Djarah Kan, "My Father, the Scafista"

The Italo-Ghanaian writer Djarah KAN began as a blogger, with a focus on stories, poetry and reportage about everyday life of the white and black communities in Castel Volturno, a town in southern Italy known for its racial tensions, poverty, and environmental problems related to the Mafia. Her stories take the form of a direct dialogue, aiming to immerse the reader in a magic-realist space between Italy and Africa.

Translator’s Note

A literary essay can report the specificity of its facts while at the same time letting its themes and dynamics travel, so that the outlines of what it says can be shaded in with other contexts. As I translated, I felt myself thinking not just between two languages but different histories of immigration and human trafficking, accumulating in my mind with each translation decision.

Words that carry ongoing histories of violence both do and don’t travel well. The word “clandestino”—used in Italy like the word “illegal” is often used in the US to dehumanize only specific types of immigrants—carries its own Italian sounds and images: running footsteps of carabinieri after a man selling cheap toys on a sidewalk, someone stopped for documents on a hot regional train as everyone watches silently. Similarly, the word “neg*o,” which in Italian is strongly pejorative but the characters here reappropriate, holds a different history from the word in English, yet still attests to an all-too-similar anti-Blackness, traveling in boats across oceans and seas, and inciting protests in Italy as well as the US after the police murder of George Floyd. I used the word “clandestines” instead of “illegals,” and italicized “negro” to give a sense of distance from these words in American English. By using italics for the latter, I aim to also disrupt the flow so that the reader will pause to reckon with its usage.

So much of this piece is about travel, and who facilitates or obstructs it. Keeping in mind the coyotes who profit off helping smuggle migrants across the US-Mexican border, and how the term stays in Spanish, I retained “scafista,” in all its complexity beyond literally meaning “boat driver” in Italian. Coyotes are smugglers rather than traffickers, implying that the movement is consensual, but the verb in Italian for smuggling and trafficking is the same: “trafficare.” This linguistic ambiguity echoes the conflation of criminality and surviving. At the same time there is a very real danger of human traffickers preying on these crossings, and to me the challenge of translating this word gets at a core concern of Kan’s work in general: the damage caused by a lack of human (and humane) nuance, whether in language or policy.

--Julia Conrad


My Father, the Scafista

They’ve arrested another one. Only nineteen years old, Jeremiah tells me. In the mug shot on TV, a negro scarecrow with messy hair, a sunken face, a body lost in the folds of his dirty t-shirt, is the killer and the hangman, the trafficker and the terrorist. He’s the boat driver, yes, that kind, Scafista with a capital S.

I’d expected gold teeth and scars, the killing stare of someone who throws migrants into the water for no reason. I’d expected a carbon copy of those international criminals, clandestine ferrymen, rapists and Islamic terrorists. And instead, between the green and brown of the beers we’re sending down, there’s the shaky image of a boy, just a punk actually, who reminds my friend sitting next to me of someone he knows. No––It’s not him, he says finally with a sigh.

He may switch between offices and job titles but Alfano is always happy to say his thing on immigration and security. He gloats over Our Local Intelligence’s efficiency, chirps in endless phony praise about the force of the police, then goes on to congratulate his own self for the arrest of a kid. Minniti on the other hand keeps his usual low profile, but even sitting on this uncomfortable second-hand couch one can guess the thankless future awaiting the immigrants of this Great Country.

Jeremiah tries to hide what he’s scared of, acts cocky, says his ass is covered by a residence permit anyway and all that. His boss calls him when he needs him. He says, Jeremiah, come to the butcher shop and Jeremiah gets up at dawn and scores twenty euro for eight hours of work, paid black just like his dark face.  

It may not be an easy life but he’s fine with that. Those other ignorant Africans with all their problems aren’t his business. He went through all that and doesn’t want to think about it anymore. But those frantic eyes of the teenage scafista on TV have wasted him.

