Wednesday 11 November 2015

Is the Arab World Facing its Own Thirty Years’ War?

My boss has the habit of placing photocopies of articles he read on my desk in the morning, before I arrive at work. Today what I found was a short review of a book which argued that the Arab world is currently experiencing its own version of Europe’s Thirty Years’ War (Rainer Herrmann, Endstation Islamischer Staat?). Just to recap, the Thirty Years’ War broke out in 1618 in response to the Holy Roman Emperor’s attempts to reconvert the Empire’s Protestants to Catholicism, which resulted in some of the Protestant states’ open revolt against the Emperor. While starting out as a religious war, it eventually turned into a devastating conflict for continental domination involving all of Europe’s great powers. Parts of Europe, including Western Saxony, became largely depopulated.

Europe during the Thirty Years' War

Nevertheless, I think that drawing comparisons between the contemporary Arab wars and the European Thirty Years’ War is not only patronizing but misleading. Yes, the Arab wars are religiously motivated. They involve many of the world’s major powers and in Syria they have caused destruction and population movements comparable to that of the Thirty Years’ War. Nevertheless, there is a crucial difference. Early modern Europe was a religiously homogenous space, with nearly the entire population being Catholic. The Thirty Years’ War broke out in response to increasing religious diversification, eventually resulting in this new diversity being accepted. The Arab world in the other hand was historically a highly diversified space. Syria for instance was predominantly Christian until at least the turn of the millennium (i.e. during the first 400 years of Muslim rule). Before the war, at least 10% of Syrians were Christians, among them several varieties of Orthodox and Catholics. The Muslim population in turn was divided between Shiites, Sunnis, Sufis, Alawites and Druze, with each group representing a significant share of the Muslim community. Religious diversity was very much the norm in most of the Arab world until very recently.

The comparison between the Arab wars and the Thirty Years’ War obfuscates the deeper causes of the contemporary conflicts. I am of course a big fan of Gramsci, having based much of my PhD thesis on his writings. In the Prison Notebooks he states,

“If one were to accept the fact that modern civilization in its industrial-economic-political form will, in the end, triumph in the Orient […], why should one deny that Islam will necessarily evolve? Can it remain as it is? No: already, it is no longer what it was before [World War I]. Can it collapse suddenly? Absurd. Can it be replaced by a Christian religion? Absurd, when one thinks of the great masses. […] In reality, the most tragic problem of Islam arises from the fact that a society numbed by centuries of isolation and by a corrupt feudal regime (naturally, the feudal lords are not materialists!!) is brought into contact much too abruptly with a frenzied civilization which has already entered its phase of decomposition. […] Islam is forced into a headlong rush. But, in fact, it reacts just like Christianity: the great heresy from which the real heresies will arise is the ‘national sentiment’ against theocratic cosmopolitanism. Then the theme of a return to ‘origins’ will arise in exactly the same way as in Christianity.” (Q2 §90, Buttigieg translation).

Gramsci raises several important points which deserve further emphasis.

Firstly, just as there is an inherent conflict between capitalism and Christianity, there is an inherent conflict between capitalism and Islam. Gramsci argues that in the case of Christianity, this conflict has become largely invisible because of the erosion of Christian ethics through casuistry, i.e. abandoning Christian moral principles can be justified if this serves some greater good (Gramsci refers to this as Jesuitism). This allows for a capitalist society that thrives on greed to continue calling itself a Christian society. The Calvinist emphasis on predestination relieves the individual of their social responsibility. Islam has undergone no such transformation, which is why the clash between capitalism and Islam is more visible. The arrival of capitalism, and subsequently Fordism and consumerism, was in fundamental contradiction to Islam’s religious transcendentalism. The materialist values that capitalism requires were in turn rightly associated with the American strive for global domination, providing fertile soil for discursive creation of an eschatological conflict between Christianity and Islam. Indeed, this narrative further reinforced by the US-led invasion of Iraq. Many combatants in the Syrian civil war now seem to believe that the United States actually escalated the conflict.

Secondly, Gramsci calls nationalism the ‘great heresy from which the real heresies will arise’. The European model of the nation-state and the division of the Middle East among Britain and France following the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire created the foundation of the contemporary Arab states. Attempts for pan-Arab unity have failed and Ba’athism has inadvertently strengthened national identities. Ironically, despite the 60 million dead of World War II, the nation-state was perceived as a Western success story. The corruption of Islam was thus reinforced – not only did capitalism clash with Islamic non-materialism, but now nationalism stood in open contradiction to Islamic cosmopolitanism. Reformist movements were the inevitable consequence of these corruptions.

