‘Muslims will not blow anyone up here,’ the proprietor of my Siracusa local assures me, ‘we have our own people who do that’. Opting to take one’s annual leave in Sicily is to be confronted by a reminder of southern Italy’s once terrible poverty and local corruption – unused and fantastically expensive elevated roadways and tunnels leading nowhere, often sprouting vegetation, litter the landscape. The Mafia appears in the form of children selling cigarettes sans health warnings, pervasive fly-tipping, and not otherwise. Sicily is remarkably safe. The winding, twisting detours Sicily’s roads take are remarkable in their own way, vaulting over Luigi’s Lemons, Giuseppe’s Goats, Pietra’s Pears and Everyone’s Olives. One suspects there have been many conversations of the I-don’t-like-that-highway-there/Would-you-like-me-to-move-it? sort. When not in the form of four-lane elevated dual carriageways, roads often default to tank tracks masquerading as roads, presumably on the basis that no one important lives at the end of them. You really could lose a car in some of the potholes. Italy as a whole – after the terrifying and murderous anni di piombo (‘years of lead’), which took in all of the 1970s, a not inconsiderable slice of the 1980s, and managed to combine political terrorism and organised crime – has been spared Islamist terror attacks. ‘Don Corleone and Antonio Negri are smarter than Iyaz Baghdadi,’ my bartender points out, tapping his temple knowingly, ‘and we learnt how to fight them because they are ours’.
In the history of religion there is this poignant story. A young woman from a wealthy, dissolute Roman family converts to Christianity and takes vows of poverty and chastity. She is shunned by her mother and step-father, her siblings and step-siblings. (Pagan Romans, like us, have complicated families full of ‘exes’, reforming, coalescing). The Emperor Diocletian issues an edict demanding an oath of loyalty to the state. To be sworn before Jove and the Great Mother. The girl refuses to swear. But this is easy, her mother says. Look, life is short. Enjoy it. Look at the handsome boy who wants to give you pleasure. Think of the sun, the moon, the stars.
The girl says no.
Italy learnt hard lessons from terrorism and organised crime. Cities and towns are dotted with piazze Aldo Moro and plaques commemorating this copper, that judge, and the other politician blown up while trying to clean up the Camorra around Naples, Cosa Nostra in Sicily, and the ’Ndràngheta in Calabria. Unlike the UK and Australia, Italy does not engage in universal and mandatory data retention. Instead, the carabinieri rely on intercepted phone calls, which can be used as evidence in court and obtained on the basis of suspicious activity. Comprehensive surveillance is confined to terror and mafia suspects. Italians from the bartender to the lawyer to the construction worker reject data collection applied to all. Terror suspects are also kept away from gaols, because – as with Cosa Nostra before them – prison is prime territory for recruiting and networking. Often, too, the ability to disrupt terrorist networks depends on the same skill as infiltrating organised crime – breaking close social and even family relationships.
The girl does not think of the sun, the moon, the stars, or the handsome boy who wants to get under her palla. She refuses to swear. Her parents are distraught. She is dragged to the city amphitheatre and her eyes are put out with red-hot pokers. There are twenty thousand people watching. Saint Lucy – Santa Lucia – is the patron-saint of Siracusa and presider over all things optical – the eyes, optometrists, glasses, blindness, the blind, those who surveil.The amphitheatre at Siracusa is surrounded by eucalypts. I walk up the hill, burning in the bright Sicilian sun, and see the eucalypts first, tossing their heads and shedding their leaves in a slummocky way. I sit in the tiers on a bed of minty leaves and smell the familiar fresh smell of the bush. St Lucy was martyred here.
The Italians have a point. Youssef Zaghba, one of the London Bridge terrorists, was kept under constant surveillance while he was in Italy. When he moved to London, the carabinieri dumped his entire file on Scotland Yard and MI5 and made it available on a Europe-wide watch list known as the second generation Schengen information system. Nothing happened in response. Scotland Yard said Zaghba ‘was not a police or MI5 subject of interest’.Italy’s national police chief, Franco Gabrielli, told the BBC that he felt in ‘a position of strength’ on Zaghba: ‘our consciences are clear and our papers are in order’.
Inside the duomo, Siracusa, are hundreds of votive objects, all shaped like human eyes, thanking the saint for her restoration of the subject’s sight. Some of the votive objects are gold and encrusted with jewels. Some are terracotta. Lucy smiles down from above, her eyes whole. At Easter, one can buy marzipan eyeballs from local pasticcerie. God restored Lucy’s sight. Elsewhere, in other places, we are still blind. At Catania airport, for example. I’d picked up a bottle of Planeta Chardonnay in Agrigento and stashed it, unthinking, in my hand luggage. At the gate – after three hours’ wait – it was confiscated like all liquids, Sicilian denominazione di origine controllata seal notwithstanding. ‘Tutto quello che farò è bere,’ I say. ‘È stronzo,’ he says, using Sicilian dialect for ‘shitty’, then switching to English, ‘now we treat all the same’. Unfortunately, we do. We’ve forgotten watching all means watching none.
Helen Dale’s second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, will be published in October