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One chilly February morning in 1994, Giuseppe Cipriani, the mayor of the western
Sicilian town of Corleone, opened his front door. The severed head of a calf gazed up from the doorstep. Corleone has always had a powerful Mafia presence, and the 32-year-old Cipriani, having been elected months earlier on a strong anti-Mafia platform, knew that he was supposed to be afraid. But he wasn’t afraid. He was angry.

“I told myself, ‘I refuse to be intimidated by these people who are trying to terrorize us. I’ll show them this system no longer works,’” he recalled. “We are not so impressed by their antics. We have more important things to do.”

There has always been important work to be done in Sicily, but for most of history everyone but the Sicilians themselves were in control. Large, fertile, and at the center of the Mediterranean, Sicily has invariably been somebody else’s prize or, as one man put it to me, “the cradle of invasion.” About the size of Vermont, it was first overrun by the Sicels (an ancient people who left many stone tombs and the root of the island’s name) and the Sicans. The Greeks arrived in the eighth century B.C., establishing important colonies whose ruined temples and theaters remain some of the island’s great tourist attractions. The Romans made it the first province of their empire-Arabs left a flourishing legacy of crops: oranges, lemons, melons, pistachios, and a new breed of wheat. The Normans contributed castles, cathedrals, and blue-eye genes. Centuries of Spanish and Austrian nobles exploited the island from their palaces in Palermo-the lack of a national government left a void of power that was easy for local strongmen, mafiosi, to fill. They were just the last in the long line of conquerors when they took over the island in this century. “And then,” one woman told me, “we were colonized by corruption.”

Cultivating the rugged terrain, isolated by mountains, at the mercy of earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, Sicilians have long been masters of apathy, fatalism, and distrust. Sicily became part of Italy in 1861 but remained poor and isolated. The combination of exploitation and neglect created a chronic poverty and conservatism that virtually defined the term Sicilian. But now anew emotion has arisen, and Sicilians are redefining themselves. “Anger,” said one man bluntly, “is what made people change.” Anger at the oppressive hand of the world’s most famous crime organization. Anger at corrupt politicians who, as the saying goes here, have “eaten all the money.” And more anger at revelations of the links between the Mafia and politicians throughout Italy, which contributed to the election last year of a new national government. “It’s not that we hadn’t suspected it,” said one Sicilian of the scandal. “But even we were shocked at the extent of it.”

Anti-Mafia feeling began to build in the early 1980s, and modest demonstrations across the island were followed by something new: trials and convictions of Mafia members. When two Palermo judges were assassinated in 1992, Sicilians reacted in spontaneous revulsion. In the glare of the publicity, outsiders were astonished to see that Sicily, far from having remained superstitious and backward, had been undergoing great social and economic change. The transformation is the result of rising national prosperity in the 1970s and ‘80s, better education—especially for women—and the effect of television and the spread of popular culture. Discos are common in most towns, and the fashions are indistinguishable from those worn in Milan and Rome. An entrepreneurial spirit is replacing the old habit of taking one job and keeping it for life. And the equally old habit of accepting massive national subsidies for endless failed public projects is under fire from Sicilians who are beginning to demand accountability from their politicians.

The contrasts are still new enough to fascinate Sicilians. “I taught in the United States between 1982 and 1984,” said a professor from the University of Palermo. “When I came back, I saw for the first time women riding the bus, alone, at night.”

And it took me forever to find a widow in a black dress, once the hallmark of the strict obligations that bound women to church and family. I eventually met one running the family produce stall in Randazzo, a small town on the slope of Mount Etna, at 10,902 feet (3323 meters) Europe’s highest active volcano. Her 23-year-old daughter was wearing tight jeans and a fashionable wraparound sweater.

I asked the daughter her name. “Irene Ferralore,” she answered. Her mother gasped: “You told her your last name?”

“Mama, come on,” Irene said. “Things are changing.”

