Outcastes and Pylons



gypsies, roma, kosovo

 Cascina Camafame

 
 
It was with this in mind that I went to Brescia in July 1999. 

The real name of the place is Camafame, but a sign under a bridge says ""Cascina Cavafame [Hunger Quarry Farmstead] 1 kilometre"; large letters saying PIGS and a swastika have been added  to the sign. This is open country, if you want to call it that - a knot of highways,  a sideroad full of holes, a crater-like quarry bitten into the earth and now full of water: one wonders whether it was the hunger of the workers or the hunger of the clay-eating machines.  

At the uttermost edge of the world, Brescia delicately hides away its outcastes in a ramshackle farm house which is home to about forty Roma. Above the farm house, a power pylon rises high into the air. It whistles and complains, threatens and spits out current. 

It is only late at night that you can hear the pylon: all day long, music fills the court, with its mud, its chickens and its geranium-covered balconies. Desperation too has its hierarchy, and at the very top is somebody who considers it his right to play whatever music he pleases at disco volume. 

Here I met Bajram and Reska again, and got to know her mother, Xhevrija. 

Bajram and Reska live on the first floor (in the British way of counting), in one room. The room is clean and orderly, but there is no water and no gas, and every time she goes to the bathroom, the invalid girl has to go down and back up a steep staircase.  

Reska at first does not recognize me; and I don't know exactly what to say or do for them. I am about to go away, but she takes me up to their room, where her mother looks at me silently, together with two little dogs and a couple of canaries in a cage. Then Bajram comes in, and recognizes me at once. They start telling me their story. I am not going to tell it in the order I heard it that evening, or many evenings after; instead, I shall try to put it in some kind of chronological order. 

The actors in this story are Bajram and his wife, Xhevrija, who once used to live in the little town of  Graçanica, where there is an important Serbian sanctuary; their children, who in descending order of age are Ramiza, Remzija, Reska and the only male, Lulzim. Xhevrija has a brother, Beçir, who suffers from Down's syndrome. Lulzim is married to Altna, and they have three children:  Emir, Anela and Little Xhevrija.  

Bajram was born on Saturday, like all those who can see the spirits. His parents died when he was just seven months old. It is hard growing up without parents, one day you have shoes on your feet and the next you don't. And it was shining shoes that the child began to learn to work. 

Reska was born in Kosovo. The little girl who used to run after the sheep suddenly found herself with a damaged leg and terrible pain, which lasted for years. At night, she would curl up in the dark watching a great hole in the wall, and sealing it in her mind by whispering an ayah of the Qur'an, the distant Arabic turned into sweet Turkish sounds; and this way she would cradle and put to sleep the vulture that hunts down the Roma of the whole world. During the day, she would look for someone to take her - so small yet so cumbersome - to school.  Bajram spent many years underground, digging for gold among the dust of Trepça, until one day, due to the negligence of a new workman, two carts crashed into each other, with him in the middle, but still alive. 

When Yugoslavia broke down, Bajram went on working unpaid for a year and a half; then he went to Italy with Reska, invited by relatives who soon forgot about him. The mother stayed in their distant home a beautiful house, with balconies and geraniums, but the pictures I see are all creased: they crossed the sea on a boat, survivors of a murderous Adriatic. 

Reska and Bajram went to live in Verona in a shack on the banks of the Adige river - iron plates and wood put up in a random fashion, cold, laughter and mosquitoes. 

Saturday evening, Verona's youth are out to enjoy themselves, some go to the disco, others look for heroin along the riverside. Nobody knows what happened exactly, but the addicts for some reason set fire to the Gypsies' shack. The only door was on fire. Burim, Reska's cousin, put her on his shoulders like a lamb, and in order to get out into the night, broke down a wall. 

Away to Brescia, among the foreigners. Foreigners on rows and rows of beds, lonely foreigners, a little crazy; hungry foreigners laughing, foreigners going out into the night to sell their bodies in order to buy a motorcycle, foreigners crying before large, shiny clocks with the image of a Kaaba they would never see in their lives... foreigners sick with Italy, frightened yet full of hope. 

Bajram and Reska spent one full summer sleeping in the open under the rain, and one full winter in a camper with no windows, before getting the room in the farmstead. 

When doing their work, thieves always look for the easiest targets. Birds of prey swoop swiftly down on mice, and never challenge the horns of the deer. Who is easier to rob than an absent-minded Rom and his invalid daughter? Bajram had his poor belongings stolen no less than four times as he slept alone in the room... they know who the thief was, but there is nothing they can do.  

Yet life goes on, like grass breaking through the pavement in order to enjoy the sun. Risks, laughter and fierce passion crushed under the heel of life... the girls fall in love with Van Damme and handsome Emrah, the voice of Turkey, copying the same tapes over and over again, amidst chimneys and sad farmhouses, laughing behind the backs of the police and waiting for Saint George's Day to dance in the mud of the courtyards. 

At night, in the mist, the farmstead of the Roma takes on a strange and disquieting quality. In the mud, under the moon, the ghost of a dead man dressed in white. A deceased nun cycles quickly through the camp; only Bajram can see her, but everybody sees the riderless bicycle race round and round. 

Bajram gets lost. He wanders through Brescia followed by a tiny dog with lively eyes. He goes to the market, and wonders - is this Prishtina, Verona, the gold mine, the hot belly of the factory where he wears himself out working three shifts day and night? 

Mother Xhevrija among cushions and carpets, a magnet for all the children in the camp, goes down the stairs to fetch water... the stairs are dark, a mountain to climb every day for Reska. Xhevrija is struck by pain, like a whip on her kidneys, renal cholic, cutting rocks and stones. She had come to visit her husband, and as soon as she came, the war broke out behind her. And she, who had never had problems with anybody, suddenly discovered that it was normal, in Italy, for the police to break in and search her home at four in the morning without any reason she could understand. 
 
 
 



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