I still have Indian dust on my shoes from the city of Bangalore, where I spent almost a week at the international literary festival.
I was mind-boggled at the scale of this national Indian event: literature, politics, activism, feminism. There was music and even street art, but what a crowd. Sixteen thousand highly literate participants, roaming from one outdoor stage to another, and engaged with every atom of their souls.
Literary culture persists in this part of the world, where people still believe that leafing through books is a transformative spiritual experience that can change the world.
Authors of the first world, beset with Internet and economic crisis, often seem like plastic vanity-toys kept past their sell-by date, but maybe what they lack most keenly is a creative readership. As a passionate reader, I often claim it is more difficult to read a book well than it is to to write one. As a less passionate writer, I know that even one ideal reader is enough to motivate a decent book.
The beautiful literary carnival — held on the broad, leafy grounds of one of Bangalore's finest hotels, an oasis of glamor and privilege — contrasted with the crooked streets of Bangalore where the sacred cows, pariah dogs and torrents of honking traffic live with a passion for survival. This was not my first visit to India, so I was ready for the epic scale of grandeur and abject poverty, but it was still a culture shock.
The jet-set's digitized skyscrapers tower like phantoms over vast bazaars seething with a seize-the-day human vitality. It's reflected in Indian literature, where the English language, global yet somehow frail, towers over sixteen vernacular publishing scenes. In the Bangalore festival, professional writers traded erudite quips in English because thats how one gets it done, but they were singing in the English-speaking choir, and they knew it. The seething, vibrant life in those modern Indian streets, half chopped coconuts and half cellphone components, is never taught at Oxford.
All over the world we women haunt conflict zones, and India, which is vast, has plenty of them. The gunfire tends to sound the same but the conclusions are different. The national patriot woman works to support her brave men at war; the peace activist withdraws support from men who aren't brave enough to refuse the uniform and leave the slaughterhouse. There is one common ground, though: whether life is called "peace" or "war," the women always struggle in a trench.
The ongoing #metoo scandal in India is briskly spreading all over the country through social media. It started with celebrities — actresses and directors, but spread through media centers, universities, publishing, wherever women get sexually harassed by wealthy and powerful men, which is to say, all over the place. It's evidence that complaints of Western feminism have a universality, and wherever women don't speak up about the suffering of women, it's not because the oppressions aren't noticed; it's because the complaints are repressed. It's taboo to speak up, and even a small distance in cultural mores can make the speakable unspeakable.
Women are keenly attuned to what can be said in what conditions. At the festival, one female mystery writer complained that she simply can't bear to read a "classic English whodunnit novel" which is set in Scotland. All those careful cultural assumptions about who gets battered to death by the butler with the fire iron, they are fine in a homey English county but just don't work in distant Glasgow, which seems as incongruous as Bangalore, almost. This may be indeed be a literary problem, but it doesn't explain why crime and detective fiction thrives inside India for Indians, because it does.
At the festival, a female science fiction writer complained: why must I be targeted as a woman when I write fiction about science? I may be a biological woman, but why should that restrict what I can write? I remembered that as a young writer, and as a young woman, I shared her frustration, but I gave it up as soon as I realized that my writing didn't emerge from some gender-neutral science laboratory.
When women were not on the page, it was an absence. My favorite writers of novels missed the women's perspective. My own life experience was visibly missing from classical novels. The women characters were lame, my world was not that world of canonic literary classics, I was invisible there, and not withstanding the fact that literature was my safe place, and a source of worldly education, I was miserable. I had no power, I had no words. My experience and wisdom had not been captured in those novels I read. It was in my body, as in every other living woman through history, outside of genre, in a gender gap.
As a woman without a fatherland and without a mother language, my own literature had to be born ante literam. The luxury of writing without a gender also has a gender, it is male "mainstream." But the stream is not the ocean, and dams can break.
In Bangalore I did a "book signing" without books! My books have never been in print in India, but I do have website with many of my books online, and an old fashioned pen in my hand. A handshake, a signature, and a hug for a book from a website address! It was fair barter.
Bangalore has many temples, small and big, fancy and clean, awkward and trashy. The whole city conveys the impression of a temple on the move. The pavements are broken by banyan roots, the skies are speckled with vultures, the soil is overrun by small but aggressive striped squirrels, so watch your step!
