"I learnt not to judge"
Sonia Serravalli was one of the witnesses of the attack of april 26 and had a relationship with an egyptian man. She later wrote a book about her experiences, "L'oro di Dahab" (The Gold of Dahab). In the interview she gives an honest insight to her feelings and beliefs, about love & judgement.
Did the attack change your relationship with Egypt? And did it change the life of Dahab's people?
It changed my relationship towards Egypt and Dahab in the sense that before I was only a temporary traveller/worker, then suddenly I found myself catapulted into the reality of the people around me, of the local people who in the meantime had become my colleagues, friends and confidants.
If it changed the life of Dahab's people, I don't think so: I was surprised in front of their speed of reaction. As if with resignation they were somehow already used to things like this, or as if they had expected it (of course, these are only my impressions). But their attention doesn't linger willingly over the past, specially over such dramatic events, and in my opinion here also resides part of their strength: the pride for the achieved results is stronger than bad memories, and it's more worth their concentration. It is as if all those present in that event were mysteriously struck by a strange common disease: we don't mention that day anymore.
What has taught to you the experience with the Arabic world?
Not to judge. I learnt that when we judge we restrict the possibilities of the person (or the culture, or the situation) that we have in front of us. Judging means to confine a person inside a section. Perhaps because the entire context is too big to face it, this is justifiable: we can digest only the corner that we decided to cut out of if. But this will never lead to real comprehension. There is a lot of patience, tolerance and listening missing from both sides (our two cultures).
What did Fares *(fake name of the co-protagonist) * taught to you?
Fares was maybe never really able to put himself into somebody else's shoes.
But if he taught me something, it was the strength of character, the conviction in his own ideas, that passion for his own ideals that presupposes also big sacrifices, and that yes, ideally can even bring to self-sacrifice (ideally talking, an physically in extreme historical situations – and I'm not thinking of kamikazes: I'm thinking of Jesus … for instance). I don't care than that, due to mine and the occidental point of view, he might be on the wrong way. What I care for is that we have lost that abnegation, that passion and that availability to (peacefully) fight for the things we believe in.
We complain because we are losing our identity. Paradoxically, I see in the one whom we believe "the other" or the "enemy" precious aspects to gather and to make ours as an antidote for this loss or dissolution. But not then to lead a war against each other, but to go further and finally create a flag which is just human. Often it's just the one that we believe is bringing threat that, if we are able to listen carefully, is offering us part of the solution. And I think it's true that the cure for every sickness is contained inside us, and that every question already contains in embryo its answer. It is the same dynamics.
What do "the others" think of us and of this possible interaction and how do you see a possible solution to the problem of the cultural incomprehension?
To me the only key to defeat closeness and the lack of understanding is discrediting the commonplaces. When you live a long time inside another culture you get often surprised by comments that undermine your long-term prejudices in few seconds. It is not the first time that I discover abroad interesting reversed prejudices that clash with ours. Only recently for instance I discovered that, while we usually think of Arabs as "hot-headed", this is exactly the idea they have about Italians! It is in moments like these that you feel victim of a trick, and you discover the "other" much more similar to yourself, and fundamentally human.
Clichés are our slavery. They decide for us and restrict our freedom of thought and action. Being all human beings – that means no aliens among us –I really cannot give up the idea of a possible channel or bridge where we can meet. I guess I have been looking for a common denominator my whole life.
Can love create a bridge, overcome the misunderstanding and incomprehension between the 2 cultures?
Maybe the higher love can, the non egoistic one, available to a 360-degrees-tolerance, to listening, the one in the Ghandi-style and, to be clearer, the one exemplified for us by Christ. The passion/romantic love existing between two common people – as ungovernable – might be misleading. And perhaps for us it was: for this reason I wouldn't take a couple as an example of the alliance that might be created between two nations or two different societies.
Anyway, thinking of the contrasts between cultures, we often reason due to the big systems, without thinking that in daily life people interact among them in a much more natural and fluid way, creating collaborations, friendships and also loves. During the Second World War my grandmother used to give shelter to young German soldiers, sharing with them her meals, while Italy and Germany were fighting against each other. Today people keep on falling in love beyond racial, religious and political categories. The one who hinders them is always the society or somebody ruling from above.
The experience I lived was my extreme attempt to prove to myself that the biggest and most ungovernable feeling of the world overcomes, after all the rest, even the greatest taboo: the divine one. And I think there is where God really reveals Himself, after all the risks we ran to get to love - because not even under torture I could ever admit to believe that God can be against love, in any of its forms.
Your relationship wasn't a simple love-story: what you tell here was always lived as an exchange that for all the time mirrors the external situation of your Country, isn't it true?
Yes, it is always important to me to stress that I didn't want to tell a sugary and private love-story. That for all the time of my relationship with a Muslim (showing himself in the beginning as a very open-minded person, then revealed himself to be an extremist) I have been constantly living this doubling between the private dimension and the global one, bigger, that my country was living in parallel in front of the so-called "Middle-East". It is the story of an exchange, with the participation and the maximal mutual commitment. All what we in Fares could contest in our occidental mentality has been done with love, and never for dictation or malevolence, not even for a single second. And here is where I do perceive a possible key for the resolution of intercultural conflicts and incomprehension. If a certain kind of behaviour is to Muslims their mission on this world, if to them that is the way to teach and to bring to the world, then it's obvious that what we read directly as an attempt of dictation is to them the sharing of what theybelieve right. Christians did the same, and many more. I lived it deeply on myself. I can disagree with a person like Fares, but I cannot say for a single second that he was not led by a wish of love and goodness for me.
What is the meaning of the title, "The Gold Of Dahab" (subtitle "Creating Bridges")?
Dahab means "gold" in Arabic. But to me the game of words doesn't stop here: there is also a little bit of irony/sarcasm in mentioning gold in a book that speaks of an attack and also of poverty. The irony of having questioned my scale of values. And, after this and other previous experiences in other countries, of being no longer sure of who is "wealthy" and who is not… I would say that it's about time to start measuring the wealth of a person and of a people from the quantity of smiles they dispense every day, and from the quality of their happiness, non measurable materially in any way.
Thank you for the interview!
A public event that becomes private. The intimacy of a moment that becomes universal. Witness of a violent terrorist attack in the heart of Egypt - the attack in Dahab on the 24th of April 2006 - Sonia Serravalli opens her heart and her memories in an intense and moving story, harsh and realistic at the same time. Reconstructing the facts carefully, concentrating most of all on the feelings, the author relives the blasts of the explosions and the endless moments that followed them, the fear and the sense of powerlessness, the desire to forge ahead, to bear witness to what happened. The courage to survive in a world already out of control. The beginning of a relationship, the difficult building of a bridge between Islam and the West, between a man and a woman who love each other and fear each other at the same time. But also the constant striving to listen, to understand.
Order in italian language here (engl. coming soon)
L'oro di Dahab
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