DEDICATED TO MY BROTHER WHO INSPIRED ME AND ENCOURAGED ME TO GO TO SICILY.
I loved Sicily and here is my take on it. It is peppered with information and facts from a history book given to me by my brother a year ago when I said,” I really want to go to Sicily” (three thousand year history of Sicily). Little did I know at that time that I would. The information is also from the archaeologist guides, and the random person on the street but most of all our able guide who translated and interpreted cultural dilemmas as he genetically strides the Atlantic belonging to both cultures.
When Americans think of Sicily they think of the movie “Godfather”. When Italians think of Sicily they think of warmth, wine and the coast.
I stand with the Baroness and view the beautiful lush vineyards that have been in her husband’s family for 11 generations. Below as far as the eye can reach there are orderly rows of grapevines that give every year with abundance and niaz (Allah’s generous gift) without asking how they will be used.
Beyond that is Mount Etna, stately, watching over and providing the soil with all the essential ingredients, which grows the most delicious produce. The irrigation system is a product designed and implemented successfully centuries ago by the Muslims of North Africa.
Muslims came to Sicily as conquerors and ruled for two hundred years, but unlike the usual conquerors they, instead of pillaging and stealing from the land and taking the treasures home to North Africa they settled and brought the best practices of Islam from their home countries to Sicily.
This resulted in the best of agricultural engineering, in all of Europe. They implemented the principles of Islamic organizational methodology to run a peaceful society. They instituted the laws that brought peace and harmony between the three major populations (Christians, Jews and Muslims) of Sicily. “The cities were built in a manner to bring peace to the inhabitants” says one of the history books on Sicily. Most of the buildings, and official rules of tolerance of the three faiths instituted by the Muslims were ground out by the invading armies of the Pope and his supporters. Gradually the practice of Islam as a religion was wiped out from the island in a few centuries after they left. Christian Inquisition was instituted for the infidels.
Is all the Muslim influence on Sicily gone?
Not really! Sicily flourishes from the agricultural methodology and irrigation system brought by the Muslims of North Africa and Spain. Though the qualitative use of the land has changed. Whereas in the times of the Muslims almonds, pistachios, saffron and grapes were grown for export and every day use.
A few centuries after they left the grapes were finessed for wine and alcoholic beverages. The bottles of Sicilian wine were filled with sunshine provided by Allah and the produce of grapes that were the result of the soil enriching methodology introduced and established by the Muslims. Halal uses went to haram uses in some areas. Sicilian people clung to the tried and true methods of the Muslims despite the attempts of the Pope to exterminate and remove every vestige of Muslim memory from the island.
Walking the path in Sicily is a sensory pleasure. The color, the aroma and the freshness of the market are vibrantly alive where the souks used to be in Siracusa. The vendors beckon with the promise of food that will energize every cell in your body and bring nirvana to the palate.
However for a Muslim who wishes to remain strictly within the boundaries of halal with no contamination of act or intent, the gastronomic walk of cooked food and desserts in the streets of Sicily can become a field of landmines.
A guide who knows your rules can be extremely helpful and the results can be mindboggling.
As you order a cannoli he may beckon to you not to eat it and you wonder why as you resist the temptation of this crunchy roll delicately swirled with a thin line of chocolate filled with delicious ricotta cheese, sitting on the brilliant white plate and saying, “taste me”.
As it turns out most of the cannoli in Sicily and perhaps Italy is made with lard. Why? Perhaps because lard is dirt-cheap compared to any other form of animal butter.
Thus we move on, discovering the how the purity of Allah’s halal food may or may not be tainted with alcohol or pork products forbidden to human beings for reasons that are apparent and obvious. Allah says in his instructions in the Quran that He has not forbidden anything to us unless it is harmful. (In the short or long run).
The people generally (except the tourists) are kind, polite and extremely caring of strangers and children.
The afternoon silently gives witness to the years of Muslim presence. Lunch is a family affair. Large groups, many generations come to a restaurant to celebrate a birthday or just be together for lunch. They disperse as the time for Dhuhr (afternoon prayer/salah) approaches. They disappear into the limestone cool interior of their homes to rest and do “Qalula” (rest after Dhuhr Salah) as advised and exampled by our Prophet Muhammad pbuh. The only thing that is poignantly missing is the call for prayer.
