Burning denial down by the Tiber

20170207_163216I miss the days before Kindles and iPods, when you could get to know someone better by browsing through their book and music collections. Our Dutch friend Merel, at whose house we spend New Year’s Eve, has a good variety of recent fiction and books on sustainable development and the like. I’m a little taken aback to see on her shelves quite a range of books on dictators and fascism, including two by the disgraced Hitler apologist David Irving. Thankfully it turns out they belong to her landlord.

Irving is a Nazi activist who used to get away with pretending to be a historian. He was the subject of a 2016 film starring Rachel Weisz and Timothy Spall, which depicted his failed attempt in 2000 to sue the historian Deborah Lipstadt for pointing out that he had systematically distorted details about the Holocaust in his books in order to let Hitler off the hook. The judge concluded that:

Irving has for his own ideological reasons persistently and deliberately misrepresented and manipulated historical evidence; that for the same reasons he has portrayed Hitler in an unwarrantedly favourable light, principally in relation to his attitude towards and responsibility for the treatment of the Jews; that he is an active Holocaust denier; that he is anti-Semitic and racist, and that he associates with right-wing extremists who promote neo-Nazism.

As it happens I’d come across a physical copy of one of his books before, about twenty years earlier in my local library in Dublin. I took it out and disposed of it, and then explained to the library what I’d done and why. They understood my point and once I’d agreed to pay the cost of the book they agreed not to replace it. The film about the trial of the book’s author is no classic but it sets out the main details, featuring real footage of Irving giving Nazi salutes to audiences of skinheads in Germany and Austria, where he once spent a year in prison for continuing to spread lies about the death camps. It also makes the link with other kinds of denial – one of the key lines spoken by the main character is ‘Elvis is dead. The icecaps are melting. And the Holocaust did take place’. The fact that Holocaust denial is booming online and that many of those espousing it also deny that the earth’s climate is changing is no coincidence. Hitler launched his campaign to conquer Europe in order to extend Germany’s ‘Lebensraum’, living space. In anderen Worten, he wanted to expand the Third Reich’s vegetable patch. Last week the right-wing British tabloid newspaper The Sun, owned by the climate-denying pro-Trump tycoon Rupert Murdoch, used its front page to blame Spanish people for depriving Britons of food. Inclement weather in Southern Europe has meant that there are fewer vegetables to export to British supermarkets, and The Sun wants its readers to blame foreigners rather than asking why global weather patterns are changing. As I have long argued that climate denial and racism are intimately linked, I can’t help but feel at the same time a little vindicated and also really rather scared for the future.

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Once I’d explained the books’ provenance to Merel, she was more than happy for me to take them away and get rid of them. It was just a case of finding the time (my wife was heavily pregnant until last Monday :-)) and the place (we’ve only lived in Rome since last September). I decided to post a question in a friendly group for local foreigners on Facebook. Things I’ve posted there in the past on related topics have generally got a good reception, although I’d been surprised when, in response to a piece I’d written in which I called  the Italian fascist group Casapound ‘openly racist’, an Italian guy popped up and invited me to join them. My post about the books got a mixed response. Several people were consternated until I pointed out what kind of books they were, but some contributors continued to remonstrate, calling me a Nazi for wanting to burn books. Thankfully a sensible person pointed out that while the Nazis had indeed gone in for a bit of book-burning, it wasn’t by any means the worst thing they had done. A couple of people made witty but pointed reference to the fact that one of Rome’s (very best) bookshops is called ‘Fahrenheit 451’. I replied, arguing that the two items in question didn’t really deserve the hallowed status of ‘book’. I made the same point to a young Italian guy who promptly sent me a PM asking if he could have the books ‘for research’ because he was ‘interested in the topic’:

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…which gives a new dimension to the phrase ‘you’d have to have been there’.

Although Irving has long been a discredited and bankrupt irrelevance in terms of serious history, both the Guardian and The Independent for some reason decided to give him a blast of publicity in the wake of the film. He claims that the election of a US President who openly consorts with Holocaust deniers (and, it should go without saying, climate liars) has revived interest in his ‘work’, with ‘thousands’ of young people contacting him to find out more about his ‘research’. He continues to use YouTube to propagate the lie that he’s a proper historian.

20160914_111306Someone in the Facebook group had suggested a far-off part of town crummy enough that few would be bothered by the sight of someone burning some books, but I didn’t really want to drag a one-week-old-baby across Rome and end up getting us both arrested for arson. Instead I thought of a largely abandoned area round the corner, next to the river, so I could get the whole thing out of the way in half an hour and not neglect my parental responsibilities. As it happens the area isn’t uninhabited; there’s a community of gypsies scattered along a stretch of the Tiber. Elsewhere on Facebook I read about the impending destruction of a similar settlement in Napoli, where my wife was born. The European Roma Rights Centre reports that:

The proposed forced eviction will render more than 340 Romani families homeless, including pregnant women, young children, and persons with disabilities. These Romani families, like most Roma in Naples, are a part of the city, having been resident there for a number of years. Despite this, the municipality of Naples has not provided them with any alternative housing.

I’m sure Irving himself would approve. Anti-gypsy racism seems particularly rife (indeed respectable) in Italy. The Telegraph reported in 2008 that a class of Italian schoolchildren had produced drawings supporting the burning of a local gypsy camp. As a novice arsonist myself I had to hope that the fire I was about to start wouldn’t burn out of control and have a similar impact. Whatever it was I wanted to achieve by burning the books, it certainly wasn’t that.

Thankfully there was a good omen. The place I settled upon also has some fitting graffiti (‘YESTERDAY PARTISANS, TODAY ANTI-FASCISTS’). As it happens, the only elected representative of the aforementioned fascist group Casapound recently dismissed the Italians who took up arms against their own fascist Government and the Nazi regime which stepped in to save it as ‘rapists’.

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It would be nice to see someone like Irving as a detail of history, a footnote: there were some Nazi sympathisers who denied the holocaust, but they were ignored. But that’s not the case. Next month the French may well elect a President whose biological and political father has repeatedly described the systematic murder of millions of people as exactly that: “a detail of history”.

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The reasons that some things are beyond debate is that people often lie about their interests and their ideologies. David Irving knows the Holocaust happens, he just can’t admit publicly that he thinks it was a good thing and should be repeated.

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As people like to say these days, this is why we can’t have nice things. It also explains why I wanted to burn these books.

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Holocaust denial and climate denial have much more in common than has been so far acknowledged. Exxon executives knew several decades ago that the company’s activities were causing the planet to overheat and would make human life impossible, but they kept quiet because admitting it could hurt their profits. They and other such companies then invested billions of dollars in spreading lies about climate science, funding people to speak up for them who are no more proper climate scientists than David Irving is a proper historian. These are the kind of trolls who would take the last six words of the last sentence and remove them from their context. If I could I would burn all attempts to deny that the climate is changing. I would set fire to millions of web pages and happily watch them go up in smoke.

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By denying death, they deny life.

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Afterward the well-known events took place.

