December 3, 2017
November is such a great month! Everyone gets to stop worrying about what they look like in a bathing suit, and the Christmas-shopping feeding frenzy is held off, mostly, at least until the last few days of the month.
We were especially lucky this November to have our very dear friends Pete and Nancy here for almost two weeks, including Thanksgiving. We had a wonderful evening on the 23rd, with help from two Italian geese and three friends from the marina.
Thanksgiving is not a concept understood well in Italy, and it’s also pretty clear that there’s some difficulty in understanding it in the U.S. It is, in fact, a deeply complicated holiday. It begins with a fairy tale about grateful pilgrims (immigrants from England) being helped out by friendly Native Americans. What it skips over is the very ugly story about genocide against those very “Indians,” whose survivors can’t very well be expected to be thankful for smallpox infected blankets, mass executions, relocations, thievery of their land and the destruction of their languages and cultures.
Personally, I think it’s time to give up on the mythology, and simply rename Thanksgiving “Celebrate Friendship Day.” That’s really the best side of the holiday – getting together with friends and enjoying their company while paying attention to excellent home-made food, good things to drink, and a relaxed time without gifts, greeting cards or any other commercial nonsense. Of course, family members (the ones who are friendly) can be invited too. It might help remind people that friends are not the same as a link on Facebook, which seems to be something that bears repeating these days.
Of course, it could also be good to set aside the first Monday of every month for “Horrors in American History Day” – to acquaint people who haven’t heard about things like the deliberate extermination of “Indians,” or the American refusal to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, slavery and racism, or the millions dead in colonial wars, the oppression of women and so on. If those topics are exhausted, which seems unlikely, the day could be devoted to ecological disasters, the impoverishment of a huge proportion of the American population, the new tax bill and more! But fasting would go with that sort of thing better than a holiday feast.
Well, enough of that. Here’s a happier topic:
The Saracens in the title of this post come up because one interesting aspect of Sicily is how closely the history of Sicily is linked to the Muslim world. For more than 300 years Sicily was a Muslim country, and for a period following that, under Norman (Viking) rule, Muslims, Christians and Jews were mostly able to live together peacefully. It wasn’t until the 1400s, under the domination of the Aragonese (Spanish) that the Inquisition introduced the mass murder and expulsion of Jews, the forcible conversion of still-Muslim towns to Catholicism, and the wholesale public burning of “heretics.”
Part of our travels with Pete and Nancy took us to Modica, an ancient town in the southeast of Sicily, frequently used as a scene in the “Inspector Montalbano” series on Italian TV – based on the wonderful books by Andrea Camilleri.
But, like most places, Modica has a dark side to its history. It was the site in 1474 of the Inquisition-inspired mass execution of 360 Jewish men, women and children in a piazza in front of one of the town’s many churches. From 845 CE to 1091 it was a Muslim city, forcibly converted to Christianity by military means. While the Spaniards brought murder and religious fanaticism, they also brought chocolate from their other, also murderous, adventures in the Americas. Modica seems to have abandoned the fanaticism, but continues to make chocolate, reportedly following an ancient Aztec recipe.
The term “Saracen” began increasingly in the Middle Ages to refer to anyone from the Muslim world, whether North African, Arab or Carthaginian. Perhaps because of the very important presence of the Ottoman Navy in and around Sicily, it also became common in Sicily to refer to anyone from North Africa or the Middle East as a “Turk.” Thus, “Scala dei Turchi,” a stunning geological formation in southern Sicily, where Muslims landed in the 7th Century A.D. ignores the fact that the new rulers of Sicily had nothing to do with Turkey at all.
This all relates to one of the highlights of Pete and Nacy’s visit – a trip to the Teatro Massimo in Palermo to see the Rossini opera “L’italiana in Algeri.” We ended up with great seats just above the orchestra and not far from the stage. This comic opera premiered in 1813, and tells the quite contemporary story of the lusts of a powerful man, and the ultimately successful counter-strategies of a determined woman. It’s interesting that in 1813 very little was made of the Muslim religious affiliation of the Algerian “Bey,” who was portrayed with Ottoman-Turkish style clothing and manners. The acting, in addition to the singing, was brilliant, and we felt very lucky to have been there for the performance.
The whole opera was recorded, and you can see and listen to it too, unfortunately without the English “supra-titles,” at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J6ops2tIOjY
Pete and Nancy also had their 35th wedding anniversary during the trip, which turned out to be celebrated with (yet another) great meal in Palermo. The dessert was popular too!
A final note – November 25, the International Day for Elimination of Violence against Women was very conspicuously observed here in Licata, reflecting the fact that it was only in the 1980s the, for example, that “infidelity” was no longer considered as a legal mitigating factor in the murder of a woman. “Honor” killings and domestic abuse remain a huge human rights problem in Italy, and in most of the world, with women far more likely to be killed or seriously injured by someone they know than by a terrorist.
Photo credits to Birgit, Peter, Nancy and Syd