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La Pietra Dialogues On the World On-Line
Italian Hearts
Carmen Russo, NYU Florence Student
La Pietra Dialogues
November 28, 2014

“Ciao, grazie.” A long, round “o” and a sharply accented “e” to end the short sentence with a snap. Spoken like any native, these are the first words from Pap Khouma at the A Nation of Migration talk on Monday night. He has lived and worked in Italy since 1984, and has written three books. But even after 30 years, many people are confused and unsure when Pap says that he is an Italian. Pap seems Italian to me - he speaks fluently, articulates his speech with gestures from his long, slender hands, wears a tailored suit, and even had to be reminded to stop talking so the translator could speak for him in English. But as notes of tension and passion rise in his smooth voice, he tells the audience that he knows why there is this confusion. He has been told many times: “Perche sei nero.” Because you are black.

Pap was born in Senegal, on the western coast of Africa. As a young man, he left his home in search of work. He fantasized about the successful, elegant lifestyles he had heard of in Europe. Ready to find success of his own, he left Africa, traveled through France and eventually found himself in Italy. Since Pap was an illegal immigrant, he did not have many options for work. He began to sell merchandise as a street vendor. After months of moving from place to place, running from the police, and going without food, Pap realized that Europe was not the place of his dreams. He worked long, exhausting days and still did not have nice clothes or fancy shoes. He barely had enough money to go back to Senegal.

Pap had hoped that returning home would make him happy, but Senegal was no longer his home. He had left his heart in Italy. Although he would always miss his family, he loved Italy. He wanted to stay and build a life there; a real life, not one that went unrecognized by the police and the rest of the Italian public. Pap finally got the chance to start this life when Italy adopted a new law that would allow immigrants like Pap to have a permesso di soggiorno. He would finally have official permission to stay in the country that he loved.

Although it was now legal for Pap to live in Italy, he was still questioned and mistreated by the authorities, still under constant surveillance and suspicion. He noticed that all the immigrants from Africa had the same experience, and this injustice pushed him to become a writer. His first book, Io, venditore di elefanti (I Was an Elephant Salesman), told his story as an African immigrant in Italy. But he did not stop after telling his own story. He wanted to tell the stories of the children of immigrant parents, who were born and raised in Italy, but told they could not be Italian because of their “black faces and almond eyes.” Italy has always been home to these children, but they are taught to identify with countries they have never been to, the countries of their parents. Pap works to raise awareness of these issues through an online journal and his most recent book, Noi italiani neri (We Black Italians). His writing and work as an activist give a voice to a group of people that are excluded in the country where they have left their hearts and made a home. They will no longer accept the response “Perche sei nero.” Italian is not a color.

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