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Voyage in Sicily: Migrations

A few small insights from my recent visit to Sicily.

Unlimited migration or immigration is not necessarily a delightful thing.

In Palermo, sub-Saharan Africans were camped out next to people’s homes, and in public parks and public squares, cooking their food, washing, defecating, etc. Improvised tents. Quite a lot of this. Little hygiene, little or no garbage collection. Flapping bits of plastic for shelter, plastic pails to wash in, clothing lines strung up here and there.

On a small street, near the lively noisy Ballaro outdoor market, a sullen looking young African guy came out and hung up his laundry — scanty stuff — on a hook on a wall about four feet away from our cafe table, which was, of course, okay. He probably has much to be sullen about.

The bumptious owner of the hole-in the-wall restaurant, a true Sicilian, was amiable, not at all fazed, apparently, by this, and he was serving food, take-away, to African mothers, explaining to me how ‘They come for bread. They need cheap food, they have a lot of kids.’

Parallel worlds existing a few feet from each other.

African women, very friendly some of them, some of them absolutely not, and a few of them prostitutes, were hanging out close by; Africans on motorbikes went buzzing past, clearly delivering drugs, hooking up with the pale unshaven, skinny local dealers who were loitering; the Africans, tough-looking, muscular, were obviously recruited into the Mafia – at the lowest level, I presume, as deliverers and enforcers.

Not far away, behind a church, sub-Saharan Africans rummaging through mountains of rubbish, bits of rubbish drifting and scattered across the square. A few Africans peddling wares from squeaky little carts. Far from home, and adrift, amazingly patient.

On a small piazza nearby, kids and teenagers, black and white, girls and boys, were playing improvised soccer among heaps of rubbish — much of garbage collection having collapsed because of ‘austerity’, companies and individuals going broke because governments, at various levels, in order to meet EU austerity budgetary criteria, do not pay their bills, often for years, for services and materials that have already been delivered, for work that has already been done, so the individuals and their companies collapse.

Personal and corporate bankruptcy is the result.

This EU-backed, IMF-backed, German-inspired delinquent government behavior hits particularly young, less “protected,” entrepreneurs and professionals, those who don’t have the right ‘friends.’

One architect has not been paid for three years. He’s a friend of mine. The list of this non-payment of bills by government is very, very long and destroying much of the fabric of the country. The younger generation is being forced to liquidate and run down the savings of their parents and grandparents.

A young woman lawyer told me, with wry humor, “Companies are so broke they can’t even afford to sue each other.”

A mixed picture, a fabulous indomitable city, Palermo, but straining at the limits of the possible. Many ‘historic’ buildings still ruins from bombing in 1943. Trees growing between the walls. Once a third floor bedroom, now hanging out into space. Names of ancient aristocratic families inscribed, with coats of arms, on empty shells, on arched stone gateways, built for carriages and leading nowhere. Graffiti and inscriptions sometimes immortalize a bomb, the instant of destruction and death. 18,000 died from allied bombs, in a few days, so it was said. Four days they tell me were set aside by the Red Cross to bury the dead. The city is labyrinth of visual pleasures, very friendly people everywhere. Good food, marvelous coffee, stunning monuments, and, for us, a comfortable exquisite B&B with eager, bright well-informed hosts. Mountains and hills, and the sea.

In the countryside, going down a side road, we came upon frightened black African workers — illegals surely — and had a chat with their overseer who wanted to make sure we weren’t police.

A few years ago, when we were shooting a film near Pachino in southeast Sicily on the beaches where the Canadians disembarked in the July 1943 invasion, a column of police cars rolled up, thinking we were people smugglers, waiting for our ‘clients’ to land.

Now, off the coast, off those beaches, between Sicily and Africa, desperate people drown, sometimes hundreds at a time. The Italian navy, sometimes helped by others, saves those it can. Those it saves end up in Italy — hundreds, and thousands, and tens of thousands. In two days earlier in April, the Italians rescued 4,000. A drop, as it were, in the bucket.

On a farm, once aristocratic, a big heap of a place, a ramshackle sprawl high up on a hill, close to the fields and vineyards that were once cultivated, close, too, to the sulfur mine that once provided the original fortune for the aristocratic owners, over delicious risotto in a dingy cluttered dimly lit dining room, our hostess tells us that “We have to keep things nondescript and messy and drab and dull. If it looks too good, if it looks like we’re making money, then they will come.” They, unexplained, means Mafia. “We keep our heads down,” she says, pouring more wine.

Over dinner, a writer tells us, “Sicily should never have joined Italy. It has been disaster.” We talk about Pirandello, a local, and about Andrea Camilleri, another local, and his inspector Montalbano.

A civil servant, who works for the city government tells me, “The introduction of the euro led to a big rise in prices, because no efficient controls were put in place, and it led to a big reduction in my income – maybe by a third, or even a half. And, for years now, there’s been a wage freeze. I feel my life is moving in reverse.”

On the east coast, in Catania — Sicily’s industrial heart — there were semi ‘no-go’ zones with North African immigrants.

On one desolate piazza in Catania a group of North African guys were playing soccer, no locals among them, they ignored us, we ignored them, but it was sullen-eyed and joyless, not a welcoming “Sicilian” atmosphere; an economy already under extraordinary strain, and with youth unemployment at very high levels — maybe 50-60 percent in the south — really does not have the resources to integrate such fellows, single guys often undereducated and not speaking Italian and close to illiterate and inured, often, to violence, and not trained or used to work, often ideologically and religiously convinced they are ‘superior’ to the Italians and Sicilians and to “Christian” Europe and thus disinclined to ‘work’ for such inferior beings; people on that piazza we are told, just avoid going out as much as possible; a few streets away the Sunday afternoon ‘stroll’ filled the main streets, window shoppers mostly, not shoppers since there is not that much cash.

(In Palermo in contrast, the main drag was very chic, but a few streets away, mountains of garbage; the underground economy is much more organized, dominated by the Mafia, in Palermo; while in Catania, in the east of the island, it is fragmented, less organized, so — I’m guessing — the cash squeeze might be more acute in Catania, but I’m not sure. Palermo also houses the regional government and its bureaucracy and many of the big courts and prisons, so has some insulation against the crisis, it is also a bigger tourist center by far than Catania. I’m guessing here.)

Often, in Sicily, people said, nodding towards statues of Garibaldi “He’s the man who ruined us!” That is, they reject the unity with Italy; this is only half-ironic; so it does often take a long time to integrate diverse cultures into a functioning whole … “Multiculturalism” is not the magic answer to everybody’s ills.