Notes from the Middle Sea: Salonica to Sicily

My first sight of the Mediterranean Sea this year was from the crumbling, graffiti-daubed ramparts of Thessaloniki’s Byzantine city walls. I had been land-locked for just under a month, working and living in Idomeni camp on Greece’s border with Macedonia. The landscape of that region is unlikely to appear on a postcard any time soon: river-edged farmland, rolling pastures, the occasional scrappy vineyard, unremarkable sprays of spring flowers. Idomeni’s primary feature in those first months of this year was the sprawling encampment of weather-ravaged pup tents, the flat earth around them churned to mud in the heavy rains and baked hard in the sun.

There was a sluggish, frog-filled river at the border, and the small hamlet of Idomeni proper clambering up gentle hills nearby. At sunrise, milky pink light smeared its way through the dirty smoke of cold fires, growing yellower and hotter as the day wore on. At night, the lights of Macedonia’s border-town pleasure palaces—casinos, hotels—twinkled like a playful taunt on the other side of that un-crossable line. Day after day, shadows shifted across the featureless landscape, the camp’s life regulated into queues and rumours, measured out in cups of tea. Life stagnated. Time stood still.

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It was a relief to see the sea: to watch waves come in, ships pass back and forth in the dusk, their lights reflected in the water. Even from a distance, high up on the old city’s outer limits, the sense of re-entering the slipstream of ordinary time, of reconnecting to the workaday world that refugees are in so many ways cast out of, was palpable. Across the Thermaic Gulf (as this little nook of the Mediterranean is known), Mt Olympus was swaddled in blue cloud, a pink slip of the day’s last light caught between the mountain and the darkening skies.

Having grown up within sight of the Pacific, I find salt on the breeze innately comforting. But in New Zealand, that comfort is tempered by a sense of one’s own insignificance, marginality: an awareness of being crouched in the corner of the atlas, at the wild reaches of humanity, the vast implacable fact of the Pacific making it so.

The Mediterranean, on the other hand, has long been the navel of the world: primordial connective tissue, around which, fed by its currents, a chain of civilizations grew. It was this body of water, “the middle of the land,” that stitched them together, cross-pollinating cultures: geography begetting history. Here is a sea, after all, that is circumnavigateable; one of the Mediterranean’s blessings to ancient mariners was that they might make their way around it without ever losing sight of the shore (a boon in times when roads were almost non-existent, and weather patterns up to the capricious whims of divine providence). Movement was constant; historical processes could not be contained, the Mediterranean was their conduit.

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In retrospect, by chance and lucky accident, I’ve done something of my own circumambulation of the Middle Sea this year, passing through Thessaloniki in the north, Sicily in the West, Egypt in the South, and Beirut in the east. As Europe and the Middle East grapple with the same multiple crises—crises that have lodged an ever widening rhetorical wedge between “East” and the “West,” the polarized and antagonistic tone a desperate and deluded attempt to stave off the fact that these categories are comfortable fallacies—the settlements on the edge of the sea are a testament to the complex history of connection between peoples; the fluid boundaries of identity and culture; the merciful—sometimes murderous—porousness of borders.

 

I.

In Thessaloniki, the sea is a constant presence, its sometimes slate-grey water stretched out below the city’s tumble of stone and cement. Once the second city of Byzantium, Salonica, as the city has long been known, has retained only vestigial traces of its long history, although its colonization by nondescript concrete apartment blocks is itself a testament to a turbulent past: the great fire of 1917 razed two thirds of the city to the ground, ushering in a radical urban redesign. Still, the bones of the city are there: in the football field-sized, deconstructed Roman Forum at the center of downtown; in the often hard to find Byzantine churches, with their trademark brick and stonework; in the precious few mosques that survived the collapse of the Ottoman empire and the intervening years.

