The Malta Independent 2 December 2023, Saturday
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Blight of an island

Noel Grima Sunday, 30 October 2022, 10:11 Last update: about 2 years ago

‘The Battle for Sicily’s Soul’. Author: Claudine Cassar. Publisher ?: ? Alert Publishing / 2022. Pages: 290pp

Living in Malta on clear days we can see at a distance the huge bulk of Mount Etna across the sea. And on clear nights we can also glimpse the lights of the Sicilian littoral.

That's where our ancestors came from. For likewise the outline of Malta could be seen by the naked eye on clear days from Sicily and that somehow attracted some courageous people to attempt the often dangerous crossing.

Through the centuries Malta and Sicily remained linked by this umbilical cord. Malta was part of Sicily in all areas until the coming of the Order of Saint John which split Malta from Sicily.


Yet Sicily remained as a sort of mother figure for Malta in language, customs and religious observance. This is also where our fascination with that very Sicilian product, that is the Mafia, came from.

To explain this link, this very informative and pleasant book provides one example from our daily way of speaking. I don't know where I got the expression "Beati Pawli" from since at home we never used such an expression. I must have got it from other people when I left home to go to the Seminary or even later.

As I understood it, this expression meant something awesome - "qala' xebgha tal-Beati Pawli" (he was soundly beaten up). Without thinking too much about it I would have said the expression came from Valletta and its St Paul parish.

I was completely wrong. This book explains that the expression was a well-known one to describe the Mafia and its operations. So the mystery gets bigger - how did this expression make it to Malta?

Look not in this book for stories about Mafia's involvement in Malta. There are some articles by, among others, Arnold Cassola, and no doubt there will be further research done on this ongoing subject.

But the book is a very good read, and in the English language, on the history and on most dimensions of the Mafia.

It goes back in history to explain how the Mafia came to be. Essentially, it would seem, the Mafia was born when the central authorities proved incapable of penetrating Sicily's hinterland and establishing the rule of law. In the absence of that, the Mafia was born, a very insular and closed-up method of rule, based on secrecy and the use of force.

Thus was born the Mafia, a bastion against central government. This happened when Sicily was ruled by the Bourbons, it could have changed when Garibaldi arrived but then the new kingdom left all power in the hands of the big, usually absentee, landowners.

The Mafia was very Italian, very Sicilian. Hence its links with the Church and with Catholic devotions.

The book describes its rite of initiation and then includes a description of The Godfather, which turned the Mafia into a global trademark.

Then the book launches into a riveting collection of stories of Mafia killings during the last century, not just of victims of the Mafia civil wars but also the heroes representing the State who were killed in spectacular bombings, like Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino as well as other heroic victims like Blessed Rino Puglisi.

On the other hand the book touches on the institutional figures who may have helped the Mafia like Giulio Andreotti but then inexplicably misses out on Silvio Berlusconi.

The book unconsciously favours the Left's version of the 1948 election campaign though to be sure, Cardinal Ruffini was a byword for conservatism. I am not so sure however if I share the book's rather optimistic conclusion.

I said the book does not refer to any links of the Mafia with Malta but it bears telling that according to the legend Toto Riina spent part of the time he was escaping Italian justice ensconced in the idyllic surroundings of the Ta' Cenc area in Gozo.

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