On my last day in Rome a few weeks ago I set off for the suburban outskirts to visit the Museo dell’Altro e dell’Altrove di Metropoliz, or Maam (it means Museum of the Other and the Elsewhere).
A former salami factory on the outskirts of Rome, Maam was occupied by homeless migrants and organised art events and performances there, and according to the The Guardian was one of Rome’s most important contemporary art spaces, with murals, paintings and installations by more than 300 artists from around the world.
I didn’t end up going to the museum. I took a tram, a bus and another tram to the end of the line on via Penestrina and I still was less than 1/3 of the way there.
I noticed however how the demographics and architecture changed with each leg of the journey and with each stop, from hip middle class types, to tourists, to workers, to the African and Asian hawkers, to Syrian and middle easterners to gypsies and beggars.
At the end of the tram line I found myself at the cross road of two autostradas, surrounded by abandoned and crumbling buildings and rubbish strewn everywhere surrounded in public by men.
I suddenly felt aware of my gender and my privilege, my leather shoes and bag, my branded sunglasses, my €35 polka dot scarf.
Fear and confusion set in and I didn’t have the nerve to ask for further information from these strangers in the middle of nowhere about where to go for fear that I would give away that I was alone, lost and afraid.
Suddenly I saw myself- the redneck, the racist, the bigot, the white trash, the bogan, I, the intelligentsia elitist was one of the deplorables I so often ridiculed.
I jumped on the next tram back and located the street which Rossellini filmed one of the most influential film sequences in film history and shared this on Facebook.
I walked back to the center of the city and saw the same people from the edges, the ones I was afraid of, pestering tourists to buy trinkets, selfie sticks and mobile phone chargers, and Roma or Syrian women in flowing skirts or head scarves holding sick children and begging for money.
As I turned the corner of the Colosseum and looking around trying to locate the chic apartment featured in the film “The Great Beauty”, I noticed a respectable looking older woman in a hat and brown coat, sitting on the kerbside talking to herself.
I immediately thought she was about to ask me for money, instead she stopped me and asked me a question in Italian I didn’t understand - at which stage I realised she was probably psychologically unwell- Alzheimer’s I thought- who wandered out of her apartment and was lost.
She kept on repeating the question, and after a few seconds had passed I replied in English that I didn’t speak Italian.
Immediately she spoke English to me with an Italian accent, “why is it that fish are richer than human beings?” Surprised by the question I didn’t know how to respond.
I felt the coins in my pocket, waited for her to ask me for money. It was easier for me to just give her my few coins and be gone, but instead she insisted on having a conversation.
“Why, is it when you slice up a fish gold spills out?” She asked, “why is it that fish are richer than human beings” she kept on asking and I left replying, “I’m sorry I don’t know seniora.”
I didn’t write or report on the poverty and depravity I witnessed abroad. I have justified this by relying on my often used excuse: I experience an ethical dilemma when using people in photography or in art to make a statement without their permission. In general I find art a sublimation for real political action. In general I consider social media rants and political statements through art alone as disingenuous and ineffective.
In forcing the jet lag from my body clock by attending a refugee rally today in Brisbane, I am not trying to project the illusion that I am a social justice crusader or trying to assert that it is only Australians who abuse refugees or are apathetic about the marginalised. I attended because I believe it is my responsibility when the opportunity arises to take non-violent action in a public space with others when I perceive a great injustice is being perpetuated by our government in our name.
I can attest to being a witness to extreme degradation of humanity abroad. Australia is not the only first world country with extreme social problems. I can attest to behaving in the same way most people do about the population movement crisis exploding on a global scale.
In the the most sophisticated counties abroad, poverty is rife. The homeless the displaced, refugees, mentally ill are evident, and everywhere you turn it is as if 70 years that have passed since the UN Declaration of The Charter of Human Rights nothing much has changed. It is as if the social contract has been torn, ripped apart, shredded to smithereens.
We are not the only country to abuse those that are fleeing war torn zones or poverty.
We are not the only people to feel the real fear of having to deal with those who are confronting because of their deprivation.
I know first hand the fear of being confronted with outsiders and felt it in the way that most of us do when we are challenged with the effort required to deal with or risks associated with the consequences of such adversity.
But the question the old refined Italian woman lost in Rome keeps returning. “Why are fishes richer than human beings?”
I don’t know the answer. All I know is that poverty and displacement is ugly, it is scary, it requires a great amount of leadership, coordinated action and material resources to make right the great mass of human degradation that world is dealing with.
Why are fish richer than human beings?
I do not know the answer, but I do know that in abhorring the treatment of refugees by our government I want to take action.
I do not want to blame a “deplorable” or to rest the blame solely on Minister Dutton or previous Immigration ministers or onto anyone else and absolve myself of my own responsibility by pointing the finger and taking the high moral ground. Injustice requires action in the real world.
I am responsible for the injustices I perceive around me. It is my responsibility to take action, and to do so without resting the blame on anybody else.