Sicily – Palermo, Feisty & Aloof (2009)

Sicily – Palermo, Feisty & Aloof (2009)

The receptionist at the hotel in Palermo cannot find our bookings. He fingers our passports nervously and fumbles with the keyboard of his computer.  “India? Is it near Sri Lanka?” he asks gratuitously, adding insult to injury.  This must perhaps be the first time anyone identified formidable India by its little neighbour!  Your indignation begins to crack your otherwise polite exterior, until you glance at your own image in the lounge mirror by chance.  The penny drops.  How alike we look, Indian Tamils and our tiger brethren from the island nation.  Being so numerous and ubiquitous – they run groceries, hawk DVDs of atrocious Tamil movies made in Kollywood and manage cyber cafes in most European cities – Sri Lankans have a visibility that we Indians can never match, especially when Sicily is not on any Indian tour itinerary. Your smugness vanishes and you explain peevishly and somewhat patronisingly that India is in the neighbourhood of Sri Lanka, but is a large developing country much like China, just to put things in perspective!

Sicily was very much on our map though, since we had deliberately planned to take the road less travelled. We had headed south from Rome to Naples and after our peregrinations in Pompei, Positano and Amalfi, were back in Naples the previous night to board the SNAV ferry Sardegna to Palermo, the capital of Sicily. Mercifully, we had left the swollen tourist crowds behind in Florence, Vatican and Venice where even looking at the serpentine queues outside every tourist spot was enough to make your legs ache and spirits sag!


And here we are, in Palermo after a ten-hour sail down the Mediterranean, bedraggled and sleep-deprived –  our cabin had been right next to the bar which sizzled and vibrated with blaring music and spontaneous dancing all night.  And to top it all, we had to lug our leaden and lumpy backpacks up three flights of very steep and very numerous stairs only to be told by a sleepy janitor that our reservations could not be found just because he did not recognise our nationality!  We hold back our expletives and patiently wait for him to locate our booking, which he does at last.

Moorish Splendour

After a few hours, we find ourselves on Via Maqueda, Palermo’s commercial artery.  Moorish splendour peeps from behind hideously weather-worn baroque facades, a Spanish imposition on the original sensible Arab architecture best-suited to the Mediterranean climate.  Arches, gateways, fountains and gargoyles are scattered among crumbling apartment blocks.  Palermo’s streets mirror its mosaic like ethnic diversity – Arab, Berber, Negroid, Latino and their several and joint offspring come in every conceivable complexion, height and girth, not to mention the babel of tongues that ring out on the streets of Palermo.  Palermo seems anything but Italian. In fact, its Italian identity seems to have peeled off like old plaster to reveal its original character. Garibaldi must be turning in his grave at this melange – after all, it was he who took upon himself the task of taming and unifying the disparate nationalities into what we know today as Italy.  And he did this from Palermo where he made his base. Politically he may have succeeded in integrating Sicily into Italy, but as for taming the fierce and feisty Sicilians, that’s another story.

Mafia, finite?

Talking of fierce Sicilians, we are on the sharp lookout for Soprano or Vito Corleone – or should we say Marlon Brando – look-alikes. Although the Mafiosi had set up shop in New York city decades ago, we thought we might glimpse some members of the extended family riding off in stylish sports cars or attending extravagant weddings in one of the numerous churches that dot Palermo. No such luck though.  Leoluca Orlando, Palermo’s former Mayor had said somewhere that the Mafia today is hardly like The Godfather.  He thinks the new Mafia looks different and is a global enterprise that infiltrates banks, churches and the state legislature and shies away from mass murder.  Deja-vu? Certainly, and unglamorous too! However, we don’t give up so easily. A discreet inquiry at the Pizzeria which incidentally serves such delectable freshly-baked pizzas, confirms our disappointment. “Mafia in Sicily is finito” says the shopkeeper in lilting English.  He confirms that the mafiosi have moved to Naples where they’ve been forced to hunt solo rather than in family packs as they are wont to do.

We visit the lovely churches, the Quattro Canti and the grand Monreal, a Benedictine Cloister on the outskirts of Palermo.  The city owes its splendour to its Norman ruler William II and its infamy to the many conspiracies and revolutions that were hatched here. Dilapidated and decrepit, long-suffering Palermo seems to have borne with remarkable dignity, the depredations and excesses of its successive colonisers –  Phoenicians, Normans, Arabs, German, French and the Spanish.

Today’s Palermo though, is delightfully down-to-earth. What we like best about the city is the fact that it is full of shops that sell useful everyday items – unlike the sleek and fancy stores in our own cities which now stock rows and rows of stuff without which we can live our entire lives happily forever!  And there are many Chinese shops that sell ridiculously-priced household goods of indifferent quality. There is even a mini Chinatown in Palermo!

Asian Invasion

But wait, where Chinese go, can South Asians be far behind?  Almost every other shop on Via Roma and Via Marsala is owned by Bangladeshis and all of them sell jewellery – fake as well as original. Chunky coral necklaces and delicate turquoise strings vie for your attention alongside rosaries made of plastic and glass beads.  There are even stalls selling samosas and jalebi, presumably to cater to these shopkeepers! All of them speak fluent Italian but their Bengali is a bit halting.  In fact, their Hindi sounds better than their Bengali. So we carry on an animated conversation in Hindi and learn that virtually all of them came to Sicily from the Middle East.  Ahmed came from Saudi Arabia and his Bengali wife works as a housekeeper for an Italian family. He has been in Palermo for ten years now and is all praise for the carabieneri (police) who he calls ‘friend’.  “If your papers are ok, the police is your friend and that’s much more I can say for my own country”. Ali also has a Bangladeshi wife from back home and an eighteen month old son. He would like to return to Bangladesh to bring up him up. “Yeh log ajeeb hai. If they have ten euros, they will spend twelve without a care for tomorrow. Yeh mulk theek nahi hi” is his verdict.  Even as he is conversing with us, he is busy catering to a very demanding local woman who seems to have honed haggling to a fine-art.  Our accented Bengali earns us a handsome discount on coral strings.

Palermo’s true character lies in its multi-cultural, multi-ethnic illegal immigrants who populate the back-alleys of the inner city. A walk through the streets brings you face to face with Tunisians, Moroccans, Libyans and hordes of others from Africa not mention Arabs and Sri Lankan Tamil refugees. The district exudes raw energy and bustles, much like our very own Chandni Chowk so much so we almost feel at home!

(Published in Indian Express, June 7, 2009)

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