I asked Salvatore Butera, director of economic studies at the Bank of Sicily in Palermo, about these changes. “The Sicilian society has undergone deep modernization, and Sicily is basically homogeneous with the rest of Italy now,” he told me. “But all this prosperity is not the fruit of a well-developed economy; it is the fruit of private consumption through a thousand forms of compensation: pensions, more, or less deserved, and various programs to aid people. So we have an apparent prosperity—trips, clothes, cars—that isn’t balanced by productivity. The economy is very dependent on outside help.”

I asked him why the world had been so surprised that changes were occurring. “Some people have assumed that Sicily is completely still, is not capable of progress. This idea first came from The Leopard, the historical novel set in Sicily by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa.”

Di Lampedusa wrote, for example, “Sicilians never want to improve for the simple reason that they think themselves perfect; their vanity is stronger than their misery....”

“People made a bible of that book,” Butera continued. “It is a great literary work, and in a certain sense it also says the truth. But in reality it is not all true.”

As I traveled through Sicily in the spring, I was often confused. (“We are very good at creating confusion,” one man cheerfully agreed.) Life was so serious, yet life was so joyful. I had thought people would avoid talking about the Mafia; they brought it up before I did. Along with frustration I found hope; there was abundance, yet there was still intense poverty. I saw the creamy almond blossoms finally fall, and the grapevines just begin to glow with green. I also escaped an attack on my car by a gang riding Vespas in a poor neighborhood of Catania, who shattered the passenger window.

Yet as I reflected on all the changes in Sicily, it seemed that they were really just the accumulation of changes in individual Sicilians—small personal revolutions over the past generation in which a person chose to depart from the well-worn path of habit.

In Catania, Tino Sciuto’s father was just such a minor rebel. “My father had to address his father as vossia, meaning, roughly, your majesty,” Tino, 31, told me. “And he could kiss him only on the hand. But my father wanted me to call him dad and to kiss him on the cheek—he tried to be a friend.”

Said a small-town doctor in her late 40s, “My mother wasn’t allowed to study when she was a girl.” Yet that mother had taken courage in hand to help her daughter enter medical school. “She told me that even if she had had 50 daughters, she would have sent them all to university.”

This woman was the only Sicilian I met who did not want to be named in an article that dealt with the Mafia, though she has not been directly involved in any anti-Mafia protest. Her emphatic “no” was a reminder of how deep fear of the Mafia runs.

TWO MONTHS after he received the calf’s head, Mayor Cipriani was speaking out again, this time in the town square. In Corleone you can see almost everything of the old and the new Sicily: the small rituals that continually retie the knots of community—ice cream and flirting and gathering in the square as evening draws on—while at the same time the bracing new resistance to the Mafia casts a new light on the old, familiar landscape. On this Sunday evening in April, Cipriani and other speakers were addressing a rally, urging the people to sign a petition that, it turns out, eventually saved the town’s hospital. To lose the hospital would have meant a two-hour drive to Palermo, the capital, first on rural roads shared by sheep and goats, then on secondary roads that might be broader and smoother if the money allocated for that purpose had somehow found its way to the right hands.

Golden light bathed the square even as green-black clouds menaced the horizon. Sunday afternoon had passed in Corleone in the usual way, which meant that everyone was already in the square. The coffee bars and ice cream parlors reopened after the one to four siesta - a multi-course family lunch followed by a nap. Almost everyone had taken to the street. Young adults and teenagers made their Passeggiata, strolling down the main road talking and joking, then turning like a school of fish and strolling back. Men in their 60s and older sat in groups around the square, dapperly dressed in crisply ironed shirts) sweater vests tailored jackets, and wool caps. (Their wives were probably at home, where they still prefer to socialize, meeting to play cards or sew.)

“Corleone can now be proud of what it is,” Cipriani shouted into the microphone. “Corleone has shown that it is different from what the rest of Italy thought it was.”

The idea of change, especially in Corleone, almost inevitably focuses on the Mafia. It is impossible to speak of anything in Sicily without eventually speaking of this organization. Its 5,000 or so local members have touched, to one degree or another, every aspect of Sicilian life, scooping money from the flow of public funds, controlling politicians and judges, intimidating, extorting, and killing.