The question is now, why have these reformist movements taken on the barbaric character of the so-called ‘Islamic State’? I think this occurred because of the lack of an Islamic hegemonic power. Despite the obvious corruption of the Ottoman aristocracy and the inheritance of the caliphate, the caliph was the successor of the Prophet. Turkey’s abolition of the caliphate in 1924 has left the Muslim world in a state of religious disorientation, which has facilitated the increasing fragmentation of Islam into competing groups. Moreover, the absence of a high religious authority has permitted for the issuance of fatwas (including declaring other Muslims to be infidels) by amateurs and extremists, such as the murderous bands of the ‘Islamic State’.

An analysis of the contemporary Arab wars would benefit greatly from a conversation with Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks. Herrmann’s populist thesis on a hypothetical Arab Thirty Years’ War is not only without foundation, but patronizing to the Arab world.

Friday 19 June 2015

Keep calm and muddle through it: three reasons why a Grexit will not happen

Greek talks must yield immanent agreement,” “Greek exit from euro appears increasingly likely,” “last opportunity” – I can’t take it anymore. For months my Facebook page has been spammed with doomsday scenarios. Every meeting is interpreted as a sign of the coming Grecopalypse. Every statement by a European politician is seen as revelation. Every day is the final chance for the Greek government to avert disaster. Enough. It is clear that this is nothing but a desperate attempt to keep an audience fixed on a topic that is starting to bore them. Of course I am no prophet either, but here are three reasons why Greece will most certainly not leave the eurozone.

Firstly, the Greek government continues to successfully place its government bonds on the global bond market. Only yesterday Greece sold government bonds at a reasonable interest rate of 2.5%. If Greece were going bankrupt, it certainly isn’t showing on the international bond markets.

Secondly, the eurozone governments are aware of the consequences of a Grexit. It may be true that the exposure of eurozone banks has decreased dramatically over the last four years (French exposure to Greek debt is approaching zero); nevertheless, if one country drops out of the eurozone, financial speculation will surely target the next. Remember that the reason for the explosion of Greek debt level has been a skyrocketing interest rate on Greek government bonds following the financial crisis and the instability of the Greek banking sector. These interest rates could only be financed using the EU/IMF bailout money. From the point of view of financial speculators, the Greek sovereign debt crisis has been a hugely successful endeavour. If Greece drops out, the next country will surely follow. Avoiding this scenario of a potential collapse of the eurozone is in everybody’s interest. Also, while Mrs Merkel is certainly no friend of mine, she does see herself as a European with heart and soul. She doesn’t want the European project to fail while she is chancellor. 

Thirdly, from the point of view of the Greek government, the consequences of a Grexit would be absolutely catastrophic. You have probably read the Greek version of the Book of Revelation – but let me remind you of the best parts: pensions and public servants’ salaries would be received in a worthless currency; inflation would make imported products (like petrol) unaffordable; Greece has very little to export and thus has no way of getting out the mess in the medium-term future. Rising unemployment would lead to riots, demonstrations and finally new elections. A victory of far-right groups is not unthinkable. Any deal with the EU and the IMF is better than this.

Now, keep calm. You’re convinced...right? All this panic is all just a media scam... Surely, our representatives will act the end…* So, I really hope that this post will be widely read, have a huge impact and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Otherwise I fear that we may all wake up from the European dream into a neo-nationalist nightmare.

*PS: Okay, fine. People don't act rationally. Neoliberals assume that they do, but they don't. A Greek default would thus be the ultimate defeat of rationalism and neoliberalism. Yet another reason why it can't happen.

Sunday 4 May 2014

"I Don't Have Any Choice": Forced Prostitution in Sicily

3 May 2014

My job for today was to drive to Mineo – the notorious refugee camp I wrote about yesterday. After having breakfast and writing the article on Greece, I left Catania at around 11.30 for the 50km trip. The road was quite busy, and it wasn’t long before I saw the first African prostitutes by the side of the road. I called Alex and wanted to ask her whether what I had in mind was a good idea. Part of me probably thought that I may be putting myself in a dangerous situation. The other part of me wanted his fiancée’s approval to allow a prostitute into his car. Alex told me that I had nothing to lose. So, after a few kilometres I saw another woman approaching and decided to pull over. I asked her whether she speaks English, and whether she would be willing to speak with me about her life here in Italy. She was happy to do so, and got into my car.

