A Love Letter to La Pietra Dialogues

By Erica Garbarini, NYU Florence Student

La Pietra Dialogues always works hard to provide students with relevant and exciting educational programs. But last week, the good people of LPD outdid themselves with a sponsored field trip to Brussels and Luxembourg. A month ago, I joined the EU in Focus Working Group, one of the many programs LPD has to offer, and began to learn about the intricacies of the supranational political system uniting Europe. But last week, I was able to truly experience the work of the EU as my peers and I traveled from Florence to Brussels to Luxembourg, touring and participating in several EU institutions.

Bright and (exceptionally) early, the working group met in the Florence airport, eager to finally embark on the anticipated field trip. Once we arrived in Brussels and quickly made friends with our peers from NYU Berlin, we promptly began to summarize what we had learned in our respective working groups up until that point. My peers and I were able to name the five main institutions of the European Union (the European Commission, the Council of the EU, the European Parliament, the European Council and the European Court of Justice) and their main functions. Not only did this program teach us the complicated framework of this system before the trip, but we were able to intelligently discuss the research we acquired as we focused on the EU’s ever-evolving policies on immigration and data protection as soon as we touched down in Brussels. I was impressed with how much we were all able to learn in such a short time through this La Pietra Dialogues program and I felt prepared to put this knowledge to practice.

The next three days in the bustling city of Brussels and country of Luxembourg went by all too quickly. As we went from esteemed institutions, The United States Mission to the European Union and the grand buildings of the European Commission and the EU Council, to some of the most interesting museums and visiting centers in Europe, the Parlamentarium and the Bozar Art Museum, I learned and learned. Not only did those interested in pursuing a career in politics, gain a valuable international perspective with which to supplement their studies. But with every place we visited, I learned something new about the greater political and cultural context of my temporary home in Europe. Not only did participating in a Parliamentary role play expand my understanding of the European Union law-making processes, but visiting two of the most engaging modern art museums in Luxembourg gave me a greater grasp of the contemporary culture throughout Europe.

So this is my thank you note to all of the folks at La Pietra Dialogues. Thank you for taking us to every major institution of the European Union, ensuring our comprehensive understanding of the overarching political context of our current home in Florence. Thank you for making time to visit the museums of Brussels and Luxembourg, ensuring our knowledge and appreciation of European modern art. And (a big) thank you for taking us all to such fantastic restaurants. Thank you, LPD, for once again putting students first and giving the EU working group a trip of a lifetime.

A Short Interview with Maaza Mengiste, Ethiopian-American Writer

By Ledwin Martinez, NYU Florence student

To start off the Black Italia Dialogue series, I had the pleasure of interviewing novelist Maaza Mengiste before the event, “Cara Mamma, Sono in Africa”: Camera, Soldiers, Empires, on March 3rd. We discussed briefly about her journey as a writer and about her novel-in-progress, The Shadow King. I was curious to find out the connections between her writing and her relationship with Ethiopia, Maaza’s native country.

“They asked again and again when Ethiopia’s backward slide into the Middles Ages would stop. He had no answers, could do nothing but sit and gaze in helplessness at an empty hand that looked pale and thin in the afternoon sun.”

- Beneath the Lion’s Gaze

I want to say that I admire the work. Simply by reading the first couple of pages of the novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, I was hooked! I could visualize myself in this horrific time. I can only imagine how in depth the upcoming novel will be.

My thanks to Maaza Mengiste for giving me and La Pietra Dialogues the opportunity to have an exclusive interview with you.


Ledwin Martinez: Let me begin with an easy and simple question: When was the last time you came to Italy?

Maaza Mengiste: A year ago. I try to come to Italy at least once a year, if I can.

LM: So how does it feel every time you come back to Italy?

MM: So nice, I love it! I love the country. It is a beautiful country. I like the history… being able to walk somewhere and you are suddenly face to face with history, with something so old that it takes a while to imagine that time. I really like that. It seems like each and every town has its own personality. Florence, for example, is not a little town, but it has something that makes it different from Rome or Venice. I really appreciate those things about the country.

LM: Is there anything in particular that stands out each time you come to Italy?

MM: The people, how friendly they are. I find them to be helpful. I think for me what is also important is the art, the culture that’s here. Also seeing, especially when I go to Venice… I walk around, I see the presence of Black people from centuries ago. It is very evident in some of the cities that Africans were here also. I really like that about Italy. It is so geographically close to Africa that you get some of that culture here.

LM: I totally agree with you. It has only been about a month and every day I go outside I see how people interact with one another. I feel that every time I walk to school or towards the Duomo or anywhere, I am walking into history. It’s fascinating.