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No functional synagogues remain in the city, yet Spanish-speaking Sephardic Jews, alongside Orthodox Christians and Muslims, were a key demographic of Ottoman Salonica, after the eastern empire offered them shelter from Ferdinand and Isabella’s purges. The city was known as the “Madre de Israel,” Jerusalem of the Balkans: in the early 20th century, the Jewish majority of Salonica helped to transform it into a cosmopolitan, polyglot center of learning and commerce (as Mark Mazower relates in the fascinating Salonica: City of Ghosts). The ensuing years—as the city was ravaged first by fire, then the Asia Minor Catastrophe, and the decimating horror of the Holocaust—left Thessaloniki an almost purely Greek city, its skyline purged of minarets, not a synagogue to be seen.

But reminders of its fascinating, interstitial history remain. The New Mosque, built by an Istanbul-trained Sicilian in the early days of the 20th century, was a place of worship for the city’s “Dönmeh” community: Jews who converted publically to Islam during the Ottoman era, but who were rumoured to practice a syncretic faith, continuing to observe Jewish rites. The butter-yellow building boasts Corinthian columns, Greek script, Andalusian-style sculptural detail, punched-out hexagrams, and elegant clock towers: an astounding fin-de-siecle confluence of Muslim, Jewish, Greek and Latin design.

Not far from here stands the Rotunda: a stark Roman structure built by Emperor Galerius, later gilded with Byzantine mosaics for use as a church, supplied with a minaret to serve as an Ottoman mosque, and now preserved as a historic building. The marble ablutions area, once used by Muslim worshippers before prayer, currently hosts flower-strewn trellises. The minaret, one of the few remaining in the city, is mercifully intact.

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Greece’s second-largest city, Thessaloniki can at times feel more like a village, although the shopping streets, markets and waterfront buzz with activity. Well-heeled Greeks sip their beloved frappe (invented in the city in the 1950s by an enterprising Nescafe salesman) and munch delicately on phyllo pastry masterpieces. In the central market, fishermen hawk translucent octopi, trays of pink and silver fishes on slowly melting ice. Olives—red, black, brown, green—glisten next to glass bowls of dates and dried figs.

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It was from this part of the world that Alexander the Great set off on his unlikely quest to conquer the known world (or at least, the only parts of it then thought worth conquering: the Orient) and a monumental effigy of the young Macedonian king—on the back of a rampant Bucephalus, sword thrust to the unsuspecting east—watches over the gulf. Nearby, kids relax in the shade beneath the Byzantine White Tower, which marks the outer limit of the old walled city, while African immigrants hustle their wares. Within the walls, the efficient, belle époque layout of downtown contrasts to the upper-town’s preserved higgledy-piggledy Ottoman architecture, where squatters (refugees or anarchists) snap up abandoned buildings and goats graze in the empty lots beneath the ramparts. Further up, the Yedi Kule (seven-sided castle) looks out towards Olympus.

 

II.

I lingered in Thessaloniki for so long—spending time in and out of Idomeni—that it felt as if I might never leave. And when I did, it was not to head east, as I had thought it would be, but southwest, making my way to the coast by bus then boarding a ferry, nudging past Corfu and out, across the inky Adriatic—charcoal clouds shot through with golden light gave the crossing a distinctly dramatic sheen—to the heel of Italy.

Bari, my port of debarkation, was itself once a Byzantine settlement (and, incidentally, a hub of the Slavic slave trade, in which eastern Europeans were trafficked to various parts of the Muslim world; indeed, the word “slavery” is derived from the word “slav”) before a brief stint as an Arab Emirate, and then the subject of a drawn-out dispute between the Orthodox and the Roman Church. But I stayed less than a day, just long enough to wonder at its labyrinthine old town, gate-crash a poorly attended, lavish wedding in the cathedral, and ponder the strategic efficacy of the acutely angular Norman fortress.

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Then, tickling the dainty arch and toes, racing across the foot, and springing—a person in a bus in a boat, like a transportation-themed Babushka doll—across the strait of Messina and along Sicilia’s northern coastline, to Palermo. It seems crucial at this juncture to mention that in Sicily—that dry, scrubby, mountainous land—the tomato has achieved its perfect form. The datterino is a firm-skinned, fire-engine red, submarine-shaped capsule of summer-sweet acidic flavour—named for its date-like shape and grown primarily in the south-western Sicilian town of Pachino, which is famous also for its ciliegini (cherry) varietal. This may seem an incidental detail, but datterini became so fundamental an element of my Sicilian days that to relegate them to a side note seems dishonest. Food in general made up some of my first and most lasting impressions of the island.

