The Berlusconi in Us All: Bunga Bunga's Real Meaning

Behind the name of the Prime Minister's debauched and allegedly criminal parties are the injustices of a troubled nation

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Zoubeir Souissi/Reuters

Think back to September of 1998, when prosecutor Kenneth Starr released a report detailing then-President Bill Clinton's affair with his intern, Monica Lewinsky, and America alternately blushed and grew indignant at the lurid details: a stained dress, a wayward cigar that "tasted good," a confounding insistence by Clinton that nine blow jobs did not constitute "sexual relations."

Now close your eyes and imagine the Zippergate narrative with a few extra twists. Say police caught Monica jumping a metro turnstile and carrying a few grams of coke, after which Bill called to get her off the hook, claiming she was related to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. And that, instead of submitting to impeachment trials, eventually cooperating with prosecutors, and apologizing to his wife, Clinton bragged about how America's interns are the prettiest, and nicknamed his encounters something along the lines of "sucky-sucky."

Open your eyes. You're in Bunga Bunga Land, Silvio Berlusconi's world of fantasy and impunity. The scandal-ridden Italian Prime Minister today faces trial, and up to 15 years jail time, for allegedly paying for sex thirteen times with Karima el-Mahroug, who at 17 years old was at the time below legal age, as well as abuse of office. At the center of the case are what have become known as Berlusconi's "bunga bunga" parties: bizarre, orgiastic gatherings at his mansion outside Milan.

Until October 28, 2010, the phrase "bunga bunga" was a scarce presence online. It appeared on a few Indonesian news websites; "bunga" means flower, and "berbunga-bunga" means joy in Bahasa Indonesia. Then Italian newspaper La Repubblica broke the news that el-Mahroug, a voluptuous 18-year-old exotic dancer, told Milanese prosecutors that the Italian Prime Minister, now 74, held regular orgies at his Milan estate. They included a sex game called "bunga bunga." They also included minors. Now a search for "bunga bunga" turns up more than four million results, and its own blog, But what does it actually mean?

What the hell is "bunga bunga"?

The story of bunga bunga begins over a century ago with a prank by Irish aristocrat Horace de Vere Cole. According to news reports from 1910, Cole and a group of friends dressed in blackface, pretending to be the Abyssinian royal family, and traveled to Weymouth, England, to inspect British warships. Yale English Professor Wes Davis wrote, "It's unclear where the Mirror reporter got the idea that the fake Abyssinians had used the phrase 'Bunga, bunga,' but after the account appeared, the words soon turned up in music hall songs, and boys used them to taunt naval officers on the streets."

Cecilia Robustelli, a linguistics professor at the University of Modena, told me, "In Italian, when you want to imitate Africans, you use very nasal sounds." Robustelli is aware of the Abyssinian backstory, but, she said, "I doubt Berlusconi knows anything about that -- that's a bit too intellectual, I'm afraid."

More likely, she suggested, Berlusconi, as with many Italians, is familiar with "Civilization," a song from the late 1940s whose chorus runs "Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don't wanna leave the Congo." Berlusconi is also know for telling an old, vulgar joke about two colonial officers who are captured by a sodomitic African tribal chief who forces them to submit to "bunga bunga." In his updated version -- political humor at its finest -- the colonial officers are replaced by two opposition ministers.

El-Mahroug, the exotic dancer who unleashed BungaGate, told prosecutors that "Silvio told me that he'd copied that expression -- 'bunga bunga' -- from Qaddafi: it's a rite of his African harem."

Robustelli said the phrase's repetitive structure gives it an "iconic value."

"When you repeat a word, you tend to express an inner involvement in what you do, like a mother to their child: 'Mangia, mangia!' It means do it, and do it again. When you hear the sound of bunga, it's like when you push something: Bunga!"

Sabrina Ferri, an Assistant Professor of Italian Literature at the University of Notre Dame, said she hears whispers of colonialism and capitalism in the phrase. "It implies a conscious distinction between those who are inferior, subjected to someone else's will, and those who are superior. Why are they superior? Because of money and power." It's domineering, she said, but also "childish and infantile and comic, with a grotesque quality."

