I attended the University for Foreigners many years ago, when Perugia, Italy was a bucolic Umbrian city with a motley student population from around the world. The visitors did not impose on Perugia’s Etruscan dignity. Instead, that city’s serenity flowed into our veins and the international visitors soon adopted the gentility of the locals.
I have returned to Perugia often over the years. In the fall of 2005 I found the streets jammed with students from Asia, Africa and Europe and the cosmopolitan feel of the new Perugia was full of jazz festivals, Louis Vuitton knockoffs for sale on the streets, cellular phones galore and even fast food.
Yet, sitting on the terrace of the old Brufani Palace Hotel with the tranquil Umbrian patchwork below, one could still imagine that the cares of the outside world stopped at the shores of nearby Lake Trasimeno.
In Perugia’s medieval piazza where a signature griffon keeps watch, one could still hope never to be swallowed up in today’s antagonisms. Here, it seemed, Sikhs and Sunnis, Asians and Europeans, blacks and whites, even Jews and Palestinians still studied, lived and played in harmony.
All of that changed recently when Italian authorities arrested three Moroccans, part of the 10,000 strong Muslim community within the city’s 150,000 residents. An imam and two followers, organizers of an Al Qaeda training school in a mosque outside Perugia’s city walls, were taken into custody. Also seized were maps of Rome’s Da Vinci airport and the city of Bologna, poisons and training films on how to fly a Boeing 747. Later, 20 more students from the mosque were also arrested, according to the BBC.
These reports devastate me as an alumna of the same university some of these terrorists doubtless attended to learn the Italian language. My Italian roots also recoil at the horrific thought of a suicide bomber striking some of Italy’s ancient and irreplaceable historic sites. Imagine a 9/11 equivalent leveling the Colosseum or the painstakingly reconstructed city of Pompeii. Picture the horror of Florence on fire or The Roman Forum and ancient Ostia decimated by bombings.
Friends in Umbria say their lives are changed permanently now. Though they follow international news events daily on CNN, the BBC and other global news stations, until the recent arrests they felt they would be safe in their hilltop homes surrounding Perugia’s center. They believed the myth of international harmony and neighborly respect the Universita’ Per Stranieri (the foreigner’s language school) had always projected.
Now even Umbria braces herself. From the once peaceful Assisi of everyone’s St. Francis to the lyrical Spoleto where ancient warriors spilled hot oil from hilltop palace walls to stop attacking enemies, to Gualdo where farmers still look forward to their annual, and ancient, wheat thrashing feasts there is silence.
The next sound we hear from Umbria, I’m afraid, may well be the hopeless moan of 21st century resignation.