Sicily, A Captive Land

Sicily, A Captive Land

Mary Rose Liverani

Format: 13.5 x 21.5 cm
Number of Pages: 358
ISBN: 978-3-99048-956-7
Release Date: 05.02.2018
Discover the social injustice of Sicily's past with this passionate historical guidebook. Find yourself face to face with the Mafia while empathising with the locals whose turbulent, colourful and chaotic history will have you enthralled.

Sicily, A Captive Land is a travelogue based on 15 months I spent in Sicily encompassing the winter, spring and autumn of 2006 and the autumn/winter of 2008. Going to Sicily was triggered by the recent death of my beloved husband, Ermete, a Florentine, himself. He always spoke of the South of Italy and its people with affection. After Ermete died I felt desperate to get away from Australia but on the advice of friends held off for a year before resigning my position as senior writer on a Sydney legal journal.
Sicily, I had occasionally imagined, must surely have a lot more to offer than the mafia, a bunch of criminal romantics running around on the loose. Even they themselves might have interests beyond their regular business preoccupations with high volume murder, torture and other pathologies. Now I would be in a position to explore the region in a leisurely manner and perhaps write a few articles on its various archipelagos. Ultimately, however, it became apparent to me that the interest, complexity and importance of what I was finding in Sicily called for a book.
My friends cautioned me against that decision, assuring me a book would be time wasted, ‘umpteen books have already been written on the place’. This was news to me. Thousands of books have possibly been written on the Mediterranean and Italy, wherein a short chapter might be allocated to Sicily, but of non-academic books dedicated to the region, there are far fewer, while the most impressive among them like those of Norman Lewis and Gavin Maxwell, though graphic, dramatic and compassionate, shy away from examining the Church’s significant contribution to Sicily’s wretched condition. Maxwell’s family are from the Scottish aristocracy, devoutly Catholic, their support for the Church reaching back to the Reformation. Lewis married into the Sicilian aristocracy, his brother-in-law reportedly a member of the mafia. Even the famous historian Denis Mack Smith whose impressively researched and illuminating histories of Italy have won him well-deserved plaudits and medals from the Italian government, merely alludes to the Church, abandoning the close scrutiny and analysis normally characteristic of his Italian scholarship.
Some readers may think it odd to focus on politics and history in a travel book, but my experience of reading travelogues is that one can be prepared for anything between their covers. For myself, I hope to learn something about a place even if I might never have an opportunity to visit it. I’m not looking for a plot or a powerful narrative, or thinking of a structure other than what’s involved in moving around a chosen terrain and chatting with people who have something significant to say about themselves and their homeland.
I look for entertaining meanders and meaningful maunders, lots of novelty, interesting anecdotes with bizarre details, the scotching of a few stereotypes, further development of issues familiar to me and a clear exposition of new ones I should know about. But I found more than I ever imagined in Sicily.
Few people realise – I had no inkling of this myself – that Sicilians are actually Greek. They have such deep roots embedded in Greek heritage it’s a wonder they don’t still think of themselves as Greek; having had Greek thoughts and values embedded in their DNA for 1500 years.
For 500 years they were part of Magna Graecia, Great Greece, for 700 years Greek-speaking members of Rome’s first overseas province (upper class Roman colonists chose to speak in Greek) for another 300 years Greek again, during the re-Hellenisation of former Roman territories by the Byzantines, and for two more centuries, Greek-speaking beneficiaries of an enlightened Arab administration that allowed them to continue practising the rites of Greek Christendom.
So, for 17 centuries Sicilians spoke and thought as Greeks. On the scales of history seventeen centuries outweigh just over ten. The Church of Rome when it moved in on Sicily was very much the new boy on the block, not entering Palermo till the 11th century, behind the banners of Norman warriors, and intent on indoctrinating Sicilians in Latin Christianity, mass conversions from the Byzantine church promising irresistibly huge economic and political gains.
Since Sicily’s absorption into Western Christendom and after a short brilliant renaissance of its own under the Normans, subsequent centuries of relentless oppression by the Church of Rome have almost obliterated the real value of Sicily’s Greek heritage – joy in thinking, the passion to explore and understand the cosmos and the will to discover a socio-political system that brings the greatest good to all.
All that is gone. Iron curtains have screened from Sicilian purview the Renaissance, the Reformation, the Enlightenment, the development of the secular state, the industrial Revolution, the teaching of physics and chemistry in schools. Today Sicilians endure a miserable present with little memory of their past or any hope of a better future.
However, some are becoming more aware of having been shunted into a siding of history. They want their region to get back on track. Their heritage warrants it. And the advance of international human rights law now offers the perfect opportunity to make a case for rethinking the Church’s temporal power in their land.

