help lowering our guard and giving in to the curiosity of discovering what this elegant gentleman has to tell us, so we walk back.
Sami introduces himself and invites us to his shop, a modest but charming tailor’s studio now selling scarves, cashmere shawls and religious dresses, still furnished with the original furniture that have been there since 1959. As we sit, Sami, born in 1935, starts telling the story of his life.
In the 50’s, when still a teenager, Sami started working as an apprentice for a tailor shop in Jerusalem. The very low pay and his ambition made him very quickly unhappy of this secondary role and pushed him to leave and move to Baghdad, at the time a prosperous and full of opportunities city ruled by King Faisal II. Sami remained in Iraq for three years, continuing to study as a tailor, but with a much higher salary than he would have earned in Jerusalem. At the fall of the king, killed in July 14, 1948 during the Iraq Republican Revolution, he finally decided to move back home and, with the money set aside, to buy the shop we find ourselves right now. The competition in Jerusalem was fierce and, to gain credibility, Sami had the idea of telling everyone that he had completed his tailor-apprenticeship in Italy. To support this white lie with facts and make it credible, he then bought the book “Evidence, defects and corrections”, technical series # 4 of the Clothing Encyclopaedia written by Antonio Sandre and published in Turin in 1958. The book contains tips on how to make clothes based on both on male and female measuring, creating models suitable for all types of bodies: small shoulders, long arms, valgus legs.
As we leaf through the book and smile at its archaic language, Sami tells us more about the expedients adopted to convince clients and acquaintances that he had lived in Italy for real. Obviously, a lot of curiosity was focused on the Italian food, this is why he became a frequent customer of a well-known local Italian restaurant, run by Gino Neri. Gino, after marrying a Palestinian woman, had remained in Jerusalem and opened an Italian restaurant, as it often happens to our compatriots around the world. Furthermore, to clear any doubts, he started deepening his knowledge of Italian popular culture by watching movies with Sophia Loren and learning to sing “Guarda che luna” by Fred Buscaglione. Eventually, what really mattered was not if he had been to Italy or not but that he was extremely talented: the business took off and he quickly became one of the most famous tailors of Jerusalem. The sales were pushed not only by his presumed training in Italy but also by simple and effective marketing tricks like walking around the city only wearing clothes created by himself or giving away a tie or a handkerchief with every purchase.
We are amused to hear him claiming five different nationalities:
- Turkish, as his great-grandparents, Christian Syrians living in Turkey, sought refuge to Jerusalem at the outbreak of the Christian persecution in 1916.
- English, being born in Jerusalem in 1935 during the British protectorate (the stamp of the British Royal family on his birth certificate signed by King George V testifies it).
- Jordan, since the neighbour country has ruled over Jerusalem and the West Bank from 1948 to 1967. Sami still holds a Jordanian passport which he renews every five years with a simple trip to Amman.
- Israeli, holding the travel document that allows him to reside in Jerusalem, Israeli administration.
- Palestinian, because he was born in Palestine as proved by the green card that allows him to move freely between the Palestinian West Bank and Jordan.
The sixth one, says Sami laughing, will be Chinese, once the historians will claim that Buddha was born in Jerusalem and the Chinese army will invade Palestine.
Sami’s life continues surprising us, as we start looking at a wall covered with photos that proves memorable encounters: with Lord Snowdon, photographer and documentary filmmaker, Princess Margaret’s husband, who devoted two pages of his photo book to Sami, portrayed in his shop wearing an impeccable tailor mise, yellow meter and thimble. A picture in Atlantic City where he flew first class without paying a penny after winning the first prize in a lottery organized by the Continental airline at the opening of their office in Jerusalem. He tells us amused that his wife accompanied him on the trip, but had to travel economy class, as the free ticket was for one person only.
Sami shows us pictures of the first suit he sewed at the age of 17, pictures of his 5 children and 15 grandchildren and one, a little weird for us, of himself wearing a suit on the beach in Tel Aviv in the 50’s. Thanks to his tailor’s talent he also managed to avoid military service, as he managed to “convince” his senior official with two pairs of pants to relieve him from serving the Jordanian army. Of his brief military career, however, he still keeps a beautiful black and white photograph that he shows us smiling happy behind his thick white moustache.
Like any octogenarian, Sami cannot hide a deep nostalgia for the past, when people used to wear tailored suits now supplanted by cheaper, standardized, low-quality, often Chinese, goods. In addition to his tailor’s identity he is also proud of its religious identity as a Christian Syrian Orthodox, a Church that expresses itself in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, of which he is the mukhtar (head / representative or more literally and spiritually “the chosen one” ) in Jerusalem.
After a photo to capture this unexpected encounter, many laughs and some candies, we leave thanking him for sharing his story with us. Happy and with the strong feeling of having just gone through a unique experience, we leave the shop and go back to the deserted and dark streets of the old city. Sami shop disappears behind us, however the light in his eyes, the joviality of his laughter and the warmth of his gaze will accompany us forever.
Lucho, the barber of Tulum
(translation by Raffaella Rossi)
A black, flea-ridden dog is passing by, so skinny you can see its pointy bones poking through the shiny fur. A man, lanky and with mustaches, is telling Lucho and his customer about some miraculous aphrodisiacs products, seemingly able to boost male virility. The customer is listening and pretending interest but, to be fair he really has no choice, since Lucho’s hands, although expert with scissors and razor, are also very slow. Lucho is a barber, an inexpensive one, owner of the peluqueria (barber shop) that bears his name, a tiny room located on a dusty side street of Tulum. The walls are covered with historical photos and the usual joke signs that make new and old customers laugh: “No credit except to older than 95, accompanied by their parents and grandparents” or “Following to Jorge Bergoglio’s recommendation we do not give credit here”.
We have been in Tulum for a few days, a Mexican city of the Riviera Maya, in the Quintana Roo state, region of Southern Yucatan. Tulum is about 3 kilometers from the seaside and it has grown around the busy road that connects Belize with the famous touristic hubs of Cancun and Playa del Carmen. We are on the Caribbean Coast of Mexico, a beautiful land rich in cenotes: huge circular caves located in the forest, windows to a fascinating underground world, aquatic but almost lunar, lacking of fish but full of incredible stalactites and stalagmites.
I am waiting for my turn in this sunny, hot and humid afternoon of May. Lucho works slowly, almost matching the rhythm of the Caribbean Sea waves, only few kilometers away. Outside, overweight Mexican men with mustaches, mothers taking their children to play football, stinky and noisy bikes roaming the city streets, minibuses taking their workers to the Hotels on Playa del Carmen stopping by every ten minutes and shouting their final destination.
Not far, the beautiful white beaches of Mexico, squeezed between lush green palm trees and and turquoise sea of a thousands shades. The sea this year is suffering the high temperature and releasing brown algae that are infesting the shore and creating a 30-40 centimeters barrier that the tourists have to cross before diving in the warm, crystal-clear Caribbean waters.
The clouds are scudding across the Mexican sky and quickly running off into the sunset. The black dog comes back, following short and overweight women in shorts, walking and dragging their flip-flops on the asphalt. A group of children, laughing, cycle by heading back home. An old black Beetle, hand-painted and dusty, sits tired under the Mexican sun. Lucho is carries on his slow and precise cutting job, wearing a black smock, discoloured and with few holes, mended by now several times by his wife. The smock covers a lean body, almost consumed, of a over 60 years old man. His legs, skinny but stable, still supporting his dance around the customer’s heads.
