Romani camplife- Dispatch from the citizens of nowhere

Campo Casilino 900 overview
Campo Casilino 900 overview. Photo by Karoline Hjorth

Casilino 900 is not mentioned on any must- see lists in glossy Italian travel guides but is competing for the glare of the international media with the most spectacular of Rome’s tourist attractions. Tucked away on the outskirts of the ‘city of love’, hundreds of families from the largest and most marginalised ethnic minority in Europe share their land with rats and mountains of garbage.

Campo Casilino 900 has no waste collecting points or electricity, no running water except outdoor taps and no sanitation except overflowed Portaloos where flies are commuting between the chemical toilets and food prepared on makeshift stoves outdoors.

But you cannot send letters of complaint or pity to this address because it has no street sign or mailboxes. Most of the residents of the oldest Romani camp in the capital of Italy have come from Rumania, Kosovo, Bosnia, Macedonia or other regions of former Yugoslavia. Some moved in yesterday while others have been here for decades.

“Roma people have been living in Italy for seven centuries and many of us are born native Italians but the Italian government have collectively considered us as nomads who must live in segregated camps”, says writer and former refugee Najo Adzovic.

Najo came to Italy as a ”deserter and a traitor” in 1990 at the beginning of the Yugoslav civil war.

The invisible people

Sub- officer Adzovic had received a mission by the Serbian army to shoot 15 young Muslims but rejected the execution and fled to Italy and the way of life he knew from his father and his ancestors.

Almost two decades later his life in the slum has become pages in his book The Invisible People and he still lives in Casilino 900 with his wife and five children.

Najo has embraced the honour and duties as the Roma community’s informal leader and explains with great pathos how the invisible people of Casilino 900 are a vibrant mix of children, teenagers and families who most of all wish to be treated like normal Italian citizens are treated.

“Most of the people living here are refugees from the conflicts in the Balkans and what we need are jobs, housing and status. We are fighting for our children to engage in society”, he says as his 14-year-old daughter Marta walks by.

Being asked what she would like to say if everyone were listening, she looks at her father and at the sea of mud outside her family’s makeshift home.

“I am a Rom. I want to leave this place to become a reporter and explore my world”, she says.

Nostalgic grand mothers and grand fathers dream of a return to better times while Najo and his men juggle between small- scale business ideas and frequent struggles with the local authorities.

The camp is under strict control, visitors are regulated and the police are drawing a fine line between social intervention and ghettoisation.

Roma politics and Balkan beats

Whenever Najo gets the opportunity, he puts on his finest suit and enters Parliament to take part in the innumerous debates on the development of Roma politics.

Balkan beats are booming out of the speakers in the car on the way back from yet another dead end debate with local politicians. Najo shouts out the words he did not get the chance to contribute with half an hour earlier:

“They have confined us to the margins of our host cities and they are segregating us from the non-Roma neighbourhoods. Roma everywhere in Europe are becoming one of the major elements of urban conflict and we need a voice.”

With the recent expansion of the European Union Italy is now experiencing an upsurge of Roma integration, with an estimated Roma population of 140,000 to 170,000 according to the Italian Ministry of Interior.

Around half of these are Italian citizens while the rest are stateless or citizens of other, primarily eastern European countries.

The exodus of Romas and other immigrants since the expansion of EU has caused severe headache for Berlusconi’s coalition with Forza Italia, the anti-immigrant Northern League and the “post-Fascist” Alleanza Nazionale.

Berlusconi’s Romani crackdown

After winning the election last spring with a promised crackdown on crime and illegal immigration, Berlusconi’s team introduced a range of controversial legislative measures that fed the international papers with headlines for months.

One particular method targeted towards “irregular immigrants” caused an international political storm by requiring all Roma to be fingerprinted and identified by their ethnicity- a move that was unprecedented in post-war Europe.

Due to the international outrage they have now modified the plans so that all Italian citizens will be fingerprinted by 2010 and illegal immigration will become a crime that could lead to up to four years of prison.

According to Amnesty International, EU citizens may also be expelled if they cannot prove their “economic resources” for longer than three months.

Thousands of Roma cannot prove their length of stay in Italy without a residency permit with a recognized address end up as prime target for these measures against “irregular immigrants”.

If Berlusconi’s team gets its way, the 800 inhabitants of Casilino 900 will therefore be forced to leave their makeshift dwellings made up of old wooden doors, corrugated iron, plastic and fabric.

The ‘gypsie issue’

Faced with extensive poverty, travel restrictions and social exclusion, combined with a lack of legal protection, employment prospects or the right to participate in political process, stateless Roma are left to their decaying caravans without wheels or anywhere to go.

“Poor Romas are moochers, rich Romas are criminals; professional or intellectual Romas- well they just can’t be happy-go-lucky-Gypsies.”

”The Gypsie Issue” is conventionally formulated either as a mere social problem or as a historically romantic and mythical figure. It is easy to get blinded by ethnicity when walking through the Roma camp but Casilino 900 is not filled with exotic dancers or violin players.

