As I was sitting in my usual catatonic state in front of the screen, a story on the news caught my attention. They were talking about a suicide bomber who’d attempted to set off a bomb in the London Underground. He’d made it himself, using a hair product with hydrogen peroxide and whole wheat flour specifically for roti, a round flatbread that Indians make. Thankfully the concoction didn’t come out right and in the end all the bomb did was make a lot of noise, like a huge corn kernel popping. I can almost see him, the bomber, loading up on bottles in an African beauty supply store, then playing the little chemist with the wrong formula!
After the failed explosion, the bomber escaped by jumping out a train window and then changed his clothes in the public restrooms. Didn’t he know there are cameras all over the Tube stations? The images showed this calm-looking guy in a white undershirt, trying to blend in with all the people.
After a few days of searching internationally they’d caught him right here in Rome—out of all the places he could’ve been—hidden in a relative’s house. The bomber had gotten himself some fake papers and had run to his poor brother, who’d been living in Italy for years and had a normal job. They said on the news that he was caught at night and showed the house, a nondescript apartment building in the suburbs. His brother was put in prison too, even though he had nothing to do with it, because just by hiding him he’d become an accomplice. I started buying the newspaper every day because of the bomber. The whole saga had made such an impression on me, I wanted to follow all of its developments.
His lawyer argued that he hadn’t intended to kill anyone, just to get attention. He was enraged about all the women and children dying in Iraq at the hands of the Americans and wanted, with the bomb, to express his protest. We all have moments when we’re mad at the world, but deciding to blow yourself up in the middle of a bunch of people is something entirely different, I’d say.
Nonetheless, at the thought of the bomber shouting out “Allahu Akbar” while the bomb misfired in his hands with a cloud of foam, I, to be honest, almost peed myself laughing. I still wouldn’t have wanted to be near him, of course. The newspapers all said more or less the same things and included the photo of him in his white undershirt along with the one of the apartment where they’d caught him. This was until an article came out that nearly gave me a heart attack.
The journalist had tracked down one of the bomber’s ex-girlfriends and interviewed her. The two of them, when they were about my age, had been part of the Flaminio crew. The bomber was nicknamed “Bambi” because of his big, black, fawnlike eyes and thick lashes. The girl had been so shocked to see his face on TV. According to her, besides being handsome, he was also extremely kind, which is why he had so much success with the ladies. They used to go to the discoteca on Saturday evenings, and like everybody else, Bambi loved hip-hop—he was a great dancer and dressed like a rappettaro, with sagging pants and jerseys from various basketball teams. His idols were African American rappers from the ghetto, but he wasn’t a violent guy. He kept his distance from the wrong crowd; if there were fights, which there often were, he was the peacemaker.
You could find good people in Piazzale Flaminio, like Bambi and his girlfriend, but also dangerous people—pushers and pickpockets. That’s why the police would often go there for a raid; who knows how many times they must’ve asked him for his papers.
He was Muslim but didn’t have any issues hanging out with people who weren’t. He didn’t eat pork, of course, but he didn’t consider alcohol a taboo. The times they had talked about faith he said he believed in Allah, that’s it—he wasn’t an extremist. He had left for London, like many other kids from the Horn of Africa, to seek political asylum. Mainly he’d wanted to be in a place where there was more going on; he only cared about having fun and finding more job opportunities. In Rome, he hadn’t been able to do anything very serious: he worked from time to time but didn’t have any real goals, and no one trusted him. That’s why he couldn’t make plans for the future.
Up until this article, no one had said the bomber had grown up in Rome, so you can imagine my reaction when I found out he used to hang around Piazzale Flaminio. I called Ghiorghis right away to ask if he knew him. Ghiorghis didn’t seem surprised to hear from me: “Where’ve you been, little brother?”
“Nowhere, I’ve had a ton of stuff to do,” I replied from my spot sprawled on the couch. I told him that the story about the bomber had really shaken me. When I asked if he’d known him, and said I thought he might have because they must’ve been around the same age, Ghiorghis said that if I wanted to talk about it we had to meet in person, because it was dangerous over the phone. He added that the people in his old crew would have a lot to say on the subject, too.