Our inventions were perfected. One thing led to another,
orders were given. There were those who murdered
in their own way,
grieved in their own way.
I won’t mention names
out of consideration for the reader,
since at first the details horrify
though finally they’re a bore.
(Dan Pagis)

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and even though there are those
hidden behind platinum titles
who like to pretend
that we don’t exist
that the marshall islands
tuvalu
kiribati
maldives
and typhoon haiyan in the philippines
and floods of pakistan, algeria, and colombia
and all the hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidalwaves
didn’t exist

still
there are those
who see us

hands reaching out
fists raising up
banners unfurling
megaphones booming
and we are
canoes blocking coal ships
we are
the radiance of solar villages
we are
the rich clean soil of the farmer’s past
we are
petitions blooming from teenage fingertips
we are
families biking, recycling, reusing,
engineers dreaming, designing, building,
artists painting, dancing, writing
we are spreading the word

and there are thousands out on the street
marching with signs
hand in hand
chanting for change NOW

they’re marching for you, baby
they’re marching for us

because we deserve to do more than just
survive
we deserve
to thrive

dear matefele peinam,

you are eyes heavy
with drowsy weight
so just close those eyes, baby
and sleep in peace

because we won’t let you down

you’ll see

(Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner)

If the dead could speak

If I should one day die, and should I happen to be in Rome when such an unlikely event takes place, I’d like to be buried in the Non-Catholic Cemetery. Not because I have anything against Catholics, of course, I may even be one by that point anyway. Possibly. It would just be nice to be laid for eternity next to such characters as Keats, Shelley and Gramsci. If the dead can actually speak I’m sure they’ll have enough to keep us moved, entertained and inspired for the rest of our, er, deaths. (Someone did once say if the dead could speak, we would not be able to understand them, but that’s by-the-by as I’d be dead myself then anyway).

Most of the other residents of the graveyard are immigrants, people who were born elsewhere and made their lives here. It struck me as an important place right now to reflect on migration and particularly on the experiences of those who for various reasons may have had or may be having a more tortuous passage to establishing themselves as foreign-born residents. It seems apt that in the cemetery there are at least two people from Syria – as it happens, ‘If the dead could speak’ was the title of a 2015 Human Rights Watch report into the horrific conditions endured by inmates of that unfortunate country’s torture prisons.

There is a bond that connects all migrants, living and dead, and if the residents of this cemetery, most of whom we might suppose came here in peace and out of their own volition, were to hear the details of the plight of those prisoners they would hopefully wish that their own good fortune, the welcome extended to them, were passed on to others. There is also the possibility that the experiences of migrants today would resonate with their memories of their first days or years in Italy; maybe those in the cemetery went through similar struggles to their those whose stories are quoted below. In any case, I would assume that they would at least want the voices of their living counterparts to be heard, whatever their reasons for coming here happen to be. As I myself am a living human being who happens to be an immigrant (one who has been made to feel very welcome here – and one from a country which has of late been a lot less welcoming than Italy has) those are very much my sentiments. What follows therefore are quotes from a number of sources, including the immigrants themselves, which, if we pay attention, may help us to better understand the current situation and help us to recognise what our own responsibilities as fellow migrants and living human beings are.

dsc_0058“The way people look at you and mutter about you on the bus or train, as though you’re dangerous. That would never have happened in the ’80s. Now if you want to rent a house, you’ll get a viewing appointment over the phone alright, but as soon as you get there and they see you’re black, you’ll either get told ‘it’s already gone’ or quite simply ‘the neighbours don’t want to live next to foreigners’. It’s become quite normal for people to admit they’re ‘anti-foreign’ and talk about it freely. They don’t differentiate between migrants and nationals with foreign parents.” (France 24, 2009)

dsc_0060“In July, in Quinto di Treviso, Northeast Italy, residents and far-right militants broke into flats destined to receive asylum-seekers, took the furniture outside and set it on fire, leading the authorities to move the asylum-seekers to another location.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0053“Akram, a 17-year-old Kurdish boy from Iraq, hid under a truck on the ferry from Greece to Italy for 18 hours without food or water. When he arrived in Italy, the police locked him in a small room on the ferry and sent him right back to Greece.” Human Rights Watch, 2016

dsc_0052“Mayor Alberto Panfilio said calm had been restored at the center, where up to 1,500 people have been placed in a facility originally meant for 15 migrants.” (Voice of America, 2017)

dsc_0050“Four Eritrean girls, aged 16 and 17, said that adult men constantly harassed them. Bilen, 17, said men “come when we sleep, they tell us they need to have sex. They follow us when we go to take a shower. All night they wait for us… They [the police, the staff] know about this, everybody knows the problem, but they do nothing.”” (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

dsc_0044“Yodit cupped her hands in prayer as we dialed. Those hands flew to her mouth as she realized that the phone – and her prayers – had been answered. It was the first time she had spoken to her mother since being rescued at sea and taken to Italy two weeks before.” (Human Rights Watch, 2016)

dsc_0042“Kaiser Tetteh was from Ghana. He was kidnapped and imprisoned for three months in a makeshift jail in Libya by a smuggling gang. “Kidnapping is normal. If you are in a taxi they will kidnap you, they will take everything from you.” He said he witnessed the killing of 69 people in Libya during an escape attempt from the prison. “All the time you don’t sleep,” he said. “Everyone has guns. Even kids have guns.” Lucky told us he did not mind where he was resettled in Europe. “I’m a beggar, I don’t have any choice. I just want protection. I just need freedom.”” (BBC News, 2016)

dsc_0035““It is not easy to live here illegally,” Lisa, one of the volunteers told me. “I don’t know if people really want this, sleeping in the park or not having a job. “We think people are coming here because of war and violence, not because we are kind. We are doing something very human. We tell them where to go, where to eat and try to give them advice. We don’t want them to be illegal.”” (BBC News, 2016)

dsc_0029“Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on Sunday called for a concerted international effort to block people-traffickers after the reported deaths of up to 700 migrants in the latest sinking in the Mediterranean. “We are asking not to be left alone,” Renzi told reporters after an impromptu cabinet meeting, adding that he wanted an emergency meeting of European Union leaders to be held this week to discuss the mounting migrant crisis. Renzi underlined that search and rescue missions alone were not sufficient to save lives. He said the problem could only be solved by preventing the criminal activity of people trafficking and stopping migrant boats from leaving Libya.” (Reuters, 2015)

dsc_0026“I left Ethiopia because of the political situation. I’m Oromo and in 1991 there was conflict between Tigrinya and Oromo. My grandfather and my father fought for the Oromo. Later, my father was arrested and my brother shot dead at university by the government. In Ethiopia if you are Oromo you can’t do anything. They arrest you and they can kill you. At the time I wasn’t involved in politics. My father and grandfather were part of the OLF party. The Ethiopian police came to question me, asking who was supporting the party. In 2013/14 they arrested me and held me for two months in the prison of Diradawa. They wanted to know where my uncle was. They didn’t give me food, only bread and water once every three days, and we had to do a lot of work in the prison.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0028“About seven months after Osama’s arrest, security officers stopped Firas at the gate of his university. “If you keep asking about your brothers, we will cut out your tongue,” they told him. That day, Firas fled Syria.” (Human Rights Watch, 2015)

