Risto— Aristofano Al’Kair— is a rarity in contemporary Italy, an immigrant success story. Out of Mogadishu originally, orphaned by the upheavals there, he’s earned Italian citizenship and lives now in Naples, with a wife who’s native to the city, and he runs a successful art gallery. The novel opens, however, with turmoil both in the Italian immigrant community and in his own household, which set him thinking back over his lonesome flight across North Africa and the Mediterranean.
As for his brother Ti’aba, didn’t he live yet, a long way from the stink and grue of this cold, abandoned bonfire? Within that blackened slag might lie the older boy’s remains, but what of his spirit, his incorruptible final advice? Where you belong, you know. North, north!
Once he’d left behind the reek of that ash-heap, Risto had a year and more left on the continent, and there were days when his greatest accomplishment had been to shake off some prolonged reverie of the family. He could lose an hour or more just thinking of how his mother used to stroke his face. Some evenings she’d sing in French, others in Italian. Also different fantasies nagged the runaway, revenge fantasies, and the violence of those set him sketching his first fake recollections of Ti’aba and the machete. For a while there, Risto could swear he’d seen the blade take his brother’s head off, and one evening in Alexandria, a rare night of European wine in a Muslim city, he claimed he’d witnessed a Shabab video. He’d seen Ti’aba forced to his knees and beheaded. A doozy, a whopper, the “memory” clearly needed work, and Risto had a far more plausible version by the time he’d reached Naples and shared it with the white girl he would marry. Even so, the story remained an illegal alien, trying to pass, lacking papers.
But while he was still on the wrong side of the Mediterranean, and still a rickety construct, the whirlwind of Alexandria nearly left him in smithereens. His mother’s relatives indeed took him in, as she’d assured him they would, in perhaps the last good word she’d had for her shaken sons. These Egyptian cousins, however, were scraping by. They lived under the same burdens as, down in Cairo, brought the protestors out into Tahrir Square. At sunup the whistle of the kettle cut through their rooms, and then in fifteen minutes the place was empty, with everyone out chasing a few piasters. Risto, you’d think, would’ve been left sober. This was hardly his first trip out of ‘Dishu, coming from a family like his, lapsed Muslims of real education. The boys had joined their parents on long-term assignments in Beirut and Casablanca, and hadn’t his mother insisted, during their last minutes face to face, that he and Ti’aba flee to a place even farther off? A port city full of white folks, Naples? She’d urged them to connect with some sort of “clansman” up there, a near-relative, arguing that this man too had run off in search of a better life—“c’est homosexuel,” Maman revealed. Across most of Africa, such a predilection could prove fatal, but she knew that this cousin, or whatever, had a good heart.
Frank talk like that, on top of Risto’s travels, ought to have hardened him against a city’s blandishments. Yet Alexandria seemed at once a City of Desire, its El Geish waterfront no less than lip-smacking, and also a City of Memory, where any intersection might turn up Maman or Papà, dressed for business. Per carità, how they would rush off, disappearing before he got close! Ti’aba too was always in a hurry, toting his racks of tea and ghorayeba cookies. The younger brother, now infatuated, now stunned, wound up spending too much. There came a day he found Euros at a decent rate, but all he could buy were a handful of bills, five exactly, middle denomination. Five pieces of folding money, out of the wad Maman had handed him, and as for her jewels, those were down to three.
Not nearly enough for a reliable ferry out of Libya—north, north!—and many nights his mother’s people couldn’t offer dinner unless Risto himself brought home the flatbread and chickpeas. But what had the ghosts in the streets been trying to tell him, if not that he needed to hustle? He needed to live on his feet. As for his Euros, best he stashed them between the layers of his sandals
His energy was some part mania, naturally; he was seeing things. Nevertheless it helped to generate a cultivated line of talk, and the metropolis was into an upswing, getting tourists again. The regime in Cairo kept a lot of uniforms on the streets. The businessmen from across the Mediterranean had entire neighborhoods in which they might casually finger their wallets open. Among these visitors, too, a certain number traveled solo and enjoyed hours of unstructured time; they preferred, rather than a guide or a concierge, more of a companion, an escort. A young man like Risto, with his fine chest and a cultivated line of talk. His learning came in handy even with the more personal services, the seduction, since this often began with a verse from Cavafy. Risto knew something of the poet—this alone set him apart from most of the rent boys along the El Geish—and with a bit of research he found out that the Greek had come to the south as an immigrant for love. The young Somali made sure to have pertinent verses ready in three languages. So too he tracked down a set of Alexandria novels, and memorized the quips of their central poet figure, fey and theatrical.
So—problem? Problem, if his business entailed, at the least, several long minutes of determined fondling? Alternatively, the escort might put on a one-handed show. If the money were right, he might even allow that evening’s employer a taste, and for the young sub-Saharan, no, none of this raised concerns. On the contrary, negotiations never got complicated. With the buyers in town so briefly, the transaction remained limited and the pay went as high as the market allowed. Risto was chaff in the wake of a catastrophe, he knew that much, and the money was the glue and ballast he needed. Just for starters, he still lacked for a reliable name. As an escort, he left that up to the man paying. There were nights he got one name to his face and then, as his client slid down-body, heard another for the darker cluster between his legs. Yet whatever these guys called him, what they asked left him unfazed. He had no objection to a buttfuck, either, since the few men who could afford it had condoms, oils, and a comfortable room.
His best night in Alexandria, of course, couldn’t begin to match the comfort he took for granted up here in his adopted home. The grief and edge of those days now yielded to adult understanding. The gallery owner recognized for instance the impact of his schooling, gender-segregated right through the onrush of hormones. He’d had classmates put a hand on him, and though he’d deflected their suggestions of a blowjob, he’d walked in on one or two. At home, meanwhile, Maman and Papà had remained proud sophisticates, entirely frank. Then once they were gone, how many options did a teenage refugee have? And didn’t some of those young people emerge from their desperation with souls intact? Especially a boy like Risto—or whatever name he’d gone by—a very lucky boy. He’d never dated a con man or a sociopath. He’d never wound up with counterfeit paper or a knife at his gullet. For him it was just the hustle, living on his feet, and eventually he arranged a departure from one of the safer ports of debarkation, just across the El Alamein highlands. As for the ride there, he had an oilman out of the Crimea, with a bodyguard and a Mercedes. One more weekend as boytoy wouldn’t interfere with Risto getting put back together. One more nightmare, featuring the Russian’s straight razor, wouldn’t keep him from Naples and the North.
And hadn’t the hardscrabble paid off? When it came time to unload the caravan, hadn’t he forged a decent bargain? An art gallery in the Italian south, run by an African from south of the Sahara—maybe that wasn’t so grand, on the scale of civil wars and ocean crossings. Still, it wasn’t just another white man with a full wallet and an empty evening.