The Mafia and the Italian Mind (2)

Murals against the Mafia realised by students in Catania, Sicily. Click for credits

While in Russia I had a few dinners with two Frenchmen from Northern France who lived and worked in Moscow.

Claude, whose job contract was about to end, told us: “I’ve been offered a job in Toulouse. Alain, do you picture me in Toulouse, with all that mafioso mentality?”

Toulouse. Click for credits and to enlarge

Toulouse is in the deep French South. We passed to other topics in our conversation and dinner flowed pleasantly. Alain had brought a few bottles of Bordeaux from France. Good wine is awfully expensive in Russia. Of course Claude didn’t refer to ‘mafioso’ in the sense of ‘belonging to the mob’.

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‘Mafia’ is in fact used both in a broad and a narrow sense.

According to the Dizionario Treccani ‘mafioso’ is:

1) either a criminal belonging to a mafia-like organization;

2) or one who “to the rule of law [including the laws of market, I guess] tends to replace the power of his/her own interests or of a small group and indefinitely defends his/her friends to the detriment of others.”

Now I am well aware that cliques & personal networks exist everywhere. In Russia and China they have respectively blat and guanxi relations and obligations. In Russia I heard of professionals like doctors or dentists that preferred to build a network of ‘useful contacts’ instead of being paid by each of their clients.

Cliques are terribly pervasive in the Mediterranean. In every Western country good contacts count to get things done, to find jobs etc. But here especially they represent a serious obstacle to modernization, by systematically promoting mediocrity over merit, by polluting the political arena – votes exchanged for favours, collaboration among politicians even from opposite sides by the exchange of favours etc.

Sheets commemorating Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino, two Italian magistrates killed by the Mafia. White sheets are a symbol of protest against the silence that protects the Mafia

Some areas of the Italian South are permeated by a mafioso mentality which often connects economical political and criminal activities into a choking whole and which from those areas radiates to the rest of the country.

Giuseppe Mazzini‘s prophecy [Mazzini is one of Italy's founding patriots,] that “Italy will be that which the Mezzogiorno will be”, proved true, at least in some respects.

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I wonder how many researchers have connected ancient Roman behaviours with the mafiosi behaviours (of any kind) that we find in Mediterranean coastal areas and in Italy. In the Mezzogiorno I see something reminiscent of the ancient Roman system of social relations [our next post tries to throw some light on this matter.]

But let’s first review how a mafia network in the narrow sense is built.

One common mistake – we had written – is that of considering the mafiosi as simple gunmen to defeat. Don Vito Cascio Ferro had no guns. He was one of the first godfathers who operated both in Sicily and in the United States. His force lay in his cynicism and intelligence and in the network he was able to create thanks to well ingrained traditions. He distributed favori, favours, to everybody, but something was asked in return.

This passage from Mario Puzo’s The Godfather is even clearer:

“Don Vito Corleone was a man to whom everybody came for help, and never were they disappointed. He made no empty promise (…) Only one thing was required. That you, you yourself, proclaim your friendship. And then, no matter how poor or powerless the supplicant, Don Corleone would take that man’s troubles to his heart (…) His reward? Friendship, the respectful title of “Don” (…), some humble gift – a gallon of homemade wine etc.
It was understood, it was mere good manners, to proclaim that you were in his debt and that he had the right to call upon you at any time to redeem your debt by some small service.”

So this exchange of favours seems an important element of the culture underlying the mafia. Ingrained in traditions that are centuries old it creates a network based on reciprocal dependence.

We’ll tentatively see how all this can somehow be connected to ancient Rome.

[to be continued]

Related posts:

The Mafia and the Italian Mind (1)
A Cultural Battle
The Mafia and the Italian Mind. Was Julius Caesar a Godfather? (3)

Is The Human Mind Like a Museum?
“Italians are Cynical, Amoral, Religiously Superficial”
Traces of Paganism in Italians

Mare Nostrum, Patriarchy, Omertà. 1

Sicilian old men. 2008

Secrecy & Omertà

At the end of an earlier post we had invited Naguib Mahfouz (see picture below), the Nobel-prize Egyptian writer, to help us to understand the ancient world of the Mediterranean. Let’s consider today how the charming characters in his Cairo trilogy do tons of forbidden things: they drink alcohol, they cheat and eat pork, but all is done in secret and keeping up the appearances.

