Sicilian Culture

The People, The History, The Culture

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Fighting the Mafia & Renewing Sicilian Culture
By Leoluca Orlando


It was June of 1999 when Palermo finally ceased to be a Third World city -a city of which a French traveler in the previous century justly said that "even the lemon and orange blossoms smell of corpses"-and became a great European city at last.

I had been predicting this transformation all those years that Palermo was known throughout the world only as the Lebanon of Italy, a shooting gallery for the Mafia where bloody, bullet-riddled bodies littered the streets and women dressed in Sicilian black stared down at the "illustrious corpses" with looks of inexpressible grief. I knew my city well enough to know that someday we would leave this deathscape behind us and reclaim those distinctive Sicilian values-family, friendship, honor-that the Mafia had hijacked during its tenure as our national parasite and degraded into things sinister and malign. But my predictions were discounted because, after all, I was the mayor of Palermo and I had to put a good face on our hideous reality.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, the body count mounted into the thousands, including such eminent figures as the general in charge of our security forces, the chief of detectives, the chief of police, and two of the most famous magistrates in Europe. According to some estimates, there were more victims than in Palestine or Belfast or the other troubled places that monopolized the world's attention. So my critics would sometimes snidely ask, "And where is this First World city now, this great European city we have heard so much about?"

Even in those times of criminal holocaust, I believed that Palermo would eventually choose life, because I believe that human nature is good and God is just. But while I was certain that this transformation would someday come about, I will admit that often during the last two decades -Sicily's years of living dangerously -I did not believe it would occur in my lifetime. As I walked through Palermo in the summer of 1999, however, I saw a place that was incredibly alive and, even more amazing, quite unafraid. Strolling along the side streets and boulevards, I could see the real Sicily, a land which, far from being a grim embodiment of human evil, has always been a map of human possibility.

A thousand years ago, the Moors defined Sicily as "the meeting point." Theirs was essentially a religious definition: they believed that the light of Allah, the light of Prophecy, shone with particular warmth upon them here. But in fact, many cultures met and merged on this island. If I were to say that the Sicilian is Greek, Arab, Spanish and French, in addition to being Italian, I would be speaking truth-but only a piece of it. We never really drove out the many invaders who conquered us through the millennia; we just absorbed them and turned them into Sicilians. Yet ironically, to meet our true identity, we needed finally to take up arms against the one part of us which seemed most intrinsic, but was actually most foreign of all: the Mafia and its culture of death.

I could cite statistics showing the change that resulted when we did. After all that time during which hundreds were killed every year, for instance, there were just eleven murders in Palermo in 1999, none of them Mafia-related. Yet the real proof that the long siege had finally been lifted was in the quality of life on our streets and in our public places. People congregated in the Vucciria, our traditional street market, and no longer thought twice before entering the Kalsa, the old Arab quarter-both places considered dangerous not long before. Free at last to inhabit their own city, they congregated at rediscovered monuments like Santa Maria dello Spasimo, the sixteenth-century church whose nave, never finished and open to the skies, provided moonlight theater as dramatic as the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.

Perhaps the one place that encapsulated Palermo's reemergence as a city of life was the Teatro Massimo. At the time of its opening in 1897, it was one of Europe's finest opera stages; and from the moment a young tenor named Enrico Caruso sang Ponchielli's La Gioconda that first season, it became an obligatory stop for the world's foremost opera singers. In 1974, this great monument was closed for "urgent, immediate repairs" which were supposed to be finished in six months, but stretched out over the next twenty-three years, as most of the many billion lire earmarked by the Italian government for the renovation disappeared -with the complicity of local officials and politicians -into the pockets of contractors linked to Mafia bosses.

The great opera voices faded into a dim echo of distant grandeur as the Teatro Massimo continued to decay. Its only function was to remind us of the fine civic life that had been stolen from us, and to provide a private parlor for a group that met daily in the basement to socialize and play cards. Nobody appeared to care that Mafiosi regularly mingled there with journalists and professionals.

