the mafia of sicily -- 8/14/18

Today's selection -- from The Italians by Luigi Barzini. Luigi Barzini's famous 1964 description of the Mafia:

"The word Mafia notoriously means two things, one, which should be spelled with a lower-case 'm', being the mother of the second, the capital letter Mafia.

"The lower-case mafia is a state of mind, a philosophy of life, a con­ception of society, a moral code, a particular susceptibility, prevail­ing among all Sicilians. They are taught in the cradle, or are born already knowing, that they must aid each other, side with their friends and fight the common enemies even when the friends are wrong and the enemies are right; each must defend his dignity at all costs and never allow the smallest slights and insults to go unavenged; they must keep secrets, and always beware of official authorities and laws. ...

"Mafia, in the second and more specialized meaning of the word, is the world-famous illegal organization. It rules over only one part of Sicily: its threats are terrifying in Palermo, Partinico or Agrigento, but are ignored in Messina, Catania and Syracuse. It is not a strictly organized association, with hierarchies, written statutes, head­quarters, a ruling elite and an undisputed chief. It is a spontaneous formation like an ant-colony or a beehive, a loose and haphazard collection of single men and heterogeneous groups, each man obey­ing his entomological rules, each group uppermost in its tiny domain, independent, submitted to the will of its own leader, each group locally imposing its own rigid form of primitive justice. Only in rare times of emergency does the Mafia mobilize and become one loose confederation.

1900 map of Mafia presence in Sicily. Towns with Mafia activity are marked as red dots. The Mafia operated mostly in the west, in areas of rich agricultural productivity.

"Nobody knows how many mafiosi there are. Only a minority of Sicilians are technically mafiosi, in the criminal sense of the word. Many do not honestly know whether they are mafiosi or not. West­ern Sicilians must, as a rule, entertain good relations with the Mafia in their native village or city quarter. They have to live there, they must protect their family, job, property or business, and want no trouble. The Mafia is for them a fact of life, one of the permanent conditions of existence, like the climate, the average rainfall or the local patois. It is often impossible to draw a neat dividing line between Mafiosi and non-Mafiosi.

"Take the good friars of Mazzarino, who were recently arrested and tried for having acted as messengers between the Mafia and its in­tended victims, men who were being blackmailed. The pious fathers patiently explained to the non-Sicilian court that they were by no means to be considered advisers, instigators or accomplices of the criminals. They had only done their best to persuade the intended victims, to whom they brought the Mafia's blackmail message, that it was safer to pay, and pay quickly, in order to save their lives. Were not one or two men, who had stubbornly overlooked the advice, sub­sequently found dead in solitary country lanes? Yes, of course, the monks had written some of the messages themselves, but only because the mafiosi were illiterate and did not own a typewriter.

"Furthermore, the friars pointed out that they were by no means responsible for the conditions of law enforcement in Mazzarino. They were not policemen. They took for granted that there were extortionists and potential victims, moneyed men whose only safety was in conforming with the Mafia's demands, and men who could live and prosper out of the fear they could evoke in others. The monks explained they were only doing their duty: they had avoided unnecessary bloodshed. Was theirs not a charitable mission? (The monks were found guilty, nevertheless, and given long prison sentences.)

"Everybody, of course, knows (although such things are never admitted openly) that the trouble the Mafia defends one from is almost always contrived and controlled by the Mafia itself. Every­body knows that the tributes he is paying to the local boss could be compared to a tribute to a powerful feudal baron. Everybody is resigned. But the relationship between the Mafia and its victims is not limited to the collection of money. A day always comes when the Mafia also needs some favour in return. On that day, a man discovers he can no longer refuse. A businessman finds he must give a job to an ex-convict, a banker extend a loan to a risky customer, a farmer shelter some unknown men for a few days in a barn without asking questions, an honest man remember distinctly something he never knew or forgets something he saw. All these people gradually get so enmeshed in the net, in the hope of avoiding trouble, that they cannot free themselves."


Luigi Barzini


The Italians


Penguin Books


Csopyright Luigi Barzini, 1964


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