"Borders were Made to be Crossed."
Marco Aime, Il Fatto quotidiano, 6 August 2017
He’d already said it in a poem from his collection Solo andata (“One-Way Ticket”): “Dry land in Italy is land locked down,/ We let them drown to drown them out.” And now, during a TV interview on Italy’s La7, he’s said it again. In his usual calm, but firm manner: “I’d help people cross borders, and I incite others to do the same.”
You can accuse Erri De Luca of many things, but not of being incoherent. A loner, he advances ideas on his own, stubbornly, obstinately, often unmasking the hypocrisies that surround us every day. With a courage rare in Italian intellectuals, he doesn’t hesitate to take a stand. He did so in supporting the opposition of the Susa Valley to the Lyon-Torino train, and he does it today in discussing immigrants—during a moment where the Italian Minister of the Interior Marco Minniti has admitted (in an interview with the Fatto quotidiano on August 5) that the border of Europe (not Italy) is in Fezzan, the southwestern region of Libya.
In short, “civilized” Europe has delegated its dirty work to a former colony of fascist Italy that is today divided, in tatters, a permanent war zone after the assaults that resulted in the death of Muammar Gaddafi. Delegating its duties to a country where human rights are violated daily, and where the best a foreigner can expect is to be exploited. That’s how we’re “helping them at home.”
De Luca takes this stand at a time where more than one Italian politician continues to repeat that we should send in the military, shoot at whoever shows up, and sink their boats. In other world, we should arm ourselves and go to sea, following our fascist history. What we should really do is to give a gun to all these advocates of violence and tell them: “Why don’t you go yourself and shoot those people. Take responsibility for killing them and for invading Libya.” Such words may be simply provocative, but if I have to decide, I side with Erri De Luca. His position is motivated by humanity and a sense of solidarity and fraternity; it looks for ways to eliminate both boundary lines and boundaries.
All borders, all boundaries are conceived of by men and are therefore artificial. “Whose concerns are expressed by boundary lines?” inquired Victor Hugo. “The kings’” was his answer. Dividing to rule. If you have a boundary, you need a checkpoint, and if you have a checkpoint, you need a soldier. “No trespassing” is the motto behind every type of privilege, every prohibition, every form of censorship, and every tyranny. From this boundary, checkpoint, and soldier every human calamity is born. “By saying boundary we also say binding, and bond. Cut through the binds, eliminate boundaries, remove the soldier and customs officer; in short, be free: peace will come.”
The boundary line creates the figure of the foreigner—a necessity to support our supposed superiority. They’re useful, they make us feel civilized. As the Greek poet C.P. Cavafy wrote, about the barbarians, “Those people were a kind of solution.” In order to understand who we are, who we believe ourselves to be, we find ourselves reflected in them.
In his Zarathustra, Nietzsche said that “The greatness of man is that he is a bridge, not an end.” Yet drawing a boundary line is easier than building a bridge, and there are always more men ready to erect a wall than to connect opposing shores. Still, bridges are what’s needed, especially if we want to look ahead. The future, ours as well as that of the others, is on the other shore. So how do we get there? With awareness—with awareness and with the responsibility we ought to feel for those who come after us. These are the materials we must use to build that bridge.
Between mountains in the Hindu Kush and in the Nepalese valleys, on several occasions I have been obliged to cross narrow rope bridges far above a river. These flimsy weaves of swaying cord make one fear each step as their tiny strength suspends you between heaven and earth. What a great thing, those small suspended bridges! Monuments to the human will to connect what nature has divided: to not give in, to not be vanquished by the void, to look at what is beyond. As Alexander Langer—the greatly missed Italian journalist and activist—used to say, if we can’t build bridges, let’s become smugglers.
There’s more than one way to think about borders. When Donald Trump claims that “People want to see borders,” he’s thinking about a wall to keep out anyone coming in from Mexico. The Hungarian Orban, the Israeli Netanyahu, and many other leaders today in Europe are also thinking about walls. They think about them and sometimes they manage to make them. Walls transform borders into boundaries. Walls prohibit passage, borders regulate it. Regis Debray writes that, “You compliment a border by saying that it’s a sieve: that’s why it’s there, to filter.” Borders are made to be crossed, and the story of humanity is a history of smuggling.
Marco Aime is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Genova and the author of over forty books, including Le radici nella sabbia. Viaggio in Mali e Burkina Faso (1999, 2013)
Translated by Jim Hicks