The traffic is Los Angeles times ten, with no lane or crossing discipline. Pedestrians including the numerous cows and dogs simply amble through the noisy torrent of motor-rickshaws, endless scooters, bikes ringing, cars honking, trucks blasting. Traffic policemen occasionally shake-down the worst offenders, who can either appear in court or else cough up half the cash on the spot, for cop's pocket. Somehow the whizzing vehicles respectfully avoid killing elderly women and small children.
In the old summer palace of the Sultan Tipu, a historic structure which in Italy would be guarded relentlessly with video cams, the local people sat on the gleaming wooden stairs, meditating, solemn. A little girl danced as endlessly as an extra in a Bollywood movie, gently applauded by her neighbors.
It is a densely crowded, communal life in India. Most every task that might be done by one person in the West is parceled out among three or four people, then performed for an audience.
In a coffee shop I simply asked for a cold soda. The waiter conveyed the request to the boss; the owner gave the waiter a key to the refrigerator; another waiter opened the fridge, yet another retrieved the bottle and, finally, my original waiter, with a flourish, brought it to me, opened it and carefully poured it out for me. Then I drank it in a rather showy fashion, because, after all that fuss, I felt obliged.
People want to listen and to serve: in my hotel the Don't Disturb sign is replaced by the written board: Please let us clean the room soon, our pleasure is to serve you. As a writer, as an activist, I confess I feel much the same.
I feel edified and cleansed after being in Bangalore. In India, people check on your condition all the time, emotionally and materially. Then they certify your stay with a nice red stamp, ink in your passport, or henna on your body.
A friend asked me to follow the flow, and write this hashtag #metoo. Cavafi, the Greek poet who lived all his life by the sea and wrote about everything but the sea, before dying he said: Let me too say something about the sea.
"A Serb makes a good wife: she can pull the cart out of mud."
That old Serbian proverb, its genius author has no name. It's like the earthy quip from a hospital that I once heard in real life; after her severe car crash, the emergency doctor told her worried husband: Don't you worry man, those Herzegovinian vipers are hard to kill!
I'm personally half Serb and half Herzegovinian, so I take these attitudes to my heart, half proud and half offended. But my American friend said: what about the Serbian and Herzegovinian husbands? Are they pleased about their mud-carting vipers? Is that the kind of proper home-girl that a local guy just has to have?
Good questions! If enough years go by, a man gets used to the woman of the house, muddy viper or not. But what about the opinions of the rest of the world?
Our world is a big place, so maybe a Serbian Herzegovinian woman is considered just one regional sub-class of East European womanhood. I might be called Balkan, from that mountain region of many fractured grooves, or a historical, fossilized ex-Yugoslav. I was never "Warsaw Pact," although that arrangement meant "Eastern Europe" in the eyes of the Cold War West. I'm from a shatter-belt, a corner cushion among conflicting empires, a little regional federation that has vanished like the Austro-Hungarians and often resembled the modern European Union. It broke up in blood, but that's been the fate of most European alliances, eastern or western, northern or southern.
These days, though, in the fractious nation of Italy, a minor scandal has broken out. A female TV talk-show host on the RAI national network suddenly recommended, more or less out of nowhere, that Italian men ought to marry "Eastern European women." She offered six good reasons, or rather six sexist stereotyped points, about how these foreign easterners made much better wives than Italian women.
They may be foreign, yes, but they stay in the kitchen and cook. They're women who clean the house. They forgive adultery. They become mothers but don't get fat. They always dress decently. They don't whine, nag and complain. And they obey a husband's commands. These six female virtues make them great wives.
To tell the truth, I've been hearing these myths and traditions for decades now. I grew up in Italy and can pass for Italian, although when Italians hear that my name is Tesanovic, they often assume that I must be a Slav off the factory-line or collective farm. I was offended by that, but more as an East European than as a woman.
It's annoying to hear that we non-Unionized Europeans are supposed to be poor, desperate and therefore obediently at the feet of the West. After all, aren't Italians aware that this same stupidity, ignorance and machoism is also applied to Italian emigrants? If anybody's women have the reputation of scheming gold-diggers, it's those seductive, Machiavellian Italian women, and not us meek and lowly Balkan creatures, so blandly pretty and matrimonially faithful. We're wholesome. We're naively honest. We're tiresome and boring, we're no trouble at all!
