Reading Reacts: Tragedy in the Mediterranean

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Dr. Federico Faloppa, Assistant Professor of Italian in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading

More than 900 migrants were killed off the coast of Libya late Saturday night and early Sunday morning, 18-19 April. This brings the death toll in the Mediterranean in 2015 to over 1,500 victims. In the wake of this tragedy, we’ve asked Dr Federico Faloppa, Assistant Professor of Italian in the Department of Modern Languages and European Studies at the University of Reading, to share his thoughts. For over twenty years Dr Faloppa has been investigating the representation of migrants in Italian political and media discourse, and the relation between language and power. He has recently coedited the collection Destination Italy: The representation of migration in Italian cinema, media and literature (2015), and continues to lecture on issues of migration throughout Europe. Here are Dr Faloppa’s reflections on this ongoing catastrophe:

Which side are we on?

“It’s not our fault if we were born on the wrong side of the world. You do not have the merit for being born on the right side of the world” (Awas Ahmed, Somali refugee).

cislscuola_immagini-articoli_2012_20496_naufragioYesterday almost 950 people died in the Mediterranean Sea, trying to reach the Italian coast and to migrate to Europe. This is not a tragedy due to misfortune. It is a real massacre: this is only the latest episode of a genocide, one that has gone on for several years in that Sea, and one that we – both Italian and European citizens – knew how to avoid.

This new massacre has provoked a strong reaction throughout Europe, as many people think that this carnage must be stopped, that this is a time actively to start saving lives, instead of passively accepting their death with indifference.

Since 1997 I have taken part in many public debates and discussions, in Italy and throughout Europe, on the linguistic representation of otherness and migrants. My aim has always been to raise awareness on how migrants and ethnic minorities have been portrayed in Italian and other European languages, by the media, within our societies. And as a researcher I have written several publications (among which 4 monographs in 15 years) on this topic. My work has gained national and international esteem, and I have been often invited to public events and talks, radio and TV shows, roundtables and workshops. Four years ago, when I published my monograph Razzisti a parole (“Racists by words”), I toured universities, schools, communities, and for this public engagement I was included in a couple of black-lists by Fascist and Neo-nazi movements. But instead of withdrawing, I keep being more and more engaged, publicly.

Up-to-700-feared-dead-after-migrant-boat-sinks-off-LibyaYesterday, I was asked to join an Italian campaign called “Basta Naufragi” (“No more shipwrecks”), and of course said yes. When I join these kinds of campaigns – and I have done so many times, ever since I was 19, when I co-founded an anti-racist association in my home town Cuneo – I do it as an individual. As a citizen, first of all. And then as student, a scholar, an intellectual. But yesterday, when I said yes, I imagined to join the campaign first as a member of Reading’s Department of Modern Languages and European Studies: “my” department. I did not say yes as an individual. I said yes as a member of an intellectual community: my community.

I had this strong feeling for two main reasons. First, I think that is part of our duty, as teachers and intellectuals, to take a stand: to make our voice heard inside and outside the university on up-to-700-feared-dead-soon-after-migrant-boat-sinks-off-libya_m13matters like this. As teachers we try to pose questions to our students every time we get into a classroom: questions about the world, its representation, and the need to challenge received wisdom. As scholars, we try to have an impact not only on our own “closed” community, but also on our society, to repay what our society invests in us. As a teaching and research unit in Reading’s Department of Modern Languages and European Studies we are – by definition – one of the main cultural bridges between our institution (the University of Reading) and the complex world out there.

We are not just entitled, then, to have an opinion, but we should actively participate in social and political debates. Second, as a member of our distinguished Department of Modern Languages and European Studies, I am fully aware of the fact that this commitment, this role is a core issue for us at Reading. At MLES we teach our students how our European cultures have been always multilingual and multicultural. What the connections between Dante and Islam are. What foreign words we have taken from Asia, Africa, the Americas. What influence our literature(s) have had worldwide (and how the richness of the world has been distilled by our authors across centuries). How postcolonial approaches and studies could be fruitful to better understand the relations between the colonizers and the colonized. What Europe is and should be. Why migration is such a relevant phenomenon in our countries. How identities are shaped within the contexts of naufragio-lampedusa-3-ottobre-anniversario-600x300language and power. What being an intellectual should mean, and why critical thinking can change the representation of the world, if not the world itself. We do all this at MLES, and we are proud of it. For us, the word “overseas” means the countries with which we engage for pedagogical and cultural exchanges: places and persons from which we can learn on an everyday basis. We say to ourselves, and to our students, that Modern Languages are the passport to the world. But we are much more than that: we are one of the (metaphorical) gates to diversity, multiplicity, mutual understanding.

This is why, when I said yes to that campaign, I was not alone: I had an entire community standing behind me, backing me up, sharing my awareness, concern, commitment. And this feeling of giving voice to my Department through that signature meant that our voice will be heard: and it’s a collective voice of students, teachers, researchers, who are still dreaming of a fairer world. I do not know if this can really change something, challenge our leaders’ indifference and cynicism, or save some lives from that bloody Sea. But at least we can proudly say which side are we on. And we will not regret it.