I didn’t land in Palermo like most other tourists, but in Catania instead, to link up with the Catanese couple who were renting me their holiday cottage on Favignana, one of Sicily’s westernmost islands, and who had promised to take me there and see me settled.
Those few days before we left were more significant than I appreciated at the time: I began a wiry friendship with Rita Piana and her Polish husband, Grzegorz Kaczynski, skidded on ice near the top of Mount Etna, legs f laying, and was engulfed by Catania’s biggest religious festival of the year.
Rita Piana and I had made contact on the Homelink International website where, for a hefty subscription, I was given an opportunity to induce a Sicilian (or anyone else in the catalogue) to make a year-long house swap with me. Ha! How could I ever have imagined such a thing of an Italian? A year or a week, it made no difference, not one was rushing to relocate in Wollongong – such a long f light, you understand – as if I might not, and impossible without a collective of friends in tow. They’re like flocks of budgies, Italians. Just the suggestion of going anywhere alone has them mopping their brows in panic.
I was about to give up on the idea of an exchange when I received my first email from Rita. No nudges and winks. No coded language. None of the allegedly secret Sicilian communing. Straight off she announced she had friends in Australia but no desire whatever to visit there. Instead she wanted to rent out a little holiday house she had not long ago purchased in Favignana.
‘I can offer you a good price,’ she said. ‘Homelink only accepts renters who will do that.’
At the beginning of February, late winter, what would be a ‘good price’ for a holiday cottage in Favignana? Oddly, I couldn’t bring myself to ask the Catania woman. I felt I had to take her offer on trust. And what would I do on a minuscule island unfamiliar even to many Sicilians?
Favignana, barely a dot on the map, dominates the Egadi archipelago. An island offshoot of an island. Shaped like a butterfly the Greeks had confidently declared. Where had they gotten their bird’s eye view of the place? You can’t always see everything from the top of a mountain. Finally, I wrote to the woman and told her that my husband had died a year past, after a long illness, and that I would be glad to spend a quiet month in an isolated spot, to recoup my strength.
She responded immediately.

Dear Mary Rose,
As a travelling adventurous heroine, you want to know, to understand and to discover. A journey has many aspects – destination, means of transport, companions and so on, but surely travelling is an adventure which leads you to build a new awareness. So although the main goal, or better, the practical goal of your journey is writing a book on Sicily, eventually your adventure here will lead you to a deeper self-knowledge.
I mean, you wanted to test or maybe discover, your strengths and your limits, after you lost your husband. Every person has their own weaknesses, however strong they may feel. The point is that they find it hard to show them. That is what happens to me when I don’t feel well.
Now I have to go because Donald, my cleaner, is arriving.

