An Italian interlude

August 25,2019

A long time ago I had heard this quote, or quip, that Italy is the only Asian country in Europe. It could be a playful comment on the Italian way of life and a lingering streak of discord in its...

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A long time ago I had heard this quote, or quip, that Italy is the only Asian country in Europe. It could be a playful comment on the Italian way of life and a lingering streak of discord in its politics. The Italians are more emotional, perhaps, than other Europeans. They love life and live long, undeterred by social or economic challenges.

In fact, we should be envious of how Italians deal with their problems and with the vagaries of their politicians. It is possible to highlight the country’s present political instability. But that is not my intention.

There is a reason my mind is wandering so far away at this time when so much is happening on the national front and when South Asia is visibly hurtling towards some kind of a terrifying upheaval. I have just returned after three weeks of a family get-together in Italy and I am finding it difficult to wake up from that dream. Besides, talking about my recent escapades is an excuse to not immediately delve into the reality of Pakistan. This, in a way, is my anti-depressant.

Incidentally, the past three weeks have witnessed some exceptional events. This is a tsunami that no one had promised. As it is, the month of August has its anniversaries. Before leaving in the first week of this month, I had promised myself to find time during the vacation to write my views on the enhanced relevance now of the Quaid’s August 11, 1947 speech. It would have been appropriate because the date fell on a Sunday – the day my column is published.

But India’s annexation of Kashmir intervened. Against this flaming backdrop, all our thoughts that relate to our history and the overall situation in this jinxed region under the Himalayas have gone awry. So much else that would demand the attention of a columnist is certainly there, such as the extension of the chief of army staff and the completion of one year of Imran Khan’s ‘Naya Pakistan’. I have returned to a rain-ravaged Karachi. I lost sleep when I learnt about the lynching of a teenager because he was suspected of being a thief. Yet, it is Kashmir that has overtaken all our concerns. And it is a developing story.

Meanwhile, I am taking the liberty of sharing some thoughts about a personal experience. I believe that some aspects of what I want to say would be of general interest. However, this is not a travelogue. Italy figures rather prominently because my younger daughter lives there, just as southern California provides the stage for our adventures when we join our elder daughter’s family.

It has become a family ritual to come together once or twice or thrice every year for as long as our busy lives and vast distances would allow. Otherwise, my wife and I live separated from our two children and their nuclear families, bravely fending for ourselves in Karachi in our old age, though not without our daughters’ long-distance care. The point here is that countless other middle-class families have to deal with a similar situation.

So, any opportunity of being together, including in Karachi, is immeasurably precious. Yes, we do remain connected almost on a daily basis in the digital realm, in the virtual world. But that somehow increases our longing to be in the same place. This togetherness nurtures our emotional strength. It becomes, so to say, our defence against insanity.

We consider ourselves lucky to be able to do this on a regular basis and now, in a reversal of roles, our daughters lead the way and have the decisive say in planning our activities. As a friend observed, they were once our children and now we are their children. Still, our grandchildren remain the centre of our universe.

This is an aside because the idea is to not relate personal stories but underline the burdens that families scattered across continents have to bear and how opportunities such as we have had can recharge our lives. But travel to foreign countries, for whatever purpose, has its flip side. Unavoidably, you take note of the differences that exist between Pakistan and other countries.

It is in this context that I want to talk a little more about Italy. It so happens that I had done two special reports on this country during the eighties for Dawn. It was then that I discovered some bonds that have existed between our two countries. For instance, Italian archaeologists have done a lot of work in Pakistan, particularly in Swat. I have been touch with one of them since my first visit.

We are very proud of our high peaks, K-2 being the second highest mountain after Everest. In 1954, two Italian climbers were the first to reach its summit. But more touching is how Italy has embraced our child rights hero Iqbal Masih. He had escaped from a carpet factory where he was a bonded labour and became a spokesperson against child labour. He was murdered in 1995 when he was only 12. The Human Rights Commission and Asma Jahangir had lauded his struggle as a symbol against child labour.

Our younger daughter Aliya found a school named after Iqbal Masih in Monza, where she lives, and made a short documentary on him for PTV which was shown during Ramazan this year. There are other schools named after him in Italy. His story is part of the curriculum in these schools.

One encounter with Italy stands out in my memory. It was the international wine exhibition, held in Verona as Vinitaly2013. ‘Another love story’, also the slogan of the exhibition, was the title of my column published in this space on April 15, 2013. The first love story set in Verona was, of course, of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. Shakespeare had told the tale of fictitious star-crossed lovers but Verona has Juliet’s balcony that attracts hordes of young lovers.

Articles have been written about the longevity of Italians; and the secret to that, apparently, is their social structure. The institution of the family is very important for them. Their love for beauty is reflected in their high fashion. They passionately nurture their friendships. They share their feelings, also frustrations, with each other. They are so garrulous. They speak even with their gestures.

In essence, they love life and its pleasures and foster a lively sense of community. They have traditionally been drinking wine with their fabled Mediterranean meals. And talking of wine, I recently read that Italy now produces more wine than France. Does this mean that there is very little that we can learn from Italy?

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: ghazi_salahuddinhotmail.com


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