However, the traditional Eastern European concept of us kerchief-headed creatures has clearly changed a lot since Yugoslavia split up, the Soviet Union fell and the EU fortress hastily erected its own walls in response. New prejudices always arise with new walls. Nowadays, instead of being a communal peasantry, we're becoming world-class sultanas and empresses. Slovenian model Melania Knauss Trump is the First Lady of the USA!
Most of the current American President's harem women have a Balkan air about them, even American-born Ivanka, the daughter / heiress who seems to be managing the Washington palace while the current wife keeps her head down in her gilded skyscraper in New York. We're witnessing a modern psychological drama that closely resembles the intrigues of Hurrem, the abducted Ukrainian concubine, who became the Ottoman Empress of Suleyman the Great. Why her, why Eastern European Hurrem? Because Hurrem was a viper, and she could pull that muddy cart, and also because Suleyman the so-called Great didn't have any other real friends.
Melanija Knauss is an ex-Yugoslav, just like me. She and I both sang patriotic hymns to Tito in our primary schools, with red kerchiefs around our necks. Nowadays those Communist adornments are more ragged and forlorn than Janis Joplin's dirty red bandanna: freedom is just another word for losing your entire nation. We thought Marshall Tito was our family more than our leader. The school song was: Comrade Tito, we vow we will not go astray. Now far-straying Melania is decked out in Ottoman jewels as an offshored one-percenter bride of a mogul. Still, this is modernity, so, presumably, that fate had to happen to somebody.
Hell has no fury like someone's national womanhood scorned, so TV mayhem broke out over this Italian RAI TV talk show. The commentator got promptly fired from the focussed social-media rage of vengeful Italian netizens, and even her boss was purged and her show was cancelled. Italian women certainly don't care for invidious comparisons. But there's nothing new about people making them.
Back in Italy in the 1970s, it was the Swedish girls who were cast as the ideal exotic brides. These Swedes were blonde and not dark, tall and statuesque and Nordic, un-Catholic and sexually emancipated, ready to hop fully-clothed right into the Trevi Fountain, dolce-vita style. But Italy survived that female threat somehow.
Now the entire RAI programme has been blown off the air scorched-earth style, as if Italian bachelors were in desperately short supply and all the girls have to scrabble. Why are Italian women protesting about an Italian female talk-show? Wouldn't it make more sense if the women directly confronted their men?
And for that matter, why aren't the Italian men complaining about their possible prospect of having to court and marry Poles, Ukrainians, Belarusians and whomever?
Plus — what about the grievances of us East European women who happen to be in Italy? To think that we never complain and lament is absurd — we've got enough daily grievances to fill the Roman Colosseum. We're the women of a soulful people with vast intellectual conceptual fields of grief, sorrow and historical disappointment, and the near-infinite spectrum of the sorrows of a Russian woman is, in fact, shockingly different from the handwringing of any Polish one. Right now the Ukrainian women are bitterly upset about Russia. What if you're an Eastern European woman from one of those small and awful "frozen conflict" zones, where your ethnicity doesn't even have any proper nation for foreigners to get stereotypical about?
But, well, who cares about all that mess? RAI certainly doesn't. The network has only one concept for all of us splintered ethnics, mostly because their TV programs are never about the many sorrows of women of the world, they're mostly about young, prancing, pretty Italian women who are half nude and seem available. Berlusconi used to be the master-of-ceremonies for that kind of regional showgirl parade, but it goes on with him or without him.
Italian TV culture ranks with the most blissfully vulgar TV in the world, because it really knows what sells on a glass screen. RAI is second to none in kitsch, misogyny and casually racist sexism, but those values go unchallenged because Italian national TV is a closed moral universe. It's by no means all about us East European women in Italy, we're merely the occasional collateral damage off their NATO airwaves.
Besides, there remains the primal source of the real anxiety in this little scandal, which is that foreign people really, truly are alluring. They're hot. Nobody mentioned this prospect: but what about the Italian woman in bed with the Eastern European guy? How scary could that be, really? What if this intimate encounter with the Other turns out to be incredibly fun?
You never know what the night may bring to a woman, as my Mom used to say. But you see, I really can pull a cart out of mud, I am a Serbian woman all right, for better or worse. Plus I am a feminist pacifist who is always, Always Disobedient!
(Image: Cautious Matryoshka, Bradley Davis, CC-BY-ND)
I saw this coming, for the past ten years or more. I saw small Trumps, rising and tramping around, first timidly, then bravely, and finally boldly.