The contrast between attitudes in Corleone is particularly powerful. It is the hometown of the Riina family; Salvatore “Totò” Riina was until recently the most powerful and ruthless Mafia boss. Yet it is also the home of Dino Paternostro, editor of a defiantly anti-Mafia monthly newspaper called Città Nuove—New Cities. In his line of work you might think he would cultivate a certain nondescript air. The day I met him he was wearing a peach-colored shirt, a blue-checked jacket, and an extremely floral tie. His eyeglass frames were red.

“There used to be a popular way of thinking that the best way to fight the Mafia is to pretend it doesn’t exist,” he told me in his low, intense voice. “We started the paper six years ago to fight this concept.”

The Mafia’s control over economic development has been total. Paternostro told me that the lavish government subsidies keep finding their way into businesses with Mafia connections or “fatten the pockets of the politicians.” If by some miracle projects are eventually built, they usually are seriously flawed. He described two unfinished dams and a never opened dairy. “If Corleone today had the dairy, the two dams irrigating fields so agriculture could improve, if it had a better road network—as was financed, but never realized—our economy would be much better off. There’s no accounting for the millions of dollars that the government has invested here.

“We must be against the Mafia not only for moral reasons,” Paternostro said, his voice rising urgently, “but also because the Mafia has obstructed our development.”

The origin of the word “mafia” is uncertain, but it was used in the Sicilian dialect to mean beautiful, proud, something worthy of respect. Under the feudal land system, strongmen who collected rents for landowners and helped settle disputes in the absence of local government or courts came to be called mafiosi.

Mafiosi themselves became landowners after the unification of Italy in 1861 brought land reform. By 1875 the strongest political power on the island was the hierarchy of bosses and underlings that eventually was known as the Mafia. To their previous work they added delivering votes and protection services against bandits, and ultimately against themselves. When they moved from the countryside into the burgeoning cities, infiltrating industries and bureaucracies, they became the de facto power of the entire island.

Events leading to what has been called the Palermo Spring of 1992 began, in part, in Corleone in the early 1980s, when Totò Riina launched and won a brutal war to become Sicily’s capo dei capi—boss of bosses. But he broke time-honored rules by also killing family members of his rivals. In revenge the losers broke the code of silence and began to talk to authorities. With the testimonies of these “penitents,” a pool of prosecutors led by Giovanni Falcone, a Palermo judge, won convictions of nearly 400 mafiosi.

Then, on May 23, 1992, Falcone was returning to Palermo from Rome on what was supposed to have been a secret trip. He was driving toward the city with his wife and several bodyguards when someone watching from the coastal hills used a remote device to set off powerful explosives along the highway, blowing up Falcone’s car. Others who had fought the Mafia—judges, businessmen, journalists, priests—had been assassinated, but Falcone’s death galvanized Sicily. Thousands marched in Palermo shouting “Basta! Enough!” One woman recalled, “It was as if a light had been switched on in a dark room.”

Two months later a bomb killed Falcone’s judicial colleague, Paolo Borsellino, as he arrived at his mother’s Palermo apartment for Sunday lunch. This was “basta” for Tommaso Buscetta, a mafioso who had provided information to both judges, whom he came to admire. Now he told his greatest secrets: how the Mafia was being protected by many of Italy’s politicians. These revelations, and others, ultimately brought down the national government. Riina’s driver then gave information finally leading to the arrest and imprisonment of the boss of bosses, a man even his own followers had called the “Beast.”

No one expects the Mafia to vanish soon. (The series of retaliatory killings recently claimed a 12th relative of Tommaso Buscetta.) It controls a multibillion-dollar empire in drugs, weapons traffic, and money laundering. And it still extorts protection money from thousands of small businesses.

But something fundamental has shifted in the social acceptance of its existence, especially with the piercing of the famous shield of omertà (“I didn’t see anything, and if I was there, I was sleeping”). In 1990 business owners in the small beach resort of Capo d’Orlando on the northeast coast refused demands for money from a regional Mafia family looking to expand its territory. A group of 31 formed an association to work with authorities to fight extortion.

