«Trees have roots to stand still, men have the legs to move»
Amara Lakhous 27 May 2011

I met Kamal, a boy of 12 years, at a Roman school. I was immediately impressed by his observations, which showed a remarkable maturity and subtle irony. Born in Rome to Egyptian immigrant parents, Kamal speaks perfect Italian, Arabic and Roman. He loves the movies of Carlo Verdone. In his bedroom there’s a giant poster of the football player Francesco Totti, next to that of the singer Vasco Rossi. He seems like the boy next door. However, as he says: «When I’m in Rome, they call me the Egyptian and when I go to Egypt, they call me the Italian.» He adds: «They often say that I’m not an Italian but an immigrant, because my parents are of Egyptian nationality. In reality, I’m super Italian.»

A whole generation of people who were born in Italy or arrived as children have had Kamal’s experience. The story of the banlieues or the slums in France shows how dangerous it is to underestimate the situation. Frustration generates anger and destruction. The super Italian Kamal highlights our need not to feel like guests in our own home.

Ibrahim is a young man who came from Senegal in 2000. When he talks about his job, he sounds like an expert in international marketing. But he is only a street vendor. «Trade is the only thing I can do because it is a “vice” of the family, handed down from father to son for generations.»

When he was child, Ibrahim accompanied his father to Senegal’s street markets. He knows the secrets of the trade, but “business” is not going well lately. Police have invaded Portaportese, the famous Roman street market, intensifying controls. «This is the real persecution,» Ibrahim said. «They treat us like thieves. The market and the streets belong to everyone, they are not private property.»

I tried to explain that the market and the roads are under the jurisdiction of the City. Permission is needed for use of public space. Trade is subject to rules. Buying goods without regard to the source or receipts is not legal. Perhaps they are stolen, or counterfeit. The problem is cultural. Instead of discussing the inclination of immigrants to commit crimes, it would help to begin to clarify those cultural misunderstandings.

The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio
The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio is a musical group founded in 2002 in the Roman neighborhood of Esquilino. Its well-deserved success is the fruit of the Orchestra’s exchange between local musicians and Italian immigrants from Senegal, Tunisia, Cuba, Brazil, Hungary, Argentina and elsewhere. A few years ago, performing in Los Angeles, they gained the attention of Lou Reed. I often say that walking through the streets of Piazza Vittorio, you can predict the future of Italy for better or for worse: you can admire the beautiful music of our orchestra and discover other cultures while remaining at home, or you can be annoyed by signs written only in Chinese or long-time immigrants who say: I do not speak Italian! Cross-cultural encounters, regardless of misunderstandings, combat the potential for the isolation that creates – anytime, anywhere – ghettos and riots. The Orchestra of Piazza Vittorio is an example of true integration, where Italians and immigrants come together in creativity and mutual respect.

What is the future of Rome, of Europe? Will they meet the challenges of diversity? We’ll know in a few years. It is certain that immigrants living in Italy, especially those from Muslim countries, have a great opportunity to explore other cultural models. Two universal values, which don’t succumb to cultural relativism, are individual freedom and the sanctity of life. My father told me: «Trees have roots to stand still, men have the legs to move, change and improve their lives.»

Amara Lakhous is an Algerian writer and novelist living in Italy



Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)