Though never having met Rita, after six months of receiving her vigorous and thoughtful letters I felt a great affection for her. She was a ‘Catanese, Catanese’ she had informed me, proudly. A Sicilian through and through.
‘Try to come to Catania before February 3, the first day of our three-day festival of Santa Agata,’ she wrote me. ‘It’s our biggest religious carnival of the year and you will definitely want to be there.’
Despite my determination to avoid prejudging Sicily, I was ‘rigid as a fish’ according to Rita when she met me at the airport. Little wonder. It was late at night. The arrivals section was emptying alarmingly fast as if the place were strewn with ‘no loitering’ notices and I suddenly found myself conspicuously alone, while the males hanging about outside, unsmiling to start with, were turning grimmer by the minute. They were not the friendly teddy bear Italians that compere cooking shows or joke with customers in the bars. Much more like the types who bury people in concrete. What if someone snatched my bags before Rita came? Or snatched me?
I’d never seen a picture of her, but I recognized her immediately, a little acorn figure, russet brown all over, making everyone else look grey and dismal. Her shoulder length dark hair that alternately radiates out around a small, neat head, or coils on top of it – whatever her busy hands f ind to do with it while she’s talking – was up under her beanie and seeing her in her tan cords and matching overcoat, drawn in to show off her waist, leaning forward, with her eyes popping out behind jazzy tortoiseshell spectacle frames, my panic began to recede.
‘You’re …?’ Her eyes were bulging with inquiry. I remembered George Bernard Shaw’s observation that protuberant eyes bespeak a vivid imagination. ‘Yes, yes,’ I said, thankfully.
She put her arms round me, releasing a torrent of apologies in perfect English and drawing me towards the exit. ‘Grzegorz is parking the car. Let’s get your luggage outside.’
I was pretty weary that first night in Sicily, after two weeks in Ermete’s village where temperatures had stuck on 14 degrees below zero. I, f leeing Australia’s extended hot summer, had arrived deliberately and desperately underclad, wanting to feel cool, but now shivering in my deepest core, trying to hug myself still, ravenously hungry every hour of the day and night and watching with doleful fascination the fat melting off my bones.
But a glass of wine and a light supper, eaten en famille in the kitchen with my new friends banished sleep for most of the night which we spent animatedly exchanging condensed versions of our biographies. They had met in London where both were advancing their academic studies, she an undergraduate and Grzegorz a doctoral candidate from Warsaw University. A year’s correspondence turned a brief romance into a courtship, at the end of which Grzegorz invited Rita to come to Warsaw to meet his family. Then it was his turn to visit Sicily to plead his suit with her mother and grandparents, her father having died when she was 15.
This was to be a marriage between a Polish intellectual and a member of Sicily’s landed gentry, a social class not especially attached to schooling, Rita being the first among the women of her family to attend university and to have a job.
‘I must tell you my grandfather squandered our family estates in gambling. Big landowners often do that in Sicily. But he did it because he was depressed. His labour force just walked off the land in the 1950s. Farm workers were rebelling all over Sicily. They had wanted higher wages, paid in money too, not in kind. About twenty per cent of farms ended up without labour then but Grandfather wouldn’t give in to the peasants’ demands. Communists, he thought them. So they literally dropped their tools and walked away. Up North’.
Well, the Italians were still paying their farm workers in kind, not with wages, in the 1950s? No wonder so many Southern Italians came pouring into Australia then. Mainly Calabrese rather than Sicilians, though 200 thousand Sicilians alone are said to have quit their region in 1950-51. Paying in kind makes it easier to keep wages down. That Rita’s grandfather knew absolutely nothing about farming was not itself a real problem. Absentee landlords are no strangers to the rural sector. More to the point, Grandfather knew nothing about management and industrial relations. And then to turn to gambling in a crisis. Tsk. This is not the stuff of good capitalism.
Rita went on: ‘Grandfather couldn’t find labourers to replace those who had abandoned him. The place started to fall apart. You don’t know how sickening it is, to have been wealthy, with no money worries of any kind, and then to lose it all. My mother had grown up rich. Then my father died. We had no income and no property. My mother had to raise three of us. I don’t know how she got us the apartment in this building. I just hate to think of it.’
Rita said she and Grzegorz had recently celebrated his appointment as associate professor in the sociology department of Catania University, a position, she lamented, an academic might normally have expected to gain in his mid-thirties. Grzegorz, unfortunately was already in his thirties when, with their daughter and son, six years into their marriage, they had left communist Poland and returned to Sicily. Since a Polish Pope had just been elected at the time, opportunities for Poles were forecast to open up all over Italy. Grzegorz, unfortunately, would have to begin his Italian academic career from scratch. Learn to read and write in Italian. Now, 20 years on, he was in the happy position of commuting regularly between Catania University and the University of Warsaw, having managed to integrate the Italian and Polish strands of his research and writing.
I congratulated myself when I retired to my room about three in the morning, that in all of Sicily I could hardly have met another couple who would be more fascinating or lively.

