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Syndic Literary Journal

Against The Grain

Written/ Narrated By Long Island Poet/Publisher Stanley H. Barkan


“All roads lead away from the South; no roads return.”

—Nat Scammacca

We were on a bus heading towards Taormina. The bus was filled with members and friends of Arba Sicula, the Sicilian Dawn society, which had been formed almost three decades ago by two Siculo-Americans in the Brooklyn Heights basement apartment of a Jewish Italian-American poet.

In previous years, each May, the current leader of Arba Sicula took a group of no more than 45, including himself and his wife, at a low rate, each paying no more than cost, plus—enough to cover his and his wife’s expense, for this was not a commercial enterprise; it was to accomplish something against the grain: Siculo-Americans returning to the South, against what Nat Scammacca, a Sicilian-American WWII pilot/poet of Brooklyn in Trapani wrote: “All roads lead away from the South; no roads return.”

The bus had been stopped to be inspected by the Polizia stradale, the Italian version of the State Trooper.  It was a requirement of the new European Union, to which Italy now belonged. Ah, what a mistake!  The tachometer, the machine which was required to record how many miles the bus had traveled each day from this location to that, so that the poor contadini, or cafoni, as Ignazio Silone would term them, would not be overtaxed, was broken. Disaster!

The poor contadino bus driver, who had a wife and four children, was taken out to be interrogated.  “Why did you drive with a defective odometer? Don’t you know the new EU rules!”

The poor bus driver, shook his shoulders and his head, and said, “How was I to know?”  This enraged the poliziotto.  “It’s your business to know.  Why do you act like a donkey?  This is a new era; all contadini are expected to know their business and the new rules of the EU!  You cannot continue.  The bus cannot go on with a defective tachometer and you as its driver.  We will fine you and take your license.”

Now, after waiting in the heat of the bus with air-conditioning turned off, sweating, growing anxious, the crowd of those who with open mouths had come back to the South, hoping to capture something of their origins, along with some other tourist-like well-wishing friends of the Sicilians, began to mumble and complain: “What’s the trouble?  Why can’t we continue?”

Now the Arba Sicula leader, a man of vast knowledge of Sicily, a professor who was born in the East of Sicily, Catania, who spoke perfect Sicilian, the true language of Sicily, no dialect, a true language, with its own rules and it own variations, its own dialects, went out of the bus to discover the problem and to reason with the poliziotto.  Shortly, he returned downcast and explained the problem to the seated, now very uncomfortable and impatient crowd, saying, “The driver is in trouble.  The machine, the odometer machine, was broken.  The driver had broken the rules of the EU, by driving with a defective machine, with no way to determine how many miles the bus had thus far traveled, which required a limit to the driver’s work for such-and-such distances.”

This was a new requirement to protect the poor contadini, the poor workers, from being exploited by those who employ them, the capitalist owners.  It doesn’t matter that the machine was the primary responsibility of the bus company; the bus driver, like a pilot, or a ship’s captain, is required to make sure everything about his bus is in working order.

Such requirements now ruled supreme all over Sicily and all the cities of the South, as well as the North.  Thus, for instance, the fishermen of Favignana, one of the three Egadi isles off the Western coast of Sicily, could no longer fish for the tuna, no longer could participate in the seasonal mattanza that they had been doing for thousands of years.  This, they were told, was to protect the fishermen, who were depleting the stock of tuna in their Mediterranean Sea.  They would have no more tuna, if they kept up this way.  So now the fishermen of Favignana had to find another means of livelihood.  It was good for them and for all the contadini, as well as for the greater good of Society.  So they were told

Another example: In the open-air market in Catania, the fishermen and farmers and all the tradesmen had been bringing to market and selling their goods for thousands of years.  Never had there been a question of it being unsanitary.  No flies flit about the meats and fish, because they are all fresh.  Flies only feast on the flesh of the spoiled, the old, the decaying.  But now, in the city where every newcomer, before entering, according to ancient tradition, must kiss the balls of the bull, this unsanitary market must cease to be, must be stopped.  The all-powerful EU requires it.  For the protection, of course, of the contadini.

