Recently, my wife and I were visiting the Duomo, or cathedral, of Catania, in Sicily. Suddenly a man entered, stark naked, and walked toward a small chapel where an early evening mass was being held. He went up to a statue of the Virgin Mary and began to shake it vigorously, until several women chased him away.
The man walked back out, got dressed and was finally confronted by policemen. He lay down, refusing the police’s entreaties to come to their office and demanded to be arrested. After more minutes of hesitation, four policemen lifted him up off the ground and carried him away.
Had this occurred in most other European countries, or the United States, he would have been immediately arrested or harshly subdued. The Sicilians preferred to talk to him, avoiding an unseemly altercation and the drudgery of filing a police report. The law, as they saw it, was something flexible and negotiable.
This was highly reminiscent of Lebanon, where I live. The superficial similarities between Lebanon and Sicily are many, not surprising for two lands on the Mediterranean. Sicily was founded by the Phoenicians, and similar to Lebanon, its history has been shaped by the many conquerors who have dominated its territory: Greeks, Romans, Arabs, Normans and the Spanish Bourbons.
The habits and mores of both places are similar. Though their cultures are demonstrative, there is much subtlety in what is left unsaid, in codes of behaviour that may seem mysterious to outsiders.
Both are also traditional societies in which family ties and organised religion play an outsize role. Their peoples are attached to the land, but because of economic and social hardship, over time they have formed large and influential emigrant communities. And both are places of striking beauty and historical wealth, but where the parts tend to be more attractive than the whole, especially in urban areas.
They are places where people of talent have often been undone by old and unbending social structures. In the Sicilian writer Leonardo Sciascia’s novel The Knight and Death, a character speaks of a power “we experienced, rather than really knew, a power that we can today define as completely criminal, but a power we can also, and paradoxically, say was in good health, always in the sense of crime, of course, in relation to the schizophrenic power of today.”
That power is the mafia, which dominated Sicilian society and made major inroads into the economy during the post-World War II decades. In Lebanon, institutionalised crime and corruption have also long been afflictions undermining economic development and the rule of law.
In Sicily, the mafia played a role similar to the sectarian leaders in Lebanon, although there are limits to that comparison. They benefited from a system anchored in society, which perpetuated their power and gave them a decisive advantage in profiting from the economy.
But there is also a major difference. In Lebanon the sectarian system, though a monumental source of corruption and patronage, has nevertheless reinforced social schizophrenia, so that the state is weaker than society. The system generated a form of pluralism that is in sharp contrast to the suffocating states elsewhere in the Arab world. This has been a reason for Lebanon’s paradoxical liberalism, which has thrived in the spaces created by the sectarian system, and by the rules of balance it has imposed on society and the political class. In Sicily, things were rather different. Mafia rule, direct or indirect, was anything but beneficial to an open, pluralistic order.
There is more to Lebanon than sectarianism, just as there is more to Sicily than the mafia. There was a courageous effort during the 1980s and early 1990s by Sicilian magistrates to dismantle the mafia system. Similarly, many Lebanese dislike the sectarian system. And yet, like many Sicilians at one time with regard to the mafia, they have been far more willing to adapt to it than they care to admit. The system is not built on a foundation of intimidation and murder, definitely, but it has proven remarkably resilient because it feeds off and reproduces durable Lebanese social relationships and rituals.
Both in Lebanon and Sicily, traditional ties have come to define and even hijack the economic system. If one knows the right people, the law is helpless to equalise markets or protect those in the way of the powerful.
Lebanon and Sicily are prime examples of places in which institutional evolution has been aborted, where the potential for advancement is great but where the record has been spotty. They are cautionary tales for other societies on the Mediterranean, several of which are going through political transformations at this moment. They often seem imprisoned between past and future, their most enduring trait being a tragic ability to swallow their own children.
Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut
On Twitter: @BeirutCalling