His concerns and tone of voice seemed a bit exaggerated to me, but from the little I knew of him, he came across as someone who smelled conspiracy everywhere—Ghiorghis is the type who lets himself be influenced by the movies and thinks those things happen in real life. We agreed to meet at Termini; he would come pick me up with his moped and then we’d go to Ex Snia, an occupied centro sociale, where his friends would be.
Ghiorghis drove with his helmet unfastened, and because he tilted his head to the right to talk to me, I worried that we’d suddenly find ourselves on the sidewalk and crash into a wall. But in the end, who knows how, he managed to keep us headed in the right direction.
He, too, had been surprised that they’d taken this long to report the news. “Bambi didn’t grow up in Africa or London as they’d like to have people believe, but in Rome, just like us.”
“What difference does it make, why don’t they just say it?” I asked while we passed Piazza Vittorio.
“To avoid responsibility—they don’t want anything to do with us, much less if we’re wanted as criminals.”
“What do you mean? We who?”
“Those of us who grew up here, children of Eritrean, Ethiopian, Somali parents—from the ex-colonies, in other words. The Italians don’t even know we exist. Do you know how my mother ended up in Rome?”
“She was working as a maid for a Magneti Marelli executive down in Ethiopia. The guy had been there with his entire family for generations, I think. When Mengistu seized power, he kicked out all the Italians, so my mother accepted her employers’ offer and followed them to Italy.”
“Had you already been born?”
“No, I was born here in Rome. She sent me to Africa for the first few years and my grandma raised me, then when I was old enough she brought me back to Italy and sent me to boarding school.”
Ghiorghis’s phone began ringing. Given his already dangerous driving, I hoped he wouldn’t pick up, but he went ahead and stuck it between his helmet and ear.
“Hey, I’m on my way.”
“Careful! We’ll crash!” I yelled at him, so he cut the call short with “If I don’t hang up this kid will lose his shit.”
Then, because I was dying of curiosity, I asked: “So? Did you know Bambi or not?”
“Of course, we were in boarding school together.”
“In your opinion, why’d he do it?”
“Don’t know, probably because of religion, but what do I know? You’re Muslim too, right?”
“I’m circumcised and everything, and I’ve even tried to be religious, but I didn’t succeed.”
“Succeed?” Ghiorghis laughed. “Why, is religion is something you have to be successful at?”
“Well, yes, in the sense that I’d like to have principles, faith, something to believe in. The fact is that I’m not successful even when I make an effort. On the other hand, if the risk is becoming like the bomber, at this point it’s better to stay a heathen.”
“You know what? The truth is he was a wimp. When he was little he always said he missed his mommy, so the teachers were nicer to him. He got more attention and the best gifts—the most modern stereo, the fastest skates, the coolest sweatshirt—and only because he was handsome, that smart-ass.”
I wanted to tease Ghiorghis about his jealousy, about how bitter he was that Bambi got all the best gifts, but I couldn’t come up with a good line.
“Do you think he wanted to blow himself up and kill a ton of people or just stir up some trouble?”
“Both,” he replied. “If you think about it, deep down it’s the same principle: a search for attention.”
“Yes, but if the attempt succeeds, you die and kill a bunch of people along with you. How can someone even remotely think that’s the right thing to do?”
We’d gone a good distance down Via Prenestina in the meantime, and since our destination was on the left-hand side of the road, Ghiorghis did a big U-turn. I wasn’t expecting it and nearly slid off the back of his moped.
Ex Snia is an abandoned factory where they used to make rayon; it had been occupied and transformed into a centro sociale a dozen years earlier.
“They made parachutes here,” Ghiorghis said.
“Yes, and tents, uniforms, and backpacks for soldiers during the war.”
There’s a big park surrounding Snia, mostly off-limits, unfortunately.
Basically, Ghiorghis told me, a famous developer had wanted to build a shopping mall there and who knows what else but, while digging, the workers struck an aquifer with extremely pure water. “For a while the guy played dumb, he was afraid they’d revoke his permit. He had the water drawn out with pumps and emptied into the sewer. Until a storm made a mess of the whole thing, and that’s how this lake came to be.”
While talking, we’d gone deep enough into the pine grove to be able to admire the lake, through a metal fence.
“That’s an incredible story,” I told him. “But why is it closed off?”
