Q&A with filmmaker-translator Ernesto Pagano about Taxi and Islam in Naples

Thirty-five-year old Ernesto Pagano has authored the Italian translations of Khaled Al Khamissi’s 2007 book Taxi, written in Egyptian colloquial Arabic, and Magdy El Shafee’s Metro (2005), often cited as the first Egyptian graphic novel.

Originally from Naples, Pagano currently resides in Egypt, where he has lived on and off since 2005. His original plan was to become a journalist, but he soon turned to translation and filmmaking.

His first documentary, Napolislam (2015), about Italian converts to Islam living in Naples, has been officially selected for the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam, a finalist for the Nastro d’Argento Film Award, and won the Biografilm Italia Award.

Pagano has also written a book titled Napolislam, published this year.

Lucia Carminati: Was translating from Egyptian colloquial Arabic challenging?

Ernesto Pagano: Actually, for me translating would have been more difficult had it been entirely from Classical Arabic. When I first arrived in Egypt, my goal was to talk with people as much as I could. I had already broken out of that academic mold of having to study Classical Arabic or having to consider it as the only one worth studying. Egyptian colloquial Arabic is often identified as the vulgar, simple language while Classic Arabic is the complicated one.

Social media has helped allow literature to be written in colloquial Arabic. There have been other cases where the passage has been the opposite, from Web to paper: I can think of Ghada Abdel Aal, for example [blogger first and then author of ‘Aiza Atagawwiz (I Want to Get Married, 2008), and Fudul al-Qutta (The Cat’s Curiosity, 2016)].

Taxi was an incredible editorial case. It was a new genre. It was written three quarters in dialect and was still a bestseller.

LC: Did you have specific difficulties when translating Taxi?

EP: There were two kinds of obstacles: from Arabic, there were idiomatic sentences in page after page that I did not know. The second difficulty I had was with the Italian: how could I render Taxi’s various registers? Khaled Al Khamissi used classical Arabic for the textual parts, while for dialogues he relied on the Egyptian dialect, which pushed me to resort to my Neapolitan background. For example I rendered ustaz [professor] as “professó” or I disrupted the grammar in other cases. The whole enterprise was very funny for me.

With Taxi, I took liberties. I did what I wanted. I chose to translate one tale using Rome’s dialect. The protagonist spoke like a caricature from Egyptian cinema — the character played by Mohamed Saad in Al-Limby (2002) — whom I chose to bring to life through [Italian actor] Alberto Sordi’s Il tassinaro (The Cab-Driver, 1983).

LC: What about Metro? Did the different format make it any easier or more difficult to translate? Did you have fun doing it?

EP: Translating Metro was almost like playing. When translating comics, there’s the constant need to fit within the spaces that the graphic cages of speech balloons impose on you. It is a form of literary translation in which your interpretative efforts must be even more radical and free than in novels or short stories.

LC: How was the Napolislam project born?

EP: The genesis of this project was artistic. It was creative in nature. Of course it got mixed up with my own background, with the fact that I studied Islam. However, my interest stemmed from the fascination I felt after my first encounter with Ciro Capone…

LC: Who is he? He does not appear in the movie…

EP: No, Ciro Capone appears in the book. In the book, I talk about the genesis of Napolislam, of my first encounter in 2007 with Ciro and Francesco, who both come from the working-class neighborhoods of Naples. They were probably among the first converts at the time. Of course, the sources were the mosques in Naples — the two main ones.

The headquarters of the Giovani Musulmani Italiani [Young Italian Muslims] — around 50 overall — are not evenly distributed. Their southernmost location is in Naples: they are all in central or northern Italy, where most of the so-called second generations migrants are.

In front of the mosque, lives a lady now called “Maria la Musulmana” [Maria the Muslim]. I tell her story in my book. In the movie, I could only include her in a few scenes, where she leans over her balcony to observe the men spilling over from the mosque and praying out in the open. Her son, initially, was strongly opposed to the mosque and its attendees. The two of them would even throw stuff at them from their balconies. But then he practically became their best friend. That is where he has his hair cut. And the mosque now is giving him zakat [obligatory alms giving]. “Zakat” has become part of his mainly dialect-based vocabulary — alongside words such as “Ramadan.” He sells socks at metro stations. His mother, in the meantime, cooks halal pasta with mussels for those passing by the mosque.

LC: Watching your movie, someone might get the impression that this community inhabits its own space. But then you also show how Italian Muslims actually interact with their surroundings and how the space around them deals with them. For instance, a bakery adjusts its products to its new clients by eliminating lard.

EP: As you say, Italian converts do live in a kind of parallel space: mocked, ashamed to walk in the streets — especially those women who choose to don the hijab or the niqab. They undergo constant pressure. But in the meantime, people play football or eat together. It is everything and its opposite. Naples fully embodies these contradictions, and it has done so for centuries.

There is a historian, Giuliana Boccadamo, author of Napoli e l’Islam [published by D’Auria, 2010], whose work has been very inspirational for me as I was trying to add historical depth to my own work. She analyzes the records dealing with conversions and details the contradictions of Naples in their attitudes towards the other, in between inclusion and refusal, but never steering towards indifference.

LC: How did you choose the people who appear in the movie? There must have been a certain effort to diversify the narrative, at least in terms of gender and age.

EP: I did. The impression one gets, nonetheless, is that only lower classes are being talked about. And actually that is not far from true. I could have talked about converts from a wealthier cultural background, but I was less interested in this. I did want to talk about Naples’ daily life, its streets, its working-class neighborhoods. I attended university in Naples and several of my fellow university graduates did convert. I could have talked with them and about them, but it would have been different. One thing that struck me was Islam’s ability to penetrate into a social fabric where tools for understanding diversity are limited. The main source of knowledge for getting to know Islam, for these guys, was mediocre Italian TV shows.

LC: Was it difficult for you to find people to interview?

EP: It was a chain of people. One would introduce me to other converts. The mosque itself was another fruitful place where I could find people. Some initially did not want to be included in the documentary, like the hairdresser. I wish I could have filmed more of his daily life. He is from Barra [a neighborhood in Naples] and he dreams of the Caliphate. His wife is a cosmetologist and is also a convert. Their 11-year-old daughter is already veiled. Their 17-year-old daughter — into fashion like most teenagers — goes with him to the mosque. Older ladies from Barra pass by his salon, chatting about San Gennaro [Saint Januarius, the patron saint of Naples] and the numbers they should play at the lottery.

LC: Was it easy to build trust with your interviewees?

EP: Sure, although they were understandably wary at first. They were afraid that my work might amplify the Islamophobic paranoia that is already spreading in Italy.

LC: The reviews for Napolislam have been very favorable so far. Are you satisfied with how it’s been received?

EP: Yes, especially as it was my first work as a director. I was totally free to do whatever I wanted as I was not just a part of bigger editorial teams. My background in both the audio-visual field and in the study of Arabic and the Middle East were also useful. I could thus find a way with which I felt comfortable.

I think documentary is an expressive form that’s very contemporary, a useful way to talk about the contemporary world. Napolislam could actually be an urban ethnography. But the ethnographer as a social scientist who then has to transform his/her research into scientific work has some limits, some narrative constraints. I think a documentarist enjoys a sympathetic dimension that is not available to a scientific observer.

Lucia Carminati 

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