The news, sometimes, are the ones that aren’t there.
Since I am in Italy for a few days, I had an idea: what would happen if I walked around for a day under a niqab, now that Europe is panicked about terrorism? And Florence, especially. With all its monuments. And with my passport, full of Syrian stamps. My journalist friends and I, we were all keen on that: so keen that we starting placing bets on the number of times I woul be stopped by the police, on how harsh they would be – and we hired an undercover cameraman.
But you’re going to be arrested!, a friend from al Jazeera told me when I sent her a photo shot in the café on my corner. Inshallah, I replied. God willing.
And yet, walking around like this all day – nothing. All in black, I skulked around the teddy-bears at the Disney Store, between mothers with their children in strollers, in public gardens, on a bench next some grandparents watching their grandchildren play, I entered three churches, and, scientifically, all the tourist sites most at risk of attack, all the most carefully overseen places, museums, cathedrals, baptismal fountains, and I also asked a policeman which way was East, to find Mecca, “it’s the time of prayer”, I said, and he mumbled gently to his colleague and told me: Right over there, so I strolled towards Ponte Vecchio, and after keeping still for twenty minutes, asked a girl to take a picture of me with my iPhone, marked with the ISIS logo – nothing. And so I decided to follow two poor Japanese tourists, glued to their heels, and hid myself for half an hour in a café bathroom, went into a bookstore to browse new titles about the caliphate, Molinari, Napoleoni, Quirico, and in front of Houellebecq’s book I said to the lady next to me, Magdi Allam’s book in her hand: Allahu Akbar. Nothing. In the shops, whether Armani or a tripe stand, no one showed any surprise. A store clerk greeted me with a Shalom!, that’s Hebrew, actually, in Arabic it’s Salaam, but anyway, I could sense the good will, and so, defeated, I finally stopped two teenagers leaning against a wall making out, to tell them that it was forbidden by God – the kid, unflappable, replied: “God doesn’t forbid beautiful things”. And he looked about 15.
The only Defender of the Homeland was the security guard in a grocery store, who hounded with every step. But he wasn’t scared of a bombing, really – he was scared I might steal some sauce.
It’s because it was raining, a reporter friend told me. There weren’t enough people around. That’s how Italians are, they put on an act: but underneath, they’re racist, another said. No. It’s that we have a distorted image of the world we write about. Always looking for a scoop, a hot lede, a striking photo, we end up amplifying – misleading. We portray a Europe terrorized not only by jihadists, but by Muslims in general. And sure, one day in Florence is not a sociological survey: but what I found was a beautiful, open city. Gorgeous, I’d even say. A couple of jokes, some stares longer than others, but nothing, absolutely nothing out of the ordinary – and in Florence a niqab certainly is unusual. I’ve gotten rather more extreme reactions in the suburbs. The cashier of a café, with an eastern European accent, who treated me like a servant, or in the train station, where the really Tuscan cleaning lady barked at me: Should I call the nuthouse or the police? And a Tunisian, in San Lorenzo, who told me: Go home, or they’ll send us all back. We write: the outsider is scary. But we forget to specify: the outsider scares those who are already scared. Just a war between poor people. Excluding the excluded, those who have everything to lose.
The problem, though, is that with ISIS we aren’t simply killed, in the end we journalists are always killed – we are used. It’s a war that is fought through fear, through the show of ferocity, beheadings, burnings at the stake, those videos that looks like movie trailers. But the reality on the ground, the real reality is different, I see it in Syria, in Iraq: jihadists are not as strong as they seem – not the Islamic State. And the reality is different here as well, where the repulsion of Islam is not as strong as we are led to believe – or at least, not in the forms, in the radical ways that we’re told. But this is a war that is fought on fear. On perceptions. Journalists are not its victims: we are, most of all, its weapons. I remembered of Abdallah, one of Aleppo’s most brilliant activists. When he used to tell me: It’s not a matter of Sunni and Shia, here. To understand this war, Marx is more useful than the Qur’an.
At Ponte Vecchio, in the end, I asked one of the jewelry shop owners why he wasn’t suspicious, behind his window full of Patek Philippe. Why he wasn’t scared? “Someone dressed like this, generally, comes from Saudi Arabia. Without them, here, we would be already closed.”
Francesca’s new book, Syrian Dust, will be released in the US in September by Seven Stories Press