Translated from the Italian by Pina Piccolo (originally published in Italian in May 2021, in La Macchina Sognante n. 21 )
Dilwàn didn’t quite understand how it had happened, yet sensed that he was responsible for it. First that extremely bothersome itch on his hands and then, Kamràn, Shaqvàn’s son, had flown off his bike, landing two meters to the side of the road. It seemed as if a sudden gust of wind had pushed him off his bike, though there was not a breath of air that day and there were no obstacles scattered about in the camp’s alley that would warrant such a flight. Kamràn had tumbled right in front of the camp shop, owned by his father Shaqvàn. He lay there on the ground and when after two minutes he was lifted by people who had come to help him, Dilwàn, seeing his face covered in blood, broke into a satisfied smile.
Kamràn deserved it. He was a bully, as a matter of fact, he was the worst bully among all the kids in the refugee camp. And on top of that, his father was Shaqvàn, the undisputed leader of the community, as well as the richest. He ran the small shop selling smuggled food and cigarettes, thus keeping almost all the inhabitants of the refugee camp in constant debt to him. In fact, they did all the shopping in his store on credit, and then paid when the Red Cross monthly subsidy check arrived. In addition to that commercial activity, (obviously unofficial and tax-free), he gained power, respect and devotion by lending money to camp residents who were struck by unexpected and categorical needs: a private medical examination, not available in public hospitals, the required revenue stamps to be affixed on the travel document, medicines, fines to be paid and various other expenses. He was no loan-shark, mind you, but loudly announced these oh so- generous donations passing them off as grandiose acts of humanity and love for thy neighbor. In so doing, he earned eternal loyalty, respect and, above all, the option of demanding future favors. And Kamràn, his son, barely thirteen, took advantage of his father’s authority and power in the refugee camp by engaging with impunity in the cruelest pranks and mercilessly harassing other children.
When he wasn’t riding his shiny new bike among the Plexiglas containers (also known as Isoboxes, housing units, as camp management calls them, or Caravans as the residents call them), looking for victims or pranks to play to pass the time (everyone still remembers how much Umm Yusef cried when Kamràn stoned to death three of her beloved cats, or when he took it upon himself to piss on tomatoes left out to dry in the sun by the only Somali family in the camp), you could find him sitting on a bench playing Bobgee on his iPad, surrounded by the other kids in silent admiration. His iPad and his bike were not to be touched by anyone, only very occasionally he would he let his two most loyal thugs, Talàl and Jalàl, near them. The other children could play Bobgee only when their parents allowed them to use their mobile phone, while Kamràn was the only kid to have a device of his own, an iPad, on top of that, new and fully functional, unlike those old Androids that keep on getting stuck.
After the fall, despite the bad cut on his forehead (they had to give him stitches at the clinic) Kamràn had not shed a tear –you have to give it to him – but when he realized that the screen of his iPad was chipped, he burst into tears. At which point, Dilwàn’s smile, had turned into a burst of pure joyful laughter. Kamràn was crying like any old sissy in front of everyone. Perhaps the happiest moment since Dilwàn’s arrival at that refugee camp in northern Greece.
Unregistered, not registered, squatters, ghayr musa ǧǧ alin bi-l-mukhayyam , Dilwàn and his family were not official residents of the refugee camp. They did not have the aussweiss, the asylum seeker document, thus they were not in Greece legally. The Isobox in which he and his family were living had not been assigned, camp management considered them illegal occupants of a dwelling owned by the Greek government. Dilwàn’s family actually paid rent to Sheqvan, the camp’s boss, who systematically broke into the empty isoboxes and then rented them to illegal immigrants, otherwise known, in humanitariese, as spontaneous arrivals. Because of their unregistered status, the threat of forced deportation loomed over them: the police could arrive at any time, load them first into a car, then onto a bus, and in less than three hours they would be on the other side of the Evros river again, in Turkey.
“You can’t come, because you are not registered and unregistered children cannot go to Greek schools!” That’s what a camp kid had told him one morning a few days after their arrival, while Dilwàn watched, with eyes full of curiosity and envy, the other children from the camp forming a line to get on the school bus. He kept on doing that for a while. Every morning he would get up early and go to the square where the bus stopped. He hoped that maybe they would take pity and let him go too. But it never happened.
