Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio: A Novel

Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio: A Novel

by Amara Lakhous, Ann Goldstein

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The immigrant tenants of a building in Rome offer skewed accounts of a murder in this prize-winning satire by the Algerian-born Italian author (Publishers Weekly).

Piazza Vittorio is home to a polyglot community of immigrants who have come to Rome from all over the world. But when a tenant is murdered in the building’s elevator, the delicate balance is thrown into disarray. As each of the victim’s neighbors is questioned by the police, readers are offered an all-access pass into the most colorful neighborhood in contemporary Rome.

With language as colorful as the neighborhood it describes, each character takes his or her turn “giving evidence.” Their various stories reveal much about the drama of racial identity and the anxieties of a life spent on society’s margins, but also bring to life the hilarious imbroglios of this melting pot Italian culture.

“Their frequently wild testimony teases out intriguing psychological and social insight alongside a playful whodunit plot.” —Publishers Weekly

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781609450434
Publisher: Europa Editions, Incorporated
Publication date: 09/30/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 144
Sales rank: 767,204
File size: 444 KB
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Amara Lakhous was born in Algiers in 1970. Clash of Civilizations Over an Elevator in Piazza Vittorio won Italy's prestigious Flaiano Prize and prompted the critic Carlin Romano to ask in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Do we have an Italian Alberto Camus on our hands?". Lakhous is also the author of Divorce Islamic Style and Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet.

Ann Goldstein is an editor at The New Yorker. Her translations for Europa Editions include novels by Amara Lakhous, Alessandro Piperno, and Elena Ferrante's bestselling My Brilliant Friend. She lives in New York.

Read an Excerpt



A few days ago — it was barely eight o'clock in the morning — sitting in the metro, rubbing my eyes and fighting sleep because I'd woken up so early, I saw an Italian girl devouring a pizza as big as an umbrella. I felt so sick to my stomach I almost threw up. Thank goodness she got out at the next stop. It was really a disgusting sight! The law should punish people who feel free to disturb the peace of good citizens going to work in the morning and home at night. The damage caused by people eating pizza in the metro is a lot worse than the damage caused by cigarettes. I hope that the proper authorities do not underestimate this sensitive issue and will proceed immediately to put up signs like "Pizza Eating Prohibited," next to the ones that are so prominent at the metro entrances saying "No Smoking!" I would just like to know how Italians manage to consume such a ridiculous amount of dough morning and evening.

My hatred for pizza is beyond compare, but that doesn't mean that I hate everyone who eats it. I'd like things to be clear right from the start: I don't hate the Italians.

What I'm saying is not beside the point — far from it. I really am talking about Amedeo. Please be patient with me. As you know, Amedeo is my only friend in Rome, in fact he's more than a friend — it's no exaggeration to say that I love him the way I love my brother Abbas. I really love Amedeo, even though he's a pizza addict. As you see, my hatred for pizza doesn't come from hostility toward Italians.

In fact, it's not important whether Amedeo is Italian or not. My concern is to avoid at all costs the consequences of my aversion to pizza. For example, a few weeks ago I was fired from my job as a dishwasher in a restaurant near Piazza Navona when the owner happened to find out that I hate pizza. Bastards. An outrage like that, and there are still people who maintain that freedom of taste, expression, and religion, not to mention democracy, are guaranteed in this country! I would like to know: does the law punish pizza-haters? If the answer is yes, we've got a real scandal here; if the answer is no, then I am entitled to compensation.

Don't be in such a hurry. Allow me to tell you that your biggest failing is hurry. Your watchword is impatience. You drink coffee the way cowboys drink whiskey. Coffee is like tea, you should avoid gulping it down — it should be sipped. Amedeo is like hot tea on a cold day. No, Amedeo is like the taste of fruit at the end of a meal, after you've had bruschetta with tomatoes or olives, then the notorious first course, which includes all those different pastas I can't stand, like spaghetti and company (ravioli, fettuccine, lasagna, fusilli, orecchiette, rigatoni, and so on), and finally the second course, of meat or fish with side dishes of vegetables. All things I've gotten to know from my occasional jobs in Italian restaurants. I really love fruit, so don't be surprised if I compare Amedeo to fruit. Let's say Amedeo is as sweet as a grape. The juice of the grape is so good!