So, what to do now about the bus of Arba Sicula travelers, all those who had, against the grain, tried to return to the South, to discover their origins, recalling the tales their parents and grandparents had told them of the terra bruciata. the burnt land, but a land of lemons and almonds, and millefiore and myths of Greek and Roman gods, and fantastic ruins of times when Sicily was part of Magna Graecia, when it was the breadbasket of the Roman Empire. 

When everyone learned of the plight of the poor bus driver, everyone decided to chip in and to pay the fine, so that, at least  for now, for the length of this tour, the bus driver could continue and drive on to Taormina, the most beautiful of cities in the world.

And so, against all reason and all possible obstructions placed by the all-powerful EU, the travelers having paid the fine, the bus driver was allowed, for now, to continue to drive on this journey into the past for his passengers.

Years ago, one of the travelers, who had been many times to Sicily, visiting his friends of the Sicilian Antigruppo—a group against groups, against the carabinieri, the Italian government, the Church, the Mafia, all those who would diminish the creative power of the Sicilian people, which is considerable—was on a journey from Palermo to Sciacca.  He was there to explore the possibility of having a World Odyssey Conference, a meeting of professors and all those interested in examining the idea posed by some who had contended that Homer did not write the Odyssey, but that his daughter did, and that, for instance, Trapani was Ithaca.  This American was traveling with the spokesman for the Antigruppo, looking over the locations where the group that would come could travel to, to see landfalls    mentioned in the Odyssey

As stated, they were on the way to Sciacca, a city of the south of Sicily, to participate in a TV program about the planned conference.   Alas, the Antigruppo leader, who was driving, was stopped by carabinieri.   He was speeding.  He got out of the car, very upset.  After a few minutes, from a distance, the American saw that this WWII Siculo-American pilot, this tall, broad-shouldered, square-faced powerful veteran, leaning agains the wall at the side of the road, arms extended at his sides, hands pointed down, looked totally defeated.  His license had expired and so had his insurance.  He faced a triple fine.

The American got out of the car, and asked his friend, “Can I help?”  The leader said, “What can you do?” 

  So the American, who was not Sicilian or even Italian, in fact was Jewish, but perhaps a Sicilian wannabe, approached the carabinieri, and said, in Italian: “Scusatemi.  Quest’uomo é un poeta.  Sono anch’io poeta . . . un americano.  Sapete, quando la gente in’America pensa alla Sicilia, dicono soltanto due parole: ‘Pizza e Mafia’.  É il nostro lavoro combiare questa cosa.  Andiamo a Sciacca per fare una trasmissione alla televisione sulle origini siciliane  dell’Odissea di Omero.  Per piacere, permetteteci di andare a fare  questo programma.”  [“Excuse me. This man is a poet.  I’m a poet, too, an American.  We’re on the way to Sciacca to make a TV program about the Sicilian origin of the Odyssey.  You know, when Americans hear the world ‘Sicily,’ they think of only two words: ‘Pizza and Mafia.’  It’s our work to change this kind of thinking.  May we please go on to the program and what we are trying to do?”]

The carabinieri, waved their hands in a left-to-right motion, meaning, “Go on your way!”   The Antigruppo leader, seeing that his American friend was about to say something more, said, “Shut up, and let’s go.” 

Later he told of what happened to his wife in Trapani, asserting that he could no longer drive without his license renewal and car insurance, but did not mention how his American friend got him out of the fix he was in.

But now the point is: Where in the world are there policemen who have you dead to rights with three big tickets that would result in fines of thousands, would let you go for the sake of Culture, in this case for the sake of Sicilian pride?  Purely, against the grain.

But that was then.  That was before Italy joined the European Union.  And so now, the poor bus driver, faced a new carabiniere, a poliziotto, who, against the more personal, understanding, humanistic ways, in a different way against the natural Sicilian grain of flexible friendliness and hospitality, no longer could be reasoned with, not even by one as golden-tongued as the leader of Arba Sicula.  

And so, as seems to be the universal case, the more the larger and more distant powers that take control of the lives of the simple people of the earth, the more they lose their humanity, and just become pawns in the hands of the distant, uncaring, all-powerful, those who only pretend to be on the side of the people.


















Compiled/Published by LeRoy Chatfield
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