"You can't tell who is craziest: the refugees, the police or those women," said a local shopkeeper. He made a cross over his chest, to express his sincere Serbian bewilderment.
He had just witnessed ten shabby Afghan and Syrian refugees walking past, escorted by ten Women in Black from Serbia, Italy and Spain, themselves escorted by ten policemen and a police car.
By the railway station in downtown Belgrade, the temporary citizens-from-nowhere are living their nomad existences in the the rubble of the so-called Belgrade Waterfront construction project. The refugees loiter all day, hoping for something to happen, between the city bus yards and huge trash-cans full of boxed food that the aid workers supply on a regular basis.
Around five pm there is a kind of tea ceremony where about 800 people gather, most of them arriving from the organized camps where they sleep. They arrive to be heard, to be seen. We Women in Black went to join them to show this Belgrade political scene to our international colleagues.
It' s been now two years since the Syrian refugee crisis seized headlines, but the refugees are not entirely Syrians, but a global peoples' market of Afghans and Nigerians as well. In the beginning there were many more refugees, and far less aid from the locals and the Serbian state. The migrants were simply collapsing on flat surfaces anywhere in Belgrade, urban nooks, parks and lots where they ate, drank and slept.
Now the bus-station square, a favorite place to cluster for obvious reasons, has been fenced and organized. The police are everywhere and a routine has been invented for the nomads. Its scope is international: border walls are being erected around Serbia, blocking the paths into Schengen Europe, where of course the refugees long to go. They come from the perilous South, the imagine safety in the West, and Balkan Serbia is only a transit zone.
I spoke to some : they are 90 percent young men. They aspire to reach France, Germany, Italy and Spain. They have addresses and phone numbers of relatives and allies in those countries, but they have no transit papers and no money.
A Nigerian young man confided me: "Money is the only real problem. If I had the money for travel, trust me: no walls or police could stop me." I believed him, because, although money cannot buy you a happy life, it can swiftly bail you out of misery, in war and in peace.
I remember how I myself smuggled chocolate into wartime Serbia from Hungary by handing cash to the customs officers. Chocolate was pure joy for Serbian children living under sanctions. The same applied to toilet paper, diesel fuel, gasoline, cigarettes, liquor…
In the nineties in Serbia, my country was being punished, but nobody thought to build walls around our national borders. On the contrary, in those heady days they built shopping malls, instant ramshackle markets that welcomed the smugglers, mostly everyday people who crossed the borders and illegally brought back suitcases stuffed with subsistence goods for a population in dire straits.
The entire economy had been de-legitimated, so we were all smugglers. The locals from countries around us made plenty of money, for their governments officially supported the sanctions while the population broke them.
Today, by historical contrast, it's Serbia is playing the warm-hearted good cop role. The former villains in the story are generously taking in the refugees, while the international community, morally pinched by the ever-growing breakdown of world-order, pays a lot of the bills. The refugees are not a novelty any more, they are escorted here and there to wherever some shred of bureaucracy or activism will take them.
The official camps were packed long ago, overcrowded with women and children, so many of the more venturesome young men end up as street vagrants, lurking under the bridges, lighting trash-fires in barrels and building makeshift showers and latrines.
I joined a Syrian group at their five o'clock tea-time. Very polite and neat brothers made us tea and poured it into genuine glasses, not plastic containers, as a sign of respect. Syrian refugees in Europe are particularly well educated, as my friend Faisa from Morocco told me: "They are the elite." Here in Serbia the Syrians are the most envied by other refugees, because they are genuine war refugees and the official recognition of their dire situation is a kind of privilege.
It follows that the Syrians sometimes get roughed up in the squats for other refugees and the Belgrade police have to intervene. I asked my tea-drinking hosts, and the other young men who gathered around me: where are your women?
They could not understand my English or Italian, but they had learned some scraps of Serbian. They all knew the word "Mamma!" Everybody' s mamma was either back in the home country, or off in a camp. A few children were visible, but not many.
Belgrade Women in Black never come empty-handed, so they brought the useful, lightweight treats that true refugees appreciate: cigarettes and bananas. We left the covert obscurity under the bridge and began a march with some sick to the local first aid.
> The women activists walked in the center, the refugees gathered around them and the police escort formed an outer circle. A police car was a kind of cavalry escort. The Serbian police were the same age as the refugees, but with somewhat lighter skin color and in uniforms.