Residenca degli Aranci in the middle of fruit farms
The 21-year old girl was from Nigeria and had come to Italy nine months ago, arriving by boat. She vividly described to me how the waves had crashed over her boat six times, and that she is lucky to be alive. She kept saying how powerful God is. She left Nigeria because she had known a “girlfriend” in Sicily who promised her a job in an old woman’s house – but when she arrived, she was forced into prostitution by that same girlfriend. “I don’t have any choice,” she said and I can still hear those words ring very clearly in my head. After spending three months in Sicily, she also moved to Genoa in the north of Italy. It was far more difficult to do “streetwork” there, so after three months in Genoa, she came back to Sicily. She has no documents and no money. All the money she earns on the side of the road she submits to the woman who ‘employs’ her. When I heard this story I felt totally helpless. I simply didn’t know what to do or say. Before she left I prayed for her and handed her a little bit of money, which she said she would keep as a gift from me, rather than give it to her pimp. I really don’t know whether I did the right thing.

I drove on, even though I was still completely in thoughts about what I had just heard. I had no idea where the Residence degli Aranci was located, so I drove up a hill, helping me to spot the place immediately. Being situated in the middle of endless lemon and orange fields the former US army base stood out like a false penny. I drove towards it through seemingly infinite rows of fruit trees, noticing immediately a crowd of Africans standing outside the gates as I approached the camp. About 30 cars were parked by the side of the road for reasons unknown to me. The entire facility is high militarised. There was a Humvee patrolling the barbed wire fences, and dozens of soldier equipped with machine guns stood at all corners of the camp. Remember that Mineo is not a detention centre, but a “Housing”-facility, as the roadsigns on the way had politely reminded me of. From a distance, I have to admit, the Residence looked very pleasant. The houses actually appeared American rather than Italian, and they did not seem older than 10 years. However, a closer look revealed the reality behind this façade: many of the houses did not have functioning windows, and often they were boarded up. I tried to enter the camp, but was referred to the authorities in Catania which may or may not provide me with an authorisation to enter.

Seemingly idyllic
At around 15.15 I decided that I needed to speak with people. The first guy I spoke with had just returned from Catania with two dozens of lemonade bottles and some fruits. He wasn’t very approachable though, and his English was limited. Then I got into a conversation with three guys who spoke Arabic between themselves, and they told me a few things about the camp which were very interesting. The first thing they all complained about was the food. Apparently a daily meal consists of nothing other than pasta with oil. The camp’s clinic is primitive, which one of the guys evidenced by showing me badly scarred wound on his ankle. Rooms are usually shared with seven other people, meaning that up to 24 people live in the same building. Everyone who lives at the camp has ID card that allow him or her to enter the premises. The ID card of one of the guys I spoke to said that he had arrived about a year ago. The ID card number, which is specific to the Mineo camp, ran into the 8400s. However, apparently some people had been there for over three years. If you leave the camp for more than three days, you are “dismissed,” meaning that you cannot come back. Although you are an asylum seeker, you will then have to live in the streets. Life inside must be horrible. The high population density, lots of young men with nothing to do, and the melange of sometimes hostile nationalities is fertile ground was constant clashes and confrontations. Only last week, I was told, a guy hung himself. Drugs evidently form one way out of this situation. Two out of four guys I spoke with were clearly under the effects of drugs. As the residents have little or no money, cigarettes form the currency of Mineo. They can be used to be something different to eat.

As we were chatting, a group of around twenty young men approached the camp and eventually walked past us towards the gates of the camp. “They are coming back from work,” I was told. Apparently the vast majority of people who live at Mineo work in the lemon and orange farms that are surrounding the camp from all directions. Although the people work all day, three different people confirmed that the salaries amount to only €15 per day. I had noticed on the way that one of the farms advertised its organic production methods. I became acutely aware that while there is a European organic label, there is no way of knowing whether a fruit or a vegetable was produced with the help of irregular workers. We seem to worry more about the mistreatment of animals than about the exploitation of human beings.