dsc_0027“Compounding Italy’s frustration is the fact that its northern neighbours, including France, Switzerland and Austria, have in effect closed their borders to migrants, preventing what had been a natural flow of refugees towards more prosperous parts of Europe.” (Financial Times, 2016)

dsc_0064“A 16 year old, named Djoka, from Sudan reported, “They gave me electricity with a stick, many times… I was too weak, I couldn’t resist… They took both my hands and put them on the machine.” (Amnesty International, 2016)

dsc_0068“Anti-immigrant Northern League leader Matteo Salvini said Tuesday there would be “mass expulsions” of migrants when the League gained power, after the most recent revolt in a migrant centre in Italy.” (ansa.it, 2017)

dsc_0062“An Afghan migrant travelled 400 kilometres (250 miles) along an Italian highway strapped by leather belts to the bottom of a lorry, according to police.” (Guardian, 2016)

dsc_0054“In an intercepted phone call, Mafia businessman Salvatore Buzzi was heard telling his assistant Pierina Chiaravalle: “Do you have any idea how much I make on these immigrants? Drug trafficking is less profitable.”” (Al Jazeera, 2015)

dsc_0065A Nigerian man who had recently fled to Europe to escape Boko Haram militants was beaten to death on the streets of Italy this week as he tried to defend his wife against racist abuse. (Huffington Post, 2016)

dsc_0039“Syria is burning; towns are destroyed and that’s why people are on the move, that’s why we have an avalanche, a tsunami of people on the move towards Europe… As long as there’s no resolution in Syria and no improved conditions in neighbouring countries, people will move.” (UNHCR, 2015)

dsc_0073High ships come in bearing black strangers

who call over the harbor, Where are we?

Arrivals, it will get worse.
The island is running out of water.

Prison awaits. From some distance,
you saw the steel lintel of Europe’s doorway

standing open. There is no door—
a yellow hello hung with your forefather’s shoes,

a cross nailed from the ribs of your sunk ships,
paper prayer scraps, one million calls

to the wrong God. Be grateful
you wear that fake-fur parka,

the violet, pompomed hat; you drag
that odd wheelie bag, the snow-suited baby.

Among defunct bunkers on this tropical rock
it’s difficult to conceive of winter.

And you, giddy with surviving war elsewhere,
unsure of who you should please,

grin at every white face
and wave wildly down to me

as I shout welcome from a rental skiff.
My job is to learn where you’re from.

I’ve come by water to reach you
before the police. We have seconds.

Ignore my pleasantries.
Demand what my straw hat costs,

how much I pay for my skin.
I don’t say go north. Stay off the train.

(Eliza Griswold)

dsc_0077No one leaves home unless/ home is the mouth of a shark. You only run for the border / when you see the whole city / running as well. (Warsan Shire)

dsc_0066“I hate the indifferent. I believe that living means taking sides. Those who really live cannot help being a citizen and a partisan. Indifference and apathy are parasitism, perversion, not life. That is why I hate the indifferent.” Antonio Gramsci, Prison Notebooks

Rome: The Streets Where We Live

sin-tituloI was tickled to see that someone on Tripadvisor had described the restaurant immediately underneath our flat as being in an ‘absolutely insignificant quarter of the city’. The area may not have a name as such (we have to describe it using a series of awkward coordinates) or any singular identity but it is of significance to us for two reasons: one, there’s the fact that we live here, and two, that it embodies certain tendencies and pressures both global and local*.

Take, for instance, that restaurant. It’s become quite popular of late partly by virtue of its very good rating on Tripadvisor (and/or the other way round). It also attracts quite a few foreigners, a lot of whom may well be staying locally. There’s now something which calls itself a ‘guesthouse’ in our building, but no hotels nearby. I attribute the presence of those tourists to (and I presume the guesthouse is part of) Airbnb. Will Self once remarked that most inhabitants of London don’t actually live in London itself, but rather on the map of underground stations. In a similar way, nowadays most tourists visit a Google Maps version of a city: sleeping in Airbnb homestays, eating in Tripadvisor restaurants, getting driven round by Uber**. A recent report on the effects of Airbnb in Amsterdam mentioned established local businesses getting pushed out by new concerns catering to tourists such as bike rental shops, so it’s not by chance that one has just opened up right across the street from us. To be fair, those tourists do need some way of getting around, given that Uber barely exists in Italy and the public transport system appena funziona. Finding a normal taxi in Rome often feels like getting your hands on something to smoke in an unfamiliar city: you have to hang about in particular places and hope you get lucky, or try to get hold of the number of someone who might be able to supply you with one. At least our area is more or less within walking distance of Trastevere, a much more Woody Allen part of town altogether.

In terms of local changes, it’s noteworthy that the restaurant itself used to (until about two years ago) be a Jewish one. Although I don’t know its history, there’s certainly a community centred on our street, with two butchers and a bakery on the other side of the road. It reminds me of the few weeks in the summer that I spent staying near to the huge Orthodox Jewish colony of Stamford Hill. It struck me as curious that the Orthodox people and the other locals rarely acknowledged each other. Those few interactions I had – looking for directions, asking to get past people on the bus – felt kind of encouraging. Although rumours abound in London about what the Orthodox community gets up to behind closed doors, peaceful coexistence is based on letting other people get on with their lives rather than bashing down doors in case someone’s doing something you could enjoy getting annoyed about. Racism itself is becoming conditioned by the intrusive habits and prurient morés of online life. It seems so easy to resolve conflicts and differences on the internet: you just call people names and it instantly feels like the world’s a better place. In offline reality respectful distance is the basis of civilised accord.

It sometimes seems as if anti-semitism is bubbling away, just beneath the surface, everywhere you look. Just beneath our apartment is a shop run by a guy from Bangladesh. This also feels like home from home; I used to live in a bit of Bangladesh, in Whitechapel to be exact. However, while almost all Bangladeshis in East London come from a tiny part of the country called Sylhet, most here seem to be from Dhaka. The proprietor of the shop works extremely long hours, and is tired of it. He wants to go to London, and he wants to know if there is any way I can help him. He got 5.5 in IELTS ten years ago and he used to work as a pizzaiolo. It’s hard to see how he might get a visa. After ten years here he finds Italy ‘disgusting’. Why doesn’t he like the country any more? my wife asked him once. ‘Because there are too many Jews’, was his rather startling response. Not a great move. Now we choose to shop elsewhere.