Then in 1996, as if to confirm that the plague of illegality and violence was subsiding, renovation work on the Teatro Massimo was at last resumed. Within a year it was refurbished in all its glory, including the gilded frieze that reads, "Art Renews the Peoples and Reveals Their Life." On the night of the grand reopening, the people of Palermo turned out in the thousands. They were not first-nighters, and they didn't care whether they got inside or not. It was enough simply to be present as this magnificent building was born again.

Yet in June 1999, the year Palermo served notice that it had returned to the land of the living, the Teatro Massimo was more than a symbol. It was also the site for opening ceremonies of the international conference of CIVITAS, an international organization dedicated to promoting civic education and the values of freedom. In hosting this conference, Palermo was offering itself as an example to the delegates who came from eighty countries around the world, including places like Russia and Georgia and Rwanda and Uganda, where civil society is more imperiled than it ever was in Sicily during the darkest days of Mafia domination. The keynote for CIVITAS was given by American First Lady Hillary Clinton, who, echoing John Kennedy's famous Berlin speech, told delegates that those who doubted the ability of a citizens' movement to build democracy need only come to Palermo. She talked at length of the lessons my city offered those parts of the world that still suffered from epidemics of crime and lawlessness, emphasizing that it was the people, not the politicians, who had to decide that "enough was enough" and begin slowly taking back their city, their country and their very lives from the evil forces that had long controlled them.

As she spoke, I could see that people like Pino Arlacchi, who had fought the good fight against the Mafia as an Italian citizen and later as deputy secretary general of the United Nations, recognized what a charmed moment this was. Much-abused Palermo was once again the crossroads of the Mediterranean, as it had been in earlier centuries when Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Moors, Normans, and finally Italians came here and left their mark. And the commerce now would not be in heroin and murder, as it had been over the last quarter-century, but in ideas about how cities and cultures are renewed.

The delegates from CIVITAS and the tens of thousands of other tourists crowding Palermo during these summer days were of course aware of our grim history. It was not hard to find vestiges of that other Palermo, the one called, as early as the 1765 edition of Diderot's Encyclopedie, a ville destruite-a city destroyed by repeated invasion during the nineteenth century; by the Allied bombardment in World War II; and most of all by the Mafia building program aptly named the "Sack of Palermo," which turned a grand city that had survived so much and still managed to remain beautiful into something ugly and haggard.

Palermo had been destroyed most of all by murder, particularly the murder of those who had tried to save the city from itself. There had been many fallen heroes over the years, the death of each one depleting Palermo a little more of its hope and will. When General Alberto Dalla Chiesa, who had become famous for subduing the Red Brigades, was gunned down in Palermo in 1982, the city's newspapers showed his bloody body, with that of his lovely young wife beside him, under the headline: "Here lies the hope of honest Palermitans." And then in 1992, hope died again when Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, courageous magistrates who had brought the Mafia to judgment in an internationally celebrated trial, were blown up by car bombs, actions which for a few weeks seemed to mark the beginning of a coup against the government of Rome as well as Sicily, and against the very concept of human decency.

But even in our darkest hour, although we didn't know it then, a new life was stirring. One sign was in the hand-lettered placard that went up after the double martyrdom of Falcone and Borsellino: "Today begins a dawn that will see no sunset." And by the summer of 1999, the sun was shining brightly indeed.

There was the wonder of being normal -for instance, being normally curious about the doings of the First Lady and her entourage of over a hundred, who had taken over the stately Villa Igiea hotel, once the personal residence of a Sicilian family that made a vast fortune in tuna fishing at the turn of the century. And about what Chelsea Clinton was doing when she went out nightclubbing, together with my daughter Leila, in parts of the city that a few years earlier would have been off limits for any decent young woman, let alone the daughter of a president. How far we had progressed was clear when I took some CIVITAS delegates to Corleone, birthplace of the bloodthirsty sect that had destroyed the "old" Mafia in a struggle for power that claimed over a thousand victims. The streets we walked were now beginning to look like a museum of crimes past. At the town hall we had a public discussion of the Corleonesi's mafia gangsteristica, which had terrorized Palermo and indeed all of Sicily. A short time earlier, this would have been an act of bravado swiftly punished; but now it was simply a tour of a dead past whose criminals eventually choked on the blood they shed.