You know right now I can barely still recognize that big, jaded tough-guy negro. He’s crushed by anxiety, you can see it in his eyes. His fear is an ancient one, rising on the slopes of a screwed-up childhood, and a life gone worse from then on. It’s been fourteen years since I asked him where he came from, what his name was. Didn’t speak a word of Italian then, only Twi, my mother’s language which I’d never learned. Now Jeremiah bites down on his lip so hard a trickle of blood runs from his mouth. It ends up on the floor.

What’s wrong, man? I ask. Why are you doing that?

Jeremiah is arrogant and selfish, keeps quiet when the usual noise about immigration is on TV. Sometimes we watch shows like Dalla Vostra Parte just to see those white fascists wrestle each other over questions they pretend not to understand. But we hardly ever stick with it for too long—after a while my friend’s nerves are shot, he starts cursing like crazy and I know he’s passed the limit of what’s bearable. In the end, he’s right: those fascists are funny, but not that much.

Reading this you’ll say to yourselves, that guy sounds like a real piece of shit, but that’s not the point, the point is that Jeremiah, like most of the people who’ve taken on the Journey, has been broken.

And when he broke—I can’t imagine even the faintest feel, the smell of it—he just sent the whole thing to hell forever. I think that during those days on the open sea far from the coast, some part of him told himself something like, from today on and forever you’re on your own negro, and you can bet that it won’t just be a walk living in a place where you’ll always have to say you’re sorry. And act grateful. Forever.

In the end immigrants like him, and children of immigrants like me, we all have to do this. Justify the usefulness of our presence in a place that’s not Our Home. We can’t truly have the same things Italians can, apart from the phantom forty euros a day and five-star minus a few kind of hotel.

Over the past fourteen years, Jeremiah taught me many hard lessons without ever saying a word. I looked on sort of embarrassed at my half-privileged life while he was forced to go back down to elementary school, humiliated in front of everyone. His family peeled off with each passing day, from one shelter to another, from one house to the next, while I, with the prospects my little life afforded me, sat there, drinking my glass of discount store fruit juice with no fruit.

Even now, our existential proximity comes down to only one point on our documents. I can make fun of Minniti’s bald head, spit on his brainchild administrative order named after himself, but forget that fourteen years ago Jeremiah only came out alive from one of those killing boats because of his father, the Scafista.

You know, when I got here he was the one driving the boat, he tells me, eyes fixed on the screen as he sends down one gulp of beer after another. He drove the boat. He was my captain. Everyone’s captain. Now they have it in for the scafistas, they hunt them down and say they’re human traffickers. But my father saved me, he saved everyone—he got us here. Why should he pay for that?

Smugglers of lives, smugglers who brought you here and made you my brother, I think as his voice echoes through my head.

In Libya, the real murderers are the ones with the keys to the jails, they steal money from the state, from these whites here in Europe, then they fuck you. Men or women, makes no difference. In Libya, the ones in control stay on land, they couldn’t care less about the Italian police because they know the Italian police has it in for the scafistas. They think all those people drowning for nothing is the scafista’s fault—but if it was easy to get in, if the trip was easy I wouldn’t pay some Libyan asshole eight hundred dollars squeezed out of my father’s blood. He’d been working as a fisherman in Libya for years while we stayed in Ghana, but back before Gaddafi was killed you could live well there, you could eat fried fish every other day. Back then I loved the sea and wanted to be a fish.

In Libya they gave you a place to live and a job and you lived well, you did your own thing. Then the war came, a giant mess here, a giant mess there, everyone winning the war so everyone wanting control. My father said: they won’t let us leave, they won’t give us the papers to get on a plane, we’ve got to go by boat. Every night we hid waiting for it to come, and I thought I was going to die because when it did it wasn’t a boat—it was a shitty tin can with a thousand holes. But if we didn’t get in over those holes, those Libyan dogs would make the same ones in us. It didn’t take a thing for them to shoot you, I’m telling you. If you talked too much, they’d shoot; if you complained they’d knock your teeth out, if you moved or went to piss you’d be sure to come back with some part missing.

Jeremiah’s eyes shine, lit up by a wild, almost criminal hate. The classic hatred of children who never were able to recover from it all. His father had saved seventy-eight people from certain death but on TV it didn’t make a difference: the scafista had brought flesh and bone problems to their destination, safe and sound, and so he has to pay, a generic human trafficker.