Although they might not welcome his support, he may have something in common with the local fascists. A couple of years ago there was a sudden local spate of far-right graffiti and posters against ‘usury’. I recently came across some graffiti from the teenage fascist collective Casapound reading ‘respect the hero, not the refugee’. This seems to be something of a trope on the far-right. They worship violent sacrifice and martyrdom in much the same way as their jihadi counterparts in the Middle East. Both are puerile Valhalla-worshpping death cults. Last December, in one of my proudest moments, I tore down and disposed of a huge fascist poster stuck up next to our local bus stop spreading the standard lies about immigrants getting precedence over local people in housing and healthcare. Then we got on the bus and went to the Museum of Liberation, which focuses exclusively on the Nazi occupation of the city. In Italy there is a keen distinction made between nazis and fascists. In some circles calling oneself a fascist is almost respectable, or at least it doesn’t have the same stigma as nazifascista, which applies only to the German forces. I recently read a book by a prominent US historian of fascism who argued that the Italian version wasn’t nearly as bad and had more in common with Mao’s China than Hitler’s Germany. I find this dubious – such arguments are destined to give succour and credibility to the contemporary far-right.

‘Nationalism is an easy illusion’. That’s what’s written in huge letters on a nearby railway bridge, more or less where Garbatella begins. This area was built during Mussolini but it houses a radical tradition, with lots of squats putting on politically-inspired music events. Just to the south there is the vast district of EUR, also inaugurated by Mussolini as a showcase for fascist architecture; Bertolucci used it to very great effect in Il Conformista. It does have some remarkable and not at all unpleasant-to-look-at buildings, such as the Square Colosseum. Nevertheless, things seem to get poorer and grubbier as you follow the main arteries further south, and the new far-right is keen to take advantage of popular discontent. I recently saw a news report about a squatted social centre in EUR being turfed out by ‘local’ people repeating the usual lies about immigrants. Also beginning just around the corner from us is Via Magliana. This area of the city gave the city the Magliana gang, which appeared to be dormant until about two years ago when a huge scandal broke, centring on the figure of Massimo Carminati. He boasted that his mafia operation was making far more money from running refugee centres than it does from dealing drugs. The investigation revealed a level of murkiness in the distribution of public money that most hoped was a thing of the past. The whole affair reminds me, once again, of Mexico. The fact that the new Mayor, Virginia Raggi, seems to be feeling the unexpected strain of her job may be part of a deliberate design to teach her who really runs the city. Two months ago she lamented that Rome is ‘full’ and can take no more migrants, and then a week later made a laudable statement attacking a gang of racists in a deprived part of town for trying to exploit the housing crisis for their own ends. In the meantime, a series of transport strikes have combined with the ongoing garbage collection crisis to create a sense of impending municipal doom.

There is a vibrancy to this area which is partly attributable to the presence of immigrants. When I first visited in 2012 we popped into the haberdashers to get keys made and I found out that the guy I thought was Sicilian turned out to be from Egypt. I feel comfortable speaking Italian with other foreigners. The lingua franca is Imperfect Italian. There seems to be a sense of shared experience despite my evident privilege. One common sight on Italian streets is recent (and sometimes not so recent) immigrants selling books. There appears to be a whole publishing industry based on these street sales, and over the years the quality of the publications has improved considerably. They sell illustrated children’s stories (which will soon come in handy) along with recipe books and some excellent volumes of African poetry.

The Algerian-Italian writer Amara Lakhous used our district as the setting for one of his novels. His books are always pleasurable and easy to read despite the abundance of new and old Italian slang. He presents a laudable defence of multiculturalism without flinching from the difficulties, with terrorism and the suspicion it generates an ever-present background. The world he describes is one I catch glimpses of, one of overcrowded apartments and constant anxiety about renewing one’s permesso di soggiorno (residence permit). One of the largest groups of recent immigrants is from Bangladesh, and they tend to be the ones you see in tourist places selling selfie sticks, luminous flying things and mobile accessories. Like the goods sold on the Metro in Mexico city it’s hard to find out how the goods are distributed. I asked my Bangladeshi hairdresser but he didn’t know or didn’t want to tell me. Visiting his shop is a cheap if not always cheerful experience. The first time I was there I had my hair cut by an Afghan who spoke no Italian, the second time it was the owner, who has been here for three years. I soon felt guilty about favourably comparing my Italian to his. His first year or two years in Italy were spent working in agriculture in Apuglia, which is apparently not exactly a bucolic idyll.  Before that he had been stuck for months in Libya, before managing to escape with hundreds of others on a boat designed for dozens. It’s tempting to call him one of the lucky ones but I wouldn’t swap my luck for his.

In addition to a local Chinese shop selling useful plastic tat, on the corner of the street there is a coffee bar run by cheerful second-generation Chinese people who seem to speak better roman dialect than the locals (after all, they are locals). It’s a very popular place to hangout, read the paper and argue and also doubles up as a gambling emporium. Although betting shops are becoming more prevalent in Italy, they are more subtly woven into the urban fabric than they are in the UK, and are easily confused for normal cafés. There may well be a link between their increasing number and the amount of people begging on Viale Marconi, outside the hundreds of shops selling expensive baby accessories and the dozens of french fries outlets that have sprung up in a sign that globalisation and austerity may be doing permanent damage to the Italian diet. There are also signs of gentrification, such as the brand new and very swish birreria just around the corner and the artisan beer shop on our street. Given that I am, in theory at least, its perfect customer and I’ve never been in there or seen anyone buying anything, I don’t know how it survives. However, Mexico taught me that just because somewhere doesn’t have any customers doesn’t mean it’s not…solvent. So chi lo sa.

Some tourists come to our area to go to Saint Paolo’s Basilica, in whose café I’m sitting as I write this. Since December 2015 it has been under very heavy guard, with armoured vehicles and fully-armed and camouflaged soldiers outside. The church is of huge historical and religious significance as it houses the remains of St Paul. You could fit several ordinary-sized cathedrals inside it and still have room for one or two smaller basilicas. I used to use it as a soulful shortcut to get to the metro station, but the experience of passing through a metal detector with a machine gun pointed at your feet is guaranteed to shush any spiritual siren calls that were beckoning you in.

To get to the Basilica and the Metro station you have to cross the river. At some not-quite-conscious level I’m always contemplating bridges and rivers and the relationship between the two. Along the Tiber you can walk all the way into the centre. On the other side of the river, towards the working class district of Testaccio, with its former gasworks and warehouse clubbing scene, you see signs of gypsy encampments amidst the overgrown foliage.

Like most areas of Rome our district has its share of dog shit**, graffiti, broken glass and smashed-up pavements. This is not a part of Rome that Penélope Cruz or Jesse Eisenberg will be spotted in any time soon. I haven’t written about many of the delightful things that this area and Rome in general have to offer, its restaurants and gelaterias and galleries and bookshops. I didn’t want to (and I probably wouldn’t know how to) write an Eat-Pray-Love-style elegy in which I boast of the tiny pleasures of sipping on a perfectly-formed cappuccino and nibbling at a melt-in-your-mouth cornetto in a picturesque Roman piazza while reading Dante in the original language. But there is much of significance on any street and I hope I’ve given something of a sense of what it’s like for this individual (me) to be living in this part of Rome at this particular moment in its immensely complex history and some suggestion of what it must be like for those less blessed with good fortune than myself.

 

* I’ve only been living here since September 2016 but me and my wife had already been visiting regularly since 2012.