One of the first things one of the guys told me he was actually born in Barcelona. “I am not African, I am European. I am European Union!” While I am a proponent of open borders, I would also want Africans thinking about migrating to Europe to know that the ‘European dream’ has in many cases turned into the nightmare of forced prostitution and inhumane refugee camps. So far, I have never seen this exemplified more vividly than in Mineo.

Saturday 3 May 2014

The Greek Deal

Greece likes to see itself as an exceptional case. Think of the naming dispute with its neighbour in the north, or the paranoia about Turkish invasion causing an outrageously high military budget. In turns out that in matters of immigration, Greece too, forms an exceptional case. In the early 2010s, Greece has formed the hotspot of irregular immigration into the European Union. Hundreds of thousands of Africans, Afghans and Pakistanis live on Hellenic streets. It is impossible to find regular employment, and until recently, first-instance acceptance rates of asylum seekers had been less than 0.1%. Something was clearly very wrong in Greece.

Until last year, the Greek asylum system was managed and operated by the police. The police was responsible for the screening of all irregular immigrants, which means that regular police officers needed to ascertain the identity of all persons who crossed the border without passing through a border checkpoint. As was reported all over the press, Greece employed an extensive and relentless detention policy for so-called ‘illegal immigrants’. Hundreds of police stations all over the country served as temporary prisons for people who had committed no crime other than having crossed a border without valid documents. NGOs, the UNHCR and a countless number of institutions had condemned Greece for its inhumane policies. The vast majority of EU member states had furthermore suspended all so-called Dublin-transferrals, but the effects had been limited. Seeking asylum in Greece was either pointless or impossible. The police personnel that was responsible for asylum was both incompetent and hopelessly understaffed. The statements on first instance decisions were usually no longer than a page, and it was not seldom the case that people were queuing at police stations for days or weeks before they had a chance to ask for asylum.

The main offices of the Greek Asylum Service in Athens
In 2013 much of this changed. Greece set up a so-called First Reception Service which is took over the police’s role of screening irregular immigrants. They are still detained, but only for a couple of days until they are designated one of three labels: asylum seeker, humanitarian protection or illegal immigrant, with the vast majority being placed in the third category. Greece is a transit country. Hardly anyone really wants to apply for asylum. Furthermore, the Asylum Service was set up, staffed not by police officers but by civilians. Having been trained by the European Asylum Support Office, the Greek Asylum Service is far more competent than the police. Acceptance rates for first-instance decisions currently lie at 18% and are approaching the European average. Five regional asylum offices and one mobile unit have so far been set up in Athens, Thessaloniki, Orestiada, Rhodes and Lesbos. Clearly, this is progress, but much remains to be done. I have seen the queue outside the Asylum Service’s headquarters myself, and given that the number of regional offices is limited, access to the asylum procedure has, if anything, become even more difficult. One needs to consider that Greece is a country composed of thousands of islands, over 200 of which are inhabited. Furthermore, the Asylum Service is hopelessly understaffed. Forty case workers currently assess asylum applications while eighty are required. Funding is insecure. The NGO Metadrassi provides interpretation services for the Asylum Service, but it is funded by European funds which are regularly and rigorously reviewed. The fact of the matter is that even though the Greek asylum system has undergone a radical reform, Dublin-transferrals to Greece have not been resumed.

So what happened in Greece? Why has the Greek government decided to overhaul its asylum policy? The first trigger for change was a decision of the European Court of Justice which condemned the abhorrent human rights situation in Greece. An asylum seeker who entered the EU through Greece yet sought asylum in the UK challenged the provision of the Dublin-Regulation which demands his transferral to Greece, claiming that his human rights would be infringed due to the inability of the Greek asylum system to handle asylum applications properly. Mr Saeedi won the case, but the Dublin-Regulation is the cornerstone of the European asylum system – preventing the large-scale arrival of African refugees in core Europe depends on the functioning of the Dublin-system which essentially creates an asylum buffer zone in the EU periphery. Several member states, and first and foremost the European Commissionincreased pressure on Greece to reform the asylum system. The responsible Commissioner Malmström travelled to Greece several times – the political pressure was immense, and it was finally the cause of the deal between the EU and the Greek government.