MM: Yes it is!

LM: In other interviews, you have expressed how writing about Ethiopia is scary. After all these years and now in the process of publishing your second novel, is it still scary?

MM: I think that in the beginning the scary part of it was, “Oh my gosh! I can’t believe I’m writing a book!” Every day I would sit there in front of that blank page and say to myself “Now what? Where does Dr. Hailu go from here? Where does my character Dawit? What will he do today? What will happen?” And that is a scary feeling when you have to try to imagine all of it and make it fit.

LM: Is it a lot of pressure?

MM: Well there’s a little bit of pressure too. I cannot lie, it doesn’t get easier.

LM: It doesn’t?

MM: No. I thought that when I started the second book,  I said “This is a piece of cake! I did this with the first one!” No. I sit in front of that second book and it is like you forgot everything. And that is because every book is different. It is working on different muscles and separate skills. The second book is scary too. Both those stories for me were really captivating and fascinating. I was interested and curious about that time in Ethiopian history so it just keeps me going.

LM: And that is great! It gives a personal connection to the story and country. So what is your relationship with Ethiopia, since you have been living abroad for so long?

MM: Well, I go back often. I was just back there in December and January. My parents are back there and I still have a lot family there. So many close ties still. I still keep a connection there.

LM: Speaking of connections, is there any relationship between your novel-in-progress and your first novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze?

MM: Yes. Actually that is a great question. Yes, the novel in progress is about the moment in Ethiopian history before the revolution, which was the setting for my first book. So in the second book I go back in time, but the first book had Haile Selassie as an 80 year old man. The second book, since I am going back in time, he is now 30 years old. So you will see a younger version, and it also gives a sense of what was happening to the country to get to the 1974 revolution. Maybe I should have done it the other way around, but this was the way it happened.

LM: No, I think it was good, because now you answer questions that perhaps many people were trying to find the answer to. It is a powerful way of telling a story, by just going back in time further.

Now, another question your readers are dying to find out is: When will your novel, The Shadow King, be ready and published?

MM: I am not sure yet. It depends on my editor and what she says. Maybe next year, or the year after. It depends on the pace of publishing. But the book is well in progress, so I am excited about that.

LM: So am I, so are we! Hopefully sooner than we think! So as we reach the end of this interview I have one last question: As a professional writer, a professor and an inspirationalist, do you have anything to say to those students who are looking to find a career as a writer?

MM: If you want a career as a writer, you also have to think about a career as a reader. You really have to read… everything that you can… even books you think you may not like, you should pick up and read; writing just doesn’t happen without a good background in reading, and that is one of the best practices. In addition to the reading, being a writer means that you write. You try to write everyday, even if it’s one sentence, even if it’s a note in a notebook that you carry around. If it’s a paragraph that’s great. Maybe those sentences will build into a paragraph and that will build into a story. But write everyday. It is the same advice I was given when I was starting out. Write and read.

LM: That was great advice! Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me.

Documentary on Phillip Toledano

By Yasmin C. Camp, NYU Florence student

Phillip Toledano once said “Photographs should be like unfinished sentences. There should be space for questions.”Toledano was born in 1968 in London to a French-Moroccan mother and an American father and received his first camera at the age of eleven. Toledano’s works are primarily socio-political and vary in medium from photography and installation to sculpture and painting. He is best known for his surrealist portraits full of metal appendages and repetitive figures. His work appears in Vanity Fair, The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, GQ, The Sunday Times Magazine and others.


Toledano has a bachelors degree in English literature and has published several books. His first book, Bankrupt, was published in 2005, and his second book, Phonesex, was published in 2008. His most recent book, A New Kind of Beauty, was published in 2011, and showcases portraits of people who have recreated themselves through plastic surgery. Days with my Father was recently exhibited at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2009. Click on this link to view his work called Days with my Father http://www.dayswithmyfather.com/ . This is one powerful photo gallery he has exhibited to the public. Viewing his photos in Days with my father actually touched me because I am really close with my father and would hate to lose him anytime soon. I’m sure that it has touched many other viewers.

His installation project America, The Gift Shop was shown at the center for photography at Woodstock in 2010. This project reflects on the foreign policy of Bush/Cheney years through the funhouse mirror of American Commerce.

This is a picture of an inflatable Guantanamo Bay bouncy prison cell from his project called “America The Gift Shop”. From this project he concluded that “once the sugar coating of the ordinary dissolves, we are left with the grim truth about where America has been as a nation.” Students interested in photography should take the time to view Toledano’s work. His pieces are described to be “slightly odd and wonderful” by critiques  which makes his pieces interesting to view to the audience viewing his work.