> I talked to the cops. "Where are the refugee women?" I asked. The chief answered me with a sly secretive smile: "You noticed that fact, madame," he said. "You are bright," he complimented me. "Because these are men fit for army service. They came here to conquer Europe, they are on a secret Muslim jihad, they left their women safe behind!"
When I asked the refugees the same question, they echoed the policeman's compliment: "You are very bright madame. Our women are at home hungry, we are here to earn money to help them. But they won't let us make a living; they keep us behind the barbed wire."
The refugees and policemen had one great point of agreement in their paranoid stories. They knew that the same people who had destroyed their nations were the ones attacking them for being transnational. They were punished for the crime of becoming victims.
I guess they blamed the big powers, those with the power to bomb them rather than their own militias and factions, but I didn't want to inquire into the details. As a woman, as an activist, I've seen enough warfare to know its situations. It doesn't take genius to see that a war-shattered society can't integrate its men and women; the genders get scattered and there aren't a lot of women around.
Wars and refugee crises are business as usual for someone, just like the situations in stark situations in barracks, prisons, and hospitals. When there is money involved, it's human trafficking; when even the money fails, then it's sheer disaster.
I have no recipe to solve a world with 60 million refugees in it, but I see more coming. The whole planet is becoming a nomad zone, for various reasons of war, oil, climate, ethnicity, religion, and everyone, especially including the most privileged, is scared that they might be next. The one percenters who own the hot investment money are perhaps the most nomadic among us, so they cannot play the geostrategic game properly any more. Their money cannot by them any security, while the refugees were ardent patriots until their burned their neighbors homes or had them blown up from above. Utopia and dystopia have the same postal code.
So who are the craziest on the street? The refugees, women or the police? A good question, and I think I know the answer, do you?
I was clumsy, and I spilled some beer on the keyboard of my Mac Air laptop, bought July 9, 2014. I immediately started drying my precious computer, overturning it, and my greedy Mac didn't gulp all that much beer, but….
For women, so commonly invisible in their daily lives, the path to fame is, as a rule, transgressing rules. Whenever visible, they are mostly notorious. In reading history we can scarcely see what famous women actually did with their lives. It is their misdeed, or some failure to perform, that we can generally see.
This applies especially to heroines and celebrities: women placed on a pedestal have a hard time climbing off it to relate their actual experience. Invisibility is a woman's permanent condition, a method of survival, a gender's way of life: like in Edgar Allan Poe's story, "The Purloined Letter," a hidden message is concealed by its very display.
Ada is our heritage souvenir, 200 years after her birthday. She is heavier than a gold medal, more mysterious than Nefertiti, a thought experimenter whose fantasy calculations have transformed the world like the work of Einstein. General computation is a stark reality, a revolutionary insight which took its own time to arrive after its conception by a woman.
Who else would think up such an unlikely thing, other than Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Byron? It's the proper work of a poet to give names to the unseen things in the world. And yet, living as a woman of science is not so easy as conceiving, thinking, writing, calculating, publishing. In those 200 years — or 36 years less, since Ada died young — the role of women in science has become more complex, not simpler.
In Ada's day, women, when rarely accepted into the narrow circles of scientific societies, were accepted as popularizers, as teachers, as sympathetic advocates. Women of science were legitimated in that sociable way, intuitive, visionary and romantic, but were still superfluous in the serious male work of science and progress. A female propagandist can only be a source of wary respect when she becomes dangerous politically.
In our own time, I see Adas every day, in my life in technology art. I have outlived Ada, so I see what professional life is like for women who live in, or are placed on the fringes of, technology. Talented, geeky, bright, yet held back by the structures of a boys' camaraderie when it comes to technological products: boys and their toys.
These talented women, as geekettes, as crazed women, as eccentric females, prefer to stay back, to conceal themselves, if they cannot perform in their own way, to their own ends. They do not know how to bargain with their creativity in the mainstreams of science or art. Their ideas are still intuitive and visionary, as Ada's ideas were, when compared to the engineering plans of her colleague Charles Babbage.
Babbage was her good friend and they had a successful collaboration. They complemented each other and yet today, his work holds little mystery, while hers still does. Because there are yardsticks for measuring his scientific output — he tried to build a costly machine for a government, and he failed — but no yardstick for hers. She is in the domain of courtly fantasy for male authors, and a matter of hope and trust for women scientists.