Pretty tired of waiting, I find myself wondering on the history of this ancient town, one of the few where you can still admire the Maya ruins by the sea. The Maya, a wild, well-educated and advanced in several fields, from astronomy to maths but above all able to survive and thrive both in the dense forests of Mexico and Guatemala and on the heights of the Sierra Madre in Chiapas; on the flat and green Yucatan, trading with the population from north and the south, and the coast of Honduras.
Finally the last client pays up and Lucho asks me to take a seat. I enter the small room and sit on the chair, very comfortable but worn out and broken in some points. I discover a wall that I couldn’t see from outside, covered with diplomas for attending training courses for barbers, a turtle shell and even a Native American dream catcher to separate the front of the shop from the back room, presumably the house of Lucho. I also spot a funny anti-alcohol rhyme titled “Testament of an alcoholic”, which brings me back to the complex Mexican situation where the poorest fringe of the society often fall into distress, alcoholism and drug addiction, sometimes followed by a recovery driven by AA meetings or religious sects offering support and hope of a better future.
Lucho’s razor is moving slowly on my skull and giving me time to explore the interesting and colourful walls of the peluqueria which, besides religious images, hosts pictures of Che Guevara and Emiliano Zapata, the great hero of the Mexican revolution in 1910.
Lucho has finished, I look at myself in the mirror and notice some hair locks sticking out that I probably retouch home, maybe with Daniela’s help. Between wait and cut, I have been here for almost an hour, the orange sun is starting to gently changing colour the dusty streets of Tulum. I then pay and leave, more satisfied for the chance of experiencing a common day of this Mexican town than for the cut itself. An afternoon that I will carry with me forever.
Tulum is also this, it tastes of tequila and Sol beer, of picnic on the beach with noisy Mexican families, of boiled corn with mayonnaise, cheese and chili, tortillas and quesadillas, avocado and lemon, salt and sun. Above all, Tulum tastes of life, simplicity and warm Caribbean smiles, like Lucho’s who is thanking me for choosing him as a barber, without realizing how grateful I am for the afternoon just gone, simple and unique, magically unforgettable…pure Mexico.
Ode to the Andes
(thanks to Raffaella Rossi for the translation)
The Andes, more than a geographical place are a sensorial journey, unforgettable for anybody who has ever travelled there, even for just a few days. Our first encounter is visual. The Copa Airlines flight that is taking us from Cuba to Ecuador whizzes in the late June sky and, despite few clouds, we can still admire at the horizon, snow-capped and majestic, the Andes. Quito appears as a long snake that occupies a narrow Andean valley surrounded by the mighty volcanoes Pichincha, Cotopaxi and Cayambe. On June 27th, Daniela’s birthday, we climb up to 4,100 metres to admire the city from the top: it’s cold, we are running late but this first Andean sunset still charms us with its beauty. Our entire trip to Latin American is defined by the Andes. The dry and biting cold between June and August makes us shiver and get closer in our tiny tent on the first two nights of the Salkantay trek in Peru. A 70 km long trail, spread in five days to finally reach the fascinating and mysterious Machu Picchu, which retains its magic despite the thousands of visitors who walk the narrow streets of the citadel every day. During these intense and tiring five days we heard the roar of the Andes, generated by the mighty glaciers. Huge white masses seemingly motionless but in reality constantly moving and melting in the sun, giving birth to icy lakes that we swim for few minutes of unique sensations. The skin becomes numb, the breath stops and suddenly you feel like choking and losing your legs until you start swimming and realizing that your legs are still working as much as your lungs. Luckily the heart of the Andes hides unexpected warmth and provide natural opportunities to warm up and relax. In Banos, Ecuador, for less than one Euro, we could enjoy five different natural pools, each one with a different temperature, from the freezing cold of the glaciers to the boiling water where is recommended not to spend longer than 10 minutes to avoid health consequences. This deep and intimate contact creates an unbreakable bond between each traveller and the Andes, always there to surprise and make the trip a wonderful adventure.
The Andes are fascinating at all hours of the day and night, but it is at the transition from one to another that the show reaches its climax. On the Island of Sun (Isla del Sol, Bolivia), a sacred island in the middle of the biggest Andean Lake, the Titicaca, we woke up in the middle of the night and covered by layers of clothes, hat and gloves, we reached the highest peak to watch the sun coming up behind the Illampu. What an incredible emotion to be waiting for the sunrise with the cold biting our cheeks in complete darkness and silence. In that cold July morning we admired the miracle of the darkness vanishing while a new day appears and nature awakens. The Island of Sun, birthplace of the first Inca according to the myth, with its dusty trails, the quiet farmers growing quinoa and the women taking the cows to pasture, is a place where the soul finds peace. The placid water of the lake shines, the condors fly softly across the blue sky, the sun is strong and relentless on the face of the cholitas, leaving their skin red, for the whole day until the sun rapidly sets, the sky darkens and a million stars appear to keep you company, as you rapidly look for a place to enjoy a warm soup. During another magical Andean dawn, we felt the breath of the Mother Earth, at almost 5,000 metres of altitude on the border between Bolivia and Chile, with enormous geysers erupting steam currents ten metres high, huge dark puddles of boiling mud and the strong sulphur smell.
The Andes are generous of flavours and smells too. The ever-present smell of coca leaves is impossible to forget, chewed or drunk in infusions to help fighting the altitude sickness and tiredness and more recently used to flavour candies. Less known but often more valued is the muña infusion, another useful herb. The Andean cuisine is simple and plain but its main grain, the quinoa, very tasty. Initially grown only in the Andes, it has been for a long time the staple food of the Andean population living on the Ecuadorian, Peruvian and Colombian mountains, and has nowadays become an expensive product exported globally.
What a beautiful sense of freedom travelling through the Andean Highlands with its huge sky, barren hills and the colours of an ancient world that is slowly and uncomfortably adjusting to modernity. The Andes are the wrinkles of an elderly Aymara man chewing coca leaves. The Andes are the black smiley eyes of a child observing the world and peeping out from the blanket strapped on the mother’s back. The Andes are the wrinkled hands of an elderly Qechua woman selling amulets and dried llama foetuses in a shop in La Paz.
We are the Andes as we open our eyes to these wonderful mountains, breath in the ancient dust carried by the dry wind that smells of coca. We are the Andes because the Andes get in your heart to never leave it again.
Cambodia, land of silence
(Thanks to Raffaella Rossi for the translation)
Silence. A golden Buddha is shining right in front of me, almost lost in the darkness of the temple. I sit comfortable to better admire it, completely covered in darkness. The air is stale and filled with incense perfume. Compared to all the Buddha statues I have seen for far, that were even 10 metres tall, this one is tiny. Not far above my head, the light is peeping through the spire as I sit here, on the cold and dusty stones, in complete silence for a moment contemplating and admiring this placid Buddha.