This Week in Immigration

By Stephanie Samedi, NYU Florence student

The exodus of immigrants traveling across the Mediterranean in the hopes of making it to Europe continues, as more tragedies and arrests were made this week off the coast of Italy. With the discontinuation of the Italian government's rescue operation Mare Nostrum and the ever-increasing influx of immigrants, the rescue missions are becoming riskier for the thousands of people arriving in Sicily every year

        On Wednesday March 4 the Italian coast guard, part of the EU rescue initiative Triton, rescued hundreds of these migrants about 80 kilometers off the Libyan coast. Ten people were found dead when their rubber dinghy capsized in the strait of Sicily. This tragedy comes after the Italian coast guard, Tunisian navy, and some merchant ships, conducted seven different rescue operations (for a separate incident) on Tuesday March 3 saving about 1,000 migrants. According to authorities, these migrants came from Tunisia, Libya, the Palestinian territories, and Syria. These migrants are now being held in refugee camps in Italy.

Media commentary about these episodes is currently focused on the smugglers promising voyages to Europe for up to 2,000 Euros. “Very recently, they (the migrants) have in fact said that in Libya traffickers asked them to jump on the boat although they saw that the weather conditions were really terrible and, therefore, they also thought that this would have caused problems in their journey towards Italy,” said Carlotta Bellini (Euronews.com), “but the traffickers actually were armed and threatened them to jump on the boat.” Italian police have arrested a 20 year old Senegalese man in connection with the latest tragedy that killed 10 people. According to a police report, he admitted to being hired in Libya to sail a dinghy to Italy. He is currently being held in prison on charges of trafficking illegal immigrants.

        This stark increase in immigration has caused not only Italians, but other members of the European Union, to demand action in the form of strategies and policies to handle the illegal immigration crisis. Frans Timmermans, the European commissioner for Fundamental Rights announced on Wednesday March 4 through his twitter page, that a full EU migration strategy would be communicated by May.

Phillip Toledano: When I Was Six

Phillip Toledano is a British photographer who will join us for a dialogue, 'Manipulating Reality: A Disconcerting Stroll through the Mind of Mr. Toledano,' tomorrow. His most recent book, When I Was Six, focuses on the loss of his sister when she was nine and he was six. Here, the British Journal of Photography interviewed him about his exhibit:

For more information about Mr. Toledano's other works check out his website and, if you want to read more about When I Was Six, check out this TIME article.

Join us for another Dialogue in LPD's Documentary Photography: Through the Lens series with Phillip Toledano tomorrow, March 25 at 6 pm in Villa Sassetti. Following the dialogue will be a photography workshop, 'Getting Personal with Personal Work: Developing a Body of Work out of Your Own Experience,' for students on March 26 and 27 from 10am-5pm. RSVP at lapietra.dialogues@nyu.edu or call 055 5007 202 for more information.

The Limits of Satire

By Raj Sanghvi, NYU Florence Student

Satire has been, for hundreds of years, used by the most astute and the most critical of writers, entertainers and artists to shed light on issues that traditional media has failed to accurately describe and contextualize. The impact of satire on contemporary society was recently emphasized with the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. The events raise important questions: what is satire’s role in society today, how has it changed, and how will it continue to change?

One of the most famous works of satire is Voltaire’s Candide, a sweeping and quick-witted attack on the philosophical concept of optimism through critiques of government and religion. For obvious reasons, it was banned by political leaders and the Catholic Church, but still managed to be a best-seller. The incongruity is clear: people loved it because it took their side against institutions that were riddled with flaws and the government hated it because it, ever so subtly, brought those flaws into light and validated popular sentiments. Fast forward to the United States’ customs office in Boston, 1929, where officials refused to deliver copies to Harvard University because it was “a filthy book.” But Candide continues to be taught in schools across the world, not only because of its value as literature but also because the object of its satire - power - is still relevant today.

A lesser known work of satire is Molla Nasraddin, an Azerbaijani periodical that was read across the Muslim world in the early 1900s. Again, the publication caused widespread outrage because it implicitly attacked religious hypocrisy and corruption, and also supported educational reforms and women’s rights. Reasons for supporting these objectives may be clear to us, but the aims of Molla Nasraddin are still being called into question: ‘Slavs & Tatars,’ an art collective in Abu Dhabi, disagrees with a lot of what is said in the magazine, explaining that it was a “product of its time” - a time whose guiding principles no longer apply in modern society in the same manner they did 100 years ago.