Feminists analyze Ada's famously absent father and her strongly biased mother, her constrained and yet peaceful private life as wife and mother. Her sexual life which ended in uterine fatal sickness: so feminine, so incurable, even today. Her uterus exploded from too much mathematics! Her contemporary misogynist doctor allegedly claimed that of her illness, and certainly it was common enough at that time to think that scientific knowledge was too much for female frailty to bear.
She bled to her death at the same age as her father, Lord Byron, who was bled to his death by incompetent doctors while struck with fever in Greece. Only, Lord Byron was courting his own death by fighting a foolish war, as an aggressive proud bossy male, while obedient Ada bore her children while diligently doing her calculus.
How did Ada escape her father's shadow, his scandalous absence from her life, her mother's clutching, overbearing presence? Through rigid lessons of hard science and flights of creative fantasy. Through computation: an endless perspective of thinking, creating, coding! A programmable machine that weaves numbers, with an intelligence that was artificial because it was a woman's intelligence.
People like to indulge themselves in quarreling over the proper division of intellectual spoils between Lovelace, Babbage, Menabrea and others. The truth is that the Difference Engine was an abject failure, the Analytical Engine could not succeed even though Ada bravely offered to finance the machine. So her great idea of general-purpose computation remained dormant for many decades. Many women enter science only to find frustration. "A serious injustice and a scandalous waste of talent," as Máire Geoghagan-Quinn, the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, recently said about the stifled role of European women in science, innovation and research.
If Ada had never existed, we would have had to invent her, but she did exist, and it's her modern myth as a digital heroine that we have invented. Certainly she was never "digital" even for a moment, but we are still standing on the shoulders of this attractively gowned and vivacious Victorian society hostess.
If Ada were alive today, I would certainly invite her to visit our "Internet of Women Things" group. IoWomenT is a recent attempt related to Casa Jasmina, a smart home of the future in Turin. I'm sure that the Countess of Lovelace would be quite helpful to an open-source effort, since she always was a friend to scientific enlightenment, and never one to rudely quarrel over worldly reputation or commercial advantage.
One of our goals is to create at least one connected smart IoT "Thing" from a woman's point of view. Some thing that has never existed, something that women need, dream about and yet have never managed to technically manufacture. The open source Maker movement should certainly be capable of this: An Ada IoT object.
But what is it, what could it be? A sentimental memento? A 3D printed sculpture of her brain (Babbage's brain was pickled, and is still available)? A analog brass computer-generated piece of music, because Ada doted on music? How could we, as modern women, act in her spirit, and not as the myth would have it?
Many things impress me about the mysterious Countess of Lovelace (who probably wouldn't much like our impertinence in always calling her "Ada"). Her father, George Gordon, Lord Byron, I love in my own way (because I had a father story too). Also her feminist struggle with her authoritarian, invasive mother (same here again). People dwell on her arranged marriage and her supposed lovers (I don't trust the gossip). Almost every woman can relate some similar problems and that's fine, nobody is perfect, not even an aristocratic woman scientist.
What excites me about Ada is her lateral way of thinking, deducing, calculating. Because that imaginative freedom, the cognitive leaps to a good conclusion, are obvious from her surviving letters and notes. This is just what society still needs today from women. We never have enough of it: female genius rising from the cradle of constraint.
So I would invite her ladyship, the countess and scientist, to our IoWT workshop. Dressed contemporarily, to the extent she could manage (after all she is 143 years older than us, and given to corsets) she could participate in our open source Casa Jasmina brainstorming, where we honk like geese in the fog. Listening politely, till she stands up screaming in her ladylike manner: I've got it! I know what we need to do!
Then she tells us her vision… And we would just make it!
My handbag was stolen two months ago. It happened in seconds in a mall in Turin, Italy. I never saw the thief, and neither did my husband, sitting two meters from the scene of the crime a fast food Japanese restaurant.
How is such criminal skill even possible? There was almost nobody around. Now, after two months, I do vaguely remember though a nice young woman, sitting with a child, next to my table. Was it she who grabbed my bag off the back of a chair and escaped with it?
A week later, I read that a gang of four women, convicted of serial handbag thefts in Italy, was finally put behind the bars. Even though found guilty several times, they were always released from custody because they had either small children or were pregnant. So maybe they relied on the handbags of other women to feed their numerous children?!