“Now there are more than 20 such groups in Sicily,” said Tano Grasso, one of the founders, since elected to the national parliament. “In Palermo almost all businesses pay extortion. If only one person spoke out, he could be killed. That’s why it’s important that we stand together, not alone, not afraid. They can’t kill all of us.”

I ASKED VIRTUALY everyone I met whether they considered themselves Italians first, or Sicilians. The answer overwhelmingly “Italian,” followed immediately by, “of course I feel deeply Sicilian too.” In attempting to discover what it means to be Sicilian, I had to look beyond some persistent stereotypes.

Northern Italy, for one thing, tends to look at southern Italy as a scruffy boot bottom, and at Sicily as an object appropriately poised to be kicked. “Stupid, lazy, thieves; that’s how I’ve heard them described,” said a friend of mine. “During the 1990 World Cup soccer tournament there was a sign in the Rome stadium about the Italian team’s leading scorer: “’Great Play, Too Bad He’s Sicilian.’”

Scorned by northerners as terroni, or people of the earth, Sicilians retaliate by calling northerners polentoni, after polenta, a northern cornmeal mush-“Meaning,” explained a young woman, “they have no flavor.”

She had just received her degree in languages and literature from the University of Catania. “Actually, I don’t mind being called terrona,” she said. “I think it means I’m closer to my roots.”

Sicilian roots are firmly embedded in their extraordinary countryside, which they love with a passion: its moody mountains looming out of the wintry thunderclouds, the sweep of blossoming lemon and orange groves, the dusting of tiny wildflowers that can seem like snow in the shadows of dawn. They have also kept their religious traditions, which have altered yet remained strong over the centuries.

But the core of everything Sicilian remains the family. Nobody even imagines that this could ever change.

“A Sicilian’s first fortress is the home,” Lucia Pappalardo told me as we stood on the terrace of her house overlooking the Ionian Sea near Catania. The spring breeze blew from the cobalt water, and the tropical trees gave the house a sense of seclusion. Her three grown daughters, like most Sicilian children, were still living at home; the Pappalardos were building a small house nearby on their property for the one who was about to be married.

Even when young people move away, they don’t really leave their families behind. Salvatore Giuliana, 27, moved to Milan to work in advertising, but after seven years he hasn’t given in to the lure of the big city. He still misses his hometown of Enna—the food, his friends, his family—and comes back six or seven times a year. His mother and father call their only child every morning from Sicily to wake him up at seven o’clock.

“But,” his mother told me, “I know he rolls over and keeps sleeping, so I call him again at 7:30.”

Families, as Sicilians see it, are supposed to be close. Even if they don’t live together, most of them eat together—several nights a week, if not every night. The notion of doing something by yourself strikes Sicilians as odd, even inexplicable.

When Salvatore suggested that I have coffee with him and his fiancée, Elena di Natale, I had been in Sicily long enough not to be surprised that we were also joined by his mother and father and her mother and sister. Soon some aunts, uncles, and cousins dropped by. It hadn’t occurred to anyone that such a conversation might be private. I ended up learning as much about Salvatore from his family as I did from him, which is exactly the way Sicilians think it ought to be.

To be Sicilian is, in a sense, to consider it part of life’s purpose to avoid, subvert, or ignore the rules — any rules. “It’s not that we want to break the law, ” one young man explained. “It’s just that there are too many of them.”

The way they drive is a good illustration of the result: anarchy, something between an art form and a blood sport. It was clearly best to have my interpreter, Mirella Giuffrida, at the wheel. When she seemed dismayed by the Milan license plate on my rental car, I asked if it would be a problem. “Oh no,” she said. “They will know I’m Sicilian by the way I drive.”

She lived up to her promise, escaping congestion by deftly creating a third lane where my limited vision saw only two. “Eat or be eaten,” Mirella explained as we took to the road with a blasting of horns and a bellowing of insults, all of which she taught me on the first day, so I could be part of the process. And on open stretches of divided highway she inevitably drove down the center of the road. “Why not,” she shrugged. “There’s no one in front or behind me.”