** I’m aware of the irony of writing about this on the internet.

*** Mind you if you really want to see some dog shit the place to go is Via Vaiano near La Magliana. Mamma mia.

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Puebla: Clowns, Trains and Antorchistas

dsc_1022In Puebla I have my first ever attack of coulrophobia. The Zócalo (the main town square) plays permanent venue to a group of local clowns, and although I can’t understand everything they’re saying I can just about get the gist and it is uproariously obscene. It’s night time and we are part of a small, appreciative and apparently unoffendable crowd, some older and some very young. Behind us there’s what appears to be a genuinely spontaneous outbreak of live music and dancing. It’s one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been to. We stand and laugh for a while and then go to a nearby bar where a succession of singers entertain us with trova classics, some of which even I’m able to recognise.dsc_0791Puebla is only about two hours from DF (Mexico City). The Zócalo itself is well worth a visit, with its gargantuan cathedral (the second largest in the country) and a vast range of human activities taking place at any given moment. The city centre also has a number of local street markets. My observations in the UK have taught me that one of the functions of the global ‘market’ is to displace and replace such places; it’s always a tragedy to see a well-established one close or go upmarket, because a city should give local people the opportunity to sell things, not just to buy them. Luckily some of Puebla’s markets deal in much more than just the usual Frida-related tourist tat. There are puestos selling books, vinyl records, coins, and ornamientos, which is apparently the Spanish word for nick-nacks. I have an entertaining conversation with one stall-holder about the relative merits of various Iron Maiden live albums. He’s a fan of Rock in Rio, while I’m sticking with Live After Death. To be fair he may have a point, because I haven’t actually listened to Live After Death since I was about fourteen, and I’ve never even heard Rock in Rio. Nor would I want to. Iron Maiden are terrible, but heavy metal never ceases to be kind of funny, especially when you’re conversing about it in another language.dsc_0830

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dsc_0835We take a turibus ride around the city, and when we disembark and go to pay it turns out to have been free because the machine isn’t working. Then, just as we walk away from the bus we see and hear an extremely loud and colourful demonstration coming down the street towards us.dsc_0887

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dsc_0892I’m surprised to see people holding parasoles promoting the Partido Acción Nacional. For anyone out there interested in analogies between Mexican and Irish politics (er…), this is the Fine Gael of Mexico, the substitute party, the one that proved, when in power between 2000 and 2012, to be just as corrupt and violent as the ruling (and staggeringly corrupt and violent) Partido Revolucionario Institucional. Like Fine Gael it allegedly has fascist roots. That’s why it’s surprising to see it mixed up in this protest led by a peasant movement known as the Antorchistas. I’ve seen graffiti advertising their events while travelling down the autopista from Mexico City, usually promoting huge demonstrations on which they promise to take 100,000 of their number to Mexico City. Most of the participants look to me to be indigenous and I see at least one carrying a huge crucifix.dsc_0893The march culminates on a stage in the Zócalo, where they have some speeches calling for justice for Don Manuel Serrano Vallejo, the father of a local PRI politician, who was kidnapped and murdered two years ago. This being Mexico, no-one has been arrested for the crime. There then follows a cultural extravaganza which in its colourfulness, display of dancing skills and juggling of actual machetes far surpasses anything I’ve ever seen the Socialist Worker’s Party put on. In fact, it’s best not to imagine the British Left playing with knives. They would probably end up in other people’s backs even before Mark Thomas turned up to do his turn.dsc_0932

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dsc_0998Later I read up on the Antorchistas and find that for some time they have formally been part of the PRI, and are therefore a lot less radical than their posturing might suggest. Hence today’s demonstration may have been another example of the phenomenon of acarreando (corralling, i.e paying) people to come to major political shows of strength. Estimating just how many people from out of town have been herded onto buses on the promise of a free meal is part of the fun surrounding Mexican Independence Day in September.dsc_0897It’s an idyllic scene. All around us the square is packed with people of all ages walking around with beaming smiles, holding balloons, selling balloons, popping balloons, eating ice-cream, playing music, listening to music, dancing and eating. Which suddenly seems like a good idea. After lunch we wander over to watch the clowns. I have my hood up and I’m hiding because something about them makes me nervous. And sure enough within a few seconds the thing I dreaded, the thing I dread most in the world, actually happens: They see me. Possibly because I’m trying to accomplish the difficult task of hiding while taking decent photos. Immediately the question comes, in English: “Hey gringo, where are you from?”. Dozens of people are now looking at me, laughing and pointing and laughing some more.dsc_0900 I hate being exposed as an English speaker, so just doing the blindingly obvious thing and making myself part of the show is, tragically, not an option. I feel ashamed that other people will think I don’t speak Spanish and am thus some sort of unsophisticated monolingual oaf. I feel challenged. Such situations touch upon a very raw nerve, which is particularly close to the surface when, as now, I’m living in another country. In insisting on speaking other languages I’m making a claim on another identity while trying to shake mine off. I want to join another club, not my own, and I’m scared of being rejected. I feel objectified, seen as a representative of my own culture and country, which is awkward because even at the age of 40 or so I’m still not very clear what my relationship to that country and culture is. But I’m also aware that this ridicule I’m faced with is (apart from the damage I’m letting it do to my ego) harmless. Although these clowns have presumably seized on my presence as a chance to go into a tried-and-tested (and probably merciless) routine about foreigners, I’m very rarely greeted with hostility. I’m not the victim of negative stereotyping and I don’t face any threat of violence. Normally when people address my evident out-of-placeness it’s a friendly, good-natured, genuine interest. Besides, people want to use English. They, like me, want to be accepted as part of another community, in their case the global English-speaking one. The fact that this anxiety is such a constant theme in my life is an irony beyond all measure. I teach English. I examine people on their English. In a very important sense that is why I am here. I am not unaware of these things, but for some reason my subconscious self refuses to accept reality. One of Jacques Lacan’s key insights is that the unconscious is structured like a language. He might also have mentioned that it can sometimes behave like an absolute f*cking idiot.

Fortunately, these feelings do wear off a little when I’ve lived somewhere for a while and my brain starts to accept that I’m just another person among millions who happens to have a silly accent which indicates that they come from another place. In Mexico my claim on a local identity is particularly absurd given that in my life here I’m relatively immune to social and economic pressures and benefit from a level of mobility denied to others, purely by virtue of my language and my passport.  I have come to understand that my fear and anticipated resentment at not being accepted and my terror of being ridiculed are partly related to my national and personal histories. I recognise those feelings when reading Orwell’s story ‘Shooting an Elephant‘ – it’s partly a legacy of colonial arrogance/insecurity. At a family level, my father left his own country (Germany) immediately after school and went to live in the UK, eventually serving as a conscript in the British Army. He then went on to work as a chef in countries around the world. Hence my anxiety over being from somewhere else and wanting to be accepted has deep roots. Even in conversation the border between languages is tense – I often get resentful when someone tries to switch into English. Thus, as is often the case, a kind of shyness turns into a type of rudeness.