I slowly climb the last steps that take me at the top of Bayon temple, part of Angkor Thom complex, to finally get close to the Buddha and spend a moment alone. Almost a miracle considering the amount of tourists around. We currently are in Angkor Wat, at the border of the city of Siem Reap, the most important and visited archaeological site of all South East Asia. Tiziano Terzani, Italian journalist and writer, who loved this country and its temples writes “…this is one of the few places in the world that makes you feel proud of being a human being; a place where greatness can be experienced in each single stone, tree and breath you take.
In despite of the intolerable amount of tourists visiting the site, it is impossible not to agree with Terzani. Cambodia is a land of architectural and engineering marvels but, in its past, it has also shown to the world how deep down the humankind can reach. Silently, all the times. Silence has hidden the American bombs dropped on forests and rice fields of the Vietnamese borders. The silence of people who knew that speaking up during Pol Pot regime would only mean dying. Years later, silence again is covering the sell-off of the land by its own political class.
Land and water have always been at the centre of the history of a country which, in despite of being relatively small, is full of precious natural resources and a perfect place for cultivating rice, so important for the whole South East Asia. At the peak of the Khmer empire (between XI and XII century) thousands of people, subjects to the King-Gods, Hindu and Buddhist, moved tons of land to build ditches of over 190 metres in width and 1 Km in length, and canals to drain the water, giving at the same time protection and a magical appearance to the temples.
A land that is always been contested, sitting between the powerful Siam Empire, nowadays Thailand, on the west side and Vietnam at the west side, until it became French protectorate until the 1953, year of the Cambodian independence.
A fertile land, as we notice admiring the landscape from the top of a Buddhist temple near Battambang. A lush green flatland, crossed by roads, full of noisy bikes, rickety auto rickshaws, wobbly buses and smelly trucks heading to Phnom Pehn. A boundless farmland where the best rice of the country is grown, where the horrible memories of the Khmer rouge are still kept and where a single cave turns out to be the grave for thousands of Cambodians killed by the regime.
A land that is still soaked in blood, in places like Choeungk Ek, one of the several extermination camps where between the 17th of April 1975 and 9th of January 1979 2 million Cambodians out of a population of 7 million died. One Cambodian out of 3 did not live to see the end of the regime and the rest was left to deal with one of the most horrible tragedies of the XX century. A land that still returns bones and clothes from what is left of over 300 extermination camps that had one single goal: to destroy the history, culture, identity and religion of a whole country by physically eliminating the intellectuals, clergy and anybody who could write and read as they represented the corruption of the Cambodian society. The only ones meant to survive were the farmers, the only ones to represent the ancient and true values of the Khmer. The motto was “In order to eradicate the weed you need to eliminate the roots”. That is how whole families, millions of innocents were slaughtered as they could not match the ideal Cambodian society the regime had in mind. Not only the Khmer rouge killed a third of the population but also aimed at destroying the different social classes levelling it all into one, eliminate the currency, the private property and even family as an institution. Nobody was even allowed to cook at home and share a meal with their family but rather eat all together at the soup kitchen.
Furthermore, the Khmer leaders, considering urban centres a dangerous place for aggregation and soul corruption, decided to evacuate thousands of people from first from Phnom Penh as soon as the city was freed and then from the main cities. Most cities were emptied from one day to another, everybody forced to leave everything behind a move to the countryside where they would collectively working in rice fields and contributing to the build new irrigation ditches.
One of the key places that helps understanding how far the delusional Khmer ideology reached is the Tuol Sleng prison, former school transformed into a detention and torture centre by the regime. Nowadays a fundamental remembrance site. Walking the empty rooms, reading the stories of the ones who died and the few who survived is touchy and overwhelming at the same time. The few who managed to come out alive carry on their life with a sense of guilt and shock for what they have seen. Arbitrary detention based on fake confessions obtain with torture, food, sleep and water deprivation, physical and mental violence, humiliation. Prisoners were forced to release false confessions that would justify their own death and prove that the decisions made by the Ang Kar party (literally translated as The Great organization) were right and fair. Desperation was as such that prisoners would attempt suicide by setting themselves on fire or cutting their veins with a pen or a broken spoons. Prisoners were used as blood donators, their blood drained out until death would take them. An even worse fate was reserved for women who were raped by groups of 10 people and tortured by teenagers not older than 14 years old, indoctrinated and made part of this murdering machine. The regime was so highly structured and duties so maniacally divided between each single person that nobody would necessarily see the responsibility of their actions and recognize the madness of the dictatorship.
Every single person that was arrested and killed was photographed and their data obsessively registered. All their photographs, faces, now hanging on the museum wall, are disturbing. All you can read from these eyes is the lack of hope, desperation and the resignation. Some young women are potraited holding their babies, who would be later taken to Coeung Ek, beaten to death against trees and buried in a common pits.
The land is screaming for justice and revenge. 36 years have gone past after the end of Pol Pot regime. The country has been invaded by Vietnam first and temporary controlled by the United Nations which were supposed in two years to put back together a country that was coming out of 20 years of war. The United Nations experiment, the intervention of hundreds of NGO’s and the millions of dollars of donations still haven’t been able to win the fight against poverty. Why is this, we ask ourselves? We are not expecting to be the ones who find answers and solutions but we do feel that, so many years after this tragedy, the healing process of a country that has suffered so much, hasn’t even started and nobody has taken real responsibility or apologised for the millions of deaths. The trial for the main five Khmer rouge leaders still alive has only started in 2007, but Ieng Sary died during the trial itself, three others have been received life sentence and Ieng Thirith, Ieng Sari’s wife, has been released in 2012. Pol Pot, the main leader of the communist party Kampuchea, died in his own bed in 1998 without spending a single day of his life in prison.
The lack of justice for what has happened in the past is not the only problems Cambodia is facing but also a high level of corruption (according to Transparency International Cambodia has been listed 156th over 175 countries). The current political class that established itself in the 80s treats the country like their own family property, exploiting the natural resources of gas, oil, mines and selling off the land to big transnational companies. The redistribution of the land process has been named “Economic land concession”, which simply means selling off the richness of the country without taking in consideration the needs of the Cambodian farmers who are the true spine of the country. Land concession for farming aims mainly at the production of rubber, sugar, paper and palm oil: products that do not contribute to the food sovereignty of the country and steal land to the small farmers. The government, not capable of supporting smaller and family run farms that would also be socially and ecologically more reasonable, ends up dividing the land in small territories and selling it off for the best offer. A secondary effect of this process is the eradication of thousands of people from their home land: between 2000 and 2014 over 500.000 people have been pushed away from their own land, often without even being reimbursed for the loss.
Cambodia, its people and land, will always stay in our memory for its friendly and smiley people, the ancient temples, majestic and verdant nature. At the same time we will carry with us the horror of the Khmer rouge regime, the American bombs e the thousands of lives lost in the name of a delirious and ruthless vision. We leave the country worrying about its future, the lack of justice for the victims of the past and the corruption of the current political class. We leave hoping time will teach respect for the land and people living here and that silence will not win the country over again.
