Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean
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"Keahey's exploration of this misunderstood island offers a much-needed look at a much-maligned land."―Paul Paolicelli, author of Under the Southern Sun
Sicily is the Mediterranean's largest and most mysterious island. Its people, for three thousand years under the thumb of one invader after another, hold tightly onto a culture so unique that they remain emotionally and culturally distinct, viewing themselves first as Sicilians, not Italians. Many of these islanders, carrying considerable DNA from Arab and Muslim ancestors who ruled for 250 years and integrated vast numbers of settlers from the continent just ninety miles to the south, say proudly that Sicily is located north of Africa, not south of Italy.
Seeking Sicily explores what lies behind the soul of the island's inhabitants. It touches on history, archaeology, food, the Mafia, and politics and looks to nineteenth- and twentieth-century Sicilian authors to plumb the islanders' so-called Sicilitudine. This "culture apart" is best exemplified by the writings of one of Sicily's greatest writers, Leonardo Sciascia. Seeking Sicily also looks to contemporary Sicilians who have never shaken off the influences of their forbearers, who believed in the ancient gods and goddesses.
Author John Keahey is not content to let images from the island's overly touristed villages carry the story. Starting in Palermo, he journeyed to such places as Arab-founded Scopello on the west coast, the Greek ruins of Selinunte on the southwest, and Sciascia's ancestral village of Racalmuto in the south, where he experienced unique, local festivals. He spent Easter Week in Enna at the island's center, witnessing surreal processions that date back to Spanish rule. And he learned about Sicilian cuisine in Spanish Baroque Noto and Greek Siracusa in the southeast, and met elderly, retired fishermen in the tiny east-coast fishing village of Aci Trezza, home of the mythical Cyclops and immortalized by Luchino Visconti's mid-1940s film masterpiece, La terra trema. He walked near the summit of Etna, Europe's largest and most active volcano, studied the mountain's role in creating this island, and looked out over the expanse of the Ionian Sea, marveling at the three millennia of myths and history that forged Sicily into what it is today.
life. Another appeal is that this is a village not overrun, or even much affected, by tourism. Its shops serve local people. There are no souvenir shops selling T-shirts or cheap imitations of Sicilian ceramics. I had a hard time even finding a postcard. It has only one or two places where visitors can stay but is rich in restaurants that fill up with locals, night after night, starting about nine o’clock. More than two decades before, while visiting Catania, I was hard-pressed to find a
Pillitteri put it nicely as well, his words blending together all that I saw over the period of a year—from Saint Rosalia’s procession in Palermo to Racalmuto’s pagan falò, the ciliu, the horses scrambling up the stone steps, and later, Easter processions in Enna—all mixed in with massive doses of Christianity. He wrote: “One of the beauties of faith is the ability to believe in religion, myth, and legend. The great gray area of myth and religion allows one to dream and hope, especially when
their army’s departure. The island had been under the control of Axis troops of Germans and Italians. The Allied invasion, launched from newly conquered North Africa, began at the island’s south shore the night of July 9. On July 22, American general George Patton’s army, after slogging its way in a northwestern sweep from Gela and Licata, entered Palermo against light resistance, the Germans by then far to the east. Sicilians, digging out of the rubble of war, generally welcomed the Allied
foreign wars, grabbed the other soldiers, murdering them on the spot. At that moment, Santo Spirito’s bells, marking the start of vespers, started ringing. At the sound, “messengers ran through the city calling on the men of Palermo to rise against the oppressor … Every Frenchman that they met was struck down … Sicilian girls who had married Frenchmen perished with their husbands.” None was spared, including the children of the French occupiers. By morning, the rebels controlled the city, and
nothing like those pictures. There were no donkey-pulled carts with drivers chewing on the stems of stubby pipes, no families gathering and bundling wheat by hand. Instead, there were tractors like the ones farmers used in the countryside around my hometown, and long, straight rows of corn and potato fields, and flowing acres of golden wheat punctuated here and there by mechanized combines. There were a few elderly women wearing black, but that was about it. During those first two weeks in