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Then and Now - Sicily Grows Up
by Maria Luisa Romano

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Beautiful Sicily grows up.Sicily is a pretty lady who finally, at long last, is almost grown-up. But it was a long adolescence, and certainly not a precocious one. No, you can't accuse lovely Sicily of giving anything away before its time.

It's a strange thing to see a society change, or even evolve, right before your eyes. A little like the folks born in the nineteenth century who lived into the 1980s, witnessing developments like the women's vote, two world wars and of course telecommunications, automobiles and airplanes. Maybe my age is showing, but if you're approaching fifty certain changes have a way of making you feel, well, older than you really are. Most of the greatest social changes here on my favorite island seem to have taken place in times I can well remember. Signs of backwardness? You be the judge. However you describe them, here are a few relics of the past recently resurrected from the memories of a few Sicilian friends (mostly female). The complete list of examples is far too long to publish here, and a few potential selections were considered much too crude (if not downright offensive) to present to the polite company we presume our readers to be, so here's the "short list."

Censorship in 1982: Here's what happened. In 1980 the Libyan government paid for the making of an epic motion picture resulting in what was until then the costliest cinematic production of all time, far eclipsing the budgets of such contemporary films as Star Wars and Superman. No expense was spared. Starring Anthony Quinn, John Gielgud, Oliver Reed, Rod Steiger and a number of Italians and Libyans, Lion of the Desert accurately depicted the Fascist repression of the Arab resistance in 1929 leading to the execution of the nationalist leader Omar Mukhtar (portrayed by Quinn, whose last film, Avenging Angelo, was also filmed partly in Italy) and the killing of untold thousands. In 1982 (yes, 1982!) the Italian prime minister personally "banned" the film from Italian movie theatres (by prohibiting its review for the audience rating legally required for paid public showings) because it portrayed the Italian army of the Fascist era in a negative manner. Never mind that several Italian army officers were depicted in a positive light as highly ethical and indeed sympathetic to the Libyans' plight, or that Italy was, in fact, the first nation in history to acknowledge, as part of a UN-sanctioned peace treaty, an active role in wartime crimes against humanity (the Ethiopian occupation). The movie enjoyed a limited commercial release in several countries in 1981.

To this day, Lion of the Desert has never been aired on Italian television, and Italian-language DVDs of it are almost impossible to find --though this critically-acclaimed movie is available in English from Amazon in the US and the UK. Few Italians know of the film's existence or of the historical events it describes. The broader point to be made here is that until just the last few years nothing of any substance was taught in Italian schools about Fascism or the Second World War or, for that matter, Italy's misadventures in her ill-won foreign lands in Africa and the Balkans. In fact, just fourteen years after the events depicted in Lion of the Desert the Allies expelled the hapless Italian occupying troops from Libya, and many Sicilians (moreso than northerners) have fathers, uncles or grandfathers who were included among those taken prisoner. But censorship in the early 1980s?

Nowadays it's more subtle, without much obvious attempt to suppress foreign films about Fascism, though Ken Kirby's 1989 BBC documentary Fascist Legacy (with Michael Palumbo as historical consultant) was not shown in Italy until the Sky satellite network aired it in 2004. Sabina Guzzanti's 2005 documentary Viva Zapatero deals with censorship of political satire based on the politicians' pretext that it is "defamation." Amazing but true.

Women in Pants: In 1989 a young Sicilian woman named Lara Cardella wrote a book called "Volevo i Panteloni" (the English edition was titled "Good Girls Don't Wear Trousers") about being a woman in the Sicily of several decades ago. A motion picture based on the book was released in 1990. Here's a true story that confirms Lara's thesis. In 1962 an "urban woman" from Palermo visits her relatives in the hinterland wearing stylish pants and is harshly criticized by her country cousins for not wearing a skirt. I'm not making this up. Fortunately, the new style caught on with other young women --only about thirty years behind their American sisters. Crazy, but remember that Italian women couldn't even vote until 1946 and divorce was legalized in Italy only in 1974. Oh, you didn't know that?

Not in Living Color: Back in the late 1960s Italy had only two television networks and the only sets available were black-and-white. This was not seen as a big problem since hardly anybody had a television, and many people still didn't have telephones. Reliable statistics are difficult to come by, but the best estimate is that in 1970 at least 35% of Italian households still did not have televisions, while approximately 25% were without telephones. The grandmother of a friend of ours owned a large coffee bar along the town square of a rural community in southeastern Sicily. One or two evenings each week she would roll out a large television so that people in the town could watch whatever was available on one of Italy's two stations (RAI 1 and RAI 2). A typical offering was Carosello, a popular variety show more-or-less comparable to what was then being produced elsewhere (the Ed Sullivan Show in the United States), though perhaps a bit less sophisticated. Still better than nothing. And when did national color broadcasting finally arrive in Italy? Only in 1977.

No Talking Allowed by Women: The year is 1975 and a young Roman woman is employed by a Palermo firm as a sales representative specialized in ceramic tiles and other materials used in residential construction. The city is experiencing a building boom, so finding wholesale customers is no problem. But whenever the representative calls on a prospective customer, or when one comes to her office to consider a purchase, she encounters the same difficulty. The customers, who are invariably male, are extremely reluctant to talk to her. Some of them freeze and go silent as soon as she speaks to them, even though she is competent and fairly attractive. What's the problem? Palermitan men in certain "male" trades, it seems, are not "allowed" to speak to women as equals. She learns this after she asks several customers about their strange behavior, something she never encountered in Rome. One man even suggests that she hire a male assistant to act as a go-between, almost a "chaperone." Fast forward to1980: Things are getting better, and a few purchasing agents are even learning to accept working with Palermo's first female materials vendor.

Soap and Water: That's the colloquial phrase ("acqua e sapone") for an attractive young woman who uses very little make-up and, by way of implication, probably leads a very simple lifestyle devoid of pretension or scandal. Soap and water are plentiful enough in Sicily, and perfume has never been very scarce, but into the late 1990s it was virtually impossible to find deodorant, even in national chain stores like Standa. Worse yet, women with mustaches and bushy, dark underarm hair seemed to be everywhere, and a common joke went "you can always pick out an Alitalia plane from a distance because it's the one with hair under its wings." In 1985 an attractive eighteen year-old Sicilian girl who had been raised mostly in New York was visiting her uncles, aunts and cousins during August in a small town where a sixty-ish matron openly criticized her for being different from the local girls her age, saying that "tu non sei da marito." The poorly-worded phrase meant that the visitor was unsuitable for marriage, at least to any "local" Sicilian man. The reason? She lacked a mustache and her underarms, plainly visible with a sleeveless blouse in the torrid summer heat, were shaven. This marked her as a woman of questionable morality who might attract the attentions of too many men!

Fortunately, times have changed --if belatedly-- and so has our beautiful Sicily.

About the Author: Maria Luisa Romano has written for various Italian magazines, including this one.

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© 2008 Maria Luisa Romano