Hence, when the ‘natural’ thing to do would be to play along with the clowns and to accept the role of the dumb foreigner, I stonewall, refusing to participate in the game. I pretend to be German. I make out that I don’t understand English. This is almost psychotic. English is effectively a national language in Mexico. It has more status and more people speak it than the other 64 indigenous languages. The problem is that if I respond in Spanish people will know I’m a foreigner anyway because of my accent, and there aren’t any foreigners in Mexico who don’t speak English. It would be like a Mexican who doesn’t understand Spanish. There are some of those, but I clearly do not look like one of them. This is excrutiating. There is only one thing left to do: huir, and spend the rest of the weekend steering well clear of The Clowns.

dsc_1045We head away from the centre towards the train graveyard, also known as the National Railway Musem. It has dozens of passenger and freight wagons, mostly from Mexico but also the US. There is a photo exhibition in one of the carriages on some of the now-despondent towns which the train line from Puebla to Veracruz used to pass through. The city of Puebla was created to secure the route between Mexico City and the port of Veracruz, so the train line was of vital importance when it was opened in 1873, particularly for the transport of goods. Then, after decades of neglect, in the early 1990s the entire network was broken into four and privatised. The line from Puebla to Veracruz closed, and now Puebla focuses on producing cars. On the way here from Mexico City you pass a huge Volkswagen plant; in the centre of town several street signs have been sponsored by the company. As for trains, the only surviving long-distance passenger line crosses Chihuahua state in the north. It is hugely popular with tourists. dsc_1039

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dsc_1034Then there is La Bestia. This is not a single train but a network of freight trains used by Central American immigrants to get from the south to the north of the country on their way to the US. It is so dangerous that it is also known as el tren de la muerte, the train of death. Since 2014 passengers have been banned from travelling on top of the train, partly thanks to an Obama-inspired crackdown by the Mexican authorities on immigration across the southern Mexican border. The subsequent treatment of those who still try explains the fact that in June 2015 an Amnesty International report called Mexico one of the most dangerous countries in the world for migrants. dsc_0166In the main building of the museum is another exhibition dedicated to the work done by Padre Alejandro Solalinde, who runs an organisation providing Central American immigrants with humanitarian aid and education. In return for his efforts his life has been threatened on several occasions.dsc_1058It puts my fear of clowns into some perspective.

Anti-semitism and the Labour leadership race

It is beyond any doubt that there are people sporting ‘I’ve voted Corbyn’ twibbons on both Twitter and Facebook who have indulged in the most horrendous anti-semitic statements and abuse — awful people who think it’s okay to use language like ‘Jewish scum’ when talking about Israel, or who believe it acceptable to make quasi-racist statements such as ‘not all Jews are bad’.

There are also fanatical Zionists who choose to regard all criticism of the Israel state under any circumstances as anti-semitic. Their campaign to depict the consistently pro-Palestine Corbyn as anti-semitic started some years ago (at least as far back as 2012) but has obviously intensified over the last few months.

There have been some legitimate questions asked of Corbyn in relation to people he has had contact with in the past. He has directly addressed those concerns to the satisfaction of all reasonable parties, explaining that he did not know and could not reasonably have been expected to know that such people held anti-semitic beliefs. Corbyn’s record on anti-racism throughout his political life is absolutely impeccable.

The British media has been playing a very dangerous game in openly suggesting that Corbyn is an anti-semite. It appears that in regularly producing headlines such as ‘Corbyn denies anti-semitic links’ the right-wing media has both achieved its target of associating his name with anti-semitism (possibly as a result attracting anti-semites to his cause), and also evinced and evoked deep-seated anti-semitic impulses in British society. These have found expression among a tiny but vocal minority of his hundreds of thousands of supporters, but are clearly not restricted to them.

As Owen Jones says, we have to be extremely vigilant about each and every instance of anti-semitism wherever we encounter it. We have to publicly and immediately denounce those who express anti-Jewish sentiment. However, the right-wing media and their pro-Israel allies have now developed a new line of attack, saying that anti-semitism is peculiarly common on the British left. This is pernicious. The history of anti-semitism on the right in the UK is very well-known. To pretend that there is a tradition of anti-semitism peculiar to the British left is deeply dishonest and it is designed to destabilise the British left and discredit those who express solidarity with the Palestinian cause. There is a current of anti-semitism in British society. It must be exposed and challenged, but it is deeply wrong and dangerous to summon it up for short-term ideological purposes.

Jack Straw, Zizek and UK Border Force

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An article in last week’s Guardian made it difficult for me to take Jack Straw’s liberal posturing on Question Time at face value. A ten-year-old girl tried to hang herself after being locked up for the second time and faced with deportation to Nigeria. She had recently been dragged screaming from her home by a team of UK Border authority officials. The ten-year-old’s attempted suicide was also an echo of an incident in 2005, when an Angolan man said goodbye to his son and then hung himself in the stairwell of a detention centre, in order that his son be able to stay in the country as an unaccompanied minor.

Perhaps when both families were being dragged kicking and screaming from their homes they were being filmed for UK Border Force. This is a Sky One programme, now in its second season, which is presumably made with the full participation and encouragement of the Home Office. It showcases the Government’s policy of sending out teams to hunt down and and round up ‘illegals’ and highlights the ‘tragic stories and challenges’ that they (the immigration officials, not the immigrants) face every day. Raids have recently been staged on a market in East London, dragging off immigrants whose only hope of survival is to work illegally given that the Government not only forbids them from working legally, but is also actively reducing even their most basic means of survival. Presumably in this way New Labour ministers hope to quench the thirst for brutal violence as a solution to the ‘problem’ of ‘illegal immigration’ which is, of course, a mainstay of Jack Straw’s favourite newspaper (see above).

Perhaps the Daily Mail is missing the boat somewhat when it comes to their bitter opposition to further British involvement in and cooperation with the European Union. Slavoj Žižek recounts the case of the Tunisian fishermen who face up to fifteen years of imprisonment for rescuing forty-four immigrants off the coast of Lampedusa. Other fishermen who have beaten off boatloads of people with sticks and left them to drown suffered no punishment. Zizek then quotes what Robert Brasillach, a ‘moderate anti-semite’, wrote in 1938:

‘We grant ourselves permission to applaud Charlie Chaplin, a half Jew, at the movies; to admire Proust, a half Jew; to applaud Yehudi Menuhin, a Jew; and the voice of Hitler is carried over radio waves named after the Jew Hertz . We don’t want to kill anyone, we don’t want to organise any pogroms. But we also think that the best way to hinder the always unpredictable actions of instinctual anti-semitism is to organise a reasonable anti-semitism. ‘

I can only presume that this is what Jack Straw et al are up to with their quasi-fascist hounding of immigrants. They certainly don’t want to organise any pogroms, but they seem to think that TV programmes which present pogroms as entertainment might serve as a means of pacifying violent racists, somehow making them less inclined to get off their sofas and round up ‘illegals’ themselves. Attempts to use similar means to combat racism and fascism in the 1930s met with limited success.

