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Published on 27 December 2016

Palermo: markets, migrants and anti-mafia music

Sicily is probably best-known to foreigners as the land of pizza and mafia, and there's a reason why: the pizza is delicious and the mafia remain an everday fact of life, one way or another, for pretty much the entire population of the island.


Palermo, on the north coast of Sicily and the island's capital, is the kind of city you could imagine being in the grip of the mafia.

In the old city, teenage boys with tattoos and plucked eyebrows rattle around on scooters amongst the shells of old churches, apartment buildings and statues. Greying, paunchy men seem to be lurking in every cafe and on every corner, smoking cigarettes, drinking coffee, totting up debts and leering at women.

The whole place seems to be crumbling, presumably in part due to the mafia's strangehold on the economy. It's beautiful, dirty and mysterious. Saints and icons hang off the walls on street corners. In theory, each neighbourhood's patron saint brings luck, propserity, and so forth - but it seems like it's been in short supply for your average Palermo resident.

In recent years people have begun repopulating the centre of the old city, many of them coming from a long way away, and turning what look like barely-habitable buildings into homes and keeping the street markets alive: fruits, vegetables, plastic junk, anything-you-want-fried-in-batter, fish, meat. I saw an old man skinning a goat on a street corner; an American tourist was filming it.

Ruined squares are filling up with bars that are staffed by the ubiquitous tattooed teenage boys, who serve beer and cocktails whilst tourists try to enjoy the mild feeling of danger, and to ignore the mild smells of sewage and rubbish that pop up every now and again.

The locals just seem to get on with it and enjoy themselves as best they can - which can't be that easy when there's extortion payments hanging over your head every month.

One of the most pervasive features the mafia's presence is the pizzo. This is the protection racket money. If you want to run a shop, a bar, a hostel, or whatever other kind of business, the mafia wants you to pay the pizzo - and most people do.

According to one estimate, during the 1990s some 90% of Sicilian businesses handed over a hefty monthly "protection" payment to the mafia. More recent figures suggest that across island:

"retail businesses pay the pizzo an average of 457,00 Euros per month, restaurants pay an average of 578,00 Euros a month, and construction companies are forced to increase their prices by about 6 per cent."

Over the last decade in Palermo a well-organised counter-movement has emerged, started by seven students who left university and wanted to set up a bar.

Upon finding out that they would have to pay the mafia for the privilege, they plastered Palermo with stickers that said "an entire people that pays the pizzo is a people without dignity.” On the back of the campaign, the organisation Addiopizzo (Goodbye Pizzo) was formed:

"Addiopizzo is an open, fluid and dynamic movement, that acts from below and presents itself as a spokesman of a “cultural revolution”against the mafia. It is constituted by all the women and men, the girls and the boys, the shopkeepers and the customers who recognize themselves in the sentence “A whole people that pays the pizzo is a people without dignity”."

Their main activities involve encouraging businesses to refuse to pay the pizzo (about 800 are now signed up) and encouraging people to use those shops, a practice referred to as consumo critico or critical consumption (some 10,000 people have committed to it). They also hold a festival every year in the middle of town, which seems a bit like sticking up a massive, metaphorical, middle finger to the mafia.

In October this year it was full of people drinking beer and wine (from non-pizzo-paying bars), eating food (from non-pizzo-paying restaurants that had stalls there) and some fine music, including one Sandro Joyeux and a band that (I think) had been assembled specially for the event.

Given that Sicily has been home to pretty much any civilisation or people that have passed through the Mediterranean at one time or another (Arabs, Phonecians, Catalans, Normans, Italians and the cocktail of world culture that currently makes up the island's population), Sandro Joyeux seems to make a lot of sense. According to his biography (badly translated by me):

"He has traversed more than half a million kilometres with his guitar on his back to collect traditional dialects and sounds of the south of the world. He sings in French, English, Italian, Arab, and in various dialects such as Bambara, Wolof and Dioula... His inspiration is strongly devoted to the story of a world that migrates and turns."

Addiopizzo sounds good in Italian; I don't know what it works out as in the other languages used in Sicily. If the movement ever decides to make use of English, though, they could have a decent slogan: pizz off!

Tags palermo sicily protest

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