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
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
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
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.