Did racism exist in the Portuguese empire?


In 1950-51 Gilberto Freyre conducted a tour of Portugal’s overseas colonies at the invitation of the Estado Novo Government. At the end of a two-week stay in the largest of those possessions, Angola, he wrote the following:

‘Aqui, a presença de Portugal nao significa a ausência, muito menos a morte da África…Angola, luzitanzando-se, enriquece a sua vida, a sua cultura de valores europeus que aqui, neste mundo em formação, confratanizam com valores nativos ou tropicais, sem os humiliar: a oliveira ao lado da bananeira; a uva ao lado do dem-dem; a macieira ao lado da palmeira; o branco ao lado do preto’.

This contrasts sharply with the conclusions of Gerald Bender in Angola under the Portuguese:
‘Africans in colonial Angola were expected to assimilate an almost pure, unmitigated Portuguese culture, barely modified by the slightest trace of their own numerically dominant culture’.

Freyre’s intention was to ascertain if his theories regarding Brazil could be extended to the other Portuguese colonies. He would subsequently write of his trip that he had been able to confirm an ‘intuição antiga’:

‘Portugal, o Brazil, a África e a Índia portuguesa, a Madeira, os Açores e Cabo Verde constituem (…) uma unidade de sentimentos e de cultura’ .

These consisted in a predisposition for miscegenation and an absence of racial prejudice, both of which had their origin in the influence of the Moors, the Jews and of Africa and had served to create the paternalistic and ‘socially plastic’ character of the Portuguese. The Portuguese was ‘the European colonizer who best succeeded in fraternizing with the so-called inferior races’ .

The publication of his first book Casa Grande e Senzala in 1933 had served to overturn the consensus on race in Brazil, which held that Brazil’s lack of development was due to ‘the ”debilitating’ influence of the large black and mestiço population’ . In the late nineteenth century Brazil had imposed ethnic quotas on immigration in an attempt to guarantee the country’s ‘ethnic integrity’ . Freyre challenged these notions through detailing and celebrating the huge influence that the African and the Indian had had on Brazilian life.

However, such ideas of the racial inferiority of the non-European were and had been common currency in Portugal for some time. In 1880 Portugal’s most prominent historian Oliveira Martins had written:
‘Are there not (…) reasons for supposing that this fact of the limited intellectual capacity of the Negro races, proved in so many and such diverse times and places, has an intimate and constitutional cause? (…) Why not teach the gospel to the gorilla or the orangoutang, who do not fail to have ears because they cannot speak, and might understand pretty well as much as the negro?’

Many of Portugal’s most prominent colonial officials shared these racist sentiments. António Enes was ‘a forthright racist, and what he says about the African and his place in the colonies is a truism long accepted by most Portuguese colonialists’ . Mousinho de Albuquerque, Norton de Matos, Serpa Pinto and others ‘continued to propagate the notion that Africans were inherently inferior’ . Politicians in Portugal often shared these beliefs. In a speech in 1893 the MP Dantas Baracho stated the African didn’t deserve citizenship rights, as he was inherently ‘lazy, drunk and criminal’ . The notion of the African as someone who had to be made to work was very current; Mousinho de Albuquerque spoke of the Africans ‘recusando-se a toda a especie de trabalho’ .

Key to Freyre’s work is the notion that the tendency to miscegenation is inherent in the Portuguese character. However, this attitude was not shared by many of those who held powerful positions over Portuguese colonies. The former High Commissioner and Governor General of Angola Vicente Ferriera considered the effects of racial mixing ‘nefastos’ . Marcelo Caetano talked in 1945 of the ‘grave problema de mestiçamento’ , and Bender quotes Norton de Matos’ fears that:

‘(…) the inferiority of Africans could dilute or even ruin the effectiveness of Portuguese colonization if the government did not put ‘for at least a century, the greatest obstacles to the fusion of the white race with the native races of Africa.” .

Such attitudes would come to be challenged in various ways in the middle of the last century. As Claudia Castelo writes, the end of the Second World War implied a wholescale condemnation of ideas of racial purity, and the international consensus dictated that the principle of self-determination should prevail . This presented a problem for Portugal; the African colonies were an existential issue: ‘a moral justification and a reason for being as a power’ . For Marcelo Caetano, ‘sem ela (Africa) seríamos uma pequena nação; com ela, somos um grande estado’ . Nevertheless, as Castelo writes:

‘A ONU passa a considerar o princípio de autodeterminação como um direito humano fundamental, a atribui as potências colonais a obrigação de prepararem os territórios sob sua administração para a independência.’

In response to this situation, the Portuguese state faced an urgent need to affirm its national unity and to reassert its civilising project in the colonies. Salazar had said in 1939 that it was essential to safeguard ‘the interests of the inferior races’ under Portuguese rule . This stance, or at least this language, would have to be reconsidered in the light of the new international mood of racial egalitarianism. In the words of Freyre, quoting Henrique Barros, Portugal needed to give a ‘modern content’ to its ‘ways of living and acting in Africa and Asia’ . Bender writes:

‘Beginning with the intensification of anti-colonial criticism in the United Nations in 1951, Portugal began to shift the emphasis of her ‘mission’ from exaltation of the overseas settler to aggrandizement of the emergent and multiracial societies in Angola and Mozambique’ .

The work of Gilberto Freyre, then, and particularly his willingness to be carefully shepherded around selected parts of Portugal’s overseas world in the same year, 1951 , would play a crucial role in Portugal’s attempts to justify its continuing possession of parts of Africa and India. In one of the books he wrote after his trip to the overseas colonies (hastily recategorised as overseas provinces, hence parts of Portugal itself) he praised the Estado Novo Government as ‘honrado, intransigentemente honesto’ . He also wrote of the ‘gosto de ver confirmado na África e no Oriente (suas) antecipações sobre a obra colonizadora dos portugueses (que) continua a ser activa e fecunda’ . In The Portuguese in the Tropics (1961), a book specially commended by the state to commemorate 500 years since the birth of Henry the Navigator, he even talked of a new civilisation, a third species of man, created by the experience of Portuguese colonization .
Along with ‘Integração portuguesa nos tropicos’ (1958), this book was used by the Estado Novo to legitimise its colonial policies. Castelo writes, ‘O Estado Novo põe em práctica uma estratégia clara no sentido de reverter a seu favor o prestígio internacional de Freyre’ . It was certainly convenient in an international context for the state to have a renowned spokesman of world repute promoting the Portuguese empire as a place without ‘problemas fundamentais, de ordem social, entre portugueses do Continente, e os portugueses dos Territórios Ultramarinos.’

This new adapted form of Luso-tropicalism quickly became Portugal’s core colonial ideology. Salazar talked of the ‘primacy we have always attached to (…) the enhancement of the value and dignity of man without distinction of colour or creed’ . His eventual successor Caetano claimed that in Angola and Mozambique ‘races are blended, cultures are altered (and) efforts are united to continue and perfect a type of society in which men are only limited by their ability, their merits or their work’ . Franco Nogueira went even further in asserting boldly that ‘We alone, before anyone else, brought to Africa the notion of human rights and equality (…) it is a Portuguese invention’ .