“Well, the developer still won’t give up, even though the neighborhood and the centro sociale kids have been fighting for it to become a public park for years. Come on, let’s turn back. You see that small building? That’s where we’re going. I want you to meet some people.”
His Flaminio friends were all outside under a row of small trees. Libaan, seeing us approaching, ran up and hugged me. They were busy talking about other things, but an impatient Ghiorghis blurted out that they had to tell me about Bambi. This made everyone, including me, feel embarrassed. Because it bothered me how he’d put me on the spot, I said: “Would you quit using me to get attention?” But my remark rolled off his back, or maybe he just didn’t let his reaction show. Instead, it served to break the ice. One by one they all began to talk.
First was Libaan. He spoke about one of their friends who had just gotten out of prison, a guy who had a major alcohol problem and would get into trouble. Every now and again, they would lock him up. Anyway, they had met up recently for a coffee but ordered beer instead, and the friend told him that the night they’d caught Bambi, all the Ethiopians, Eritreans, and Somalis in the prison had been woken up. They’d lined them up, then walked the bomber by each of them. Everyone denied knowing him, and this friend did the same. He’d lied, of course, but then again Bambi had changed so much that he had struggled to recognize him.
Someone from the group interrupted to say that he had seen Bambi a couple times, when he’d come to Rome on vacation, and that Bambi had seemed fine to him. Someone else had seen him in London some years before, and already at that point he had seemed different. He was dating an Ethiopian Christian who he’d forced to convert and to wear the headscarf.
I thought that religion didn’t have anything to do with it. Because I had gotten angry many times but had never started making bombs in the name of Allah. For example, one day I was on the bus and had to get off at the next stop. I was up near the driver, so I asked him, “Would you open the door for me, please?” and the guy said, “How many times do I have to tell you people to exit through the rear door?”
I looked around, and since there was no one else nearby, I said: “Why use the plural when I’m the only one here? Why say tell ‘you people’? Who do you have to tell?” The driver got even angrier and refused to open the door. After a few long seconds, he got up and stood right in front of me. I was a head taller than him, but he thought he was a big deal, he was one of those guys who pumps iron.
I lost my cool and insulted him: “Fuckin’ beefcake!” And he yelled back: “Go home, beat it!” pointing toward the rear doors, and the people on the bus started grumbling: “Just get off the damn bus!”
They were talking to me and not the driver, who I’d simply asked to open in front. While getting off through the rear, I honestly thought that I would happily plant a bomb on that bus so they’d all be blown up—the driver and the people yelling at me.
Maybe the bomber had thought: I’d happily plant a bomb somewhere. And then he’d literally gone and done it. We say lots of things that we don’t do and that we’d never do. I don’t know if Bambi actually wanted to set off the bomb and kill a lot of people. Maybe it’s true that he just wanted to attract attention, so he mixed up the ingredients badly on purpose.
While I was all caught up in my thoughts, one of Ghiorghis’s friends—a tiny guy, short and with very light skin, so light he looked Arab—began talking. He was furious. He didn’t seem much older than the others, but his hair was all white.
Bambi had been his friend for a long time; they’d drunk, smoked, and talked together. “Who knows,” he said, “maybe one day he could’ve just shown up like old times: ‘Let’s have a cigarette. Drink a beer,’ and boom—blown us all up.” The guy was twitching a ton, he looked like a marionette: “Yes, he would’ve blown us all up, boom, just because some of us are Christian!”
I said in response: “But you were friends, religion has nothing to do with it, he never would’ve blown you up.” But the guy only got more agitated: “It’s his fault that they’re now more racist than ever.”
Then, while Ghiorghis stared at me with a baffled expression on his face, I asked: “Who’s more racist than ever?” and began unbuttoning my shirt because of the heat. Seeing the white tank top I was wearing underneath, everyone suddenly stopped talking. After a bit, Ghiorghis shook his head and said: “To tell you the truth, little brother, Bambi even looks like you.”
From Il comandante del fiume (66thand2nd, 2014). © 2014 by Ubah Cristina Ali Farah. Forthcoming from Indiana University Press as The River Commander, translated by Hope Campbell Gustafson. By arrangement with Indiana University Press. Translation © 2021 by Hope Campbell Gustafson. All rights reserved.