And Kamràn (who did not go to school anyway, even though he was registered in the camp) had immediately targeted him. The day after their arrival, about two months ago, Dilwàn had taken a tour of the camp. Almost as though guided by a child’s instinct, he immediately found the meeting point for his peers. Behind the grocery store, there was a space that must have once been a playground, with an empty football field. Instead of playing football, a small group of kids gathered around a bench where a little boy sat holding an iPad in his hands. Reassured by the fact that they spoke Sorani Kurdish, the same language as his, Dilwàn approached the group shyly yet confident. “And who the fuck are you, sister fucker?” The kid with the iPad addressed him and everyone else burst out laughing. “Look at that sister-fucker’s sweatshirt.” More laughter ensued. Dilwàn turned on his heels and went back to his isobox, forcing himself not to cry. That kid with the iPad was Kamràn, the son of Sheqvan, the man his father never stopped thanking. ” May God extend your life, Sheqvàn, may god have mercy on your parents a thousand times, we are indebted to you ,” for letting them enter (upon payment of rent) in that dilapidated Caravan, without a bathroom or a stove. Things hadn’t improved after that either. Kamràn teased him every time he ran into him, called him the sister-fucker from Dohurk (luckily Dilwàn had no sisters, so somehow he considered the insult to be less serious) and teased him for wearing two sweaters (their suitcases had been lost crossing the Evros River, and he was wearing the only two sweaters he had, one on top of the other, changing the order on alternate days). “Hey, sister-fucker, do you always wear the same clothes? Do you even wash? You smell like a dead donkey! How can you wash yourself if you don’t even have a bathroom in your Caravan .”
It had happened to him other times in the past: it always started with a very strong emotion followed by a very strong itch in the hands, then that thing happened. The first time was when he was seven and still living in Dohuk, Kurdistan. Ramyàr, the eldest of his brothers, had slapped him in front of everyone for tripping over the playstation joystick while they were engaged in a tekken tournament . That same damn playstation that they never let him use. After the slap, he sat on the carpet behind the boys who continued to play as if nothing had happened, while anger and humiliation were shattering him inside. His hands had begun to itch very badly. He then fixed his gaze on the damned playstation lying on the ground which, suddenly, after shooting out two sparks had started to let out smoke. The television screen went blank and the playstation had caught fire. “Allah Akbar”, the brothers shouted, incredulous. That evening their father had beaten them up, had slapped each of his three older brothers, convinced that it was their fault for playing with it too much, causing the Playstation to overheat. Dilwàn was sorry, Khorshid and Sidar had nothing to do with it, the two of them were always good to him.
But that morning, with Kamràn, things had been different. It was the first time that this had happened as a result of a strong and definite desire on his part. He had wanted Kamràn to get hurt, to fall off his bike. His brother Khorshid had gone down to Thessaloniki and had brought him a three-pack bag of Haribo liquorice candy, the wheel-shaped ones, his favorites. He used to eat them in Kurdistan too. Delighted, he was walking around the camp with his small treasure, on his way to offer one to Saif, a nine-year-old Syrian boy just like him, with whom he was beginning to strike a friendship, a boy who like him was also being bullied by the small group of Kurdish kids. But Kamràn and his two thugs managed to intercept him on his way to Saif: “Hey you, sister-fucker, what are you holding there? Are you aware that Talal can read the future using Haribos, give it to him and he will tell you if you will get married or continue to fuck your sister.” Laughter. Dilwàn looked up in terror and at that moment Talal snatched the haribos from his hand and stuffed all three together in his mouth, while Kamràn and Jalal were roaring with laughter. Then they left. Dilwàn felt like shit. A tear escaped, rolling down his cheek, even though he had tried hard not to cry. It was then that he felt the severe itching in his hands and realized that it was about to happen. He had fixed his gaze on Kamràn who was riding away on his bicycle still laughing and had not even pumped the pedals twice before being catapulted off the road.
Dilwàn, still smiling, walked towards his Syrian friend’s Caravan, bent on telling him about how their enemy had flown off his bike and had cried in front of everyone, just like a sister- fucker.
That day he didn’t really feel like it, it was such a beautiful day. Doing rotten things (and what he was about to do definitely qualified as a rotten thing) should be reserved for gray and cloudy days, otherwise they ruin whatever little bit of good mood you can get out of a sunny day in December. So thought Giorgos as he drove towards the Lagadikia camp, listlessly sucking his usual milkshake from a straw. His belly was already starting to grumble, as if the tiropita he had just eaten for breakfast had gotten stuck in the pit of his stomach. Not that he cared that much about the fate of the refugees, on the contrary, he was convinced that the fewer of them arrived, the better it would be for the Greeks. We have enough problems of our own without having to deal with those of these wretches too. He saw nothing wrong with sending back the boats arriving to the islands or blocking land entry from Turkey, arketá , that’s enough, there are too many. And on top of that, they don’t even want to stay in Greece. At least before they would leave immediately for Germany, not even the time to disembark and they were already suckling mother Merkel’s milk; while now they had to stay until they received the travel document before they could move on, at least three years at our expense, fed and nourished by our government. This is what Greece had become for these people: a passport factory. Nevertheless, what they were about to do that morning still seemed to him like a rotten thing to do. The last time they had to do it, he even threw up as soon as he got home and had digestion problems and insomnia for a week. The thing that he couldn’t swallow was the presence of children. He had no problem sending single men back to Turkey, he didn’t feel sorry for them. But when children were involved it seemed like something truly rotten. He still remembered the face of those two Iraqi twins they had put in the van two months earlier. He hadn’t slept there for a week. Every time he closed his eyes, he would find their image printed in his head: those two identical, stunning girls, each with her own backpack, standing in front of the isobox they had been ordered to clear out so the occupants could be deported. Who knows if they even understood what was happening.
