Saturday, February 11, 2017

A Death in the Grand Canal, Part 2

An image of Pateh Sabally published in Venezia Today

In 2007, when the global refugee crisis involved just a fraction of the people it does today, the British filmmaker Isaac Julien released a profoundly moving meditation on the issue entitled Western Union: Small Boats. I had the chance to see both the original 3-screen version and the single screen version, entitled The Leopard, in London last fall, and there's a particular sequence, already unforgettable, that seems particularly relevant to the death of the 22-year-old refugee Pateh Sabally in Venice's Grand Canal on 22 January.

The 18-minute film was shot on the coast of Agrigento and in the grand baroque palace in Palermo where the final scene of Visconti's The Leopard was set. There's something of an implicit narrative in it, but its power emanates from its juxtapositions of the "realistic" or literal with the lyrical, mythical and choreographed; of the perilous journey in small open boats across the sea with luxury, high culture, and artistic beauty; of the unseen and desperate with the opulent and comfortable.

In the sequence I particularly have in mind, underwater scenes of a swimmer thrashing just below the surface of the sea are intercut with--and paralleled by--a dancer's sinuous, vigorous writhing on the decorative tile floor in which Visconti's famous ballroom scene was filmed.    

In this way the unseen "other" becomes visible in the halls of high culture. The rigorously patrolled aesthetic and cultural boundaries between the rich north and the poor south are ruptured, and their interdependence (as economically lopsided as it's been) is literally embodied, acted out. 

Of course this is a work of art whose complexity is very poorly served by summary, and which gives an abiding, haunting form to human suffering.

Pateh Sabally's leap into the Grand Canal was not art.

But because of where he chose to make that leap it became, in the broadest sense, a staged act. That is, performed in front of a large audience. And the rupture it caused in our carefully tended sense of things is attested to by the vigor with which some have tried to contain its implications, to circumscribe the act--sometimes almost to define it away. 

The most obvious attempts at containment and definition are those essentially sensationalistic newspaper accounts I wrote about in Part 1 of this post. Each tends to localize the event for the sake of maximum outrage (or, in the case of the Far Right reader, malicious glee). And even the allusion to the large numbers of refugees entering Italy tacked onto the end of each piece seems less a matter of contextualization than one last spur toward the amplification of whatever emotion the reader already felt.

A more relevant bit of context for Sabally's act, though, might have been the protests that occurred less than three weeks before his death at the refugee center a short distance from Venice in the small town of Cona. There, in a refugee camp designed to hold only 15 refugees that now holds (according to some reports) almost 100 times that number (1,400), a 25-year-old woman from the Ivory Coast died and residents, believing her ailment had been ignored by camp administrators, "revolted", destroying property and causing some frightened staff to barricade themselves inside a camp structure for safety.
It was the third protest in this former missile base in the last year, though previous ones had all been peaceful. After an autopsy on the deceased, Sandrine Bakayoko, officials announced that the cause of death was pulmonary embolism and found no reason, despite residents' claims (and prior infractions at the site), to pursue charges of negligence or impropriety.

There's no knowing if Pateh Sabally, who traveled to Venice from Milan on the day of his death, was even aware of the events in Cona. Yet to us witnesses of his act, his own knowledge (or lack) of it makes no difference. What we know alters how we see it, the sense we might make of it--and perhaps the growing sense that those people we do our best to keep out of sight are becoming ever more desperate to be seen.  

But despite the public nature of Sabally's act and the fact that with so many witnesses (in person and otherwise) there would inevitably be varying interpretations--or, rather, for this very reason--the mayor of Venice was quick to assert his own definitive version of things.

1 of 2 memorial wreaths in the water near where Pateh Sabally died
Local reports that the city of Venice would pay for the funeral expenses of Pateh Sabally also included Mayor Luigi Brugnaro's official statement on the young man's death, in which he describes the feelings of "sadness and human pity" inspired in himself and everyone else by Sabally's "personal act of desperation" and declares that we must "stigmatize" those who would misappropriate this act for their own political motives.

Then, beginning with his very next sentence, Brugnaro himself politicizes this "personal act of desperation" with an extended appeal--on purely "humanitarian" grounds, of course--that migrants in no way be given any false hope that they will be accepted in or have any place in Italy.

Indeed, his heart swelling with compassion, Brugnaro goes on, first, to issue an ominous admonishment (reeking of the far Right, anti-immigration, racist Lega Nord party) that we "understand the future implications" of continuing to allow immigrants into Italy, then closes with the philanthropic suggestion that the very kindest thing we can do for immigrants is to repel them at our borders (and on the open sea?), saving them thus from the "tragedies and suffering" they'd otherwise inevitably undergo here.