The actual processes of bunga bunga are harder to pin down. It may involve a swimming pool. Robustelli conjectured, "We think it's a sort of orgy. It's when men do as they like, and also includes sodomitic things."

That sounds a little racist.

You might say so.

"It is full of heavy sexual and racial connotations about which Berlusconi is probably not aware, because he's not very sophisticated," Robustelli said. "But everyone else can see it."

Bunga bunga, said Ferri, "perfectly captures the essence" of what Italians call Berlusconismo: unbridled consumption, endless beautiful women to toy with -- in short, an ideology in which wealthy white men rule. Or, as Ferri defines it, "a combination of geriatric infantilization and racism."

But Italy, like any country with a legacy of nationalism, had racism long before it had Berlusconi. Old Fascist habits die hard, and in December 2003, Umberto Bossi, leader of the anti-immigration party the Northern League (a far-right party Berlusconi relies on for his delicate coalition in Parliament), referred to immigrants as "bingo bongos" in explaining why immigrants should be denied housing. "You work your whole life and then we give a house to the first bingo bongo that arrives?" he asked. "You must be kidding."

Bossi pressed hard for a tough 2009 immigration law that makes it a crime for an immigrant to be in the country without a job, and that allows unarmed citizens' brigades to help enforce the law.

Saskia Sassen, a Columbia professor who studies the social and political dynamics of immigration, called this law unusually blatant in its racism. "It basically allowed vigilantism," she said. "There is something about the racism in Italy against immigrants that seems to cross a line."

But there are immigrants, and then there are young, bosomy, female immigrants, like Karima el-Mahroug -- who reportedly lacked immigration papers at the time of her arrest -- or the several Brazilian women who have also stepped forward to testify.

"Karima represents the weakest in society," said Vittorio Longhi, a columnist and a consultant for the International Labor Organization. "She's a young woman, a child, and a migrant. These are the most vulnerable people in Italy today, so it's quite ironic that this young immigrant woman who has troubled Berlusconi so much."

Sassen said that while leftist politicians are grateful, even admiring of the Brazilian and Moroccan women who are speaking out, even they are trapped in a bunga bunga mindset themselves. "They mean to speak well of them, but they still use this racialized term. It's entered the subconscious of a nation."

Hey wait, bunga bunga sounds a little sexist too.

Berlusconi and a few old rich cronies enjoying the favors of a more than a dozen women a third their age?

You call that sexist?

Sexism, of course, thrives on the soil of many nations, but Italy's indicators for women's status are particularly poor compared to those of its European neighbors. As Newsweek reported, a 2010 Gender Gap report by the World Economic Forum found that "in every category but education, Italy lags badly: in labor participation, 87th place worldwide; wage parity, 121st; opportunity for women to take leadership positions, 97th."

For young women, opportunities are especially limited.

"We have a very high percentage of young people who are unemployed, about 25 percent, but about half of young women are unemployed. This is the real fact we have to keep in mind," said Fernanda Minuz, President and legal representative of the Orlando Association, one of Italy's most prominent women's rights organizations.

With employment prospects so dim, is it any wonder that more and more young women covet a career as a velina, or TV showgirl, on one of the stations privately owned by Berlusconi?

"Being a professor or policymaker pays very badly. They have this model of womanhood that says they are only successful if they are beautiful. Then you can go on TV and have a very rich husband," said Robustelli.

But as Ombretta Frau, a professor specializing in Italian women writers at Mount Holyoke College, pointed out, Berlusconi treats Italy's networks, of which he controls over ninety percent between his private channels and state TV, as a personal, nationwide casting couch.

"If women want to have a career in TV, that's fine," she said. "But it can't be that in order to do that, you must go through the beds and basements of all these powerful men."