The Great City of Mexico City
(Thanks to Laura Piermartiri for the translation)
From the 46th floor of the Latin-American tower, it is impossible to see the boundaries, immense and located at 2,200 meters above sea-level. The roofs of the houses stretch as far as the eye can see out of Mexico Valley, part of the Texcoco lake area. Suddenly, San Francisco does not seem so big any more. In the recent past years, the Mexico City metropolitan area, incorporated 40 surrounding municipalities, extending the area of the Federal District: the urban population grew up to 9.7 million people and that of the metropolitan area up to 24.7. A big city as large as Mexico City or DF (el defe – as the majority of Mexicans call it), needs a big square: the Zócalo, formally called Plaza de la Constitución (Constitution Square), is actually the third largest square in the world. When we first reach there in the early afternoon, the first thing that strikes us is its emptiness. Perhaps because of the hour of the day and the sun’s heat, the square is completely empty: neither a passerby nor a street vendor, or a child. The exact opposite of the streets downtown where rivers of people incessantly flow in all directions, overcrowding the city center in an ordinary Friday afternoon. We decide to join the flow and to dive in the noisy stream of people passing fast, so we find ourselves in front of Cafe Tacuba by chance. Stefano says, “We can eat here, I know there is a band called like that.” We go inside. An elegant mustachioed waiter opens the door of what appears to be a normal café, whose entrance is a simple wooden door. Instead, the Cafe Tacuba is not just a place to eat something: it is one of the historical sites of the DF, where in 1922 Diego Rivera organized the wedding banquet for his marriage with the writer Guadalupe Marin and where many Mexican presidents and governors used to dine. Struck by the beauty of the frescoes on the walls and of the decorations on the ceilings, we sit to taste some delicious enchiladas (corn tortillas filled with cheese and covered with tomato sauce) while a mariachi band starts playing traditional music. Happy for this accidental discovery, we leave the Café satisfied and with a map in our hand, we try to decide a direction. Where do we go? Difficult to choose among the tons of things to do and see in DF. We decide to start with Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera and the Archaeological Museum.
The long queue in front of the entrance of the Casa Azul (Blue House) scares us a little bit. Unsure whether to wait or not, we decide to wait, munching potato chips with hot sauce to kill time. One hour later, we are in. We are speechless in front of the Frida Kahlo paintings and curious to see the house where she lived, painted and created for most of her life. After her death in 1954 when she was just 47 years old, it seems that her husband Diego locked up all her works asking to leave them closed at least for 14 years. Casa Azul itself is the expression of the Kahlo and Rivera spirit of life and art, not just because their paintings are showed in there, but through the furniture, the arrangement of palettes and brushes, the kitchen where they used to cook only pre-Hispanic dishes it is possible to understand their political and social commitment. Two of the paintings we most enjoyed are “Marxism will give Health to the Sick” and “Still Life“, where Frida expresseses her obsession with motherhood and her troubled relationship with her body. Moreover, the butterfly collection gift of Isamu Noguchi and the pictures of Trotsky (friend of the couple murdered in Mexico in 1940), Marx, Lenin and Stalin hung above her bed show her political affiliation. Finally, her wardrobe with her clothes, which are pure art too: decorated corsets, adorned prosthesis, floral skirts, jewellery, long dresses. They are another colourful expression of Frida’s creativity who tried to turn weaknesses into strengths, but maybe also an attempt to hide what is hard to accept. “Appearances can be deceptive” is the title of a sketch where Frida represents herself dressed in sheer fabrics that reveal her prosthesis and the bust.
Casa Azul is located in Coyoacan, a nice and colourful colonial citadel in the suburb of the ever-expanding DF. San Juan square is full of families, young couples, children, along the main road a multitude of stalls sell esquites (hot corn with mayonnaise, cheese and chili), hot corn cookies, clothes, jewellery, T-shirts, cotton candy, balloons. The lovely atmosphere persuades us to stay a little bit longer and to stop to eat something for dinner right there, between the ungainly music of “All you need is love” played by the diamonica of a willing guy and small children selling marzipan.
In the following days, we continue our exploration of Mexico City following the artistic path. The few Rivera paintings hosted in the Casa Azul did not particularly impress us. We immediately change idea when we see his murals in the National Palace. We find out more about the muralists’ movement which started in Mexico in the 20s of the last century in the wake of the revolution of 1910. For Mexican muralists, art is politics and they refused the concept of art as a job commissioned by wealthy private people. On the contrary, art has to be an artistic activity in defence of the interests of the whole society, especially of the oppressed classes. For this reason, they made frescoes on public buildings, in order to allow everyone to access and benefit from artistic messages and their training contents. The Mexican Communist Party expelled Diego Rivera, who was its secretary, to have painted murals in the National Palace, home of the ruling class since the Aztec Empire. Rivera murals represent the different stages of Mexican history: the pre-Columbian civilizations, the arrival of Hernan Cortes, the first constitution of the United States of Mexico in 1924, the Revolution of Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. In the murals, there is a strong emphasis of the role of the church in converting the natives and the influence of Marxism and communism in Mexican political life. There is a representation of Frida holding an open copy of “Das Kapital”, standing next to her sister Cristina, whom Rivera had an affair with.
The history lesson continues at the Archaeological Museum, one of the largest museums in the world, located in Chapultepec wood. Large 44,000 m2, it houses the largest collection in the world of pre-Columbian art. A specific room is dedicated for each culture where the treasures of the Mayas, Aztecs, Olmecs, Teotihuacan, Toltec, Zapotec and Mixteca are preserved. The Mixteca room kidnapped our attention where we were hypnotized, like many others, in front of the Piedra del Sol, the Aztec cosmos representation dominated by the sun god figure at the center of it.
We end our stay in DF with the visit to the community in Nexquipayac, in Atenco town, a few kilometres from the city, known to most people for the bloody incidents of May 2006 (article on “research and movements”). Thanks to our friends of Frente de Pueblos en Defensa de la Tierra (FPDT, Front of Peoples in Defense of the Earth) of Nexquipayac we walk through what was an Aztec village overlooking Texcoco lake, where you can find pieces of vessels, inscriptions and engravings of that time and where the traces of the ancient aqueduct are still visible. To date, the FPDT claimed many battles and continues to challenge the Mexican government willing to build a new airport just where the community lives, cultivates and tries to preserve and defend the archaeological area of Atenco. The Mexico City International Airport “Benito Juárez” is no longer appropriate to receive the millions of tourists who arrive to visit Mexico every year. For this reason, the government plans to expand the airport accommodation facilities with the objective to reach a capacity of 32 million people.
The great city of Mexico City therefore needs a larger airport. Unfortunately, political interests and speculation outweigh the values of what could really make this big city even richer from a cultural and historical point of view. Some people do not want to see its history, its culture and its life covered by cement and they do not want to give up but they continue to fight for the values they believe in. These people are not afraid to challenge the giant DF because they are greater than it as the love for the land that inspires them.
If you are going to San Francisco, be sure to wear flowers in your hair!
