I as in Island

von Daniela Bär Daniela Bär, *1989, ist Kulturpublizistik-Absolventin und Zollfreilager-Mitgründerin. gepostet am 10. Dezember 2014

“An island is always the other: When you’re on the water, it’s land. And when you’re on the mainland, the real land, it’s a part of the ocean. (…) A hermaphrodite, not flesh and not fish, but something else, something new.” (Dieter Richter, Das Meer, page 123)

Even geology has to decide: is an island the result of slowly receding waters or something that is pushed above sea level by tectonic forces? The island’s neither/nor character and its as-well-as existence turn it into a versatile place of desire, rich in connotations and great mythical potential. Writers use it as a stage for the entire spectrum from paradise to cannibalism; readers all around the world have followed the call to Atlantis and to the South Seas. They are places for exiles and utopians. Every etymological and storytelling tradition points out the isolated character of islands. This inspires intellectual speculations, permits the design of alternative societal models, and stimulates the group dynamics of those inside this micro-cosmos, isolated from the rest of the world on their piece of land. Material for epic stories, therefore.

Due to contemporary socio-political realities, the island has increasingly become the paradigmatic point for refugee movements in the greater European area. This is in keeping with a long tradition. Islands have always been essential, for example, for the development of trade and seafaring; therefore also for the emergence of cultural exchange, which played a central role in globalization, especially in the Mediterranean. In this respect, an island is, in Dieter Richter’s words, a hermaphrodite: “On the one hand it favors the development and conservation of cultural peculiarities, and on the other hand it promotes the expansion of human activities in other strange spaces.” The island as a stage for the collision of the familiar and the foreign: Richter’s observation takes us to Europe’s outer borders, to Lampedusa, which North African refugees have been using as a gateway to Europe since Dublin II.

The basic idea of Dublin II, a regulation set into motion by the European Union, is that any member nation that has allowed, or at least has not prohibited, the entry of a refugee must take responsibility for the refugee and for the payment of asylum procedures. This leads to absurd scenarios on the high seas: Coast Guards refuse to allow a ship to dock if it is carrying refugees that were saved from a sinking boat (recent examples include the tanker M/T Salamis and the humanitarian rescue ship Cap Anamur).

The tension between rejection and inclusion, between law and fate, between defense and care, materializes on the twenty square kilometers of Lampedusa. Nearly 20,000 refugees have died off the Italian coast during the past twenty years and it is Lampedusa’s fate to have become a safe haven floating in what Richter calls “Europe’s moat.” How this affects the island’s inhabitants can be seen, for instance, in the Intermundia exhibition at the 2014 Architecture Biennale in Venice. A room, in which visitors are subjected to a collaged soundscape of the gruesome associations with Lampedusa, is set against a book with photographs and interviews. Here the main question posed to the island’s inhabitants is the question of identity: do you feel like an Italian or a European citizen? The answers are typical for islanders: Neither/nor. Gaspare, a Lampedusan citizen, says he is African and therefore “the true illegal alien.” Mayor Giulio Nicolini says, “You’re asking this question to a Lampedusan. It is a difficult question. As those who are born and live here in the center of the Mediterranean, I feel as a citizen of the world.” Luciano, described as an older gentleman, agrees, “I am the citizen of the world, my dear. I don’t know what Europe is. Rubbish, that’s what it is.”

Quellen zum Text:

  • Dieter Richter, Das Meer. Geschichte der ältesten Landschaft, 2014.
  • Elias Bierdel & Maximilian Lakitsch, Flucht und Migration. Von Grenzen, Ängsten und Zukunftschancen, Dialog, volume 65, 2014.

Translation: Sophia Cosby