On January 7th, the offices of French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo were attacked by Islamic extremists as a response to the magazine’s representations of the prophet Muhammad. The event highlights the immense, and sometimes dangerous, potential for satire to provoke the people and groups who are its object, bringing into stark light underlying conflicts and tensions within society.

This recent tragedy raises questions about the limits of satire in modern society. Do limits to free speech exist? Should they exist to maintain peace and curb deliberate bigotry? And if society decides to create limits, what is the trade-off? Our freedom of expression? The right - the necessity, even - to hold those who could otherwise slip under the radar accountable? It’s an ongoing debate that doesn't have a clear answer. But Teju Cole, in “Unmournable Bodies,” his piece in The New Yorker regarding the events in France, frames it well: “It is possible to defend the right to obscene and racist speech without promoting or sponsoring the content of that speech. It is possible to approve of sacrilege without endorsing racism. And it is possible to consider Islamophobia immoral without wishing it illegal. Moments of grief neither rob us of our complexity nor absolve us of the responsibility of making distinctions.”

Michal Onderco to Share Expertise on Iranian Nuclear Crisis

By Stephanie Samedi, NYU Florence student

Michal Onderco is a Max Weber Fellow at the European University Institute. His dialogue on March 24, "What Can We Learn from the Iranian Nuclear Crisis," will highlight some of the issues surrounding the Iranian nuclear crisis and the various responses of different countries. He provides a detailed analysis of Iran’s nuclear programs in relation to today’s international issues. Onderco’s research is especially interesting because it emphasizes the importance of analyzing the global responses to such crises.

Onderco has a PhD in Political Science from the Vrije University in Amsterdam as well as an LLM in the Law and Politics of International Security from the same university. He attended the Paris Institute of Political Studies and Columbia University. He is a quantitative political scientist who uses statistical tests, surveys, and other research methods in order to analyze common political assumptions. Through his methods, he comes up with a hypothesis, tests it, and runs an analysis on the result.

Onderco’s research aims to provide some explanation as to why certain nations choose either a confrontational or accommodating approach when it comes to policies addressing Iran. According to his findings, Iran has been a threat to select democracies since the end of the Cold War in undermining international peace through violations of the Nonproliferation Treaty [NPT), its support of Hezbollah and Hamas, numerous human rights violations, and the rigged presidential elections of 2009. Onderco shows that although many democratic states agree that Iran poses a substantial threat, the methods and solutions that are proposed to face this threat vary among nations.  In the United States, for example, policy makers take a ‘confrontational approach’, through which the intent is to isolate Iran as a sort of intimidation tactic. The European Union, on the other hand, takes more of an ‘accommodation approach’ which is based on the idea that the more secure countries feel, the more likely it is that they will not deem it necessary to invest in weapons of mass destruction. He argues that the US and the EU are different when it comes to policy towards Iran, saying that it is because of domestic issues such as how these countries deal with deviance, specifically through their respective criminal justice systems.

Onderco’s research is extremely relevant, especially during a time in which Iran’s role in the ISIS-driven instability is being questioned. It helps in understanding the negotiations with Iran and the nuclear program, putting into perspective both the role the United States and the European Union within these negotiations.

This Week In Immigration

By: NYU Florence students Yasmyn Camp, Stephanie Samedi, and Claudia Cereceda

Each week, we will be posting a write-up on the most recent events regarding the immigration crisis that Italy is facing. With an influx of refugees arriving from the Middle East and Africa, our goal is to raise awareness about this important issue.

On February 28, there was an anti-immigration rally in Rome. Supporters of Italy’s right-wing Northern League protested against immigration and the European Union. The leader of this league, Matteo Salvini, accused Prime Minister Matteo Renzi of substituting the country’s interests with  those of the EU. Salvini described Italy’s government immigration policies as “a disaster.” Salvini also accused the government of selling out to the EU. His main goal is to stabilize the economy, which according to Salvini is being prevented by politicians in Brussels.

Tensions are running high in Italy. It is being predicted that Salvini could emulate other right wing European leaders by capitalizing on growing resentment against immigration. Citizens in Italy are trying to cope with the large numbers of migrants crossing the Mediterranean on boats from Libya and Syria to the Italian island of Lampedusa.  Many Italians point to a lack of jobs and resources as reason for imposing harsher regulations on immigration. These protests reinforce some of the anti-immigration sentiments present in Italy.