(Thanks to Joanna Amoroso for the translation)
It is 11 pm and San Francisco airport is calm. We quickly pick up our bags and we approach the exit trying to take the last train to the city centre, but it is too late. We decide to hop on a shuttle ride with a Chinese guy who has been living in San Francisco for 13 years and who brings us to our destination through the broad, deserted streets. We arrive at Kennix’s home, our accommodation during our stay in SF. We found this place on the AIR B&B website, which saved us a large amount of money. The house is cosy and well organized. We settle our stuff and just as quickly we fall sleep. The next morning we meet a young Swiss couple who are sharing the apartment with us. Matthew and Sandrine are planning to travel for 1 year between the US, Mexico and Guatemala, they are struggling with the camper they have just purchased. We say goodbye to them and immediately go to buy something to eat: we are starving, as we did not have any food during the long trip from Europe. We go into the supermarket, and we feel a bit confused. We spend some time to figure out what to put in our shopping basket. The shelves are bursting with products, products of uncountable varieties, packed in giant and colourful boxes: tons and tons of food and drinks that can confuse even the most methodical consumer. After an indefinite time spent in the supermarket trying to orientate ourselves, we go home and, as we prepare our breakfast, we study the map of the city.
San Francisco is a big city, lying on 43 hills, populated by 4,594,060 people in the urban area only, 8.6 million throughout the country. Funded by a Franciscans’ mission in the late 1700s, it grows incredibly during the gold rush era began in 1840 and, in a few years, a small village of 800 people, becomes San Francisco, a city of 100,000 inhabitants. Walking through the city, we find the same faces of the European conquerors who we met in Spain and Portugal. A Columbus’ statue dominates the Pioneer Park, on top of Telegraph Hill and near the Coit Tower (the latter, it is a gift to the city from Lillie Hitchcock Coit who says, “to be in an expended appropriate manner for the purpose of adding to the beauty of the city which I have always loved “- but we are not so sure that the tower really added beauty to the city). In the area of the Civic Center, the Pioneers’ Monument summarizes the most important stages of the city history through the faces of the most famous pioneers like John Sutter, John Fremont and Sir Francis Drake. The statue is strongly criticized due to the figure of a native american subdued at the foot of a Franciscan priest and a Mexican vaquero.
Walking from the Pioneers’ Monument, we arrive at the Civic Centre Square right in front of the City Hall. The square has plenty of the colourful sculptures of Hung Yi, a Taiwan artist, displayed in the temporary exhibition named “Fancy Animal Carnival“, among which there is also “our” animal: the lucky dragon wearing tennis shoes ready to travel around the world! The colours of the sculptures blend in with the music and extravagant clothes of three girls who are preparing their instruments to play just in front of the City Hall. Attracted by the music, we get along with other passers-by when two brides dressed in white strongly criticized: the group was there for them, it was a surprise to wish much happiness for their wedding.
Happy for being part of this little surprise, we continue our walk up to Market Street, crossing China Town and North Beach. We get lost among red lanterns, street musicians, we forgot our city map four times, and we ended up among tricolour flags of the slew of Italian restaurants in the area. Tired and attracted by an apparently anonymous small bar, we decide to have a break at Caffè Trieste, near Saint Francis square, at the crossroads of some of San Francisco’s most important roads: Upper Grant, Broadway, Columbus and Vallejo, where in the 50s, the Beat Generation authors and the proponents of the bohemian life as Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, used to meet. Ferlinghetti is still a regular in this area. It seems that Francis Ford Coppola wrote much of the script of “The Godfather” sitting at a table at the Caffè Trieste, a small bar similar to the worst dives Italian of ’50s, with an old world’s charm, decadent but full of character and colour. The old fashioned, dusty and fragile furniture, an old jukebox, the floor with broken tiles, the ugly mural of some unknown local artist, the aroma of espresso and the clink of the cappuccino’s cups make us feel a little bit at home but, at the same time, in another era, the era of timeless.
A time when bars were not only places of encounter, but also places of the soul, ways of being and forges cultural, bars that exceed the barriers of time, that unchanged resist the fashions of the lounge bar and that transmitted from generation to generation and anecdotes, jokes, memories, stories and culture, in a word: identity. Italian Identity in particular. North beach is known as Little Italy, as it is populated by Italian immigrants, which arrived in the second half of the 800 from Sicily and Tuscany, contributing to the development of fisheries and the fish trade in the city.
From North Beach we go to Lombard Street to see crookedest street, 27% slope mitigated by 8 turns to go at a speed not more than 5 mph. Going back to Little Italy, we could not resist the lure of a good pizza at Maurizio, who invites us into his restaurant showing us his picture with the Italian Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi. The restaurant is small and full of flags, paintings, photos, references to the motherland on the walls where notes of Italian melodic songs bounce. A FIAT 600 adapted to a table restaurant is parked in front of the restaurant, we are a bit perplexed, but judging the happy faces of the Japanese guys intent to toast in the car, this idea is brilliant in the US.
Besides walking, the subway becomes our means of transportation in San Francisco, faster and cheaper than buses and rental cars. Montgomery is the subway stop stuck in our memories, in the heart of San Francisco Financial District on Market Street. Standing on the escalator that leads to the surface, our noses stretch upward to try to look on the top floor of the skyscrapers overlooking the exit. The feeling is that of dizziness. It is difficult to not look straight down to the ground, where on the sidewalk there were two tattooed guys with dirty and torn clothes, “sleeping” on their empty backpacks. They were in the heart of the city, between 12 heels and shiny shoes of workers in the financial district. Immediately many questions marks pop up in our thoughts.
We continue walking. Going forward, the situation does not change homeless people and half-naked youth begging at traffic lights, perhaps under the influence of some drug. Perplexed we wonder why so many people marginalized from their family, the community, the city and the society rhythmically living in the shadow of the Transamerica Piramid Center. Trying to give an answer to all our questions, we reach Height Ashbury, remaining a bit disappointed by what remains of the “Summer of Love” and the “Flower power”: a colourful street, paved with ethnic shops, oriental coffee and smoking-pushers with dogs on a leash. Let us turn then to Castro, via Twin Peaks (which has nothing to do with Lynch), where rainbow flags flutter and rainbow crosswalks guide us to Harvey Milk’s headquarters, the first openly gay politician elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors assassinated on Nov. 27, 1978 along with Mayor Moscone. The neighbourhood is buzzing, bars and restaurants are full of people, a boy in the street sells jokes at 25 cents. We go to QBar for a break to drink something: at the bar a couple of boys have their drinks and on TV there’s Flash Gordon, a 1980 movie with Ornella Muti in spacesuit… terrible. While the DJ starts to play music, we leave to go back home.
We decide to spend our last day in San Francisco exploring the Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero. We see the municipality bike rental columns self-service where you can rent a bike at 9 dollars a day. It is done! Payment only by credit card. No problem, we have 3 credit cards. We insert the first card, the second and the third for more than once, by trying different columns. Nothing. We understand that foreign credit cards are not accepted. Payment is only possible using US credit card circuit. Disappointed, we do not leave the idea of making a bike ride to the Golden Gate Bridge and we rented 2 bikes at Parkwide Bike and Ride: 3 hours, 2 bikes for a total of $ 53. We ride just not thinking about it; the prices are standard at all the facilities rental. So off, we go. We enjoy the ride, the day is a bit ‘grey’, but the roads are equally populated by families for picnics, sports race, gentlemen who give free hugs, happy children who bathe in the cold waters of the ocean.