Even Sicilians willing to risk bouts of optimism in today’s atmosphere of change still won’t let their feet stray too far onto the sunny side of the street. They worry, they complain. “We think it’s so funny that Americans respond to ‘How are you?’ with a big smile and say, ‘Fine, wonderful, thank you,’” one woman told me. “In Sicily the answer is usually ‘Cosi cosi—So-so,’ or ‘I’ve seen better times.’ As a matter of fact,” she said, “it’s bad luck to say ‘good luck.’”

And there are traditions enacted through elaborate rituals that even the most modern Sicilians have no desire to abandon.

Enna is an ancient citadel city of 29,000 built on the summit of a 3,200-foot (975 meters) mountain in the center of the island. The modern highway joining the two main cities of Catania and Palermo runs past just below, and from either direction Enna rises on the horizon like a mythical kingdom—“Our happy highland,” the Ennese call it. No delinquency, no slums, no-Mafia? “Well, much less than in other places,” one man allowed.

Here, as in many towns throughout Sicily, the Holy Week ceremonies preceding Easter are rich and complex. The rituals are religious, certainly, but they seem to have almost equal importance as a community tradition. In Enna, everyone joins in the array of processions and dramas that commemorate the death and resurrection of Christ.

On Good Friday, Luigi Barbarino, 38, closes his café-bar to shoulder the Urn of the Dead Christ. As a member of the confraternity of San Salvatore, he is one of 60 men who carry this glass coffin holding a wooden statue of the crucified Jesus.

Luigi was a boy when he joined his father’s confraternity in 1966; three years ago he was elected a bearer. This is a great honor, as it is for the 80 men of another confraternity who carry the six-foot (183 centimeters)-tall statue of the Madonna of Sorrows. Joining the procession are 15 other confraternities, with nearly 3,000 men and boys. “We are very attached to our traditions,” Luigi said.

Enna’s ritual, a legacy of 17th-century Spanish rule, begins at 5 p.m. The air is cool and the shadows are lengthening. The opulent Urn of Christ, to my Protestant American eyes, looks a bit gaudy. But as the men muscle the coffin into a narrow stone street and a funeral dirge swells from an accompanying brass band, I find myself unexpectedly blinking back tears. Luigi and his fellow bearers are not ashamed of theirs. “Christ’s death for us is a very important moment,” he tells me later. “Carrying his coffin, we express our pain.”

All of Enna lines the route or hangs from balconies as the confraternities in a rainbow of capes and white hoods begin the five-hour march through town to the cemetery, then back to the 14th-century cathedral. With them walk young girls dressed as nuns or angels, giving thanks to Mary for a blessing or praying for one.

As darkness falls, the temperature drops also, into the 40s (4-10° C). The hooded men light their torches — battery-powered colored lanterns these days instead of flames. (On the windy plateau their sleeves too often caught fire.) When the procession climbs the hill back to town, it is to the sound of the beat from a lone snare drum. “All we can hear are whispers and the sound of marching feet,” says Luigi. I can hear people making plans for dinner, the stray car alarm blaring, and pocket cellular phones ringing. I’m waiting for them in a street I hoped would be full of mysterious medieval gloom, but it is bright with the glare from spotlights jury-rigged onto balconies. “But it’s nice that they do that,” a bystander comments. “People can get better shots with their video cameras.”

SICILIANS ADAPT to these dislocations between old and new with panache. There are new contrasts too in the world of economics, as Sicily struggles with recession, subsidy cutbacks, and unemployment that has reached 22 percent (it is 11 percent elsewhere in Italy). The idea of changing jobs scarcely exists, mainly because they are so few and so precious. If a Sicilian does change jobs, people assume he was fired or that his boss needed to give the job to a relative. Now, despite the economic problems, Sicilians are discovering ambition.