What was the lesson I drew from our recent history? the CIVITAS delegates asked. I replied that our struggle showed that the law court is only one front in the campaign against violence and lawlessness. The other is culture. An image that occurred to me early in my own fight against the Mafia was of a cart with two wheels, one law enforcement and the other culture. If one wheel turned without the other, the cart would go in circles. If both turned together, the cart would go forward.

So, at the same time as brave lawmen and prosecutors were dying in order to establish a rule of law, we were trying to rebuild our civic life: repossessing symbols like the Teatro Massimo; taking back our politics after a generation of collusion; and perhaps most important, reclaiming our children and their future. Along with our public places, the Mafia had taken over our educational system-not only because it knew that maintaining ignorance among the people was the key to its power, but also because there was money to be made. We stopped renting school space from Mafia front men and women. We began to implement an antimafia curriculum. One of the childrens' art pieces shown to Hillary Clinton when she toured our city depicted children holding hands around a criminal with a gun, isolated within their circle.

We also began to work with the children in the "Adopt a Monument" program. In the average American or European city, even a run-down one, such an effort would have been simply a modest attempt at social uplift. In Palermo it was a revolutionary break with the past, because the Mafia, like any totalitarian force, gets its power largely by stifling cultural memory and civic identity. In the last few years, some two thousand students have adopted over fifteen hundred monuments in Palermo: churches with murals to be uncovered; public offices of earlier centuries to be painted and brought back into service; parks to be made green and blooming again. As they demanded that the dirt be removed from these monuments, our children knew their work was a metaphor for cleansing the spirtual grime deposited by years of criminal rule.

I told the delegates of CIVITAS that the chief lesson of the Palermo renaissance was that while it is possible to lose momentum or even slip backward in the political/legal realm -as evident in the moral stammering that has defined the Italian government's response to the Mafia -there is no backtracking in the civic realm. People who have known freedom will not willingly go back to degraded collective lives. They will not unsay words like "Mafia" once they have been said. They will not become stupid about democracy once they have experienced it. They will not again surrender the monuments and public places that show where they came from and define who they are.

As Paolo Borsellino, the courageous magistrate and my old friend who died for this new Palermo, once said, "The solution to the problem of the Mafia is to make the state work." This is partly a matter of justice and the rule of law. It is also a question of meeting human needs in the civic realm, from the need for jobs that don't involve collusion with a criminal conspiracy, to the need for democracy and a culture of freedom.

During the summer of 1999, when I looked at my city as if with new eyes, I also looked at myself and, as I often have over the past few years, felt amazed to be alive. For many years -a longer time than I care to remember-I was a marked man. The question was not whether I would be killed, but when and how. In a special it did on me, England's Channel Four called me "the Walking Corpse." And that is how I felt. I experienced death vicariously every day. But then, as the people of Palermo began to enter their new dawn, I had a sudden thought: "Good Lord, I might actually live!" How would I spend this extra life I had been granted? The answer was easy: making this city great again.

I still have a dozen bodyguards, and we all move in armored cars. I still instinctively duck when I hear a backfire and look nervously over my shoulder. I know that the Mafia is still out there, haunting the Sicilian sleep. Yet although the stake has not yet been driven through its heart, the organization is dead. It died the minute it was expelled from the political system where it had come to dwell during its long sojourn in our national life. The Mafia no longer rules us. It is outside our local government now. Palermo is no longer a pariah among cities. When the financial journal Moody's recently gave us its highest bond ratings, the same as Helsinki and Paris and higher than New York, it thereby announced that the changes in Palermo over the previous few years were structural and profound, fully warranting that sign of confidence.

For a city that has lived in the shadows to come out into the sunlight again is a miracle. Yet this miracle has not been without cost, and I often pause at some moment during my day to think of all those who died -the brave and the ordinary; the major characters, the supporting actors, and the bystanders. I want to believe that their deaths have not been in vain, and sometimes do. For I believe that what has occurred in Sicily is in fact an epic story, a story of death and transfiguration. Walking through Palermo in the summer of 1999 and afterward, I have often felt a survivor's special guilt, and also a survivor's unique responsibility: to tell the story as it happened.


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