Aurora Massa: Back in (whose?) time: Traces of Italian colonialism in Eritrean and Somali restaurants and cafés in Northern London

Back in (whose?) time: Traces of Italian colonialism in Eritrean and Somali restaurants and cafés in Northern London

by Aurora Massa

 

After the Second World War, Italian colonialism followed a peculiar historical path compared to that of other European countries. In Italy, the memory of colonialism almost vanished because of post-war efforts to deal with the embarrassing Fascist period and to put back together a society divided by the war. Scholars, leftist intellectuals, and numerous representatives of the so-called civil society denounced the most violent expressions of colonial domination (e.g., the use of gas as a weapon and the sexual exploitation of women), in an explicit attempt to dispute the stereotype of Italians as “good people” (italiani brava gente), widespread in the public opinion. However, two factors had contributed to the idea that Italy’s social, cultural and political penetration in its colonies had been only superficial: colonial expansionism had begun late and, even at its peak, it had control over a very limited number of overseas territories (Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia).

Yet Eritrean and Somali migrants tell quite a different story about that past, refuting both the opposed narratives of an Italian colonialism as either “soft” or unconditionally “violent”. While acknowledging its brutal manifestations, at the same time they experience and make use of colonial memories, and thus show how such legacy is still part of their own present. Indeed, colonial heritage emerges in the urban fabric of Mogadishu, Massawa and Asmara (designed by Italian architects in the 1930s, the latter was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017 for its modernist architecture). It pops up in everyday conversation with terms such as forchetta (fork), cacciavite (screwdriver) and cancello (gate). It shows itself in a certain familiarity with spaghetti, cappuccino and macchiato. Traces of colonialism are also expressed in the self-representation of those who were born and raised in Asmara and Mogadishu, and are also part of the cultural background migrants bring with them.

Such a background is neither inert nor routinized. It can rather be described as a set of practices and discourses that people mobilize in order to define themselves and build symbolic boundaries between themselves and their “others”. What’s more, it is used in different ways according to the contexts of settlement. During a pilot ethnographic visit I conducted in London (Nov. 19th – Dec. 6th 2017), my Italian nationality proved to be of particular relevance to my Eritrean and Somali interlocutors. They made reference to it to start conversations, and it was a topic of discussion in itself. It elicited descriptions of colonial heritage through the recollection of Italian terms, the displaying of pictures and the singing of fascist songs. Many of the episodes I witnessed could foster methodological reflections about the challenges of conducting fieldwork in a setting where research participants emphasize cultural and historical elements of the ethnographer’s background, which s/he had previously considered irrelevant or even detrimental. I would like instead to address these issues by analysing some of the colonial legacies I came across while studying the process of homing of Somali and Eritrean migrants in London.

During my fieldwork I paid specific attention to restaurants and cafes that explicitly recall Eritrea and Somalia, interpreting them as semi-public arenas that bridge the intimacy of private dwellings with unfamiliar public space and where people reproduce a home-like setting in the foreign, host society. I observed how these spaces are furnished and decorated, which foods and drinks are served; I analysed domestic activities, such as cooking and making drinks, cleaning and tiding up, and how customers use them to meet people and friends, to create opportunities to speak their language, to immerse themselves in domestic atmospheres and listen to familiar music.

c20d1938-d325-40a7-94a6-108bed303be0.jpg

While focusing on objects, foods and smells, and talking to the owners, waiters and customers, I found out recurring traces of colonial legacy, emerging in more or less explicit forms. In some cases they represented the idea behind a business, part of its very marketing strategies. In this respect, a good example is Lemlem Kitchen, a shack located in one of the numerous weekly street food markets of London, offering Eritrean traditional food in a tacos-like version. As stated on its website: “The inspiration for Lemlem Kitchen comes from the flavours of my hometown Asmara […] an African city built by Italian Modernists. […] We designed our shack ourselves in homage to the Agip Service Station in Godaif, Asmara, Eritrea. Designed by an anonymous Italian architect and built in 1937 we think it challenges clichéd notions of African architecture, which in turn reflects the approach we take with our food”.                                                IMG_20171202_122113.jpg

In other word, Fascist architecture is turned into a “source of inspiration” for its “modern African menu”, to quote again Lemlem’s website, thus becoming a strategy to navigate and affirm itself in the growing street food sector.

Elements of Italian cooking traditions are frequently found on the menus of restaurants serving dishes from the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia. In some cases, my interlocutors invested them with the positive symbolic capital of Italian food, characterized as tasty and healthy in explicit opposition to the unhealthiness of British food. In other cases, it was more simply incorporated into the culinary offer, as a “typically” Somali food, as the picture below shows.