They are all at work in central Rome begging at the restaurant tables of romantic pasta- loving tourists since all other avenues for gainful employment seem to be legally eliminated or denied.

Roma history of cultural blending and adaptability

But the Roma people have a long history of cultural blending and adaptability. Europe’s international orphans persistently cling on to the margins of society, and Casilino 900’s teenagers are not content with their allocated margins.

Marta Adzovic practices her journalist future and asks her friends what they would to tell anyone who would care to listen. Sonia wants a cleaner camp and a Jacuzzi, while Bechan says he is waiting for the day when Roma get the chance to work again.

Zair wishes politics did not exist and Sabrina just wants some peace and quiet. Delwis wonders how his world would look without borders.

Growing up outside of society, yet being surrounded by it and connected to it, Najo attempts to conclude on Romani life’s never- ending transitional state:

“There have been so many attempts to deny us our identity, to isolate us, to remove us, even to exterminate us. But none of it has worked.”

“The only solution then”, Najo proposes, “is to compromise, Roma and non- Roma need to learn how to exist and live in the same world.”

(Originally written for print outlet)

Charleston and Red Bull- It’s a Christmas party!

Ass grabbing, photocopying genitals, lampshade on heads, gravy- covered beer guts, flashing ties and illuminated reindeer earrings- those are well- known signs of Christmas as thousands of offices around the country get their Christmas parties into full swing.

I got invited to Red Bull’s staff Christmas bash in Shoreditch this weekend- only to find those treasured Christmas rituals to be out of fashion.

Slick doorman welcomes slick guest
Slick doorman welcomes slick guest. Photograph: Karoline Hjorth

Hidden in the epicentre of East London’s Hipstertown, Village Underground is far from paper- clothed buffets and Christmas carol karaoke bliss.

Popping out from their ping pong- tabled meeting rooms and playground built office spaces, staff from all over the country have come to celebrate another hard working year for the pushers of nonalcoholic caffeinated liquid.

Catwalk- strutting waiters welcome the 300 guests with their brightest colgate smiles, trays of finger food and cocktails that “give you wings“.

“Mince pie? Sorry darling, but have a canapé and get yourself a champbull“.

Hundreds of twenty- and thirty-somethings get their smiles fixed with Champagne and Red Bull cocktails as they enter the 1920s- style dancehall, designed to escape a gloomy economic horizon.

Drink up and dance

Just like any other Christmas party the inhouse entertainment have a clear party boosting strategy:

“We’ll give those dancing shoes a few rounds in the open bar…”

Just as the mind wanders off to images of  MDs revealing their inner moonwalk passion, Leila MacMillan’s dance ensemble pull us back to Red Bull reality:  “…and  then we’ll get the Charleston going”.

Ella Robson demonstrates how charleston is the new moon walk.
Ella Robson demonstrates how Charleston is the new moon walk. Photograph: Karoline Hjorth.

Ella Robson is one of the six dancers hired to get the crowd moving, and after hours of rehearsing it is too tempting to ask what keeps her going:

“No, I don’t drink Red Bull but I am on a constant diet of coffe, cigarettes, apples and vodka”, she explains.

Make- up artist Malika Causier paints her lips red and sends her out to tease the minglers.

Blondes, Madonna and the roaring twenties

The credit crunch might ravage the nation, but penny- pinching is not an issue when Red Bull goes festive.
Where other companies trust their loyal staff to book  tables at the local pub, Red Bull trust Blonde Productions to do their party planning.
Managing director Lora Lutostanska and her sister Alex are used to throwing parties and have organised events for Madonna, BBC and MTV.

“This is our second Red Bull event and the 1920s theme goes really well with some of Red Bull’s 2008 campaigns”, says Lora.

Karoline Hjorth.
Blonde Productions sisters Lora and Alex Lutostanska get a final touch from the make- up artist. Photograph: Karoline Hjorth.

“It’s been fun”, they confirm before sliding into the crowd.

Despite eager observation I could not spot a single air guitar performer nor hear “Last Christmas”  being played once during my five hours of eager observation.
A trustworthy source has it DJ Curly Perm, in love with himself and his impeccable cream suit, has been made redundant and replaced by wild-and-woolly 1920s jazz and The Correspondents.

On the hunt for fake mistletoes, snogging employees and general misbehavior, I end up at a table where the hip crowd is playing blackjack.

One of the women is sipping a yellow-colored drink, and the question  is unevitable: “Is it eggnog?”

A moment of innocent Christmas party spirit lights up the room until the sipping red lips reply: “Honey, it’s Bellini. Do you want some?”

Savage TV: The great journey and the irresistible ’Other’

Norwegian Broadcasting Association sent three Norwegian families to live with indigenous peoples for three weeks and ended up offering a reality show suspiciously similar to the human zoos of old colonial exhibitions.

Popularised TV anthropology is a risky sport, especially when 19th century ideas of human beings in their “natural” state reach primetime TV.

Every Saturday for the last 12 weeks NRK has offered their average 800.000 weekly viewership ”insights” into indigenous tribes in Namibia, Indonesia and Ecuador.