The arrival at the Golden Gate Bridge is breath-taking, you feel suspended, so just like the bridge, we look at the city and retrace mentally all the stages: Native Americans, pioneers, the Spanish presence, the skyscrapers, the homeless, openness to homosexuality, the Italian immigrants and the flower power. San Francisco gave us new and different images compared to those we were used to in the past few years of our life spent between Italy and Africa. Besides Starbucks serving cappucino in plastic cups and Burger King selling plastic food, San Francisco actually makes you feel strong emotions, not just those related to the history, but also those of the new vibrant experiences blooming in this city. In neighbourhoods like Berkeley, you can walk where the Black Panthers used to meet, you pass into the Gilman Street Project, an alternative project to create a free aggregation environment where everyone can express freely their ideas. Moreover, the Free Speech Movement of the students of the University of Berkeley led by Mario Savio between 1964 and 1967 fought for the freedom of expression of the students and the academic freedom. All these movements spread seeds all around so that new realities bloom, grow, like the one we met in Albany, the Gill Tract Community Farm, and the team of Food First, committed to affirm food sovereignty, with which we had lunch in the garden urban of their office. Lunch Km 0 with salad of flowers. San Francisco put flowers in our hair, but also in our stomach!
Matters of national security
(translated by Maria Grazia Patania)
Once we leave Lisboa we fly over the Atlantic Ocean to San Francisco. We make 2 stopovers –one in the Azores and one in Boston. After roughly 2 hours from our takeoff we land in Punta Delgada where we are asked to leave the plane. We take our belongings and we go to a waiting room till someone tells us to go back on board. During our short stopover (roughly one hour) we have to undergo security checks again and Stefano –stopped by the police- has to show them every single little thing in his backpack. Afterwards he joins me in a small bar inside the airport where I am chatting with a Portuguese woman who has been living in Boston for quite a long time. She tells me about her son and his wife who also experienced a journey around the world the year before but then had to stop because they will have a baby. Our boarding starts and we stand patiently in line. After landing in the USA, we grab our passports and visa requests which we had filled out through the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization): a program allowing those who come from eligible countries like Italy to apply for a visa.
The security check area is chaotic with its dozens of colourful tapes showing passengers the way. Violet, yellow and red tapes overlap while officers dressed in black divide people according to their nationality after a first electronic registration at some machines. We queue in the wrong line, a line devoted to gold Trusted Travelers who do not need to undergo any security check. The airport officers are unfriendly in telling us we are queuing in the wrong line and then they show us how to use those electric machines for a first passport check. In front of us there is a woman called Maria who does not understand how to use that machine to get an electronic ticket. The officer there -visibly annoyed- tells us in a broken Italian what to do and issues the ticket for her. Unfortunately Maria is Portuguese, despite her name. We go for our second step: a security check with the airport police. A police officer -called Kenneth, a thin Afro-American guy about 40 years old- questions us in a strict and uncomfortable way. He opens our passport and rudely puts them on his table. Then our examination starts while over our heads some videos show friendly police officers gently answering to some questions made by children. This is not our case with Mr Kenneth. He looks firmly into our eyes and makes easy questions such as „What is your name?“, „Why are you travelling to the USA?“ difficult to answer. The way he observes us makes us feel like criminals hiding an illicit traffic. Why have you been to Sudan? Tunisia and Morocco? We feel like in a movie and slowly start answering his questions. What´s my name? (well… Everyone calls us Stefano and Daniela) Friends? Who? No, not at all. When are we leaving? Maybe on the 22nd or the 23rd. But from where?
Sweaty and more nervous than at our high school final exam, we succeed our examination. Finally Mr Kenneth validates our passports and gives us a nasty look as if he meant „This time you´ve got it, but next…“. Luckily enough we´ve made it: a matter of national security. Now we need to find the gate for our connecting flight to San Francisco. We get lost following directions given to us by different travellers, but then we get there quite surprised. It is a relief. We would love to eat something, but everything is dam´ expensive and we only buy half liter water for 6$. We will have dinner on the plane, we hope. It is late evening now and we are on board of the flight that will fly us to San Francisco in 6 hours. Once on the plane we are delighted to see that we have a small tv screen in front of us and we pick up the movie we will see during the journey: Selma, about Martin Luther King. What we did not see was the small space intended for credit cards to buy meals and movies. Once we turn the screen off and forget how hungry we are, we can finally fall asleep to wake up when we are landing to San Francisco airport.
We spent Easter Sunday travelling between two continents, Africa and Europe, after a short but interesting visit to Morocco, which left us with the desire to return, in the future. As travelers, we followed the path that so many migrants, desperate and with the sole desire to find a place to live in peace, follow every day to attempt the assault on Fortress Europe that does not want them. Europe, the dream that often turns into a nightmare, indeed, many will never touch European soil, but will sink in the cold waters of the Mediterranean. We, however, with our nice European passport, present ourselves to the ferry in Tangier and after a tenuous security check we climb aboard a huge ferry, at least 100 meters long and equipped with bars, restaurants and all possible services necessary for the long-drawn crossed the Strait of Gibraltar: 30 minutes for a total of 40 euro each, an inexplicable cost, as it is inexplicable the luxury, the services and their cost (in euros strictly, because the Moroccan dirhams are not accepted) on the ferry . The sadness of the thought of how many people try to cross the strait and do not make it is mixed with the excitement of seeing Africa that fades away and Europe appearing at the horizon, a few kilometers from each other , so close but also so far away, from many points of view. Below us, a few dozen meters from the hull of the ship some dolphins peep, cutting the surface of the water with their agile fins, further away, slow, majestic and powerful move the whales, an unforgettable farewell to the African coasts and a warm welcome to the European ones. We disembark in Tarifa, on the Spanish side,and panting we catch the bus for Seville, we can get in the Andalusia capital by the evening, just in time to drop our luggage in our tiny room found on AirBnB and go out for a quick tapas and beer dinner The next day we are back on the road to Marinaleda, a rural town of 2,700 inhabitants in eastern Andalusia, famous because since 1979 is governed at the municipal level by an extreme left party that implemented a lot of progressive and socially advanced initiatives. In preparation for this visit we had read various articles on the internet describing Marinaleda like an island out of reality where they had implemented a few ideas belonging to utopian socialist and communist school of thought. We will discover that the reality is very different, more complex but also more “normal” compared to how it is depicted in the media – soon an article devoted entirely to Marinaleda in the “Research and movements” section.
After the visit to Marinaleda we returned to Seville to discover a green city, historically very interesting and very enjoyable, spending our days and visit the old town, with its narrow streets, the cathedral and walking along the Guadalquivir that with its waters supports the flourishing Andalusian agriculture. With Gas, a friend of mine from Canale d’ Agordo who moved to Seville over 10 years ago, we also discover the Triana district with its colorful and vibrant market where they sell fruits, vegetables, cheeses and many local products, including meat of bull sadly killed during bullfight a few days before. After a quick lunch with Gas, his wife Beatriz, his son Alessandro and the little Ylenia we chased (yes, again!) the bus to Lisbon, that we managed to catch at the last second.