IMG_20171206_141049.jpg

Similar considerations can be applied to objects. In one of the bigger Somali restaurants I visited in London, two eagles sat behind the cash register, next to pots and religious engravings. The owner, Abdullahi, a 43 years old man, told me that all the decorations had come from Mogadishu and were expressions of typical Somali handicraft. I could not help but comment that, from my point of view, eagles look like Italian fascist art. Abdullahi agreed, explaining to me how colonial legacy has shaped Mogadishu’s architecture, as well as Somali food and drinks. “That’s why we serve spaghetti and cappuccino here”, he concluded. Thus, looking at Abdullahi’s words and practices, the colonial legacy embodied by the two eagles appears as “authentically Somali”: they are imbued with affection and symbolic meaning, and used to recreate a corner of Somalia in his restaurant, helping him to feel at home in London.

e rest.jpgItalian colonial legacy is even stronger when we take into consideration practices related to hygiene. Feven – a woman in her fifties who was born in Asmara –, devotes a lot of time and energies to sweeping and washing the floor, sorting tables and chairs, and polishing the counter of her café. In our talks she loved emphasising these activities, explaining to me how keeping spaces clean in this way is one of the qualities Eritreans inherited from Italians. Like many other Eritreans I met during my previous and current fieldwork in Ethiopia and Italy, she used these practices to differentiate her national community from other African groups, drawing on a widespread narrative according to which Eritrean people feel superior and more civilized than other Africans. Interestingly, she also relied on ideas of Italian colonial legacy to mark a symbolic boundary with her host community, the British, to point out the peculiarities of her café.

Feven was proud of the colonial past she felt she shared with me, and she mobilized it to decorate her tiny café: many of the pictures on the walls depicted buildings constructed by Italians in Asmara, and among glasses and bottles, books celebrated the modernist architecture of Asmara, the so-called “Little Rome”. More than once, she told me about the only trip she had made to Rome, defining the city as a place where she immediately felt at home, which she had never felt in other European countries. During one of her accounts of this journey, she asked me about the eviction in Piazza Indipendenza, which occurred this summer. She told me she was shocked about such an event, especially because it happened in Italy. “When you are back home [in Eritrea], Italy is like a second home, because our grandfathers speak Italian, because of the architecture and so on. Also to me, Italy is like home”.

The shape of the shack of Lemlem Kitchen, the disposition of the two eagles and the cleaning activities can be interpreted as the result of a creative re-appropriation of colonialist symbols, which in the past had been imposed from above. Adopting a critical lens, and recalling Fanon’s approach, these processes could be seen as signs of the embodiment of colonial violence, which penetrates people, is invested in their self-images, and colonises their memories and intimate spaces. They emerge as a sign of the process that leads people to accept a reductive image of themselves; a symbol that eats history up, and is naturalized to the point of becoming “authentically” Somali or Eritrean. However, from the point of view of social actors themselves, food, modernist architecture, views of cleanliness and of course the eagles, are richly re-semanticized. As a result, they convey affection and symbolic capital which shape semi-public spaces, such as café and restaurants, and which, at the end of the day, contribute to migrants’ homing in London.

After the Second World War, Italian colonialism followed a peculiar historical path compared to that of other European countries. In Italy, the memory of colonialism almost vanished because of post-war efforts to deal with the embarrassing Fascist period and to put back together a society divided by the war. Scholars, leftist intellectuals, and numerous representatives of the so-called civil society denounced the most violent expressions of colonial domination (e.g., the use of gas as a weapon and the sexual exploitation of women), in an explicit attempt to dispute the stereotype of Italians as “good people” (italiani brava gente), widespread in the public opinion. However, two factors had contributed to the idea that Italy’s social, cultural and political penetration in its colonies had been only superficial: colonial expansionism had begun late and, even at its peak, it had control over a very limited number of overseas territories (Libya, Eritrea, Somalia, Ethiopia).

Yet Eritrean and Somali migrants tell quite a different story about that past, refuting both the opposed narratives of an Italian colonialism as either “soft” or unconditionally “violent”. While acknowledging its brutal manifestations, at the same time they experience and make use of colonial memories, and thus show how such legacy is still part of their own present. Indeed, colonial heritage emerges in the urban fabric of Mogadishu, Massawa and Asmara (designed by Italian architects in the 1930s, the latter was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2017 for its modernist architecture). It pops up in everyday conversation with terms such as forchetta (fork), cacciavite (screwdriver) and cancello (gate). It shows itself in a certain familiarity with spaghetti, cappuccino and macchiato. Traces of colonialism are also expressed in the self-representation of those who were born and raised in Asmara and Mogadishu, and are also part of the cultural background migrants bring with them.

Such a background is neither inert nor routinized. It can rather be described as a set of practices and discourses that people mobilize in order to define themselves and build symbolic boundaries between themselves and their “others”. What’s more, it is used in different ways according to the contexts of settlement. During a pilot ethnographic visit I conducted in London (Nov. 19th – Dec. 6th 2017), my Italian nationality proved to be of particular relevance to my Eritrean and Somali interlocutors. They made reference to it to start conversations, and it was a topic of discussion in itself. It elicited descriptions of colonial heritage through the recollection of Italian terms, the displaying of pictures and the singing of fascist songs. Many of the episodes I witnessed could foster methodological reflections about the challenges of conducting fieldwork in a setting where research participants emphasize cultural and historical elements of the ethnographer’s background, which s/he had previously considered irrelevant or even detrimental. I would like instead to address these issues by analysing some of the colonial legacies I came across while studying the process of homing of Somali and Eritrean migrants in London.

