Notes From the Margins…

Barbarians

  • June 16, 2011
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In the course of writing my book about borders and migration I’ve visited a lot of great European cities, including some that I’d never been to before, like Bratislava, Warsaw, Lublin, Brescia, and – strange as it may seem – Rome, where I am now.   It’s a vibrant and magnificent city, in which even the most straightforward and non-touristic walk exposes you to so many beautiful and astonishing sights that you can’t afford to give them much more than a passing glance if you want to get anywhere.

Today I was headed for  a basement where the Jesuit Refugee Service provides a soup kitchen and a place to wash and get advice for some of the thousands of homeless migrants in the city.    Many are living destitute in squats;others share overcrowded rooms or sleep in the streets.  Until recently dozens of Somalis were living in the deserted former Embassy of Somalia – a bleak symbol of Somalia’s disastrous descent into violent mayhem over the last two decades.

Many of these migrants have no legal status in Italy.  Some are ‘failed’ asylum seekers; others are ‘economic migrants’ without papers.  Like so many migrants elsewhere in the continent they are Europe’s permanent excluded – inside European society but unable to become part of European society.

Their situation is another example of the essential paradox of Europe.   Over the last year and a half I’ve been repeatedly reminded of the richness and diversity of Europe and its component parts.  Its cities  are filled with monuments, historical artefacts, castles, museums, architecture and archeological remnants that testify to their own unique history and national cultures and which also connect them to the stream of  European civilisation.

And yet this same civilisation has also shown itself repeatedly capable of acts of staggering barbarity and inhumanity.   As Franco Solinas, the scriptwriter for The Battle of Algiers once observed,  this capacity for barbarism doesn’t mean that Europe’s cultured, civilised side  is a facade – European barbarism and civilisation can coexist quite easily together.

In the course of European history, a certain notion of civilisation has often become a pretext for violence, colonial conquest or racist exclusion.   And when you look at the utterly shameful treatment of so many of the migrants who have come here for protection or work, and the dismal shrilling about culture and civilisation from the European right that is so often used to justify their exclusion, it is difficult  to avoid the sensation that these dank forces are emerging once again.

The late  Oriana Fallaci, in the bitter anti-Muslim diatribes that preceded her death from cancer, often liked to counterpoise sentimental descriptions of the cultural riches in the Italian north with the Third World immigrants who supposedly defiled and violated them.   Fallaci’s depictions of Europe’s immigrants as a new ‘barbarian invasion’ has become a recurring theme in European anti-immigrant politics.

Last year, less than a mile or so from the Parthenon, I watched militants of the Greek neo-fascist party Chrysi Avgi (Golden Dawn ) clear Attiki Square in downtown Athens of  migrants in the name of ‘ our Christian religion, our civilisation.’   Last month an Athens mob killed an Asian migrant at random, after the killing of a Greek man which was blamed on immigrants..

I was just in Lampedusa, which Nick Griffin visited on June 1 as a guest of the neo-fascist Forza Nuova to warn of an ‘African invasion’.   Another  reminder that European civilisation has many different facets, and that the real threats to its better side and achievements are not the barbarians outside it, but the ones that Europe itself produces.

 

 

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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