The days in Lisbon have been happy and sunny days of April, the streets of the Portuguese capital are dotted with tourists, travelers, but also stalls of vendors, buskers, beggars and professional smugglers who sell marijuana and hashish in the city center by showing the little packet on offer, as if they were selling innocent candies. As usual, we walk a lot, discovering the city, its sights, its parks but also tasting the flavors of this country on the Atlantic Ocean, including: delicious pasteis de nada (custard pastries) bought at the “Old Bakery of Belem”, just outside Lisbon and the superb chocolate cake enjoyed at the restaurant, “Lost in Esplanada”. In addition to walking, we use a lot the subway, easy to use and economical, taking us even to lesser known places such as the citadel of the EXPO 1998, certainly far from the pomp of 17 years ago but all in all a pleasant walk along the river Tejo before it throws itself in the Ocean.
We say goodbye to Lisbon on a hot sunny afternoon, in the shadow of the monument to “the fathers of the discoveries”, a work dedicated to the protagonists of the great Portuguese exploration expeditions of the XV and XVI centuries, including the Prince Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama and Ferdinand Magellan. We do not really like the monument, also considered the results of the exploration that led to the extermination of millions of indigenous people and the systematic looting of mineral and natural resources in the vast conquered territories of the Americas, Asia and Africa. We prefer to enjoy the view and watch the elegant seagulls flying over the waves of the Atlantic Ocean, as we will do, after a few hours, next stop: S. Francisco.
Marrakech express and beyond
A dish of vegetable tajine fries in front of me, the smell of peppers enters the nose and prepares body and soul to a quiet dinner in a silky Moroccan night. The tagine dish keeps the vegetables hot, earthenware, hot, served with a cover rthat reminds me of the Berbers’ hat, the desert people, a simple food but healthy and nutritious. Stars dot the magic sky behind the tower of the mosque, the muezzin has already called to prayer with his loud chant. The moon lights up the snow that covers the peaks of the Atlas mountains, the air is balmy, rich of spices and mint tea flavor.
The earthenware pot is brown, rough as the earth, as the mountains and the skin of the Berbers who live there. Brown, like the walls that still protect the medina, the old city of Marrakesh, the walls, rough and brown stand out against a sky so clear and blue that it seems unreal. The April sky above Marrakech is clear, temperatures are already high, over 35 C degrees in the daytime, but lucky enough the weather is quite dry so it does not make you sweat.
Not sweating is very lucky as Stefano’s backpack, with most of his clother was sent to Canada and it is two days that we do not know anything about it, not a great start for our round-the-world trip, this fact annoys us but it does not discourage us, these things happen when travelling and we are quite confident the backpack will arrive soon. We will recover it after three days by going to the airport one evening, on an old Mercedes taxi, beige and upholstered with a waxed fabric and printed with tigers. In the orange light of sunset we return to the Jemaa-el-Fna that we had already visited during the day and a variegated collection of: snake charmers, smiling guys selling juices, girls returning from school, little monkeys on a leash to take a picture with the tourists with an incongruous curiosity towards animals but an unexplicable tolerance toward their mistreatment. As the evening comes, Jemma-el-Fna square lits up with thousands of lights, faces and smiles, it begins a new life even more sparkling and shimmering. Thousands of Moroccans flock into the square to hear storytellers narrate legends, ancient and modern, to watch new and old magician performances, listening to street musicians but also to enjoy a quick meal in one of the dozens of temporary, but very organized, restaurants occupying the central part of the square. During the dinner it can happen to be approached by clever henna tattoos painters that within seconds they paint your hands with exotic decorations. Each dinner can not be defined as such without a taste of Moroccan pastry, sold by dozens of mobile carts moving around the chaotic and lively square.
From Jemaa-el-Fna, after dinner, we cross the narrow streets of the medina, at night it is rather dark and lifeless but by day it is swarming with tourists in shorts, smiling sellers, suspect loafers and sweaty workers pushing carts through the narrow streets of Marrakesh. Both in the Marrakesh medina and in Fez one getting lost is a “must-do”, and like it or not, sooner or later it happens. Walking through the narrow streets in the heart of this ancient and imperial city is a very strong sensory experience. Surrounded by children’s screams and the greetings of the vendors roaring motorcycles and motorized carts loudly roll by, a muezzin calls the prayers to the mosque while a donkey is braying because of the excessive load. The old men sitting at the tiny bar sipping mint tea comment on the latest events of the day. At each step a wave of different smells sneaks stinging in the nose, cumin on display, the dung of donkeys on the ground, the sweet aroma of Argan oil, cold stench of entrails exposed outside a butcher’s shop alongside a goat head, the scent of the resin and of the wood from a carpenter’s shop mixes with the pungent smell of iron that comes from that of a nearby locksmith, the dust accumulated in the carpets shops makes you sneeze but not as much as the smell of hides and leather that comes from dozens of colourful leather shops. Tanneries with white-gray stone tubs stinking of pigeon droppings and goat urine, but also big stone tanks lively and full of bright yellow, red, brown colors, an ancient process, still performed by hand by men of yesteryear who live most part of their days scraping cows, goats and camels hides, to process and color them. We discover the world of skin transformation and processing of thanks to a short and bossy lady who offers to guide us (for free) to the tannery more passing amid huge groups of tall and pale perplexed Nordic tourists, the short but strong lady avoids them leading myself and Daniela in the narrow alleys of Fez shouting: “Sorry! … hello! ?? … Excuse me!”
In the middle of so much confusion we spot small windows of fried cakes, made with tasty and always present nuts and soaked in a lot of sugar syrup, to be eaten preferably with a mint tea or a fresh lemon, orange, tangerine or grapefruit juice, even better if ginger or almond flavored.
We lost count of how many artists, dancers and street vendors we met in the street selling everything and although often we resist, sooner or later it is impossible not to succumb to the temptation of trying freshly fried chips, salted or sweet peanuts or popcorn but also to street-food hearty cooked and sold on the spot such as: chick-pea soup and sandwiches containing anything edible they can contain. In the medina anything is sold from dentures exposed on display to shoes, carpets, shawls, curtains, footrest, extremely colorful scarves of all colors: yellow, red, green, purple and blue.
Sometimes the smells, the flavors, the colors and sounds of the medina can be overwhelming and push you to seek shelter in a park, quite surprisingly for such a dry country both Fez Marrakesh which have beautiful parks: clean, well kept, full of bubbling and elaborate fountains, green lush gardens, shady tall trees, local and imported from other continents, many Moroccans go there for a chat in the shade of a palm tree. Sweaty and tired after hours walking around Marrakesh we sat a few meters from a cluster of 7-8 Moroccan girls, all strictly veiled, intent on chatting thickly, they unsurprisingly filled their conversations (in Arabic of course) with words such as Facebook , WhatsApp and Twitter …
Technology and western modernity, the so-called development, are so much more present than we expected in the cities and in moroccan people’s life: paved and well-maintained roads, new air-con buses, well-organized stations, and huge gleaming airports, trendy bars, chic expensive restaurants… in Tangier even discos and night clubs. Morocco is full of non-places, stations, airports, shopping centers, bars exactly the same as other infrastructures around the world. Non-places where Morocco becomes shallow and tasteless, it disappears, it ceases to exist, or perhaps, the question arises, places where we are experiencing the future Morocco? However, this brief visit to Morocco has allowed us to discover an extraordinary country, very charming but also very far from the stereotypes, preconceived ideas that we had. Perhaps given the previous experience in Tunisia we expected to be welcomed in a more open and warm way by smiling locals. Maybe the fact that he visited very touristy areas is one of the causes of this slight bittersweet feeling that Morocco gave us, but this fact gives us also one more reason to come back to discover the desert, the Atlantic beaches and moroccan rural villages that this time we could not see. Excited, we left Tangier by ferry to cross the Pillars of Hercules, ancient limit of the known world, to convince us that we have to go back to Morocco a group of friendly dolphins and majestic whales that have appeared on the water surface greeting us from the deep and cold waters of the Strait of Gibraltar.