It's pointless to persist with this question: is Amedeo Italian? Whatever the answer is, it won't solve the problem. But then who is Italian? Only someone who was born in Italy, has an Italian passport and identity card, knows the language, has an Italian name, and lives in Italy? As you see, the question is very complicated. I'm not saying that Amedeo is an enigma. Rather, he's like a poem by Omar Khayyam: you need a lifetime to understand its meaning, and only then will your heart open to the world and tears warm your cold cheeks. Now, at least, it's enough for you to know that Amedeo knows Italian better than millions of Italians scattered like locusts to the four corners of the earth. I'm not drunk. I didn't mean to offend you.

I don't despise locusts; in fact, I respect them, because they procure their food with dignity — they don't count on anyone. And then it's certainly not my fault if the Italians like to travel and to emigrate. Even today I'm amazed when I hear speeches by certain Italian politicians on the news and on television programs. Take, for example, Roberto Bossosso.

You don't know who Roberto Bossosso is? He's the leader of the Forza Nord party, which considers all Muslim immigrants enemies. Every time I hear his voice, I'm assailed by doubts; I look around in bewilderment and ask the first person I see, "That language Bossosso speaks — is that really Italian?" Up to now I haven't gotten any satisfactory answers. Often people will say to me: "You don't know Italian," or "First, you have to learn the language better," or "Sorry, but your Italian is very poor." Usually I hear these poisonous phrases when I'm looking for work as a restaurant cook and in the end they shunt me into the kitchen to wash dishes. "It seems that the only thing you know how to do, dear Parviz, is wash dishes!" Stefania likes to provoke me and tease me like that. There's no question that she's disappointed in me, since she was the first person who taught me Italian, or, to be more precise, tried to teach me. I'm not Amedeo, that's as clear as a star in the peaceful sky of Shiraz. But I'm sorry to inform you that I'm not the only one who doesn't know Italian in this country. I've worked in restaurants in Rome with a lot of young Neapolitans, Calabrians, and Sicilians, and I've discovered that our language level is about the same. Mario, the cook in the restaurant at the Termini station, wasn't wrong when he said: "Remember, Parviz, we're all foreigners in this city!" I've never in my life seen anyone like Mario: he drinks wine like water, and it has no effect on him.

O.K., I'll tell you about Mario the Neapolitan some other time. Now you want to know everything about Amedeo — that is, start dinner with dessert? As you wish. The customer is king. I still remember the first time I saw him. He was sitting in one of the desks in the first row near the blackboard. I approached; there was an empty seat near his, I smiled and sat down next to him after saying the only Italian word I knew — "Ciao!" This word is really helpful, you use it when you're saying hello to someone and when you're saying goodbye. There's another word that's just as important: cock. It's used to express rage and to calm down, and males don't have a monopoly on it. Even Benedetta, the old concierge, uses it all the time, without embarrassment. Speaking of which, old Benedetta is the concierge of the building where Amedeo lives, in Piazza Vittorio. This wretched woman has a nasty habit of lurking near the elevator, ready to pick a fight with anyone who wants to use it. I adore the elevator, I don't take it because I'm lazy — I meditate in it. You press the button without any effort, you go up or descend, it could even break down while you're inside. It's exactly like life, full of breakdowns. Now you're up, now you're down. I was up ... in Paradise ... in Shiraz, living happily with my wife and children, and now I'm down ... in Hell, suffering from homesickness. The elevator is a tool for meditation. As I told you, it's a practice I'm used to: going up and coming down is a mental exercise like yoga. Unfortunately Benedetta watches me like a cantankerous cat, and as soon as I set foot in the elevator she yells at me: "Guaglio'! Guaglio'!"