“There is a new class of people—a small group—who are a force for economic renewal on the island,” said Rossano Zappalà, director of a cheese factory on the slopes of Mount Etna. “Sicilians now realize that they have to take the future in their hands and not expect anyone else to do it for them.”

Elegant and blond, Giovanna Tam started Boomerang, an advertising agency in Catania, 13 years ago. “Some people describe Sicilians as mollusks: They attach someplace and want to live and die there. And of course some people are like that,” she said as we sipped espresso and she smoked yet another slim brown cigarillo. “The true force behind our economy is small companies like mine, with people who can decide to work 24 hours a day if they want to improve their situation. This is the part of the economy that takes work seriously.”

Daniele Tudisco decided to quit his position as head of the western Sicily division of a national investment firm (“I didn’t sleep for a week before I did it”). He wanted to set up his own business in tourism development. Not to add another new hotel to the concrete veil falling across the island’s superb coast; not to run another bus tour of Greek ruins. Daniele dreamed of developing what he felt would be a “real Sicilian product.”

So he went to the tiny western village of Tonnara di Bonagia, on the wild shores of Trapani Province. Here he and three partners are creating a small resort from an abandoned 15th-century tonnara, a compound of houses built around a courtyard where tuna fishermen once lived and processed their catch. The men still go out each May and June to catch them, using a method called the mattanza introduced by the Arabs in the ninth century.

“We have saved a piece of Sicilian architecture,” Daniele said as he showed me the renovations under way at the tonnara. Nearby, the fishermen were assembling the nets, ropes, and anchors that they would soon set offshore in a labyrinth to guide the tuna into a “chamber of death,” where men in boats spear them and pull them aboard.

“I kiss your hand,” Daniele respectfully greeted 72-year-old Salvatore Solina, the chief of the fishermen. “He’s the one who decides when it’s time to take the tuna,” Daniele explained. “After Jesus Christ,” Salvatore corrected him.

Because the 66 units will be offered on a time-share basis, the visitors will stay long enough not only to see the mattanza but also to enjoy the rocky beauty of the untouched coast and the tranquillity of the village. Although the villagers may not be overtly enthusiastic at the prospect (they are Sicilian, after all; something will probably go wrong), they are cautiously positive at the idea of finding some new ways to support themselves.

“We won’t see immediate results; we need time,” Daniele continued. “We’ll know in two months if we are pioneers or idiots. But I’m doing this because I love Sicilian traditions.”

Daniele is only one of several entrepreneurs I met who wants to show their love for their island and to dedicate themselves to its future. That love and dedication are nowhere more clear than at an estate called Regaleali, where Count Lucio Tasca d’Almerita is making Sicilian wine to confound all previous notions of Sicilian wine.

THE ROAD TO REGALEALI winds upland an hour south of Palermo to nearly 2,000 feet above sea level. And the city the scenery rapidly reverts to countryside, olive groves punctuated by small villages. The paler green of vineyards beginning to leaf stretched up the hillsides, with splashes of red poppies and towering stalks of wild fennel topped with starbursts of yellow flowers. As we reached the Tasca d’Almerita estate, I felt that we were reaching back to the heart of Sicily, into a life that was abundant, close to the land; a tiny universe composed of family, sustained by simple but marvelous food, organized according to the dictates of nature and suffused with its fragrance.

Tall, lean, and handsome at 55, Lucio Tasca looks the part of a count. But “I never use that title,” he said with a wave of his hand. “I’m just Lucio Tasca. Of course, it means a lot to my father, and my son seems to like using it, and it does look good on a wine label.”

In Sicily vineyards rise almost everywhere (grapes trail only citrus in agricultural production). But most wines have not been, to put it kindly, notable. In the late 1960s, Lucio’s father, Count Giuseppe Tasca, set out to improve the estate’s grapes and fermentation process—to make “good wine.” Now, under the direction of Lucio and his 31-year-old son, Giuseppe, the estate produces 2.4 million bottles of ten different wines yearly, exporting a third of it. In 1991 his Chardonnay was judged by one critic “the best white wine made in Italy.”