This deal foresaw that the EU would support the fortification and patrolling of the Greek borders, while the Greek government would reform its asylum system, partially with European money. Frontex is omnipresent – both at the Greek maritime border and on the small land border. I witnessed the presence of Frontex in Orestiada, and I have heard of their activities by a member of the Hellenic Coastguard. The Greek First Reception Service is 75%-funded by EU money, and the Asylum Service relies on the assistance of the European Asylum Support Office to achieve the kind of quality that is needed.

Now we come to the heart of the matter: the Dublin-Regulation, which determines that the member state of first entry is responsible for an asylum application, creates a disincentive for Greece to set up a proper, functioning asylum system. The Greek government has created an asylum service, but it remains incapable of granting everyone immediate access to the asylum procedure. This is because the government has in interest is preventing the re-launch of Dublin-transferrals to Greece. The Greek government can therefore use the Dublin-Regulation as a pawn to squeeze more money out of European funds. “Yes, as you can see, we have tried to set up an asylum system, but we just don’t have the money to do it properly! You want to have Dublin-transferrals to Greece? Sure! Just give us the money, and we will build the type of asylum system you want.” Greece has no problem with taking care of asylum seekers per se. It merely has a problem with paying for them. At the same time, the rest of the EU, and particularly the core member states, have an interest in reinstating Dublin-transferrals to Greece. The Dublin-Regulation guarantees that African and Middle Eastern refugees will not enter Germany, France or the UK in huge numbers.

The Greek strategy works – it is only a matter of time until more money will begin to flow into the Greek Asylum Service and the First Reception Service. I am convinced that the people who actually work there have only the best of intentions, but their agencies are used as pieces on the political chessboard that is the European asylum system.

You have now read a lot about European and Greek interests, but have you noticed something? At no point are the interests of the refugees themselves taken into consideration. At no point is the question raised, “How does what we’re doing affect them?” Let us hope that this mentality will eventually change.

The Mafia Connection

I said yesterday that today would probably give me lots to write about. In fact, I want to say so much that I am not sure where to start. I had three appointments today – one with the Italian Refugee Council, one with the Centro Astalli of the Jesuits, and a phone interview with a representative of the Greek asylum service. All three were very successful from the point of view of Harald the PhD student, and very troubling from the point of view of Harald the human being. Let me tell you what happened.

This morning I drove back into Catania at 9am, having no trouble at all with finding the IRC’s offices. In fact they share offices with the intercultural centre of the city of Catania, and I certainly felt like the attraction of the day when I entered the building. I don’t know why, but everyone stared at me and two girls were giggling in the corner when I sat down to wait for my appointment. The interview was very useful. I will not summarise every single detail, but essentially the situation is as follows: the agriculture of Southern Italy is entirely dependent on migrant workers. Both my interview partners confirmed that agriculture in Sicily would be “dead” without the cheap labour that immigrants provide. Agriculture in turn is managed by the mafia. It is therefore in the interests of the mafia to get immigrants to come to Sicily. One way this is apparently done is vividly demonstrated by an incident that occurred two years ago at the Italian maritime border. When a migrant boat from Egypt (!!) arrived at that border, the people on it were transferred into a different boat – the latter process was organised by people linked to the mafia. One of my interview partners said that he would not be surprised if the mafia manages the smuggling operations on the other side of the Mediterranean. But this is not were business ends.

Seemingly idyllic Sicilian scenery
About 50 kilometres from Catania there is a small town called Mineo. Although the town is in the middle of nowhere and hardly worth mentioning, it had gained a reputation among the Sicilians since it housed an American army base of about 400 soldiers. The US army had built a whole village for itself, including an entire infrastructure, villas and lots of pretty houses. A couple of years ago, the Americans abandoned the base and left behind a ghost town. The owner of the land the base was built on, an extremely rich man named Pizzarotti, was now in trouble. For years the Americans had paid insane amounts of rent, and now he was left with a worthless piece of land nobody would ever be interested in renting. That’s when he had the idea of converting the place into a camp for immigrants. Mineo now houses 4,500 people. As could be expected, Pizzarotti is notorious for being a Mafiosi himself. Every year the Italian government pays him hundreds of thousands of euros in rent for his property. Most shockingly of all, the Italian government pays with money from the European refugee fund – €37 per day per person. Spend ten seconds calculating in your head and you will begin to see what dimensions we are talking about. Initially the people who lived around Mineo were very upset about the relocation of the refugee camp to their doorstep. Now, they have begun to base their livelihoods on it. Hundreds of people are either employed in the camp itself, or they live off it indirectly by selling food to the residents. Officially the place is called Residenze dei Aranci – Residence of Oranges.

