Be the City


From Electric Lit:

For two seasons when I was nine, I lived in a refugee hostel outside Rome, a place where time had stopped and people waited without purpose, plan, or country. Arriving in government cars, we spotted Hotel Barba from far off roads or neighboring villages, the great house on the hill, dotting the landscape. In the late eighties, for just two years, the owner leased it to the government to house the likes of us, an eclectic circle, rich and poor, young and old, illiterate and scholarly, who came from Afghanistan, Iran, Romania, Poland, the Soviet Union, and wherever else turned out refugees in those days. Our lot included professors, surgeons, internationally known preachers, field workers, soldiers, activists. My mother, an outspoken Christian doctor, had fled Iran with my younger brother and me in 1987. We had already spent a year as refugees in Dubai.

Despite a charming exterior, Hotel Barba was a refugee camp and we were to stay put, having been granted no status in Italy. But, to its residents, many of whom had escaped death, the deafening quiet of Mentana village was a purgatory. All day we sat around and languished in the winter chill, praying that by summer we’d be gone from there — all except two, a young Romanian fleeing with his wife, and my mother, both of whom filled their days with work. I read English books and played hopscotch and became obsessed with having a home again, with ending the wander days, rooting, and with the mysteries of adulthood. Each day when the postman arrived, the crowds outside the mail cubbies swelled, jostling for a good view. We wanted to know, “Who got his letter today?” If someone had, the crowd hushed as he opened his envelope, fingers trembling, eyes scanning, then either cried quietly into his palm, muttering curses, or loudly on his knees, thanking his god. Everyone was frantic for a letter from America or England or Australia, roomy Anglophone countries. All we did was dream, a maddening state, and battle loneliness.

We fought boredom in increasingly desperate ways: an Afghan grandmother collected bricks from a nearby construction site and carried them back to her room under her chador. Her daughter read fortunes from the remnants in mugs of instant coffee. A 20-year-old Iranian soldier with his face half bleached from a wartime chemical burn taught the children soccer. Later, the same children snuck into a neighboring orchard to steal unripe peaches and plums, because our tongues itched for sour and had nothing else to soothe the craving. I offered an English class, attended by a handful of burly Russian men. I skipped around the yard in my pink skirt with the men following, taking notes as I pointed to things: tree, fence, chador, babushka (they indulged me). People grumbled. They complained. They fought.

One day, an unhappy wife fled into the arms of her young friend, the only other Romanian, aside from herself and her husband, then residing at Barba.

“How Love Ends: Scenes from a Refugee Hotel”, Dina Nayeri, Electric Lit