As usual lunch with the Tascas was a family gathering, and as usual it was wonderful. “Nothing formal,” Lucio said, as eight of us gathered around a small table in the family dining room. Beyond the open door the courtyard was scattered with his grandchildren’s toys and scented by climbing roses.

Pasta was first, fettuccine in tomato sauce, and Lucio poured a crisp white table wine made from, among others, a grape called Tasca because it was first found growing on their property. “No one knows what it is,” he said. “Well, I think I do now, but I don’t want to say.”

Then came a salad of celery, onions, parsley, anchovies, oregano, and the estate’s own green olives and olive oil; also a wheel of pecorino cheese made from the estate sheep’s milk. “Sicilian flavors,” sighed Lucio as a platter of lamb and potatoes roasted with rosemary arrived and he opened a bottle of the best Regaleali claret. Then coffee appeared, with a cake of sweetened ricotta and a blackberry tart. “Really, it’s all too much,” someone said. “Yes,” agreed Lucio. “But what would you leave out?”

Later, as we walked along a dirt road near the stone farmhouse, I learned about some things Lucio Tasca would like to see changed. For instance, the crushing taxes that hinder prosperity at every step. Half of Tasca’s earnings go to pay taxes. “That’s what the Italian government does to our economy,” he said.

“Then there are the irritations of government-regulated freight costs. I went to Varese, north of Milan, to order the metal caps we need to cover the necks of the wine bottles,” he told me. “I asked the man to pay for shipping, and he said he couldn’t. It costs him less to send these caps to California than to Sicily.”

There are also the economic strictures of the European Union. EU grants helped the Tascas build a modern winery. Now it would pay them to take out part of their cultivation. Lucio has declined. “I’ve worked too hard.”

A breeze swayed the branches of eucalyptus trees lining the road. “When I was a child,” Lucio said, laughing, “I thought the wind came because the trees were moving.” Like the changes in Sicily, I thought; it wasn’t always clear which was cause and which was effect.

RETURNING TO PALERMO I clung to the memory of Regaleali; it was the pastoral side of Sicilian life, nurtured and protected despite the struggle with taxes, politics, the pressure of deciding what to keep and what to change. Palermo is a picture of what can happen to a place without any protecting hand, at the mercy of those who take and give nothing back. When this century opened, Palermo was one of the most beautiful cities in the Mediterranean; now it’s ugly and barely functioning, ruined by Mafia corruption. Its slums are among the worst in Europe. But through it all, the Sicilian essence abounds.

The city is full of markets brimming with the island’s bounty-glistening fish, glorious fruits and vegetables. Energy and flashing wit were on display with everything else when I walked through the market one morning, the men throwing good-natured insults at one another with a skill born of long practice. The favorite slur is cornuto, meaning “horned,” or “cuckolded.”

“You are cornuto!” one shouts —“and bald, so we can see your horns better!”

“Your fish are expensive!”

“Your horns are expensive!”

Palermo is a wonderful city for walking, despite the crushing congestion and chaos. During one traffic jam, a woman sat in her car honking her horn. “Why are you honking?” a man yelled from another car. “I love the music,” she replied, continuing to honk. “I’m going to break your husband’s horns,” the man shouted. She retorted, “I can put them back on.”

The city is set on a harbor of the sapphire Tyrrhenian Sea, against a backdrop of low, ragged hills. Some buildings still show touches of the Arab culture; the Spanish laid grand boulevards over the tangle of old alleyways and built baroque palaces. Bourbon aristocrats built elegant villas. Now all are swallowed up in the urban sprawl. When I asked one man to give me an example of the collusion between the government and the Mafia, he said, “Look at the new buildings of Palermo.”

A building boom that began in the fifties funneled vast amounts of government money to the city to restore the historic center; by the time it found its way through Mafia hands, the resulting concrete horror surrounding the city was called “the sack of Palermo.” Yet if you need a movie set for 1943, Palermo has neighborhoods to oblige. More than a few of the buildings bombed by the Allied forces in World War II are still half standing, with people living in them.