NRK’s Den store reisen (The great journey) is the Norwegian version of New Zealand’s Ticket to the tribes, Belgium’s Toast Kannibaal (Cheers, cannibal) and UK’s Tribal Wife.

All of these TV channels filmed the same indigenous groups and presented variations on the same theme: Find the last people in the wild and live with them.

Den store reisen invited us to follow the Prøis family and their neon- coloured suitcases when they moved in with the Waoranies in Banemo, Ecuador.

NRK’s online program description informs us on the “warlike Waorani tribe deep down in the Amazon”, while a fact box further down states that Waoranies “go around naked; men’s penises are tied up by a chord around their waists”.

What NRK never informed their viewers of, but what Ny Tid (New Times) revealed shortly after the broadcast of the first episode, was that the production team had asked the Waoranies not to wear “western clothes” during filming.


’Naked’ bloggers

Laura Rival from the Centre for International Development at Oxford University has studied the Waoranies since 1989.

She explained in Ny Tid how the Waoranies take their clothes off for tourists and reality shows but live under much more complex and modern conditions than what is presented in the series.

According to Rival, Waorani houses have TV sets and laptops and the palm tree hut shown in the series is normally only used for parties or cooking.

“This type of staged documentary is supposed to display differences and to make it more thought-provoking”, was Nark’s production manager Per Edstrom’s defence to the claim that NRK makes Waorani more different to Norwegians than they really are.

“It is after all a collision between two very different ways of life”, he told Ny Tid.

Waorani life might have changed but NRK makes sure our perception of the wild and untouched tribal life remains.

The great “savage”

On the Siberut island of Indonesia we get to know of the Alsos family and their adventures with the Mentawais.

Miners, loggers, and petroleum companies might be fighting for their land, but we would never know from watching Den store reisen.

“See how happy they seem, they have no worries”, said the Alsos family during the first episode.

When the last episode had been broadcast the Norwegian family published some of their thoughts on the experience: “We never understood why we could not follow the Mentawai children when they went to school or why they never filmed them putting on clothes to go to the nearest village”, they told Aftenposten.

NRK was more interested in showing the Mentawai’s hunting and gathering techniques and “fascinating spiritual rituals”.

What all the respective versions of Den store reisen have in common is the idea that we have lost something that only the “savage” can teach us.

If this is NRK’s method of portraying different perspectives on what it is to be human, they failed tremendously.

What they have managed exceptionally well is instead to offer a one-dimensional presentation of how conceited Westerners deal with “primitive tribal circuses”, with further encouragement of regressive and culturally ignorant entertainment as a result.

Save a punter: The latest in Norway’s prostitution debate

Since the Norwegian government decided that buying sex will be illegal for Norwegians anywhere on Mother Earth from 1 January 2009, a potlatch debate featuring ‘experts’, moralists, misogynists and misandrists have filled the national and regional papers.

Being made redundant in January is not a rosy start to the New Year. It would have made sense then- if prostitutes would be the loudest shouters in the debate (links in Norwegian only) on a law that will make payment for sexual acts a criminal offence- while selling it will remain legal.

What to say? Good luck next time girls and boys, we cannot risk nuance?

Norwegians are too much in love with ranters, those huggable generalising media shouters who boil things down to naked ‘facts’ and make our intricate bubble lives more comprehensible.

High-brow ranters in fierce competition for column space have been spoiling us for the last two weeks, feeding us with unpayable quotes to spice up our lunch breaks.

Not surprisingly, one candidate was just a little bit more sparkly than the others—– drum roll—–the unstoppable Mads Larsen.

Sexual pariah caste

Thank God for Mads Larsen, finally an author who knows how to turn sticky taboos into coffee table chitchat, speaking out on behalf of the ‘sexual pariah caste’ in Aftenposten, the biggest- selling broadsheet in Norway.

Now that is a bit rude you might think, to call prostitutes sexual pariahs? Is that really speaking their case?

Luckily indefeasible Larsen was not referring to them. How important are they anyway? Lets clear those streets from ‘unwanted visual elements’ and start addressing the real victims in this case: The poor punters.

How could I have been so wrong?

One can only praise the unsubduable Larsen again, as he eagerly explains the real reasons for the new law.

Prevent trafficking? Freshening up of Norway’s puritanist moral standards? No, this is about something much more important.

Make a punter happy

Mads tells us how criminalising the punter is just another step towards castrating the male heterophile sexuality, which he promptly states in Aftenposten; has so little value that you can give it away for Christmas.

And we can only fear the future, as he continues to warn us: “The force of male sexual frustration can hardly be underestimated”.

Unassainable Larsen dares not give us his prophesy on the fatal consequences of the “closing down of society’s safety relief valve”.

Acting on the warnings of astute Larsen and for the sake of national security, I therefore urge the masses:

Make a sad Norwegian punter happy for Christmas- spread your legs.

But to all you warm-hearted do-gooders out there: “Those drinks are on me” are by-gones, as of 1 January 2009 no form of payment is allowed.