Books

Sicily: A captive land with vested interests

Sicily is a wonderful place to visit. But Mary Rose Liverani discovered that the Mafia-enforced power battles between church and state make it a far less appealing place to live

For any traveller primarily a tourist, Sicily, a self-governing region of Italy, is a paradise: a maze of small islands within easy reach of Trinacria, the big island commonly thought of as ‘Sicily’. Enchanting seas, enormous forests, beautiful cities with their marine esplanades, temples, sculptures and impressive statues to the gods of Olympia, and one of the most famous open-air theatres in the ancient world are among the many witnesses to the dazzling Greek presence in Sicily, one that endured for 17 centuries.

Think of the accumulated Greek DNA in today’s Sicilians. Archimedes, my favourite Greek genius, was born in Syracuse, a Sicilian Greek who in his old age defended his beloved city from the Romans. And functioning as if it were born only yesterday is Etna, a living volcano whose steep sides cover many degrees of latitude that give rise to a wide variety of fruits and other plants, and whose lava has generated 24 square miles of fertile soil around Catania. Needless to say, Sicilian food is varied, colourful and tasty – though I was disappointed not to find minestrone on the menu anywhere, even in winter.

Vatican Radio with its super technology had illegally usurped five radio channels

As a journalist focused on inquiry I very soon began to feel Sicily exhausting me. I could never choose to live there, because I’m a political animal and the value I treasure above all others is freedom. In Sicily I might have to become a bandit and carry a gun. I would have to resist the regime – church, mafia and gentry. They’re a nightmare, plotting poverty in the populace.

In Favignana, the biggest of the Egadi Islands on the west coast, Vatican Radio with its super technology had illegally usurped five radio channels and excluded the national broadcaster from peripheral communities. The shopkeeper who sold me a small radio shrugged when I complained that all I could tune into was Radio Maria. “Ma come si puo fare, Signora?” was his response. “But what can one do?”

And obviously I wondered why great swathes of burnt-out crops covered areas of neat and tidy land, or charred farm equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars was tucked away in a corner of the same fields. In Palermo and Catania I saw two large department store branches of former national chain store Standa burnt black, skeletal and sinister. On the internet I encountered young Sicilians eagerly enquiring if anyone had heard Ikea had got its licence yet (it normally takes six years) because they were offering 65 jobs. Nobody was saying how many jobs had gone up in smoke with the two Standa stores.

One afternoon a woman sitting behind me on a bus tapped me on the shoulder and her face aglow with friendliness asked: “Signora, are you a foreigner?” I said, “Yes, I’m British but I live in Australia.” Her eyes widened. “Australia! That’s the place with many jobs.” I nodded, and she went on: “Signora, do you think you could take me back to Australia with you as a servant?”

I moved to Messina towards the end of my first trip to Sicily, and returning to my lodgings one night when it was late but still light I noticed a car burnt out mafia-style at the gate of the primary school. I mentioned it to my landlord, who compressed his lips and then muttered. “God knows what tomorrow will bring.” The next morning, about eight o’clock, a motorcyclist with his small child riding pillion at his back drew up at the school gate and was immediately shot in the head.

I had no idea when I first arrived there that Sicily is governed by dual sovereignty, power shared between church and state. In this system one partner is always working to seize power from the other. When the parliament passes a law, if the church does not like it, it will take measures to ensure that the law is not enforced. This applies particularly to contraception and some medications like hormone replacement therapy which, though legal, the church forbids pharmacists to stock.

The separation of canon and secular law in the region gives enormous power to the church, which as a huge landowner and with the Mafia as its law enforcer and vote-getter was able to set up the Christian Democrats after the war and maintain a one-party government for 50 years. Not only that, ‘Catholic Action’ became global and today the church has become one of the biggest publishers/distributors in the West.

Better to be a tourist in Sicily. Stick with the little issues.

Image: “A rally in memory of Sicilian left-wing activist Peppino Impastato, who was assassinated by the Mafia in 1978 after he regularly exposed and ridiculed their activities on his ‘counter-information station’ Radio Aut. By Antonio Melita/Pacific Press/Alamy Live News

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Question 7 by Richard Flanagan review – this literary quest is a transformative experience
Question 7 by Richard Flanagan
Books

Question 7 by Richard Flanagan review – this literary quest is a transformative experience

The Great White Bard by Farah Karim-Cooper review – a new way of seeing Shakespeare
The Great White Bard by Farah Karim-Cooper
Books

The Great White Bard by Farah Karim-Cooper review – a new way of seeing Shakespeare

Top 5 books on boxing, chosen by commentator Andy Clarke
Books

Top 5 books on boxing, chosen by commentator Andy Clarke

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi review – electrifying, experimental writing
Books

Parasol Against the Axe by Helen Oyeyemi review – electrifying, experimental writing

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know