Rising early, to find my room suffused with light, I breathed aloud to the apartments opposite, ‘I’m here, I’m in Sicily’, and eased the white transparent curtains aside, to open the French windows leading onto the balcony.
‘Turn your head to the left’, Rita had instructed me, ‘and you will see Etna.’
Can a people fall in love with a volcano? If it’s Mount Etna, they can be bewitched, not for moments but for millennia. And it’s the best kind of love, filled with gratitude, blended with awe, fond but not familiar, intimate but respectful and never taking the loved one for granted, aware that fiery depths underlie the bounty lavished on those who welcome its largesse. In my brief stopover at Catania before crossing to the west of Sicily I loved Etna from the moment I saw it.
There it was, snow covered and bleaching the sky, the greatest most active, most studied volcano in Europe. A mountain nearly two miles high, estimated age 700,000 years. It is reportedly piled on a soft base of rocks formed of clay and silt, thought to be tilting slightly to the east, with Etna itself sliding east ways on the base. If some part or all of Etna should collapse in a giant landslide to the sea, US geologist Richard Cowen has speculated, it will be followed by a tsunami, and the two events become a catastrophe of unspeakable dimensions. And just up the road from me! I should have felt terrified but beauty, however deadly, is irresistible. I beamed at the volcano, drawing in copious draughts of its sulphurous air.
‘How can I get to it?’ I asked Rita. ‘Today.’
She walked me to a street near her flat. It led directly to the bus interchange at Catania station. A bus left for Etna about 8.30am.
‘There’ll be nothing to see but snow,’ she warned me as I was hurrying off. ‘The lava will be completely covered and probably all the side craters too.’
‘Don’t worry. I’ll visit it in spring or summer to see the lava.’
Had I known what was in store I would have been less chirpy hurrying to the interchange – that once deposited at the ‘Refuge’, the highest village on Etna, I would have a long wait for evening when the bus returned, and every comfort – warmth, shelter, food and coffee – I would pay for over and over again.
But happily ignorant, I rejoiced to think that nothing is ever so clear and sharp as on a bright winter’s day, when my glasses seem to have been properly cleaned for the first time, with the outlines of every object large and small seeming newly incised and the air chilled blue. I was shivering with excitement in the bus, breathing the beauty of the landscape into my soul, pinching myself to remind me that soon I would be stepping onto a living volcano.
Up as close as you are allowed to go in winter, 800 metres from the summit at the funavia terminal, the altitude is 2500 metres and Etna was looking like Big Momma, with all the baby craters she had delivered from her f lanks tucked around her under their snowy blanket. She, a veteran smoker, taking it easy, emitting little wisps barely visible in the absorbent whiteness, to reassure everyone that she was still undertaking her major regional responsibility – to keep Sicily rich.
The softness of the snow and its purity and the flowing curves of the craters underneath it made winter Etna ‘la’ montagna. All woman. In summer, I would discover, she underwent a radical gender change. No longer white, but every shade of black across an infinity of lava fields, booming to deafen you from depths estimated at 25 kilometres into the earth, tossing molten lava and glowing scoriae out of multiple furnaces, she would become ‘il’ volcano, macho mountain.
5 Stars
A tasteful and compassionate record - 29.02.2020
Dr. Audrey Wilson

Mary Rose clearly delights in sicilians and Sicily. She writes beautifully of her encounters with people and places and has a lovely knack of finding both people and places that are interesting and important to the overall experience. Her delight in her encounters with all people with whom she talks be they poor or wealthy, lowly or influential is clear. Her caring and concern for them all and for their country is also clear. This book is a great account of her experiences in Sicily and would entice others to want to share them.

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