Baroness Renata Pucci Zanca is a driving member of a small group called “To Save Palermo,” as well as a descendant of the once important aristocratic class that into this century made Palermo a great center of European culture. The degradation of the city enrages her. For example, the Teatro Massimo used to be one of the most magnificent theaters in Europe. It has been closed for restoration for 19 years. “Now they’re restoring the restoration,” she said acidly. The trouble started when a water pipe broke. “All they had to do was call a plumber. Instead, they destroyed the theater looking for other broken pipes.”

I awoke every day in Palermo to the sound of police sirens: The judges were going to work, with their bodyguards and police escorts. The Mafia trials continue. Young soldiers stand guard on the streets with automatic weapons. (If you see a soldier standing guard before an apartment building, you can bet that a judge lives there.) The first fires of anti-Mafia outrage have cooled since the Palermo Spring, but dogged prosecution has piled success on success.

THE CHURCH HAS BEGUN TO PLAY an important part in the struggle. John Paul II has been speaking out against the Mafia since his first visit a decade ago. “In the present historic moment there is no time for cowardice or inertia,” he told a crowd of thousands at Catania’s cathedral last year.

Beyond pronouncements, I discovered the church hard at work in a poor Palermo neighborhood called Albergheria. At San Francesco Saverio, the Reverend Cosimo Scordato in 1986 established a social center to try to help the neighborhood help itself. “Not to expect bread from the sky,” as he put it to me. And in the process, to pull the neighborhood from the grip of the Mafia. In 1993 another anti-Mafia priest, Father Giuseppe Puglisi, was murdered in Palermo. A sign commemorating his death hangs by the entrance to the church.

“When I spoke out against the Mafia 20 years ago, my mother said I shouldn’t-that I should have nothing to do with them,” Father Scordato told me. “The true fight against the Mafia is to give people confidence in legal institutions. To have confidence to go to the mayor and the city council.”

This fight, more internal, lacks the drama of street demonstrations, yet it is just as important. One Palermo woman, Alessandra Nicolicchia, described the traditional way of getting things done: “The answer is, ‘Do you have a friend?’” she told me. “It’s like this because we think of the state as the enemy. So the problem is not only the corrupt politicians. We ask a friend, could you do me a favor? That’s our mentality. If you think you won’t pass your university exam, you might ask your father to talk to your professor. We call this the ‘white Mafia,’ the Mafia you have inside you. So we should change too.”

When Father Scordato and several other priests moved to Albergheria, they knew they had to offer real alternatives. One group has been formed to run a small magazine; another gives tours of the neighborhood. And at the Trattoria al Vicolo, business is booming. Father Scordato helped seven young men form a cooperative to start the restaurant, and now professors from the nearby University of Palermo walk through this still somewhat unsavory neighborhood to eat lunch.

Francesco La Barbera is president of the Trattoria’s cooperative. “We believed in Father Scordato,” he said. “To live in Albergheria isn’t easy. That doesn’t mean I don’t love it, but there’s no work here, no culture. I’m lucky that my father worked; he kept a bar and made us go to school. I try to set a good example for young people.”

I swirled spaghetti drenched with cuttlefish ink as he periodically came out of the kitchen to talk. In the airy, whitewashed room there was a thoroughly professional bustle.

“Here, near the church, Father Scordato has made it a community,” Francesco told me. “When we said we wanted to move to a newer area, he got angry. He said we should restore a house and stay here.”

Father Scordato knows that saving the neighborhood will be a long-term project, but he has patience. “We have all come to understand that the Mafia is catastrophic for Sicily,” he explained. “But we aren’t so much confronting the Mafia directly. We just want to take the land away from under their feet.” And so he continues, measuring this process in steady inches. “Our work here is God’s work,” he said simply. “We are the ants of history. Day by day, a little at a time.”

For Sicilians — accustomed to the dramatic gesture, the sudden exploit, and then returning to the old passivity — this new outlook may turn out to be the biggest change of all, day by day, a little at a time.


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