This was classic Brugnaro. As is typical of him, he was defining the issue once and for all and declaring all other opinions null and void. Having reportedly paid for the funeral from city funds otherwise available only to him, our wealthy mayor seemed to believe that his munificence gave him the patriarchal right of having not just the final word, but the only one. A faulty and essentially anti-democratic belief that forms the core of his governing style.

Moreover, Brugnaro's expressed compassion for Sabally and other immigrants would certainly be less dubious if he were not also inclined to stoke Lega-Nord-like fears of an Italy overrun by Africans. For example, just two days after Sabally's death, and three before his statement about it, Brugnaro hysterically warned that limiting the flow of tourists into Venice would "probably" lead to "tourists being replaced by Nigerians, whom it would then be even harder to scare off."

I suppose what I'm generally suggesting here is that it actually takes a great deal of effort to depoliticize Pateh Sabally's leap into the Grand Canal. It requires a concerted effort to block out the contexts--in Venice and the Veneto, in Italy, in Europe, in the world at large--in which such an act, and such despair, can't help but make us think about how our local, regional, national and trans-national governments are responding--or not responding--to this global crisis. We do not know Sabally's intentions or thoughts; he drafted no manifesto before his act. But he didn't need to tell us his exact thoughts for the significance of his leap to be far greater than merely "a personal act of desperation."

Last week it was reported that the city of Venice also paid to return Sabally's body to his native land of Gambia. As a way, Brugnaro said, of "alleviating in part the family's pain." But none of the painful issues raised by his very public death in Venice can be laid to rest by his private burial in Africa. Those issues are still very much alive; the suffering continues, the crisis goes on. In this city of spectacle, which has long sold itself as a stage set for fantasy--engagements, weddings, romance, carnevale--Pateh Sabally showed us something real, too real for most of use to abide.

I have no solutions to offer to the issues. But I think it's important to pause over Pateh Sabally's last act, and important to remember that in the Grand Canal directly in front of the train station, where new arrivals first step into the fantasy world of Venice, a man was willing to die in order to finally, if only briefly, be seen. In a matter of minutes the water swallowed him up, but he is not forgotten, and there are millions of others like him, still living, struggling, suffering, who deserve our attention.

You can find Part 1 of this post here.
A view of the area of the Grand Canal in front of the train station where Pateh Sabally drown


  1. As a visitor to Venice, I struggle to know whether to give money to the African men who ask for it, seemingly more numerous this winter. I know that these small sums are no solution to the problem of displaced people, but can I ask what you think?

    1. You raise a very good question, but I'm afraid I don't have any information or knowledge that allows to me be any less confused about it than you are. I'm sorry to say I really don't know right now.

  2. Hi

    Thanks for this, I was interested to hear your thoughts on this topic. It is an issue that has worldwide significance.


    1. Thanks, Guy, for taking the time to read it and make a comment. It really is a world-wide issue and, sadly, it rarely seems to be really discussed--or even acknowledged, unless for the purpose of stoking nationalist fervor and fears typically based on racism. Which are not exactly a sound basis for public policy. Thus, the Veneto region just approved a measure stating the when it comes to enrolling a child in the region's preschools, priority will be given to those parents who have lived here for at least 15 years. (At the height of the Venetian republic, by the way, one had to be resident for 10 yrs before being eligible for citizenship & its rights.) It's not yet a law, but among the obvious flaws in such a measure is that it actually prevents the socialization of newer arrivals--from within or outside Italy--into the region. And of course one of the big attacks on immigrants is that they are supposedly not willing to become part of their new nation.

  3. Thanks again, Steven, for your lucidity. In my case, it's really helping to think over your point about the inclination to stoke the fears of a nation overrun by migrants (as far right politicians use to adress his electorate...). In Spain (where Catalonia is still obliged to be) the situation is even harder. Most population in Catalonia are in favour of helping migrants who flee from syrian war, but the neo-francoist Popular Party has (well... his Constitutional Court has) blocked all catalan efforts to put into practice this humanitarian aid. Hard times to live in this world but, at the same time, full of hopes. People around the globe (airports in USA, next week demonstration in Barcelona, etc. )is fighting to help asylum-seekers and, at the same time, vote-seeker politicians are trying to get something from people's fears.

    1. Definitely a hard time for so many people in the world right now, Lluís, but I appreciate your reminder that there are still people operating on the basis of hope rather than the fear-mongering of the ruling parties (and the corporations who pull their strings). The only way certain political forces can get away with their policies and aims (which most people don't support) is to whip people into a panic, in which everyone is suspect. One can only do whatever one can to resist, as a lot of people are.