I Was an Elephant Salesman
Adventures between Dakar, Paris, and Milan
Publication Year: 2010
A landmark bestseller in Italy, I Was an Elephant Salesman gives a name and a face to the thousands of anonymous African street vendors in cities across Europe. Through the voice of a thinly veiled first-person narrator, Pap Khouma offers us a chilling, intimate, and often ironic glimpse into the life of an illegal immigrant. Khouma invents a life for himself as an itinerant trader of carved elephants, small ivories, and other "African" trinkets, struggling to maintain courage and dignity in the face of despair and humiliation. Constantly on the run from the authorities, he finds insight into the vicissitudes of law and politics, the constraints of citizenship, national borders, skin color, and the often paralyzing difficulties of obtaining basic human needs. His story reveals a contemporary Europe struggling to come to terms with its multiracial, multireligious, and multicultural identity.
Published by: Indiana University Press
Series: Global African Voices
In Italian the terms traduttore (“translator”) and traditore (“traitor”) are remarkably similar. Perhaps of all the ways in which a translator inevitably “betrays” the original work, it is the act of translating the title that often proves the thorniest. In translating the title the translator faces the daunting task...
Introduction by Graziella Parati
Italy is often perceived as the country of fashion, wine, stylish shoes, famous monuments, art, and great food. Beyond this attractive veneer that has attracted tourism and fed an orientalist image of the country, Italy is a place of contradictions, particularly in the arena of emigration and immigration. ...
I come from Senegal. I used to be a salesman. Let me tell you everything I’ve been through. It’s a hard job, selling, only for the toughest souls in this world. You can’t be the type to give up easily. You have to use your legs and be insistent—even if they slam every door in your face. ...
How does it feel to be an illegal immigrant? Terrible. Mostly because you have to compete with people just as bad off as you. An immigrant has to put up with everyone and everything. He has to keep quiet and accept the worst of everything because he has no rights. ...
November 1979. One day I got on the train. I was twenty-two. In my pocket I had thirty thousand CFA francs on me—which came to about one hundred and twenty thousand lire—and the idea to get to France sooner or later, where I planned to work on my pottery. ...
The Market in Abidjan
My cousins who return—some from the Ivory Coast, others from France, some even from America—all come back wearing nice clothes and talking about wondrous cities. They beg me again and again: “Come away with us.” I envy them. I picture their homes, their streets, their stores, their parties, their jobs. ...
The plane has taken off. By now Dakar is far behind me. The sky is blue and you can begin to make out the outline of the land of the tubab, which still seems like the land of happiness. I am calm. The words of the fortune-teller were clear: You, young man, will go to the land of the tubab. ...
Street-Smart . . . Beach-Smart
Glorious Riccione. Riccione, I adore you. I am tired, but my eyes are wide open in order to take everything in. The lights are blinding like the noonday sun, even if it is midnight by now. In my pocket I have an envelope with an address written on it. I give it to the taxi driver: Via Nullo. ...
So the game works like this : Avoid the Uncles and sell necklaces on the beach. Every day I cover kilometers and kilometers on the beach. At the end of the day I am covered from head to toe in sand, sand that clings to the sweat on my body and is annoying as anything. ...
Paolo il Nero
Not everyone was a good person in the Senegalese community. Paolo il Nero, or Black Paolo, was a scam artist, or at least he tried to be one. He had come really early to Italy, at the beginning of the seventies. He had a lot of friends and was clever. ...
Girls from Senegal
The worst were the girls. I used to see them arrive from Paris with other young people and in cars full of merchandise. The girls would sell everything, I mean absolutely everything. And they would justify it by saying, “We have to sell to live, just like you with your necklaces.” ...
Police . . . Just Joking!
Germany is always on my mind. The days pass and I can’t think about anything else. After all, that’s the destination that my fortune-teller assigned me. But my friends convince me: “In the summer everyone is on vacation. They’re all here at the Adriatic. You should wait for winter.” ...
Germany via Paris
By now I understand how things work here: Soon the summer will be over and everyone will go home. There won’t be anyone to buy my knickknacks anymore. I start working harder than before and start saving. I, too, count my small wad of money every night. ...
A Month in Paris
Here I am, out to discover Paris, the capital of the empire. The Arc de Triomphe is magnificent, but a Senegalese immigrant lives on the outskirts of the city and it’s not a great life. Dirt, rain, the cold; mean faces staring back at you—or just indifferent if you’re lucky: this will be our everyday fare. ...