During my fieldwork I paid specific attention to restaurants and cafes that explicitly recall Eritrea and Somalia, interpreting them as semi-public arenas that bridge the intimacy of private dwellings with unfamiliar public space and where people reproduce a home-like setting in the foreign, host society. I observed how these spaces are furnished and decorated, which foods and drinks are served; I analysed domestic activities, such as cooking and making drinks, cleaning and tiding up, and how customers use them to meet people and friends, to create opportunities to speak their language, to immerse themselves in domestic atmospheres and listen to familiar music.

While focusing on objects, foods and smells, and talking to the owners, waiters and customers, I found out recurring traces of colonial legacy, emerging in more or less explicit forms. In some cases they represented the idea behind a business, part of its very marketing strategies. In this respect, a good example is Lemlem Kitchen, a shack located in one of the numerous weekly street food markets of London, offering Eritrean traditional food in a tacos-like version. As stated on its website: “The inspiration for Lemlem Kitchen comes from the flavours of my hometown Asmara […] an African city built by Italian Modernists. […] We designed our shack ourselves in homage to the Agip Service Station in Godaif, Asmara, Eritrea. Designed by an anonymous Italian architect and built in 1937 we think it challenges clichéd notions of African architecture, which in turn reflects the approach we take with our food”.

In other word, Fascist architecture is turned into a “source of inspiration” for its “modern African menu”, to quote again Lemlem’s website, thus becoming a strategy to navigate and affirm itself in the growing street food sector.

Elements of Italian cooking traditions are frequently found on the menus of restaurants serving dishes from the Horn of Africa, especially Somalia. In some cases, my interlocutors invested them with the positive symbolic capital of Italian food, characterized as tasty and healthy in explicit opposition to the unhealthiness of British food. In other cases, it was more simply incorporated into the culinary offer, as a “typically” Somali food, as the picture on the right side shows.

Similar considerations can be applied to objects. In one of the bigger Somali restaurants I visited in London, two eagles sat behind the cash register, next to pots and religious engravings. The owner, Abdullahi, a 43 years old man, told me that all the decorations had come from Mogadishu and were expressions of typical Somali handicraft. I could not help but comment that, from my point of view, eagles look like Italian fascist art. Abdullahi agreed, explaining to me how colonial legacy has shaped Mogadishu’s architecture, as well as Somali food and drinks. “That’s why we serve spaghetti and cappuccino here”, he concluded. Thus, looking at Abdullahi’s words and practices, the colonial legacy embodied by the two eagles appears as “authentically Somali”: they are imbued with affection and symbolic meaning, and used to recreate a corner of Somalia in his restaurant, helping him to feel at home in London.

Italian colonial legacy is even stronger when we take into consideration practices related to hygiene. Feven – a woman in her fifties who was born in Asmara –, devotes a lot of time and energies to sweeping and washing the floor, sorting tables and chairs, and polishing the counter of her café. In our talks she loved emphasising these activities, explaining to me how keeping spaces clean in this way is one of the qualities Eritreans inherited from Italians. Like many other Eritreans I met during my previous and current fieldwork in Ethiopia and Italy, she used these practices to differentiate her national community from other African groups, drawing on a widespread narrative according to which Eritrean people feel superior and more civilized than other Africans. Interestingly, she also relied on ideas of Italian colonial legacy to mark a symbolic boundary with her host community, the British, to point out the peculiarities of her café.

Feven was proud of the colonial past she felt she shared with me, and she mobilized it to decorate her tiny café: many of the pictures on the walls depicted buildings constructed by Italians in Asmara, and among glasses and bottles, books celebrated the modernist architecture of Asmara, the so-called “Little Rome”. More than once, she told me about the only trip she had made to Rome, defining the city as a place where she immediately felt at home, which she had never felt in other European countries. During one of her accounts of this journey, she asked me about the eviction in Piazza Indipendenza, which occurred this summer. She told me she was shocked about such an event, especially because it happened in Italy. “When you are back home [in Eritrea], Italy is like a second home, because our grandfathers speak Italian, because of the architecture and so on. Also to me, Italy is like home”.

The shape of the shack of Lemlem Kitchen, the disposition of the two eagles and the cleaning activities can be interpreted as the result of a creative re-appropriation of colonialist symbols, which in the past had been imposed from above. Adopting a critical lens, and recalling Fanon’s approach, these processes could be seen as signs of the embodiment of colonial violence, which penetrates people, is invested in their self-images, and colonises their memories and intimate spaces. They emerge as a sign of the process that leads people to accept a reductive image of themselves; a symbol that eats history up, and is naturalized to the point of becoming “authentically” Somali or Eritrean. However, from the point of view of social actors themselves, food, modernist architecture, views of cleanliness and of course the eagles, are richly re-semanticized. As a result, they convey affection and symbolic capital which shape semi-public spaces, such as café and restaurants, and which, at the end of the day, contribute to migrants’ homing in London.