Saturday, January 30, 2010

Blood and Fire

The Haiti earthquake has led to some reflections upon my own earthquake experience.

As a young lad I was living in a small housing development about 40 k north of Naples, Italy during the wild and woolly anni di piombo--the "years of lead." The many assassinations and kidnappings of those times were background noise for what was for me perhaps the most secure and idyllic period of my life.

Our housing development was then brand new and the construction sites of numerous new villas were our (forbidden) playgrounds. Soon after moving in I was given a tour of the sites, all of which had colorful names. The only one I remember was called the "wiggling worm" because of all the electrical sheaths hanging out of the walls. This was the Italian countryside; we could awake one morning to find sheep grazing in the field next to our house. On another day it might be water buffalo. No matter, I could leave the house in the morning and return in the evening and my parents never needed to worry.

Anyway, the earthquake struck in 1980 on November 23 and is known as the Irpinia earthquake. The quake measured 6.89 on the Richter Scale and killed over 2900 people. Thousands were injured an as many as 300,00 left homeless. It was a major catastrophe and fortunately, scared was all I got.

This veers into LoS territory because of the reputed miracle of San Gennaro, patron saint of Naples. The miracle involves the annual liquefaction of the saint's blood. The faithful gather three times a year to witness the event. Not surprisingly, if the blood fails to liquefy, it's interpreted as a bad omen and means bad luck until the next try.

You can imagine what comes next: the blood failed to liquefy on September 19, 1980. Then the quake struck two months later. Dots were connected; faith in the blessings and curses of the liquefaction were confirmed.

Like many "miracles," there are non-supernatural theories, but given that it hasn't been adequately researched, no conclusive scientific explanation has been offered:

"Whether these simple tests will be allowed to go ahead wholly depends upon the Catholic Church. At present however, given that the phenomenon has been replicated, it would be rather too naive to consider it irreproducible or unexplainable."

Our point with all this is that people will readily ascribe supernatural origins to natural phenomena, especially if the phenomena are poorly understood. This was the case in 1980 and, at least for one prominent American televangelist, the reason for the earthquake in Haiti.

Remember Pat Robertson:

"They were under the heel of the French ... and they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, 'We will serve you if you'll get us free from the French.' "True story. And the devil said, 'OK, it's a deal,'" Robertson said. "Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after another."

The name Gennaro, by the way, comes from the Roman god Janus, god of "gates, doors, doorways, beginnings and endings." If anything, the Haitian earthquake was the end of one thing and the beginning of another. LoS, for the attentive reader, has also over time become increasingly interested in the concept of gates and transitions (see "pillars" for example).

Finally, Janus also left us with the name of January, or doorway to the new year, month of the earthquake; "January" in Italian is "Gennaio".

One thing leading to another, I Googled "Parco Lagani"--my old stomping ground--and came across this blog, in Italian. Google translates it thusly, in other words, poorly, but you get the idea.

I was stunned by the way the old neighborhood has turned out, also by the fact that on this website (first photo) one can even see a picture of a duplex version of my old house! (Mine was a freestanding version exactly like the one on the left....

According to the blog, Parco Lagani began to decline in the wake of the earthquake with the arrival of many IDP's--internal refugees from the quake zone, mostly poor. When these people went back to where they came from later in the 80's, the houses remained empty, often as a result of structural problems due to the quake. Instead of paying for expensive renovations, the owners began renting to the migrant workers who flocked to the area. This was the country, remember?

Over time, Lagani became a kind of free zone, anarchic, where the police never went. African immigrants set up illegal stores, it became a center of drug trafficking; prostitutes who plied their trade in Naples made it their home.

Meanwhile, across the highway, there are luxury resorts for the rich. Reminds me of those reports of the cruise ship docked on a private Haitian beach where tourists frolicked in the surf while people were still being pulled from the rubble a few kilometers away.

The blog entry, from January 29, 2009, reports on the reaction of the enormous police raid on Lagani, in search of drugs and weapons. From what I gather it was a heavy-handed affair and is seen by advocates for the immigrants more as a form of harassment than anything else. "The police raid last Thursday was greeted almost with wonder by the locals, accustomed to living with widespread illegality."

Somehow it all ties together; race, class, divine retribution, displaced people.

Parco Lagani is part of the commune of Castel Volturno, a small city whose origins date back to before the Etruscans. Now, it's most famous for the 2008 murder of African immigrant (alleged) drug traffickers over turf and royalty disputes by members of the Casalesi clan of the Comorra. The massacre is also known as the Strage di San Gennaro because of the date, September 18, the day before San Gennaro's feast day. The day, you'll recall, that his blood failed to liquefy back in 1980. The Casalesi--this night excluded--generally keep a lower profile than most Comorra clans, focusing not so much on drug trafficking as on construction.

Interestingly, on the Italian Wikipedia, translated:

"Castel Volturno is best known for building development insane, and in most cases illegal, due to development policies derived from the reconstruction after the earthquake of the eighties. The municipality is also notorious for high crime rate.
Castel Volturno is in fact highly sensitive to the power of the clans Camorra, and its name can be made to refer to some facts of crime news."