After this meeting I went to the Centro Astalli. It is an amazing institution that provides help for immigrants of all kinds. Many immigrants avoid submitting their fingerprints to the Eurodac-database, because it will ruin their chances of applying for asylum in another EU member state according to the Dublin-Regulation (in most cases anyway). However, this also means not having access to many basic services such as receiving medication. In Sicily, everyone has to right to essential care at public hospitals, but medication costs money. That’s why the Centro Astalli provides all kinds of meds for free, including anti-retrovirals antibiotics. Assistance is also provided for people suffering from alcoholism, which is increasingly wide-spread because people are sleeping outdoors in the cold. Although the centre is run by Jesuits and there were crosses on the walls, I also saw posters with the Islamic prayer times on the walls.

One of the most shocking things the lady who showed me around told me also concerns Mineo. Some criminals have made it a business to drive the residents to Catania and back, expecting money in return. Money is obviously something immigrants lack, which is why the drivers often ask for alternative means of payment. There have been numerous incidents involving prostitution. Furthermore, the drivers will ask the Mineo residents to smuggle drugs back into the camp. This is another way that immigration has benefitted the Sicilian mafia.

After I left, I walked for a bit around town. At the train station there were immigrants sitting on every single bench, many of them no older than 15. At the IRC I was told that 300 unaccompanied minors had recently escaped from a nearby ‘reception’ centre. Of course, 300 people do not just escape – it is obvious that the authorities who were theoretically responsible for protecting them let them leave, knowing very well that this would result in their homelessness.

The amount of human suffering here is difficult to grasp. I remember being in the European Commission a year ago, being told by someone working in the asylum unit that the Italians exaggerate about their problems with immigration. She pointed to the statistics, which show that the number of asylum applications on Italy is totally normal for a country of that size. It is obvious that the people in the Commission have no idea what they are talking about. Spend fifteen minutes in the city centre of Catania or Palermo and you will know that this problem is real.

I’ll stop for today. The phone interview I had with the Greek asylum service was so insightful that it merits a post of its own, which I will write later.

Friday 2 May 2014

"You Don't Actually Pay for Parking..."

1 May 2014

Okay, whatever I had planned for today, it didn’t work out. I left my hostel for Palermo quite early in the morning, making sure I’d be on time. When I arrived at the accommodation centre, no one was there. But let me tell you what else I experienced. It turns out that after all, this day wasn’t totally worthless.

Driving in Sicily is a nightmare. If there is a traffic jam, the two lanes on a dual carriageway will quickly turn into four – cars will even block the emergency lane. I nevertheless drove successfully into the city centre of Palermo, which turned out to be quite different from what I had expected. Forget what I wrote yesterday about Greece and Sicily being not very different from one another – they are. One of these differences concerns the mafia. Apparently

it is everywhere. A number of shops in Palermo have stickers in their windows though, saying “Pizzo Free,” which means that they do not pay the mafia. I had my own experience with…irregular authorities this morning when I parked my rental car. As soon as I turned off the engine, a black man started walking towards me. I asked him, “Is parking okay here?”

“Yes, of course,” he replied. “But how much do you want to give us?”

“How much is it per hour.”

“Well, you don’t actually pay for parking.”

“Okay, so what do I owe you then?”

“It depends on how much you want to give.”

Islamo-Christian architecture in Palermo
I was slightly confused, and handed the man two euros, hoping that this would be enough to avoid any damage to my car, for which I don’t really have insurance by the way. When I got out of my car, the guy was very happy to speak to me though, and I found out his name and that he had come to Italy from Ghana seven years ago. He usually lives in Milan, but had recently moved to Palermo because he found it easier to find “days jobs” there. He told me that the north of Italy is very industrial, while the south is more rural, and thus better suited for people like him. When I enquired what kinds of ‘day jobs’ he meant, he talked about “helping with parking” and agricultural jobs. Now I was onto something – this is what I had come for.