Though some buildings resemble grand mosques, they turn out to be the nostalgia for the Muslims who left their imprint on Europe.
One such building was so compellingly like a mosque when I spotted it out of my hotel balcony in Taormina that I had to walk to it in the rain to satisfy my curiosity. I walked up the steps and noted that the main entrance through the arch was blocked but another one had been opened and the sign said El Jebel (which in Arabic means The mountain) it was a five star hotel!
All the front desk person could tell me was that a family several centuries ago who had come down from Tuscany had built it. The building was designed like a Moroccan Madrassah/mosque with multistory rooms and a square minaret often seen in North Africa (Morocco). A five star hotel in a mosque/madrasah like building! I could see nostalgia of the owner’s bloodlines in every arch of the building.
All through Sicily I saw examples of where the actions of the Muslims had been retained but the essence of the intent of the faith was lost. This was very familiar to me. In Pakistan for example we do many things out of habit but have no concept what it means and how its outcome is connected to our faith.
The family system is the most powerful legacy left behind in Sicily by the Muslims. The sense of family integrity, respect for elders and responsibility to ones own family has been retained. It however has been injected with the feudal system with a fealty phenomenon where others lower in the ranks or not related by blood are sacrificed for the greater good of the nuclear and extended family related by blood. Even the word Mafia I learned is derived from Arabic word “Maafi” which means, “Exempt”.
We visit a “small” but not so small family olive farm, which has been in the family for at least five generations. It is run by two brothers and one sister each has a different but congruent and harmonic role in the farm.
Here the dark olives are named Morisca after the Moors, who are long gone from the island and are irrevocably separated from the olives they brought to this island.
Every time a dark olive is harvested it goes into a container called Morisca and history raises its head and puts out a warning finger to all Muslims, reminding them that the distance from their Lord is directly proportional to the chances of extermination and banishment from their earthly Paradise. Yet we forget rapidly. Nisyaan (forgetfulness) is a weakness of the human being.
In Ragusa, where nothing remains of Muslims and their memorabilia due to natural disasters and the Popes order to remove all Muslims, we reside in a whitewashed monastery changed into a hotel.
As I walk the streets, I look up and see the shuttered balconies, I could be easily be in the old historic part of Lahore in Pakistan, or in the Muslim part of India, or in Muslim Spain or in Morocco.
After the natural disasters that created destruction in Sicily particularly in Ragusa, fond memory of Muslim life in the inhabitants was expressed as they reconstructed the balconies with the shuttered windows giving the most honors to that piece of architecture by placing them in the churches, monasteries, convents and private homes. These are called Jalousia: (These are defined by the word forum as follows: The origin of the meaning jalousie=window blind is indeed Italian and not Greek (dictionnaire de l’académie française). The original defining characteristic of a gelosìa is that you can see out of the window without being seen from the outside. It seems to be derived from the meaning jealousy because it allows jealously guarding the privacy of the house, especially of an oriental harem.
These Balconies with shutters are so reminiscent of a thousand and one nights. Where someone, usually a woman behind it can look down at you but you looking up cannot see her. You can almost feels the spirits of niqabi Muslim women and nuns covered head to toe looking down into the street on a warm sunlit day like the one I am standing in.
Sicily with its soft brown-eyed people where the harshness and hardness of the heart has not yet completely settled into them as is in other places in Europe awaits the refugees. One wonders what changes will happen with this new arrival of another category of Muslims this time bringing the resource of education and expertise but no money or splendor of the North African Muslim empire of the past.
Sicily, where Muslim blood runs in almost every individual. Where each person is fine honed with the Muslim etiquette of gentleness and peace for centuries, it urges them towards softness, goodness, respect and kindness to their fellow human beings.
The gaze of the Sicilians, softened and hazy with the wine flowing in their veins, where they move with the rituals of Islam without knowing the intent or meaning and yet bring beauty and sincere hospitality to the visitor and friend alike.
If Sicily were a song it would be “Amore”