Oh how it all ties together. The earthquake led to a rash of substandard and illegal housing, most obviously connected to mafias specialized in the trade. These places were unsellable and unrentable to most Italians, so they got stocked full of the illegal immigrants who came to the area for honest work and work not so honest. Rivalries arose and, on a violent night in September, almost the feast day of San Gennaro, whose reticent blood indirectly brought them there, the Africans were gunned down.

So, recent riots in Calabria by migrant workers have a bit of background. These migrants work in orchards and are paid as little as a dollar a day. Again, the mafia is involved in this exploitative setup.

Displaced Africans are exploited and as in Haiti 200 years ago, they rebel. In the end, not much changes.

Authorities are already predicting that the widespread corruption in the wake of the Irpinia quake, which led to the aforementioned decline of Castel Volturno, could happen again in the wake of the 2009 earthquake in the Abruzzo region. Journalist Robert Saviano:

"What is a tragedy for this population," he wrote, "for someone else can become an opportunity, a bottomless mine, a paradise of profit."

The displaced poor are exploited and as everywhere else, are fucked in the end. Not much changes.

Double-faced Janus, looking to the future and to the past, god of transitions, namesake of San Gennaro, god of blood which changes, Naples and massacres, whistles an old refrain and relishes the truth found in a clichéd aphorism: the more things change, the more things stay the same.


  1. Geeze, I was (and maybe still am) a fan of your blog, but I struggled to get even get through the post once it hit "Pat Robertson".

    Give us a "feeler" for the content in the first few paragraphs, dude. I still have no idea what this is about (Haiti? Italy? Earthquakes?) Cripes, tie the purpose in the first few sentences, and maybe think about a title that alludes to the post.

  2. Ok, tried to read past it, but the gist was "you can't go home again". WTF?

    Dude, are you drinking again?

  3. Well, thanks for reading regularly and especially for commenting. Don't give up on us for one misfire.

    I accept your criticism because I myself was unsure of the post, didn't let it stew long enough, didn't make the connections well enough. I even arbitrarily lopped off an intro and outro paragraph because it seemed superfluous at the time.

    It may have been the "feeler" you were after.

    The point of all this is that because people are still willing to ascribe supernatural causes to natural events, it leads to a kind of fatalism and thus makes it easier to excuse the human failure in such events.

    The displaced poor, especially minorities, are especially vulnerable in these circumstances.

    The title is relevant. The blood is that of San Gennaro and that of the dead. It also refers to the blood oaths in mafia initiations (from the last paragraph I edited out). The fire is the gunfire and destructive power. It's also the Salvation Army slogan, a reference to the aforementioned religiosity which can in some cases have such a negative (Pat Robertson) expression.

    So. I admit my failures here. It's about Haiti, Italy and earthquakes. The dynamic is the same; poverty, catastrophe, racism, criminality....

    I also cut an apology for turning the event into something about me...probably shouldn't have.

    So GJ, maybe I'll revise this a bit, maybe not. Not every post is a winner!

    Do I know you, btw?

    Thanks again for the constructive criticism.

  4. I liked the personal connection

  5. But Gid, does GJ have a point? We're kind of used to working without many comments....maybe this is a good thing, maybe not....

  6. Daurade --

    I wasn't trying to disagree with GJ; rather, respectfully, I was trying to counter your statement that: "I also cut an apology for turning the event into something about me...probably shouldn't have."

    See, I think that relating your personal experience was a great hook for drawing the reader into your essay; framing this essay in terms of your personal experience was also a potentially great narrative device that could have provided a cohesive construct for the piece. (Sorry for the mixed metaphor: fishing and construction, sheesh.)

    So while I disagree with GJ's 2nd comment, I do think he has a point in his 1st comment. Ironically, though, I'd say that I'm the one who's generally guilty of rambling--not you, Daurade.

  7. Galactic Jello --

    Now a note to you: Your 1st comment hit me like I was the target.

    But as a seemingly nit-picky point of clarification regarding your 2nd comment: I believe that the phrase "you can't go home again" means that a mismatch between you and home has arisen due to some personal change on "your" part (rather than an alteration to your home or family); in other words, *you* grew while home was static--not the other way around. To put it in biblical terms, the reason you cannot return to Eden is not due to some flaming-sword wielding guardian--it's because you are no longer innocent.

    This is an important point because it ties into idea of: Who is to blaim for the disaster in Haiti? In Haiti, "home" changed, and the people were ejected for no fault of their own. The people didn't f* up and guilt their way out of goodness here, GJ. (And just to be clear, they were not in Eden to begin with).

    At any rate, GJ, I am glad to see that you recognize that LoS is not intended to regurgitate old sayings like "you can't go home" or "sh*t happens" or "bad things sometimes happen to good people". Your time, and ours, is too important for such trite-ness.

    If you see any posts here that seem reducible to such fiddlesticks--either we've been drinking again or else you've had too long of a day in the classroom.

    Nonetheless, thank you for the 1st comment--a ballsy calling us (and by "us" I mean me more than Daurade) on our trembling lack of focus.

    BTW, I googled your moniker and noticed that this type of comment seems to be your specialty.

    How 'bout letting us know when we do something right, too? We would, I assure you, appreciate knowing what we do right just as much we appreciate knowing what we do wrong.



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