The guy told me that Africans work in Sicilian agriculture because it relies on the use of manual tools rather than tractors. Africans have experience with sickles and gathering fruit. I was very curious about how much people are paid, and after some hesitation, I was told that a day’s work earns one between €20-30. According to the man I spoke to, Italians have a strange attitude towards black people, and that they are not like Germans. An Italian would easily get €50 for the same amount of work.

The more we spoke, the angrier another guy near the parking space seemed to become. He started walking towards us, and turned out to be the Ghanaean’s boss. That’s when our conversation ended. The guy I spoke to was very warm to me and kissed me goodbye.

I started walking towards the accommodation centre, and I am not exaggerating when I say that about a quarter of the people on the street were either black or Indian. I quickly noticed that Palermo has an Islamic past. Many of the road signs are written in Italian (both with Latin and Hebrew letters) as well as in Arabic. I walked through a street market whose smells and sounds reminded me very much of the Middle East. Huge fly-infested chunks of meat hung from butcher’s hooks, and people were selling chunks of swordfish by the kilogram. I bought a few bananas and walked on. I reached the Piazza de Quaranta Martiri after asking a few people for directions. This is where the Jesuit accommodation centre was supposed to be, yet I saw no signs that would indicate this to be the case. I called the centre, and heard a telephone ring somewhere. I was at the right place, but no one picked up the phone. Eventually I found a doorbell that said Centro Astalli on it. I rang, and a minute later a black man stepped on a balcony and asked me who I want to speak with. I asked for Emmanuel, only to be told that no one is working today because it’s a public holiday. Great.

Because driving off to Catania, I decided to make the most of it and walk around the city. Sicily was an Islamic emirate for two centuries after the year 1000. Around 1200 the island was invaded by the Normans, who turned out to be surprisingly tolerant towards the Muslims. A unique blend of Moorish and Norman architecture was the result of this intercultural period of history, the traces of which can still be found in Palermo today. I visited a church that was designed according to Islamic architectural principles, with domes and all. It turns out that the Southern Balkans and Sicily do have similarities after all. Both regions share an Islamic cultural heritage. I am sure that Muslim immigrants appreciate this heritage, finding it somewhat easier for them to feel at home than in the cold European north.

After my walk I started driving to Catania. At many traffic lights dozens of Indian-looking men waited to clean people’s windshields – I guess this is another one of these ‘day jobs’. Sicily is a very green and mountainous island. Right now I am at the base of Mount Etna, the famous volcano. I had never seen a volcano before. Tomorrow I have lots to do, and probably lots to write about again…

Arrival in Sicily

30 April 2014

I have arrived in Sicily. This is my final research trip, and it will hopefully conclude the impressions I had been gathering from the Southern border of the European Union. I have a lot of plans here, although the thing that currently preoccupies my mind are the unpleasant effects of some kind of gastrointestinal problem, the details of which I will spare you. I am going to visit two Jesuit accommodation facilities for asylum seekers in Palermo and Catania, and I will interview someone from the Italian Refugee Council. The people who work at refugee councils are often extremely well-informed, being able to give you inside information on the problems of asylum seekers that are impossible to find anywhere else. On Friday I am also going to have a phone interview with an employee of the Greek asylum service. My plan of speaking with fruit farmers and their migrant workers may turn out to be difficult to implement. I have noticed already that there may be unsurmountable language barriers. Nevertheless, I will try to do my best by driving around the Sicilian countryside.

I had been to Italy many times before, although never to the South. My knowledge of Sicily was limited to the TV-series Montalbano, to the few scenes in the Godfather, and to a documentary I remember about the ‘Moorish’ traces found in Sicilian architecture. So when I arrived here, I was very surprised. The terrain is extremely mountainous, and there is far more vegetation than I thought. Another thing: the contrast between here and Northern Italy could hardly be any starker. Sometimes the resemblance to Greece is stunning. You see unfinished construction everywhere, and pavements that are apparently not meant for people to walk on. There appears to be a garbage problem, as evidenced by vast amounts of black garbage bags you often find piling up next to trash cans. Driving is more stressful than in Greece. There are ports and harbours everywhere, and lots of people are selling fruits, vegetables and fish by the side of the road. The houses are very cute, colourful and they usually have lots of little balconies attached. There is far less tourism than I had expected. I have had pizza from two different places, and was rather disappointed both times.

I will keep you posted. Tomorrow’s visit to an accommodation centre in Palermo should be interesting. Hopefully I will be able to speak with refugees as well.