SUNDAY 2 JUNE
The Mediterranean, a day of rest. Storks, swallows and seagulls.
Calm ruffled by small waves of anxiety.
MONDAY 3 JUNE
Today we are at the gates of Istanbul. A bit sad because tomorrow we have to take Santino to the airport. A last melancholic walk on the beach at sunset. It’s been quite a rush up to now, every day a different nation and at least one meeting, interviews, conversations and the odd minor confrontation.
We try to take stock of the situation with Santino. We have seen here in the Balkans forms of political representation that just do not exist in Italy. No Romani leader has ever been given a post of any significance in our country.
But there is something that doesn’t add up. These leaders seem to be a bit old-fashioned. They conduct a political activity with which we are very familiar: that of patronage and the gleaning of votes, playing into someone else’s hand. Old and tired lions, with prominent paunches, self-satis ed and a bit broken-winded.
Compared to them the women activists have a whole different appearance and bearing, other manners, other thoughts, other perspectives.
But Santino won’t go that far. He is a er all a musician. He has been our ambassador on this European stretch of our journey. He’ll never get involved in politics, he says, but he knows many things. He knows how the old Romani families, living in Italy for centuries, have absorbed some of its vices. First of all that of being divided, in their interests and their actions: that focus on the particular rather than the universal which Guicciardini pointed to as a national shortcoming way back in the 16th century. For this reason the suspicion arises that these old Romani fami- lies share with ‘proper Italians’ the blame for not having been able to accommodate the most re- cent wave of immigrants, the ones that entered Italy at the end of the 1990s a er the fall of the Berlin Wall and the wars in Yugoslavia. Who are the Romani of the camps, this dreadful mess of complicity that has ended up becoming the standard image of this people in the eyes of Italians. But he also says that a grand coalition of the historical Italian families may be taking shape. They will have to assume the configuration of the Jewish Community, authoritative, respect- able, impartial. They too can lay claim to compensation from Europe a er the slaughter of the death camps. And they will have to defend once again that non-existent border of theirs.
The Turkish frontier is not hostile. The ingoing traffic is pared to the bone, while the queue of lorries on their way out is interminable.
TUESDAY 4 JUNE
On the outskirts of Istanbul we meet Sinan Karaca, an activist of the Turkish Romani community, in his o ce, where he sells and hires out cars. The neighbourhood is modern, like the whole of Turkey, which has been almost rebuilt from scratch over the last fifteen years. Buildings that are neither beautiful nor ugly, put up in a bit of a hurry, the finishes approximating a shabby sort of decorum.
The Turkish Romani nation is made up of around seven million people. Quite a lot. At first glance, looking at the faces in this part of town, they seem to blend in well with the rest of the population. The language is different, but remains comprehensible to our interpreter, Santino, who takes advantages of the opportunity to check out some variations. Here we are in the last (which means the first) territory where the Rom, as they are known in Italy, call themselves Romani. Afterwards, Sinan explains to us, in Armenia we will meet the Lom and then, even further on, in Iran, the Dom. The D turns like a wheel on its own axis.
On the balconies of the eight- and nine-storey blocks of flats that surround the car park in front of his office a few old women start to appear, along with a child, an old man and a couple of younger ones. Some of them come down and join us in this makeshift little square on the asphalt of the car park. The greeting is new: a tap of head on head, first on the right and then on the left .
Then a clarinet and a drum appear. They start to play and a er a while a small but conspicuous procession starts up. At the first crossroads, two old ladies emerge from the courtyards and begin to dance, with a certain sinuous guile. They are joined by a younger woman dressed as a tiger. Keler, dance. The scene is repeated several times, the characters changing.
The parade ends at the home of our host. We climb the stairs to the sixth oor (it’s be er not to trust the li ). We are greeted by two women, a younger one and another who might be her mother. Obviously there is a large room, tables at the sides and many sofas, two so carpets in the middle. The dancing continues. My eyes seek religious symbols, but find none.
We drop Santino o in the early afternoon, in front of Istanbul’s new airport, after getting lost several times among the goats and the geese, Google Maps and GPS gone haywire.
WEDNESDAY 5 JUNE
We start the journey to Georgia. Turkey in this season of the year is very green. New towns and roads, we drive fast along four-lane highways. We pass Ankara on the ring road, skirting the capital for thirty or so kilometres. Ankara is a hilly expanse of residential towers, stretching as far as the eye can see.
In just over half a day we arrive at Göreme, in Cappadocia, for a technical stop.
Today there are many Chinese holidaymakers, just like in Venice. They are travelling in the opposite direction to us, from east to west. They arrive by plane, in Ankara I suppose, and then by coach. The carpet bazaar is the spot for Instagram photos of the new Asian princesses. Orientalism or Occidentalism? Something in between? I realize that the route we are following is the wrong one.
I’ve always thought that the contemporary has something to do with the untimely, as if in a parallel flow that runs alongside reality. A sideways glance where past and future, forwards and backwards, do not meet at an ideal point, but always somewhere out there. You have to keep your head turned 90° to the right or the left . They are things that go past without a vanishing point.
THURSDAY 6 JUNE
Today the landscape has changed again. We enter the vast plateaus of Eastern Anatolia. The cities and towns relapse into villages. The air grows thinner and the crops scantier and less productive. Rock predominates, outcrops of white limestone, with lichens, weeds and flowers.
Sheep and beekeepers. The crew stops on a pass at 1,900 metres. If there are flowers, there are bees and beekeepers. Elvio tries to record the sound made by the swarms. It comes out well, too well. The bees get mad with the noise and the crew flees. They get away with just a couple of stings.