The Foreign Legion
My memories of Paris are not happy ones. Even today I can still feel the cold in my bones and see the gray haze of those dreadful days. I get off the train and start shaking all of a sudden. ...
From Paris to Riccione
I don’t waste a minute. Just thinking of Riccione gets my blood pumping, even if there are hundreds of kilometers between me and Italy, and most importantly there’s still the border to cross. Paris is too gray for me to stay any longer. It’s harsh and bitter. My friends are in a rush. ...
A home is an impossible dream for a Senegalese illegal immigrant—and any illegal immigrant all over the world without papers. But it’s even worse for the immigrant whose skin is on the blackish side, whose hair is always too straight or too curly, and whose wallet is empty (or half-empty when things are good). ...
I don’t know how many people’s houses I went to looking for a place to stay, in those weeks between October and November, but there was never any room for us. Our Senegalese friends saved us from the pain of the cold and the car for a few days, but at the end of a few days they always said...
Double Malaw brought our family good luck. He was good at his work. He was likeable and well-respected. He knew how to laugh and kid around and he had this way of speaking with his eyes. He was good at selling and even knew all the stores where to buy the best merchandise at the best...
A Senegalese Lunch
Eighteen degrees below, Celsius. My thermometer sadly informs me just how terribly cold it is. The ground is as hard as cement and the Peugeot’s engine is dying. The air doesn’t move and the thick sky announces that snow is on the way. ...
A Dresser in Piacenza
Little As is a nice guy who is full of energy. But he has one flaw: he possesses a unique talent for attracting the police. When the police or carabinieri stop him, we always have to run to his rescue. “We can’t leave him alone,” we reason. ...
The End of Ma
Our room in the pensione in Milan has a window with a view of the chain-link fence around the convention center. On the other side, past the intersection, there is a long tree-lined avenue. The traffic is heavy. Thousands of people appear and disappear as they file in and out of the metro...
I’m still in Milan. The snow is melting away while fear, my ever constant companion, remains by my side. I sell every day, with earnings that range from ten to sixty thousand lire. Every now and then I have a stroke of good luck. In a caffè in Sesto Marelli, I just about put my bag down when...
A Run on the Beach
There are hardly any umbrellas on the beach at Marina di Montemarciano. The first time it brought me good luck, even if in the end it doesn’t seem to bring me much business. I keep at it and everything seems to be going well. But then out of the blue a carabinieri patrol unit pulls up. ...
Dakar via Moscow
Having been served my first-ever deportation papers, I am soon right back on the seesaw, swinging between good sales and quick getaways. It’s like playing hide-and-seek. If I want to get on a train at the Miramare di Rimini station, I don’t enter at the main entrance of the station. ...
Life in Senegal
My brother the policeman knows about my arrival and comes to meet me at the airport, but after the plane lands he sees only my bags arrive. He shows up on time for the next flight. “Iv!” I yell as soon as I see him from far away. ...
A Tourist in Rome
The first time I flew to Rome there were only a few Senegalese with me on the plane. They were scared and mostly busy praying. Now there are many Senegalese and they pass the time on the plane imagining the challenges that await them. ...
To Catch a Thief
The first night I solve the problem of where to stay by sleeping at the home of a friend I met in Milan in the hotel on via Berengario. A Senegalese is lucky to have friends everywhere. Friends come in handy at times like this, like when you need a plate of rice or a last-minute bed. ...
I feel really old compared to my little brother Samba and to N’Diobo. We belong to different generations. I was one of the first to know what it was like to be an immigrant and an illegal alien. I went through some tough times, but I also had a lot of adventures on the way. ...
Fights in the Metro
Before the permesso di soggiorno, though, we have some run-ins with the Moroccans—and they with us. I think the final count is in our favor in the sense that they’ve taken more punches. I am a karate champion and Samba’s not exactly a beginner. ...
I hate to say it, but after we get the permessi di soggiorno the heavens are still not quite within our reach. Our days as illegal aliens are behind us, but to live we have to keep selling and no one is happy about this. We still work outside the law. ...
The old dog days that I left behind continue to haunt me. While I sweat and pant, searching with my hands for the stairs that should lead home, I think of the hardship and all we did without, of the old hunger, of the days when the only food we had was a little meal made from a mixture of...
Those in charge always behave in the same way. As soon as you raise your head, they want to beat it back down. The guys from Senegal try to live like regular people now that the law offers them a chance. They come out from the dark. They don’t hide anymore. ...