An increase in tragedies involving refugees crossing the Mediterranean has created a need for immediate action. This past week alone, there  were 1000 refugees rescued from the waters north of Libya. Three cargo ships and several Italian Navy and Coast Guard ships participated in seven different rescue missions after receiving SOS calls. According to The Guardian, there were immigrants who “had been aboard five motorized dinghies and two larger vessels. One of the larger boats capsized and 10 people were later found dead.” These deaths emphasize the limited scope and resources of the EU rescue operation, Triton, which replaced Italy’s operation Mare Nostrum. Italy ended the rescue operation last November due to the high cost (9 million Euros a month) it was sustaining without help from other member states.

Phillip Toledano: Photography's Big Idea Man

Toledano Superwoman photo

A new superwoman for a feature about women’s power in the 21st century, More magazine, Sept. 2012. © Phillip Toledano

Phillip Toledano, the "go-to-guy" for conceptual editorial photography, according to American Photo Magazine, will be joining us next week for the Dialogue 'Manipulating Reality: A Disconcerting Stroll through the Mind of Mr. Toledano' part of LPD's Documentary Photography: Through the Lens series curated by NYU Florence photography professor Alessandra Capodacqua.

Around 2008, I was taking care of my father and also taking his picture–photographs that later turned into a book, Days With My Father (Chronicle, 2010). Mortality was on my mind. During this time an English magazine sent me to take a photograph of a guy who had had a lot of cosmetic work done. When I saw him I was struck by how he looked, and all these thoughts about mortality and death suddenly coalesced around the portrait. This man had gone through the reverse of my experience: Instead of coming to terms with mortality, he was pushing it away. That became the trigger for a second book, A New Kind of Beauty (Dewi Lewis, 2011). That’s the great joy of shooting for magazines: It opens windows to vistas you may not have considered in your artistic vision before. Read full article here.

A selection of Toledano's book are available in the LPD student space. NYU Florence students are welcome to come by and take a look.

Join us for a Dialogue with Phillip Toledano on March 25 at 6pm in Villa Sassetti. The Dialogue will be followed by a photography workshop 'Getting Personal with Personal Work: Developing a Body of Work out of Your Own Experience' for students w/Mr. Toledano on March 26-27 from 10am-5pm. Rsvp at lapietra.dialogues@nyu.edu or call 055 5007 202 for more information.

EU in Focus Series: Into the European Union

By Ledwin Martinez, NYU Florence student

As we reach the end of the La Pietra Dialogues “EU in Focus” series, NYU Florence students will take a trip to Brussels and Luxembourg to complete the goal of the series which was to understand the importance of the European Union. Throughout the series, students have met with several speakers, including NYU professors Niccolò Conti and Davide Lombardo, as well as European Union Institute professor Cristina Fasone and President Joseph Weiler, who have a strong understanding of the EU’s political structure. They discussed the different aspects of the EU government, such as the EU’s parliamentary system, the Judicial system and the history of the EU. They also analyzed its importance at the international level by discussing its relationship with the United States and other EU member states. Students attended working group meetings where they focused on two main issues in the EU: immigration and data protection policies. The issue on immigration has been a topic debated for the past couple of decades, especially in Italy because it has one of the largest immigrant populations in the EU., while the issue on data protection is a modern issue regarding the 21st century-use of the internet. Students carefully outlined key concepts and information on the EU and its current status on these two issues.  The students presented their findings and engaged in different discussions on the Union and EU member states.

Through our discussions with these scholars, NYU has prepared the trip to Brussels and Luxembourg, March 14 - 18, where students will visit EU institutions, and get a informative understanding on the EU and the Parliamentary system. Students will attend exclusive meetings with officials and tours of the European Council, European Parliament, European Commission and the U.S. mission to the EU. In addition, students will be given the opportunity to role play, where they will act as parliamentary members making decisions on the immigration policies and personal privacy. This will be a fun way to begin the immersion into the EU.

As a reminder for those students attending the trip, we will be meeting at 5 a.m. at the Florence Airport (Peretola) on Saturday March 14. Meet in front of the tourist information desk located on the ground floor of the airport.

The LPD Team reminds you to:
-Bring your passports - they are required to enter the institutions on Monday & Tuesday
-To avoid unnecessary delays, do not check in any luggage.
-The weather in Brussels will be in the high 50s. Same applies to Luxembourg.
-Pack adequate clothing, both for cold and possibly wet weather as well as clothing appropriate for visiting important political institutions and government representatives (i.e. "business casual," particularly on Monday and Tuesday).
- Please let the LPD team know if you decide not to return to Florence with the group on Wednesday, March 18 by sending an email to lapietra.dialogues@nyu.edu.
- Should you wish to continue with your personal spring break travels after Luxembourg, NYU recommends registering your travel itinerary online at NYU Traveler.