Four days into a family holiday in Palermo and by now I should have my sense of direction sorted. This is, in theory, not a difficult city to navigate with the port down one end and the Porta Nueva up the other and yet I'm seriously challenged. I'm unsure which direction I'm looking in, unsure of the mastery of the architecture juxtaposed to what feels like bombed out buildings, unsettled by the wealth of arabo-norman-byzantine religious art and the under tone of chronic poverty, in awe of the 20 meters of road closed to traffic following archaeological finds opposite a school, also closed for repairs but where builders haven't been seen for months and power remains firmly in the hands of the mafia. The 6 am cathedral chimes from across the road wake me in much the same way the mosque used to wake me in Damascus and allow my mind to drift back to a city I love but is today transformed by conflict.
In trying to understand where my constant sense of confusion and bewilderment comes from I'm thrown back into the history of this island and its glory days from the 8th to the 16th centuries and to its history-in-the-making today as refugees from the Middle East and Africa arrive shipwrecked on its shores. As I struggle to make sense of my own vulnerabilities and limitations and strive to overcome my own weaknesses and confusion the chaos and complexity of this city is strangely calming. Its very strength lies in its hybrid nature. Its sustainability and endurance in its ability to exist on the edges of every empire and regime that has touched it, including the current powers in Rome and its alignment to a European stringent framework.
For someone like me who comes from a classic English education and has been "formatted" to honour the "system" this is naturally a bit of a shock. But at a time when life has thrown up the unexpected, has made clear where priorities must lie and where unconditional love, as unexplainable as it is, must be the dominant therapy, feeling shipwrecked in Sicily has certain advantages.