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

As the lights in the Sala da Ballo dim and a mellow drumbeat fills the background, Ubah Cristina Ali Farah’s face seems to glow. As she performs her monologue, Rap di Punt, her song-like Italian enchants the room and tells the short story of a young girl who is spending time with boys from the Flaminio Mafia, a group of boys with immigrant mothers from Africa. The performance ends with a series of pictures taken in Mogadishu, showing signs with Italian words and Fiats or Alfa Romeos parked in the streets.

Ubah Cristina is Somali-Italian. She was born in Verona to an Italian mother and a Somalian father, but lived in Mogadishu until the outbreak of the civil war when she was forced to flee at age eighteen. Her identity as a writer is the topic of the fourth dialogue in the Black Italia series, which aims to stimulate discussion on the assimilation of black people into Italian culture. In the words of Alessandra Di Maio, curator of the series, “[Ubah] has interesting things to say that no one else can say in the same way.” Although she writes fiction and poetry, she incorporates her unique perspective from both Africa and Europe into her work. The story of Rap di Punt combines street life in modern Rome with the fable of Gedi Babow, the Somalian giant who discovered incense. The images of Italian street signs at the end of the performance was also a reminder of the historical ties between Ubah’s two countries. Somalia was a colony and territory of Italy until the 1960s. Although Somalia is now an independent country, pieces of Italy have never left the horn of Africa. While living in Mogadishu, Ubah attended Italian school and her mother never had to learn to speak Somalian.

Ubah is currently on a book tour for her most recent novel, Il Comandante del fiume (The River Captain). She gives performances and attends book festivals all over Italy. In every city, she is asked why she chose to write in a language that is not her own. She is told that she is a great poet, but her Italian needs improvement. Giovanna Bellesia, one of Ubah’s literary translators, explains that “no matter how beautifully [Ubah] speaks Italian, people look at her and she cannot be a native speaker.” They see her mass of tightly coiled black curls, oval face, sharp cheekbones and her deep-set dark eyes. They cannot hear her flawless and sophisticated Italian that flows like music. They refuse to believe that Italian was her first language, her true mother tongue. Ubah embraces both halves of her identity, but most Italians do not see two pieces. A black woman cannot be Italian.

The struggle of acceptance that black Italians face has been a recurring theme throughout the series of Black Italia dialogues. The conversation will continue in hopes of encouraging Italy to embrace all of its children, regardless of color.

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