"Guaglio'" is Benedetta's favorite word. As you know, guaglio' means "fuck" in Neapolitan. At least, that's what a lot of Neapolitans I've worked with have told me. Every time she sees me head for the elevator she starts shouting, "Guaglio'! Guaglio'! Guaglio'!" In Iran, it's customary to show respect for old people and avoid bad words. That's why, instead of answering the insult with another insult, I confine myself to a brief response: "Merci!" I leave and go away without looking at her. By the way, you know that merci is a French word that means "thank you"? Amedeo told me, he knows French well.

I met him at a free Italian class for immigrants in Piazza Vittorio. I had just arrived in Rome. Amedeo was different from the others because he went to all of Stefania's classes, he didn't miss a single one. At first I didn't understand why he was so diligent and so good. But passion is like the shining sun and no one can resist its rays, passion is youth's best friend. There's a Persian proverb that goes: youth is as intoxicating as wine. A few months later Amedeo decided to go and live with Stefania in her apartment, which overlooks the gardens of Piazza Vittorio, and he also stopped coming to school, since he didn't need lessons for beginners, the way I did. But we stayed in touch; we met almost every day at Sandro's bar to have a cappuccino or a cup of tea. Sandro is a nice man, but he gets mad easily. All you have to say is "Go Lazio!" to make him furious, whereas if you're a fan of the Rome team he treats you like an old friend. Once he asked me if there were any Rome fans in Iran, and not to disappoint him I said, "Of course," and then he hugged me.

Obviously I also saw Amedeo at his house. I'm very fond of his small kitchen. It's the only place that brings solace to my aching heart. When I think of my children, Shadi, Said, Surab, and Omar, and my wife, Zeinab, I get very sad. Where are they now? Wandering, I suppose, God knows where. How I wish I could kiss them and hug them. Only tears and these bottles of Chianti put out the fires of longing. I cry a lot and I drink even more, to forget my ordeals. I got into the habit of going every day to sit near the fountain across from the entrance to the church of Santa Maria Maggiore to feed the pigeons and cry. No one can take the Chianti away from me except Amedeo, he's the only one who dares pull me out of the hell of my grief. He sits beside me in silence, lets me cry and drink for a few minutes, then suddenly he gets up as if a snake had bitten him, and says to me in a tone of confusion: "My God, we're late! We have to make dinner, Stefania's having a party. Did you forget, Parviz?" He always says the same words, in the same way, with the same seriousness. I look at him and laugh until I'm exhausted, laughing helps me breathe. In the meantime Amedeo confounds me with jokes so hilarious that we laugh like lunatics in front of the tourists. Before we go to his house we stop at Iqbal the Bangladeshi's shop in Piazza Vittorio to buy what we need for the party: rice, chicken, spices, fruit, beer, and wine. I take a shower and change, and there is Amedeo opening the kitchen door: "Welcome to your kingdom, Shahryar, great sultan of Persia!" He closes the door and leaves me alone for hours. I immediately start preparing Iranian dishes, like gormeh sabzi and kubideh kebab, kashk badenjan and kateh. The odors that fill the kitchen make me forget reality and I imagine that I've returned to my kitchen in Shiraz. After a while the perfume of the spices is transformed into incense, and this makes me dance and sing like a dervish, ahi, ahi, ahi ... In a few minutes the kitchen is in a Sufi trance. When I finish cooking I open the door and find the guests waiting for me in the living room. Then the party begins.

Each of us has a place where we feel comfortable. For some it's a church, for some a mosque, a sanctuary, a movie theater, a stadium, a market. I feel comfortable in a kitchen. And it's not that surprising, because I'm a good cook. It's a skill that was handed down to me from my grandfather and my father. I'm not a dishwasher, as they say in the restaurants of Rome. In Shiraz I had a good restaurant. Damn those bastards who ruined me, in the blink of an eye I lost everything: family, house, restaurant, money. People keep telling me: "If you want to work as a chef in Italy you have to learn the secrets of Italian cooking." What can I do if I can't bear pizza and spaghetti and company? Anyway, it's pointless to learn Italian cooking. Soon I'm going back to Shiraz. I know I am.