But that would be a topic for a novel, and not what I want to write about. I will focus on this accident from a different angle. Because it can only be compared to an accident, a personal disaster, as if a truck ran over me. No use asking, was it my fault? Should I blame myself for leaving my chair to order a second beer to go with my sushi? And why on earth did I center my earthly life inside one rather small handbag? Why did I visit a shopping mall taking with me all of my traveling documents, credit cards, checkbook, USB backup, health insurance card, Iphone, address book, prescriptions, etc.
I used to carry everything in one bag during the bombings in Belgrade, Serbia, or during political demos when I might have been arrested. But in those dire-straits years, in the nineties, my home was never bombed and I was not jailed by the Serbian police. I didn't even lose my bag.
However, in 2004, during a pleasant event in Amsterdam, in peace, my handbag was stolen in a bar. I was traveling, so I lost pretty much lost the same set of documents, meaning all I could carry to support my life on the road. I lost cash, credit cards, phone, some jewelry, my diary, my address book, my passport, my visa. But the damage I suffered 11 years ago cannot be compared to the damage I suffered a month ago. The thieves have gotten much better.
Within half an hour, they managed to rush to ATM machines with my bank cards and, without a PIN or a credit limit, they robbed the banks of far more money than I could legally withdraw myself. These "forchetta" hacks, which involve some kind of ATM hacking gadget, are getting pretty well known. But of course the banks don't want to take responsibility for these thefts. They prefer to pretend that the ATMs are secure, and want me to absorb the loss.
Then there are travel documents. In 2004 I could replace them without much fuss, but this is an age of terrorism. So, far as my documents are concerned: Italian, Serbian and American: for each piece of plastic that I've carried for years on end, I have to go to the original country to have my biometrics redone. I must pay all the uncomfortable costs of travel without any documents, while waiting for the new ones, being interrogated about my life! As if I weren't already in their databases; as if they had never heard of me, as if I had never existed! I was robbed, so I am the suspect.
This disaster crippled my daily life for the following two months. I still cannot travel as I want, work, or pay . I realize how vulnerable we are nowadays, since we're supported by data and electronic gates and barriers. My USB key contained non encrypted backup of my computer's hard disk. I carefully backed up all my books, essays, mail, films, photos, music and various secrets. Published and unpublished. I am exposed totally, these thieves, if they bother to look, can know everything about me. They have my email addresses, they know my friends and foes. They even have the keys to my front door.
In some ways, losing access to your home and documents is worse than having your home and documents physically destroyed. Because it means that someone can interfere with my life, they have stolen the power to spy on me at will. My daily life has been hacked, and somebody else is, if not living my stolen life through fake ID, then at least surveilling it. I live in subconscious fear of blackmail, threats, violence!
The police told me theft like mine happens everyday, to many people. And indeed, sometimes hackers steal entire databases of people's names, addresses, credit cards — colossal leaks of a quarter of a million people at once. Even American spies with security clearances have had their security declarations stolen by the Chinese. How humiliating to be a SONY executive and have your business emails leaked by tools of the North Koreans. Or to be an activist stalked by political enemies who want to aggressively "dox" you and your family.
Will I ever get my dear purse back? Often the victims get their documents back through some weird channels, or just from the trash collectors. But not in my case.
I am still waiting for the second shoe to drop. I have a feeling this is not the end. It depends on the fantastic skill of the thieves and my legal ability to fight them back and re-assert my existence to bankers, police and immigration bureaus. I could write a novel on a twilight struggle of this kind.
One feels that the stakes are growing and the pace of the trouble is accelerating. Still, I will never forget that July 6th between 1.30 and 2.00 PM. A very close friend of mine died that very day at that very hour. It was an unlucky, scarifying moment, although no one killed me, no one struck me or bruised me, I was stripped of my virtual identity. The impact of that loss is like a virtual rape, a small death in itself.
Oh yes, one small detail: during the war times I carried sleeping pills in my bag: enough to put me to sleep forever, if I had to avoid torture. (I had read that Freud family did the same during World War II, and it seemed like a wise precaution.) Sometimes, in conditions of real fear, it is a psychological comfort to feel that one can put a clean end to one's self. But what about my virtual life? What unknown antitheft device could ever put a clean end to that?
Once I was a refugee, too. During the fall of former Yugoslavia, I visited many refugees camps all over the war-torn region. I edited a book of refugee stories.