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from the November 2008 issue

Sweating and Swearing in “Clash of Civilizations”

In the opening chapter of Amara Lakhous's gritty mosaic, Clash of Civilizations over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio, Parviz Mansoor interrupts his rambling monologue to comment on the way language is used by the nosy doorwoman, Benedetta:

Guaglio' is Benedetta's favorite word. As you know, guaglio' means "fuck" in Neapolitan. At least, that's what a lot of Neapolitans I've worked with have told me. Every time she sees me head for the elevator she starts shouting, "Guaglio'! Guaglio' Guaglio'!" In Iran, it's customary to show respect for old people and avoid bad words. That's why, instead of answering the insult with another insult, I confine myself to a brief response: "Merci!"

Of course any Italian speaker, and many a tourist, knows that no offense lurks behind the ubiquitous Neapolitan greeting "guaglio'"! The short form of guaglione, it simply refers to a teenage boy, an affectionate moniker not unlike the colloquial American "guy." In the mouth of Benedetta, it could even be a remark to a passing tenant along the lines of, "Wait up!" But Parviz mistakes a possible term of endearment for an insult. To make matters worse, the word he takes it for—cazzo (literally, prick), Italy's favorite expletive—is not even an insult. It's an oath you summon to vent your anger, when you stub your toe or miss the train, for instance. Unless of course it's used in a rhetorical question such as, "Che cazzo vuoi!" (What the fuck do you want?), to invoke the right of privacy ("sono cazzi miei!"—it's none of your fucking business), or to cap off an argument ("e che cazzo"—what the fuck?!).

Yet these linguistic treasures are locked away from Parviz, an Iranian, who can only gaze upon Italian culture like a penniless window-shopper walking up and down the Corso at night. His conflation of two rich terms with a variety of meanings into a single insult epitomizes his alienation from the "host country," or what would be more accurately described as his deteriorating relationship to Italy. Repelled by the sight and smell of pizza and spaghetti, he is no longer able to hold down a job at a restaurant (where his experience is on a sliding scale from chef to dishwasher). His only friend, the Italianized Amedeo (born Ahmad), is missing, and, "Rome, without Amedeo, is worthless. It's like a Persian dish without the spices."

Language, like any border crossing, is the point of entry to a civilization and the point of expulsion. There is nothing more humbling, more infantilizing, than having to start life over in another culture and in another language. Every desire is stymied and every rebuff multiplied. Linguistic complexity—the conjugations and conjunctions of the cultivated person—is reduced to the eternal first-person present, Io voglio, I want. In a few choked syllables an identity built up over a lifetime can vanish into a cloud of generalizations and stereotypes.

This is the frontier that Amara Lakhous so ably explores in Clash of Civilizations, inviting the reader into the cramped apartments of his cast of characters, then reciprocating the invitation, with uncommon generosity, humor, and pathos.

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