I wonder why the Italian authorities continue to deny what all honest doctors know: pasta makes people fat, and causes obesity. The fat gradually starts to block the arteries until the poor heart stops beating. It even happened to Elvis. You remember how thin and handsome he was when he sang "Baba bluma bib bab a blue ..." In those days, he ate rice every day, but then, unfortunately, he got used to pizza that he ordered in from the Italian restaurants in Hollywood, because he didn't have time to cook, to sit down at the table and eat. Poor Elvis had too many commitments, and the result was that in a short time he got as fat as an elephant and died — the fat saturated his heart, his lungs, his eyes, his whole body. No one can contain that deluge of fat. I've warned Maria Cristina, the home health aide, not to eat pasta. When I met her two years ago, she was thin, too, then she got used to spaghetti and blew up like a hot-air balloon. Once I said to her, "Why have you abandoned your roots — isn't rice the favorite food of Filipinos?" Poor Maria Cristina, recently they decided to forbid her to use the elevator, out of fear she'd break it. "You weigh more than three people put together" — that's how they justified keeping her out. So why doesn't the ministry of health add to the labels of pasta packages the words "Seriously hazardous to your health"?

Amedeo is like a beautiful harbor from which we depart and to which we always return. When I'm sacked from a job I'm like a person who's been shipwrecked, and Amedeo's the only one who helps me out. He always says to me: "Don't worry, Parviz, come on, let's have a look at Porta Portese." And so we sit in Sandro's bar. Amedeo opens the paper and marks the important ads with a little x, then we go to his house to make the phone calls. I stare at him in astonishment, like a child looking at a rainbow. Amedeo is amazing. I listen to him speaking his elegant Italian. After a few phone calls he takes the TuttoCittà, the city guide, and glances at the pages to be sure of the exact street names, makes some notes in his notebook, and then looks at me and says, "The restaurants of Rome await you, Signor Parviz!" We go together to see the restaurant owners, and obviously I say nothing — I let Amedeo speak for me. He's so convincing, fantastic! Very often I start work that same day as an assistant cook, even if a few days later I'm packed off to wash dishes. It's hard for me to take orders in the kitchen. I hate being assistant cook, I prefer to wash dishes and put up with the pain in my back and a bit of arthritis rather than take orders: "Parvis, peel the onion!" "Parvis, put the water on!," "Parviz, prepare the pasta!," "Parviz, get the carrots from the refrigerator!," "Parviz, check the spaghetti!," "Parviz, wash the fruit!," "Parviz, clean the fish!" For me the kitchen is like a ship. Parviz Mansoor Samadi doesn't set foot on a ship unless he's in command, that's the truth. Amedeo always goes with me to any administrative proceeding, like renewing my residency permit, or dealing with other bureaucratic matters ... When I went to the city offices by myself I'd lose control at the drop of a hat, and start shouting, and they'd throw me out every time like a mangy dog. They'd yell things like "If you come back here again we'll call the police!" I don't know why they always threaten to call the police!

Where is he now? Who knows. All I know is that Amedeo will leave a terrible hole in our lives. In fact, I can't imagine Rome without Amedeo. I still remember that wretched day in the police station on Via Genova, where I had gone to pick up the decision from the High Commissioner for Refugees. The words of the police inspector shocked me: "Your petition has been rejected, all you can do is appeal." I went into the first bar I came to on the street, bought some bottles of Chianti, I don't remember how many, and headed for Santa Maria Maggiore to sit near the fountain, as usual, but that time I went to drink and weep. I was devastated that my petition had been rejected, because I'm not a liar. I fled Shiraz because I was threatened, if I go back to Iran there'll be a noose waiting for me. They took me for a fraud and a liar. But it had never crossed my mind to leave Iran. During the war against Iraq I fought in the front lines and was wounded several times. And then why would I abandon my children, my wife, my house, my restaurant, and Shiraz, except to avoid being killed! I'm a refugee, not an immigrant.


Excerpted from "Clash of Civilizations Over An Elevator in Piazza Vittorio"
by .
Copyright © 2008 Edizioni E/O.
Excerpted by permission of Europa Editions.
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