Two daughters of Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad – this Egyptian patriarch par excellence and main character of the trilogy – quarrel and one of them angrily denounces her sister’s husband to her mother: “He drinks wine at home without hiding!”

Which reminds us of some Tunisian people who were drinking beer in a coffee house in Tunis and who confessed: “Nous on fait tout, mais en cachette” (we do everything, though in secret).

It is irresistible not to think about Sicily, where doing things in secret is well ingrained (Sicily was under Tunisian rule for 400 years). And what about omertà, which makes defeating Mafia so difficult?

Omertà is a code of silence that seals the lips of men even when innocent and protects mafiosi in Italian southern regions like Sicily, Calabria and Campania. We’re sure there is some connection between the said secrecy behaviour and Mafia’s omertà.

[By the way, is all this so remote from that omertà that protects Osama bin Laden in territories where everybody is so capable of keeping secrets? A weird association? Hard to say. Back to Mahfouz and to the Mediterranean]

The Power of Man on Woman

Naguib MahfouzAnother element is the power a husband exerts on his wife. That same angry sister tells her mother about the other sister’s misdemeanours: “She drinks and smokes, acting against God and with Satan.”
Her disconsolate mother replies: “What can we do? She is a married woman, and the judgement of her conduct is now in the hands of her husband…” (I am freely summing up the text).

This is Islamic society, one could say. Ok, but this patriarchal power is much older than Islam and was present both in ancient Greece and Rome (although from the late Republic onwards Roman women – especially within the upper classes – gained a wider freedom). So it is a misconception to think of all this as Islamic. Many Muslim societies (not all of them) simply stick to ancient traditions widespread in the Mediterranean and elsewhere much before Islam arrived, which doesn’t mean we like women to be submitted to man’s power, no, no. And this is certainly not Italy’s contemporary life, even though in the South something of a more ancient patriarchy still seems to survive.

The honour of the family

Speaking of patriarchy, the honour and dishonour of the family falls upon the father or husband. Ahmed Abd el-Gawwad, called by his daughter’s mother-in-law because of his daughter’s misconduct, thus reproaches her: “Nothing that was raised in my house should be stained by such behaviours! Don’t you realise that the whole evil you are doing brings dishonour to me?”.

Again it is tempting to think about Neapolitan Eduardo De Filippo‘s Natale in casa Cupiello, a delightful comedy in which Luca Cupiello (Eduardo), exasperated with is wife Concetta, cries aloud: “La nemica mia! La nemica della casa!” (This enemy of mine! This enemy of the house!), where he clearly considers himself to be THE house, in such a funny and masterly way, because Eduardo and the Neapolitans are so refined and adorable (the Greek cousins of Rome) despite all the problems now Naples is facing.

Naples. The castle and the Volcano

And again it is clear that patriarchy is prior to Islam, Naples, Sicily etc. It was previously present in Rome, Greece, Carthage etc. And it existed in Mare Nostrum and elsewhere long before these civilisations arrived. Records of it seem to be as far back as the 4th millennium BC.

We have tried to explore some Mediterranean traditions with the help of Naguib Mahfouz, and we have mused about some possible influences between the North and South shores of this sea. It seems clear to us that every study of present ways of thinking (European, Islamic, Sicilian, Neapolitan etc.) is not wholly understandable without looking at the endless past of the civilizations (see also the concept of the mind like a museum in the last section of our post Knowing Thyself).

(to be continued)

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Other related posts:

Permanences I
The Southern Shores of the Mediterranean
Love Words from Egypt
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 1
Echoes from the Mediterranean. Part 2

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