Meanwhile, his government has taken measures to curb prostitution. In 2008, Mara Carfagna, the law degree-wielding former topless dancer whom Berlusconi appointed as Equal Opportunities Minister, introduced legislation that for the first time would fine sex workers for operating in public, something that Minuz called "a step backwards."

Giancarla Codrignani, a feminist activist and former Member of Parliament, said women are not the only ones for sale.

"We have this big debate about the immorality of prostitution," she said., "but what is worse is the prostitution of the men in parliament who are paid for voting for Berlusconi's laws, or the women in his party who were chosen not for their merits or capabilities, but because they are beautiful and perhaps were kind with him. For him, women and men are objects to buy and leave, for his own pleasure or interests, without any respect for any questions of their humanity, dignity, or liberty."

How does he manage to stay in office?

Before Berlusconi took the reins, television in Italy was a grim affair, dominated by the less-than-thrilling morals of the Catholic Church, and no match for the vibrant film industry based around Rome's Cinecittà studios. He introduced the concept of nudity to previously humdrum programming such as game shows or the evening news, and broadcast shows like Dallas and Dynasty. By skillfully catering to the baser instincts of his audience, he was able to expand his empire, which now includes real estate, supermarkets, sports clubs, including AC Milan, insurance companies, and more. He came from humble beginnings -- his mother stayed at home, his father worked in a local bank. Now he's the third richest man in Italy, the hero of a Horatio Alger story his supporters (or what's left of them -- his approval rating is around thirty percent) find inspiring and admirable.

Controlling 90-plus percent of television airtime and over 50 percent of the advertising market also goes a long way when you're trying to minimize dissent. In early February, Berlusconi convened his "Delta Squad" of TV and newspaper executives at the presidential palace in Rome, to formulate what one Italian columnist called a "violent counteroffensive" against the bunga bunga allegations. Instead of covering them, Berlusconi-controlled TV stations have tended to attack them as politically motivated or puritanical, pretend they don't exist, or wheel out resident court jesters to sing parodical songs about them.

"If you can't change the law sufficiently -- and his problem is he can't -- you can change morality so that people consider to be normal things that are not normal," said Erik Gandini, whose documentary Videocracy, about Berlusconi's TV culture, depicts a country perilously beholden to the idiot box. "That takes time; it's a much bigger project than political change or starting a party."

But in fact, Berlusconi can change the law, and has. Writing in the New Yorker in 2008, Alexander Stille noted that "Berlusconi has brought to the new parliament three of his criminal-defense attorneys (who devise legislation that may help their client)," a tactic that has helped him survive "some seventeen criminal trials without ultimately being convicted."

"It's a government of lawlessness, and bunga bunga is just the cherry on the pie," said Marco Ventoruzzo, a law professor at Penn State and Bocconi University in Milan.

Then came something no one expected: an Italian day of popular protest, on February 13th, which saw an estimated half a million women and men come out to protest Berlusconi's degrading treatment of women.

"The protests crossed different ideologies," said Stefania Benini, an Assistant Professor of Romance Languages at the University of Pennsylvania who recently authored a paper entitled "Berlusconi and the Body of Women." "There were women from the left, right and center, nuns and prostitutes."

Because the protests took place in 230 town squares all across the country, Benini said, "People could see it without having to refer to media coverage." In a country where Internet penetration is only around 50 percent, that made a crucial difference. As long as TV remains Italians' main source of information, the bunga bunga culture is likely to live on, not as an object of scorn, but as something to aspire to.
"It's not just women, but all of Italian society who are victims of bunga bunga," said Ferri. "It's metaphorical. For me, it represents the commodification of Italian society, the corruption, the moral degradation, the desire to accumulate."

For Gandini, bunga bunga was the logical culmination of a process that has lasted since Berlusconi first launched Mediaset, the media empire that includes television stations, newspapers, and film production companies.

"For the past thirty years, he's been spreading his subconscious all over the culture. For thirty years, he's been feeding the small Berlusconi inside all of us, and now it's grown."