HALLI BACH TOUALLI! (Eat sweets so you’ll come back!)
While the undulating Moroccan landscape is flowing out of the bus window and we move away from the white peaks of the High Atlas overlooking Marrakesh, my mind goes to the last time we took the bus. It was only a week ago but the wet and cold night when we said hello to Grottammare seems very distant. At night, after the last hugs, we crossed in silence and in the dark the Apennines in the early morning passing through Rome that was preparing for a day like another. For us it was not a day as another but rather the beginning of our new adventure and of our project: ALTERRATIVE.
The rumors and news of the attack at the Bardo museum are still echoing in our ears but at our arrival in Tunis our fear fades away. The sun illuminates the white city of Tunis, and Mohammed, the father of the family that will host us (chosen through the Air BnB website) welcomes us smiling at the airport. A few words and we travel by car to his home in the suburb of Menzah 9, not far from the El Manar University campus where the World Social Forum is hosted. After a rich meal with homemade cous cous cooked his wife Neima, Mohammed takes us to the discovery of the campus, where many years before he studied engineering. In those years, the young engineer met a young seamstress, Neima and married her. The marriage was blessed by three children, now adults and with a life on their own: one in Dubai, with a 7 years old son, a daughter in Paris and another living in Tunis, recently married and with a baby on the way. Neima and Mohamed, in his sixties and both retired have a quiet life but full of friendships and social relationships. They are a serene couple, she is passionate about cooking, he is certainly a good eater but also a valuable support in the grocery shopping and home chores. Mohamed is in fact responsible for washing clothes at home, indeed he is the one who taught me how to use the washing machine and that very kindly hung our clothes to dry while we were off to attend the meetings of the Forum. Every morning we have breakfast together with Neima and Mohamed, fortunately Daniela speaks French, and at least we can know them a bit better and explain them what we are doing and why we are in Tunis. With Neima and Mohamed the relationship grows immediately beyond the mere “hosting” and they are great in making us feel really welcome and “part of the family” also by showing us pictures of their grandson, the marriage of their son and daughter and telling us colorful stories of real life in Tunisia, a life centered on family, good food and the joy of being together, especially in the case of special events such as weddings and birthdays. Neima and Mohamed also own a house at the Hammamet, a beautiful corner of the Mediterranean where they invite us but the visit to Hammamet will have to be postponed until our next visit.
Every day, Mohamed takes us to the university campus where the Forum is held, always very polite and with a sweet and sincere smile, Neima instead constantly worries that we always have a hearty dinner to our liking and that we try all the major Tunisian dishes, plates rich of exotic flavors and Mediterranean herbs: tomato, pastry, stuffed with meat and vegetables, soups, chickpeas and bread enriched with cumin, coriander and olive ‘oil, couscous, fresh vegetables, many types of cheese produced in Tunisia. Desserts cannot be missing based on a wide variety of dried fruits, honey, yogurt and accompanied by fresh orange or lemon juice. Tunisian cuisine is a real surprise, little known abroad, but very tasty, healthy and varied. Tunisian cuisine mixes the ingredients and Mediterranean flavors with the Berber tradition, the tribe of the desert that, intermarrying with the Arabs, gave birth to this small but beautiful corner of North Africa. Tunisia, the cradle of the “Arab Spring” and so far the only country where the consequent change of regime has not led to a protracted civil war and destabilization. Here, the change of regime led to a national unity government, that is now leading a new phase for the “Switzerland of South Africa”, as Mohammed calls his own country. The socialist regime that dominated the post-colonial Tunisia has developed a legislative framework much equal between men and women, many women are in positions of prestige and responsibility in both the public and private sectors. Moreover, as Tunisia used to be calm and stable, it has hosted and continues to host a high number of citizens coming from Arab territories, now mainly Syrians and Libyans, in the ’80s instead mostly palestinians, the Organization for the Liberation of Palestine led by Yasser Arafat even had its operational center here. Arafat’s wife worked at the Sheraton Hotel and he had available 3-4 different houses in order to be able to sleep every night in a different place to avoid exposure to the risk of attacks. One of the houses rented by Arafat’s OLP was the one in which Neima and Mohamed now live, at the time they had sublet the house to live in an area better connected to the center, to their children schools and to their jobs. For many nights, Yasser Arafat has just slept in the room where Daniela and myself were hosted. Tunisia had developed a significantly more stable and peaceful society than most of other North African and Middle Eastern countries and maybe this is also one of the reason why it has recently been targeted by terrorist groups. Tunisia has strong links with Europe and historically the city of Tunis was one of the most importqant cities of the Mediterranean and therefore one of the hardest rivals for the Roman Empire for many centuries. At the time the city was called Carthage, according to the myth, it has been founded by the Phoenician queen Dido, who had been authorized to take as much land as it could hold the skin of an ox, cutting the skin in thin strips she achieved an extended perimeter where she established her own city.
Carthage is now a suburb of Tunis, where, symbolically, the President of the Republic lives in a princely villa overlooking the sea. The French influence is still strong because of the language (the second most spoken language after Arabic) but also from an economic standpoint, cars, many industries and most of retail chains are French. Ties with Italy are also very strong, even if more recent, many Tunisians work or have worked in Italy, sometimes even getting married in our country and many Italian entrepreneurs have relocated their businesses here, a neighboring and stable country, with a young population, qualified and speaking many languages, 2-3, sometimes 4.
Our passage in Tunisia was very short, but we are sure that we will return soon. Sunday morning, before you take us to the airport, Naima Mohamed and we have prepared a full breakfast, biscuits with honey and various desserts: “Halli bach toualli” says Neema, eat sugar so you will return.
We will do it. This time our visit in Tunisia has been very short and therefore we could “taste” this interesting country. Our visit and focused on participating to the World Social Forum, but despite this, there have been many episodes that contributed to develop a very positive impression of Tunisia: the many smiles, generosity and spontaneous friendship of Mohamed and Neima but also the young student who after sharing the taxi with us insisted on paying, the many smiling faces of the volunteers of the Forum, the feeling of being accepted, and almost pampered by a country that certainly is not going through one of its happiest moments but that is able to react, that is not frightened by foreigners and that is not overwhelmed by fear, but instead, wants to show that the humanity of the Tunisian people wins over hate. A country that wants to prove that hope and a modern, secular, democratic, open and solar lifestyle can not be defeated by the darkness of theocratic, absolutist, dark and barbaric utopia of a small extremist minority. Tunisian people responded with more rights, more solidarity, more democracy and participation to those who would like shut down forever the “arab spring”. The success of the World Social Forum is a small, but concrete, manifestation of Tunisian people will continue on the path of the “arab spring”.