Published on August 1st, 2013 | by Alessandra Marino0
Igiaba Scego petitions against a contested monument
In early April 2013 the Somali-Italian writer and journalist Igiaba Scego started an online petition addressed to the President of the Lazio region Nicola Zingaretti to request the removal or re-conversion of a mausoleum dedicated to the memory of the fascist commander Rodolfo Graziani. The monument had been built only one year before in Affile, a small town in the Roman province, and its construction was funded with 130 thousand euros by the regional council.
The polemics that arose around this figure highlight that Rodolfo Graziani was one of the cruelest fascist governors. He was responsible for the creation of labour camps and concentration camps in Libya and Ethiopia; during the 1930s, he authorized the use of chemical weapons (Sulfur mustard) banned by the Geneva Convention on the rebelling native populations. His bloody reprisals earned him the names of ‘The Butcher of Fezzan” and “the Butcher of Ethiopia”. Graziani famously ordered the hanging of Omar Mukhtar; this episode reinforced his fame of being ruthless soldier and inspired his portrayal in Anthony Queen’s film The Lion of the Desert (1981). Following a formal appeal of the Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie I, the League of Nations placed Graziani amongst the most dangerous criminals of war.
Scego’s petition highlights the paradox of funding a public shrine dedicated to an enemy of the republic, since the promotion or apology of Fascism is a crime punished by the Italian constitution. Nonetheless, the shrine dedicated to Graziani has engraved on its façade the words: “Fatherland” and “honour”. The meaning of these terms proves to be particularly controversial for ‘second generation’ Italian citizens of African origin. Scego’s fatherland, as the text of the petition suggests, is located in the city of Rome as well as in the heritage of her family history and she specifies that her grandfather was Graziani’s translator. No honour comes to her from this past. While her grandfather was a subaltern subject and had “no choice” – Scego affirms – she can decide to speak up against a monument that appears “a tragic paradox, a stain on our democracy, an insult to our constitution born from the struggle against fascism”. Describing the mausoleum as a “stain” against the “sun of democracy”, Scego invokes the commitment to justice that the constitution of the modern state represents. But also, her inclusive language and her reminder to a common past highlight that former colonial subjects are Italian citizens and can claim that justice. The issue of integration, recognition and citizenship of second-generation migrants (often from North Africa) in Italy is still a contested one, since citizenship law and mainstream discourses anchor the identification of nationality in the law of blood. While Italy has witnessed the resurgence of racist conduct, exemplified by the racist and violent remarks publically addressed against the current minister of immigration Cécile Kyenge, the resurgence of fascist myths proves to be particularly worrying.
Despite a public outcry followed the construction of the monument (as Gian Antonio Stella’s article in a prominent Italian newspaper shows, last November the mausoleum was officially inaugurated by the city Mayor. Graziani was then celebrated “as a citizen of Affile, worthy of being re-habilitated by historical chronicles” (a video is here). Since then, other petitions on the subject circulated online, but Igiaba Scego’s petition managed to gather considerable support and in only a few days, reaching the target of 13000 signatures. At the same time, European MPs Cécile Kyenge, Manuela Ghizzoni and Paolo Beni also took position against the mausoleum in the Parliament. Cécile Kyenge wrote an indignant comment against the monument that features under the main text of the petition. Not long afterwards, Nicola Zingaretti, addressee of the petition, declared that all the funds allocated to the public work were to be blocked.
This act of petition led to a collective mobilization both online and institutional and succeeded. In the ‘thank you’ message to the people who signed the petition Scego wrote: “I could not bear this offence to my region, my country and to the constitution of the Republic. One day I started a petition on Change.org and immediately the struggle of a handful of people became the struggle of a whole country. Now, I hope that this victory can trigger something positive and beautiful in the country”. Despite a widespread skepticism against the effectiveness of online petitions as forms of civic resistance, Scego believes that this ancient form of appeal can initiate and inspire further change. She suggests that the new arising sensibility towards Italy’s colonial past may be the base for asking that the history of colonialism is formally part of the school curriculum.
Highlighting the need for revising the system of education in a country that suffers from a complete colonial amnesia and that, at the same time, is increasingly multicultural, Scego implicitly interrogates the mainstream white and bourgeois conception of who is an Italian citizen today. Her victory with the petition raises the question of whose idea of the ‘fatherland’ deserves to be honoured and to which imagined community the diverse people living in the Mediterranean country feel they belong. Surprisingly, in the defense of fascism that the reaction to the monument triggered, race emerges as an active element characterizing the contemporary national imaginary.