The evening is cool; we are at an altitude of 1,500 metres. The search for a camping place leads us, after several unsuccessful attempts, to a waterfall, thanks to Maps.me consulted by Giovanni, Luca’s assistant. It will turn out to be a pleasant spot. We end up in the first of the many Gardens of Eden that dot the festive imagery of Asia Minor. Will we be darting from one paradise to another from here on?
In this place, at this hour of night, we are le alone, with only the sound of falling water.
FRIDAY 7 JUNE
Another four hundred kilometres of Anatolia. The landscape changes continually. Blood red and green rocks. An almost Sardinian scenery, with fields of barley and oaks, miniature stands of cork oak, fig, mulberry and pomegranate trees. Wounds on the mountainsides with trickles of black. It looks like slate, but is talc, with beautiful greenish-blue crystals. Finally we come to Nemrut Daği, once again red and green and with extraordinarily dense blooms of fuchsia-coloured oleander.
SATURDAY 8 JUNE
Today the presence of the military begins to intensify. Road blocks, armoured cars, watch- towers, fortications on the heights. We keep a safe distance of a hundred, a hundred and fifty kilometres from the Syrian border, in a fairly quiet zone behind the lines. Soldiers stop us a couple of times but, for the moment, their aptitude seems to be more one of curiosity than of suspicion.
The landscape keeps on changing. We descend from a promontory onto a vast and desolate plane, an expanse of scrubland strewn with rocks and dusty fields of barley. The horizon vanishes into a whitish mist. We come across the first Kurdish encampments. Wheels of cow dung piled up like cheeses (fuel for the winter), long wooden huts covered with sheets of blue or white plastic, low stone walls to protect the livestock, a few houses built of brick or concrete. A family on a tractor invites us to lunch, but we still have too far to go, today.
Then we climb up again, gradually rising from what looks like the foothills of the Apennines (but we are at 1,200 metres) to pastures at a height of 2,000. Green and white, patches of snow eaten into by meadows do ed with yellow flowers.
Now we have made camp on the shore of a high-altitude lake. The local excursionists – it’s Saturday – are packing up their fishing rods and picnic rugs. One last group improvises a dance on the asphalt of the car park before going home.
SUNDAY 9 JUNE
We get to the Georgian frontier around 4 pm. The customs procedure between the two states is conducted in a piece of architectural whimsy where even military thinking has had to bow down to other motivations. We have to pass through an airport-like structure that slowly digests us as we move from one world to another – it would be a hundred metres as the crow flies but has been turned into a thousand – working our way through a glass-and-concrete bowel lined with duty-free shops.
The light that meets us as we exit is intense, the features Slavic, sterner and more sunken. An elderly Romani approaches to sell us perfumes. We greet him in the manner of Santino (devla devla cià cià) and he breaks into happy laughter.
We are entering a new realm. Batumi stands on the eastern coast of the Black Sea, on the opposite side to Ukraine.
A long promenade follows the line of a broad pebble beach, running along the edge of a sea that is not black but a Prussian blue with glints of silver.
Very pale bodies go in and out of the water.
The walkway is flanked by a red cycle path, then by the road onto which faces a row of enormous buildings, between twenty and fifty storeys high. Peeling Soviet barracks-like blocks of flats alternate with new Kazakh-style residential buildings in a whirl of eclecticism imagined for wealthy Russians.
Down near the end, someone has constructed a tower that is a gigantic copy of the Bovolo staircase in Venice. A little farther on some workers are putting the finishing touches to a white Parthenon on which the sign Ristorante has already been hoisted.
MONDAY 10 JUNE
The crossing of first Georgia and then Armenia offers us a pleasant interlude in the middle of the vast Islamic continent to which we are about to return, after having le it at the Turkish border. From the scenic point of view as well, this deviation to the north takes us away from the visual severity of the desert and plunges us back into the great damp green of the forests.
Today we have driven up into the Carpathians, camping in an out-of-the-way valley at an altitude of 2,500 metres. Georgia is beautiful and secular. The minarets that have disappeared from the skyline have not been replaced by bell towers and domes. Stalin must have swept the territory clean of any overt religious expression and no one in the part of the plain that we are crossing seems up to now to have shown any interest in rebuilding the places of worship.
We stop for a coffee in front of a small ruined temple belonging to another vanished religion, in the midst of the fields, at the side of a provincial road. A red star is set on the pediment. Inside, now faded profiles in silhouette of Lenin on the left and Stalin on the right gaze at us through the Soviet wreath of ears of wheat.
Ushguli is a long way from that placid plain. We are guests of a family belonging to a mountain people, the Svan. The stone towers of the village are the symbol of Georgian independence. There is here a tenacity of resistance, in a harsh and impassable land that is also hard to reach. And there is a possible commonality between this isolated people, clinging to the rock, and those others who have maintained their own exceptional identity for centuries by always moving on the margins and keeping their distance. Towers and wheels form a single system of insubstantiality. Both symbolize the need to always be on the alert, eyeing each other from afar with suspicion. Have the Romani and Svan ever come into contact?
It would be a question of finding a minority way of thinking.
Minorities share a condition always poised between assimilation and segregation. They are like two opposing motions, one towards the centre, the other towards the periphery. Devoured or expelled, in any case doomed to extinction.
While he was still with us Santino talked about a third way that does not accept marginalization but rejects assimilation. It is a point of balance where Romani culture is given its rightful place in the great book of human civilizations. So the struggle for dignity and recognition is the nub of the question.
Luca Vitone (Italy, 1964), from Romanistan, 2019, translated from Italian by Huw Evans
Romanistan, Humboldt Books,192 p.
(Italiano, English), ISBN 9788899385651
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