When our turn came to leave, I started crying and my father held tight my mouth so hard I couldn’t breathe. There were young girls, middle-aged men, little children, people out of their minds, thieves, students, killers, desperate people of all kinds. It was like seeing all of humanity from a faraway point in the universe, except there was my family stuck in the middle, no idea where we’d end up. Family, that was my father. When the Libyans told us to get on, not everyone wanted to. They’d paid for a ship, not a washbasin, and all of us knew what would happen to us, what happened to you if you tried to get into Europe in a beat-up dinghy like that. One of the Libyans collecting money turned to us with his gun and said, Know how to work the boat? And you? You know how? They asked whoever; it didn’t matter to them at all who they were, or what they’d do with us once we were in. He who drives decides and becomes God, got it?

I do, and finally understand the why behind the terrifying stories of torture and violence during those trips. Once the traffickers decide, the boat leaves and that’s it. Criminals are given power by another criminal system known as EU, set up so that any other way of traveling is impossible, and which authorizes other criminals to make butcher meat of the travelers’ lives.

No one could take a boat like that out to sea. In the end, the Libyan turned to this stocky Tunisian and asked if he knew how to steer the boat. He said yes, but you could read in his eyes that he was the type who’d skin you alive and throw you into the water at one wrong word. My father saw the knife, saw the intentions of that man and said—I’m a fisherman. I’ll steer.

He had a document on him with his first and last name and that said “fisherman.” The Libyan with the gun was convinced and so my father became a scafista. He’s not a hero. He’s kind of dumb and here in Italy he has a shitty job and only minds his own business. He’s just a man, got it? A man who wanted to see his son live for as long as he could. My father isn’t a hero, he’s a man. Just a man, like that boy.

You never know who’ll steer the boat or what they’ll do to you, it’s always a gamble, but no one can call my father a killer or a trafficker.

Fourteen years ago, the penalties for scafistas were way different from what they are now. Now his father would have likely ended up in prison, and no one would have listened, because in this part of the world  “migrant” and “lie” are linked by a steel syllogism of certainty.

Jeremiah is still shaking at even just the thought of his father getting taken away, the man he so looks down on, so lazy and so defeated by life that he decided to work at a gas pump, giving up on the sea for good.  

Jeremiah, who knows this story and the truth hidden behind the new monsters to fight, those scafistas and clandestines, knows it’s all made up by the whites who make the laws and who decide who stays and who goes. The world changes between our fingers while we pretend to imagine a life of infinite residency permit renewals. The laws are changing, the world is changing, and the leaders pulling the strings have decided to make of us sometimes poor refugees, sometimes damned economic migrants, the enemy who makes up plots and identities from an Italian-type story where you capture and punish, condemn and punish. This boot-shaped country with its broken heel needs a migrant who’s an antagonist in order to move forward. It takes a truly superstrong glue for it to stay balanced as it runs between fascisms and it’s people like us, like me, Jeremiah and his father, to hold together, through hatred and witch-hunts, the honest citizens of this wobbling country. Or at least we distract them.

Now Jeremiah, who'd been Kofi until he arrived in Italy, feels his neck caught in an invisible grip. His father was a scafista and he suddenly feels he’s the son of a scafista. Trapped, threatened, jerked around. Outside your house the Police chase you with dogs, check your papers, don’t know your story, don’t care if you live or die. In front of our door nineteen-year-old boys with his father’s eyes are locked up and condemned, and so a thought begins circling around through his head, the way crows do before a storm.

Maybe I’ll get out of here, I might go to Sweden, he says, brooding. You heard them on TV. I shouldn’t be here. I shouldn’t even be alive.

I open a beer and pass it to him.  It’s cold in Sweden, I say. It’s not your home.
This, Jeremiah, this is your home.


Julia Conrad’s writing has been published in The Massachusetts Review, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Revista Nexos, and the anthology Choice Words: Writers on Abortion. A recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, University of Iowa, and Wesleyan University, she has an MFA from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, where she is currently an MFA candidate in Literary Translation.