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from the September 2016 issue

From “Lampedusa Snow”

Playwright Lina Prosa follows an African refugee in Italy’s Alpine north.

To an actor with powerful lungs, who is able to act in high altitudes with little oxygen.

The reality.
The source: the news.
An African migrant, after having arrived in Lampedusa, is brought to a shelter in the Orobie Alps. He stays there for months waiting for his request for political asylum to be processed.

The theater/one actor:
The actor is seated on a chair. Next to him is an open refrigerator. The actor holds a glass in his hand; every so often he takes ice from the refrigerator and puts it in the glass.
When the ice melts the actor pours the water into a container and places it back in the refrigerator.
The actor tells the story of Mohamed, African refugee.

***

(a stranger, but a fiber of reality,
the squid on the snow)

it snows on three places:
on me, Black of Africa,
on the Orobie Alps,
on the ruins of matter.
Is there a mistake?
One place appears correct:
it snows on the Orobie Alps.

I grab some snow, put it in my mouth.
Chew it.
I promise harmony.
I try to convince Italy.
More difficult to convince Alpine Italy.
A question of difference.
I was prepared for the sea.
I know the fear of going under.
Not of going up.
Matter changes,
the heart of man changes,
certainty ends.
I eat the snow, the Nation will reward me.

It snows.
I move closer to the act, to the intimacy.
Intimacy is good for all relationships.
Especially if the parties are opposed.
I, African, lower myself until I touch her.
I rest my lips on her.
Is the cold rejection?
I venture into its indecipherable nature:
I rest my tongue on the first threshold of cold,
I lick it, it melts in my mouth.
More than this is impossible.
The ice asks for protection,
detachment, retreat,
solidarity, the problem is not moving forward
but resisting.
I stand like an African at the door of an entrance
that doesn’t exist.
There is no shame between me and the snow. There is no hate.
My lips go back to where they belong,
like the squid that retreats
on the countertop washed down with ice water.

“Mohamed, this is your sea,
this cloak of water is the beauty of the Empire.
The Empire needs you.”
What’s the Empire have to do with this?
It’s an excess of enthusiasm. An excess of trust.
An excess of interpretation.
Of affection.
That’s what Saif tells me the day that I become
an electronic engineer.
Saif pats me on the back.
As if to say Africa has made it.
But the meaning of it all comes in the words that follow:
“Go, teach the Whites how it’s done.
Now you’re intellectually reliable.”
For the love of excess Saif calls white people
the Whites.
That’s how Saif defends himself from ignorance:
he transforms the story that goes from mouth to mouth,
like secondhand furniture, that looks good
against any wall.
Saif gives me a piece of paper.
A sort of pass. But for whom?
He says good-bye pressing his chest against mine.
For a second we are animals. It’s right this way.
He treats me like a lion.
The old fish market is the waiting room before departure,
I’m with another six hundred.
I don’t talk of electrons. Nobody else is an engineer.
I talk with someone about places:
“Where are you going? And you, where are you going?”
We’re all going to Lampedusa.

Who is Saif?
He’s the man of the coast.
It was Mefyà, the man of the savannah, who sent me to Saif.
“Go, but first take one more look at the elephant.”
Yes, Mefyà, as you wish.
I did it. He was right. That’s Africa.
Saif kept me in his home to study.
He gave me food to eat.
He cured my youthful ailments.
He provided me with dignified clothes.
What is it that holds Mefyà and Saif together?

What does an electronic engineer do?
Saif never asks. Out of pride.
Before embarking I take the initiative.
I help him understand:
“I arrange things in a way
that something happens.
These things called electrons are in the emptiness
or in matter and in there they have to walk.
If they walk around they emit signals.
That’s the most beautiful moment.”

[ . . . ]

I leave at night.
I have a wristwatch.
A shaving brush and five blades,
disposable, a box of packaged cheese,
an Italian brand,
to express the closeness of our two peoples,
a small vial of orange blossom perfume.
A luxury? Yes, a luxury.
Aisha, Saif’s wife, gave it to me.
She got it from a pediatrician,
she comes every year for three months
to treat for the children in our area.
Aisha says to me:
“wear this perfume when you arrive,
they’ll smell that you’re one of them.”

Saif says that the world is big,
is as big as we make it,
it is our duty to make it as big as possible,
otherwise we force Muhammad
to stay in too small a world.
In this construction is measured
the greatness of man.
Saif’s faith is the soup
given to those who haven’t eaten in a week.
Saif makes me feel full, strong.
He makes me sensitive. Austere.
Ancient. Modern. Ready for the future.
An African electronic engineer
ought to be entered into a valorization process,
so as to raise a Nation.
I was made for this.
Before leaving I learn how to swim.
Out of respect for the nation.
I cannot die.
I cannot drown.
My first success is not to die.
I save myself.
Two thousand feet to swim to shore.
An eternity. It’s not a wreck.
It’s not how any of us imagined it could be.
I have to throw myself into the sea.
Jump! There is the coast guard.
The smugglers have to turn around.
The screams of women and children
die one after the other
like a fire stifled with water.
A splash.
A hundred disconnected splashes.
Deceit is the springboard.
The immediacy of a desperate act.
It clings to those who’ve never been at sea:
the nonsense torn by the unexpected,
the international chasm,
the hunger, the difference,
the inferiority,
a sky without stars, like this grows
the trade of others . . .
sinister outbursts of emigration,
the nuisance of those who count for nothing,
the extortion from poor bodies.

I have a beard,
it’s grown more than usual.
I no longer have the packaged cheese or the perfume,
only the great stench of the sea.
How and whom do I ask if this is Lampedusa? 
Dear Saif, who here will ever believe
that I am an electronic engineer?
I feel disgraced.
That’s right, disgraced.
There is no valley for me.
The Empire is fully occupied.
There is no room.
I can’t handle it. I can’t breathe.
I wreck in the silence and in my lack of self.
The squid! There it is. It floats in my stomach.
Will I vomit? There’s a drought inside me.
Only a residue of sea in my lungs.
I cough. They pat my back.
It finally happens:
I spit out the last salty sea drop
mixed with a trace of blood,
“It’s nothing, it’s the effort.”
That’s what the young doctor
assigned to the debarkation dock says.
He has a white mask over his mouth.
He wears a light white space suit.
His hands are in latex gloves.
Dear Saif, I’ve got a few electrons, I transmit them for you:
“The Empire’s doctors are moon men.”

 

From “Lampedusa Snow,” Part II of the Shipwreck Trilogy. © Lina Prosa. By arrangement with the author. Translation © Nerina Cocchi and Allison Grimaldi-Donahue. All rights reserved.

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