And to think that Giorgos himself was a descendant of refugees. Tzompanoglu, his surname declared it loud and clear. He was from a Pontic family, that is, those Greeks who had lived for centuries in Turkey, in the Pontus region, only to find themselves in Greece, in the Thessaloniki region, as prosfyges, i.e., refugees. Not that it mattered, it was an old story now, and yet he couldn’t help but identify with those families, especially when they received the order to evacuate from their commanding officer.
Then, there was also a question of justice, of merit, in his opinion. It is okay to prevent foreigners from entering, but once they are on Greek territory, after they had managed to overcome check points and borders, families with children, what was the point of taking them back to Turkey? They were in now, you had to recognize them and give them a chance.
As he had read in the report, the family they had to “accompany to the station” consisted of six people, three of whom were minors. The youngest child was nine years old. The tiropita he had for breakfast insisted on refusing to move down, he was feeling nauseous. The family in question had arrived two months earlier and was illegally occupying isobox number ZP167. They had never registered as asylum seekers, and their illegal entry sheet had expired a month ago. “ Clear the occupied isobox and lead the occupants to the Makedonia sorting center ”, the commander of the Lagadá police station had ordered.
They arrived at the camp and parked the police van in front of the isobox where the family was staying. His colleagues went down to knock on the door, batons in hand as though they were on who knows what grand mission. Giorgos stayed back in his car wanting to avoid as much as possible any human contact with those people and just stick to driving. The family got out of the isobox and lined up in front of the van, looking resigned. Father, mother and four sons. One adult, two teenage boys and then him, the child he didn’t want to see and already knew would ruin his sleep and appetite for at least one week. He wore a beat up yellow sweater and stood in front of his brothers, scratching his hands spasmodically, staring at the van. Giorgos retched.
But then something unexpected happened: a sort of divine miracle, Giorgos thought as he made the sign of the cross. The gray and green Greek police van suddenly caught fire. First some black smoke billowed out twice from the front of the van and then a blaze of fire burst out of the engine compartment. Before rushing out of the car to help his colleagues, Giorgos had time to take one last look at the boy. He was smiling, squeezing his brothers’ hands, his eyes fixed on the burning van.
My task of translating Giuseppe Pensabene Perez’ short story “Unregistered” came on the heels of carefully reading and publishing some previous work of his in Italian in www.lamacchinasognante.com. One was a long story he wrote centering on addiction, drug dealing and immigrant/native relations in an upper-crust Roman neighborhood in the times of Covid, and the others were long interviews with asylum seekers he initially put together upon meeting them in the search and rescue mission ships he was a volunteer on in the Mediterranean and updated in later encounters with them in different parts of Europe where they had settled.
So, I was familiar with the ambiance but had to become more intimately connected with the story in order to reproduce in another language the young protagonist voice, while staying true to his register and psychology. It was quite interesting because it involved a certain familiarity with a mix of transnational super-hero pop culture, some forays into magical realism while being careful not to depart from the nine-year-old’s perspective. The author structured the story in a way that revealed the boy’s placement within the family constellation, his fierce eye directed to the daily cruelty of his microcosm both in the family and the camp, which all belie the larger geopolitical power plays that set the family off to their journey which, though, are never mentioned as they are beyond the conscious grasp of a nine-year-old boy.
This of course changes in the final part of the story when the point of view switches to that of the adult, Greek policeman somewhat reluctantly engaging in the deportation process. However, it was interesting to me that a certain infantilism of the character played out around his various sicknesses resulting from a latent disgust for his job, a sort of ‘constitutional weakness’ that is the counterpoint to the child’s increasing realization of his own power. In fact, at the very end there is perhaps a knowing/terrified glance that the adult casts on the child which perhaps betrays such realization.
Conspicuously absent is the female presence (which might be typical of a nine-year-old boy’s reality), except for an apotropaic naming of the female element in the form of the recurring insult the bully hurls at the young protagonist.
It was a real pleasure to translate this story and I hope I was able to convey most of its spirit.