Amanda Ufheil-Somers has ably described how refugee flows from the uprisings in North Africa to the Italian island of Lampedusa have pushed the strained infrastructure and the residents’ hospitality to the breaking point. The islanders aren’t the only ones at wit’s end: In protest, refugees burned the holding facilities in September 2011 and again just the other day.

An illustrative but under-publicized case dates back to 2007, when several Tunisian fishermen were arrested as they landed in Lampedusa. Their two boats had picked up a foundering raft in stormy seas around the island and proceeded to the port to unload their rescued human cargo of 44, one seriously ill. Instead of being praised for preventing loss of life, the captains and their crews were charged with immigrant trafficking. They were held in prison for almost a year and their boats were stripped of recyclable materials and then dumped in the island’s ship graveyard. They could have been sentenced to 14 years for their humanitarian efforts.

Possibly several thousand people have been lost at sea trying to make it to Lampedusa, which they understand, not without some justification, to be a gateway into Europe. There is an interesting blog called Fortress Europe that seeks to keep alive the memory of those lost at sea. The sons of Tunisian mothers, boys who set out from Sfax never to be heard from again, are, the posters argue, our sons as well. They are the victims of state attempts to block the free flow of people around the globe. The blog keeps track of all of those who died moving clandestinely in the Mediterranean region. The death count since 1988 stands at over 18,000, according to the journalist and Fortress Europe blogger, Gabriele Del Grande.

That’s one image of Lampedusa.

Another related way of imagining Lampedusa is as a performance space in the media circus of the global North. Claudia Gazzini put it well in 2009 when she wrote, “Images of African corpses floating off the Italian coasts, footage of pregnant woman crammed into wooden vessels and news of uprisings at the ‘reception centers’…attract overwhelming media attention and thus influence public perceptions.” All manner of media performers have crowded onto this Lampedusan stage. A couple of years ago the Pope grabbed headlines by preaching for tolerance toward refugees. He was understood by most to be referring to the growing intolerance of Lampedusans. Ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi held a press conference to announce that he had bought a house on the island at the height of the refugee crisis in March 2011. He meant his real estate purchase to be a sign of his intent to “clean up” the island. Angelina Jolie, on the one hand, and Marine Le Pen, on the other, have both visited Lampedusa during the last year to represent, before the mikes and under the floodlights, their respective takes on the tolerance issue.

That’s another image of Lampedusa.

But perhaps the original image of the island in the minds of middle-class Italians is as a paradise of sun and fun, a quaint fishing outpost where the slow-moving locals speak with a thick accent while they repair their nets and drink sweet wine. It’s the kind of place where celebrities host lavish parties in their getaway villas. The Italian movie Respiro (2002) captures this view of the island. The plot involves a beautiful but mad fisherman’s wife who challenges the provincial moral codes of this dreamy refuge. Whether cinematically or “touristically,” the place operates as an August retreat from the hustle and bustle of post-industrial life as lived in Milan or Turin. Dozens of flights connect the cities of the mainland with the postage stamp-sized island of 70-plus hotels, guesthouses and B&Bs scattered about the cliffs and harbors. During the late summer high season the passengers arrive by the jetload. At least that was the way it worked until the publicity around the influx of refugees caused the majority of tourists to cancel their reservations. There was no high season on the island in 2011.

These three facets of Lampedusa have been combined and satirized by one of the quirkiest and most talented music groups in Italy. The Milanese band Elio e le Storie Tese are self-avowed acolytes of Frank Zappa, plunging into various pop music genres to mine (and mime) them mercilessly but affectionately. They spend much of their energy recapturing the self-indulgence of adolescence, as in this song where they perform a pitch-perfect rendition of the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” only with replacement lyrics about Lampedusa’s refugees. (Since Brian Wilson stole the melody from Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Sixteen,” it seems only fitting that Elio e le Storie Tese would again appropriate the melody for their own purposes.)

The mindless hedonism evoked by American surf music is satirically undercut by references to the choked waters and hunger of the refugees. “Force 6” is on a 1-10 scale of stormy seas and thus refers to the dangers faced by refugees on the open water. “Baglioni’s pad” is a reference to a big villa on the island owned by a famous Italian singer who presumably fled the island as the number of refugees mounted. The “Passerotto non andare via” sample inserted in the song is actually a song (and the voice) of Baglioni’s. The reference to figa in polite society means “pretty girl,” but is most commonly translated as “pussy.” I leave the word as “pretty girl” because I think that more closely captures the idiom the Beach Boys would have used. And of course Berlusconi is included as not only the major clown in the center ring, but the owner of the whole circus. (Lyrics below. Thanks to Chris Leoni for the rhyming translation and Matt Opas for definitional clarifications.)

Veniamo dalla Somalia
E dalla Tunisia
Alcuni anche dalla Libia Che poi è la Jamahiriya

We come from Somalia
And from Tunisia
Some even from Libya, which really is the Jamahiriyya

Abbiamo preso i natanti
Con mare forza 6
Siamo venuti qui in tanti a Lamped USA

We took the watercrafts
In Force 6 seas
We came all along to Lamped USA

I bagni sono intasati
E non si mangia mai
Ma siamo tutti gasati
Di stare qui con voi

The waters are all choked
And we never eat, either
But we’re all stoked to be here with you

Se non c’è posto per tutti
E che problema c’è
Si va a casa di Baglioni
A Lamped USA.

If there’s no room, too bad
What’s the problem
We go to Baglioni’s pad
In Lamped USA

Passerotto non andare via

Passerotto, don’t go away!

Ostacolare il turismo
Non era il nostro intento
Ma il lampedusano medio
Non è molto contento

Stopping the tourism’s edge
Was not our intent
But the native Lampedusan on average
Isn’t very content

Adesso arrivano le navi
Forse anche gli aerèi
Dopo arriva Berlusconi
E tutto torna Okèy

Now the boats are on the sea
Maybe planes as well
Next will come Berlusconi
And all again will be swell

Farà tornare il turismo
Le tartarughe e i fior
Ritornerà l’ottimismo
Che porta il buonumor

He’ll make tourism return
Sea turtles and flowers, too
Optimism will come back
Bringing good cheer for me and you

Porterà anche un po’ di figa
Che va sempre bene
E tornerà pure Baglioni
A Lamped USA

He’ll bring some pretty girls
Which is always cool
And even Baglioni will come back
To Lamped USA

Ritornerà pure Baglioni
A Lamped USA
Ritorneran le tartarughe
A Lamped USA
Ritornerà pure la figa

A Lamped USA

Baglioni will come back
The sea turtles’ll come back
All the ladies’ll come back
To Lamped USA

Passerotto non andare via

Passerotto, don’t go away!

How to cite this article:

David McMurray "Lamped USA," Middle East Report Online, April 12, 2012.
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