In The Portuguese and the tropics, Freyre contrasts the Portuguese colonizing mission with the attitudes of the Northern Europeans, who he accuses of regarding the non-European ‘in the same terms as wild animals’ . In South Africa these attitudes had resulted in the Apartheid system, ‘the most perfect fulfilment until now carried out of the myth of the absolute superiority of the European race’ .

It is true that the Portuguese never enacted apartheid legislation of the kind experienced in South Africa. Black people were not restricted to townships, mixed marriage was permitted and the children of mixed unions were recognised throughout the Portuguese colonies. However, as Bender writes, ‘The absence of racist laws or separate racial facilities is clearly not indicative of the absence of racial segregation’ . There are a number of areas in which it might be useful to consider just how valid is Freyre’s implication that apartheid would have been untenable in Portuguese Africa.

Charles Boxer demonstrates that Portuguese policies with regard to race relations differed considerably according to circumstances of time and place. The Portuguese state was not an automatic promoter of mixed marriages. A royal decree of 4 April 1755, for example, prohibited mixed marriages ‘com mulheres índias ou seus descendentes’ . This contrasted sharply with earlier royal encouragement of mixed unions between Portuguese settlers and indigenous women in order to populate Brazil.

Such unions, as Gilberto Freyre shows, created a profoundly mixed society in Brazil. A similar level of miscegenation was seen in Cape Verde. However, this was certainly not the case in the other Portuguese colonies. The mestiço population of Mozambique in 1960 stood at 0.48%, and that of Angola merely 1.10%. Ironically, the figure for South Africa, where mixed marriages were prohibited by law and the children of mixed unions were not recognised, stood at around 10%. Contrary to Freyre’s assumptions, Brazil was not representative of the majority of Portuguese colonies in terms of miscegenation .

Were the Portuguese colonies substantially more racially integrated or equal than apartheid South Africa? Wheeler and Pelíssier talk of ‘racial castes’ existing in Luanda by the middle of the nineteenth century . Luís Batalha quotes a statistic from Guinea which shows that in 1959 the black population consisted of 502,457 ‘não-civilisados’ and only 1,478 who were considered civilised . Bender writes:

‘This cultural rigidity and the exaggerated standards demanded of Africans (prior to 1961) before they could be officially considered assimilated help explain why less than 1% of Africans in 1950 were legally classified as assimilados.’

The requirements for Africans to be considered ‘civilised’ varied, but:
‘In Guinea, and probably Angola, an applicant had to be able to read and write Portuguese, in spite of the fact that about half the population of Portugal was illiterate.’

One reason for the low levels of assimilation, alongside the virtual impossibility of attaining such status, may have been reluctance on the part of Africans due to white attitudes towards successful assimilados. For the former High Commissioner and Governor General of Angola Vicente Ferreira, the ‘so-called civilised Africans (…) are generally no more than grotesque imitations of white men’ .

It would be difficult to conclude that the policy known as the indigenato was not simply based on racial prejudice. The indígena was legally required to work in order to bring him up to the same cultural level as the European – a process which Salazar himself seemed to believe would take centuries . Jeanne Penvenne writes:

‘Portugal’s policy was patronizing and cloaked in self-serving protectionism. Africans were to be protected from one another and from exploitation by ‘superior races’, but it was also Portugal’s duty as the beacon to civilisation to instruct them in their ‘moral obligation to work’.’

Such policies were not explicitly based on skin colour, as they would be in South Africa, but Duffy makes the point that:

‘It is a logical human step, even in Portuguese colonies, to proceed from laws which distinguish between native and non-native (…) to racial distinctions between black and white’.

Marvin Harris points out that more important than the existence of mestiços being officially recognised, was the way in which they were seen and treated. Unlike in South Africa, in Cabo Verde there were no legal distinctions on the basis of skin colour, but the way that people behaved – exhibiting a strong preference for lighter looks and preferring to attribute a darker complexion to Moorish-Portuguese ancestry rather than African descent – tells us that it was a society with a very high consciousness of racial origin and appearance and that this was related to social and presumably economic stratification. And while in South Africa people were categorised by the state according to their racial origin, Brazil remains a society with an astonishing range of classifications for skin colour, and where someone’s racial status can be determined by their social position:

‘(…) light-skinned individuals who rank extremely low in terms of educational and occupational criteria are frequently regarded as actually being darker in color than they really are.’

In South Africa a number of laws existed which formalised the social exclusion of non-whites. Although this was not the case in Portuguese Africa, Bender records that as of 1970 most Angolan natives lived in rural areas and had little contact with the white population . Penvenne reports that throughout the twentieth century, with the arrival of more and more white immigrants, less urban jobs became available to Africans in Lourenço Marques: ‘The depression crisis hastened the pace of racial exclusion, particularly in the better positions’ . In Angola the increasing numbers of white immigrants meant that by the mid-1950s ‘Positions usually reserved for blacks, such as waiters and taxi drivers, were nearly all occupied by whites’ .
Duffy talks of the growing problems that this exclusion created in terms of race relations. Discrimination was to be witnessed not merely in terms of jobs, but socially too:

‘Signs on the doors of Angolan restaurants reading “Right of Admission Reserved” are not accidental phenomena any more than are the creation of almost exclusively white towns and colonization projects in the interior’ .
While Portugal did not have a formal apartheid system like in South Africa, such examples of inequality and exclusion derived directly from a strong discriminatory impulse intrinsically linked to the essentially antagonistic relation between the exploiting class of European colonialists and the exploited black African masses. The essential pattern right up until independence was defined by the relationship between the master and the slave. As Duffy writes:

‘The fact that the Portuguese male did take as wife or mistress an African or mulatto woman had very little to do with mitigating either slavery or the slave trade and (…) nothing to do with changing racial prejudice. By 1850 Africans in Portuguese colonies were generally regarded as inferior beings, ‘niggers’, whose function was to labour.’

Conclusion

Gilberto Freyre’s ideas of race relations in the Portuguese empire certainly shed a great deal of light on the extraordinary social origins of Brazil’s multiracial society. Their application to other parts of the Portuguese empire was at the very least limited and, certainly in the hands of Salazar et al, profoundly misguided. In the words of Amílcar Cabral:

‘Perhaps unconsciously confusing realities that are biological or necessary with realities that are socioeconomic and historical, Gilberto Freyre transformed all of us who live in the colony-provinces of Portugal into the fortunate inhabitants of a Luso-Tropical paradise.’

However, as Gerald Bender points out, these ideas have proved intensely resistent to any attempts to relate them to the actual reality of Portuguese colonization . Many Portuguese still now believe that their overseas explorations were essentially tame, well-meaning and mostly harmless when compared to those of other colonial powers. In the words of Claudia Castelo, the Estado Novo’s myths regarding the Portuguese attitude to race constitute both in Portugal and abroad ‘uma imagem relativemente duradoira’.