Snails! reads my initial Sicilian notebook entry, the morning I arrived in Palermo, having made my way post-haste to the city’s largest produce market. Mussels, asparagus, wild strawberries, baby artichokes, fennel, stone fruit (pale apricots) / eggplant like dark inky bowling balls! / lots of funny cucumbers / pomodori!!!

I was clearly a little over-tired, but that base-level gustatory enthusiasm stayed fairly constant over my month on the island, as spring edged towards summer and I learned to recognize tenerumi—the vine tendrils of an extremely long and somewhat phallic zucchini-esque vegetable. As May slid into June, flattened peaches appeared, along with the first of the (very early) green figs. Black mulberries from nearby Monreale dribble purple juice next to fresh almonds snug in their furry green jackets. Squash blossoms nestle next to jars of grass-green pistachio paste and salt-flecked capers from Pantelleria.

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Twisted golden sesame-crusted breads, slabs of meat, canary yellow melons, scarlet-stained blood oranges—the wares are buffeted by the vendors’ insistent cries. Cherries and oranges and nectarines tumble into brown paper cornettos—the preferred packaging—as tuna several meters long are swiftly segmented, guts tugged out energetically, while customers wait. Burnt-orange stalks of saffron are sold next to ready-to-use packages of raisins and pine nuts; all three crucial ingredients in the island’s famous pasta con le sarde, which dresses thick, slithery bucatini in a rich sauce of anchovies, sardines and wild fennel, dusted off with toasted breadcrumbs.

The dish, mixing pasta and fish with less familiar elements, is emblematic of the island’s cuisine and indeed its history—a hybrid melange that disallows any easy categorization of what might be called distinctly Italian or Arab, European or African. The round purple eggplants in the market are often labelled “Tunisian,” and much of Sicily’s food seems somehow both exotic and familiar: the sticky, sweet-sour caponata (collapsed eggplant, tomato, celery and onion, liberally fortified with sugar and vinegar), the salty-crisp panelle (moreish chickpea-flour fritters, flecked with parsley), deep-fried, breadcrumb-coated arancini (bombs of risotto rice encasing a meat or cheese filling).

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Some dishes are recognisable—just—to anyone familiar with Italo-American cooking (unsurprisingly, since many from the mezzogiorno joined the exodus). Sfincione, for example, is the closest thing to what New York pizzerias call “Sicilian slice”; a slab of focaccia, topped with an umami-rich paste of tomatoes, onion, and anchovies, the snack rendered an oily delight by application of olive oil, caciocavallo cheese, and well-singed edges.

Sicily is the homeland of cannoli (crispy pastry clutching a pillowy ricotta filling), and the objectively perfect pasta alla norma (a caramelized alchemy of olive oil, tomatoes, eggplants and punchy ricotta salata). Gelato, in Sicily, is preferably eaten several scoops at a time, wedged burger-style into a brioche bun, and optionally slathered with chocolate sauce and chopped nuts. Exuberant abundance is what comes to mind; over-indulgence is seemingly the Sicilian norm. Here, flavors are strong, unencumbered by pedantic insistence on nuance, shooting straight from the hip.

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Sicilian artist Renata Guttoso captures this sense of overwhelming profusion in his painting La Vucciria (1974), in which a woman walks through one of Palermo’s now-shuttered markets, a cattle carcass dangling in the foreground above trays of eggs, cheeses, the gaping mouths and thrusting noses of swordfish. Painted in an era of essentially unfettered Mafia collaboration with politicians, the image offers a mad sensual dream of plenty in a society increasingly destroyed by corruption: sybaritic wonders under-laid by a darkness.

The haunting photographs taken by Letizia Battaglia (whose career began the same year La Vucciria was completed) bear witness to Palermo’s grinding poverty and crime; the glamour of the wealthy and the abjection of the poor during the decades of Cosa Nostra pre-eminence. Here again, in the gorgeous black and white images, are tropes of excess, of blood, wine, lace and guns: a society where the center has lost its grip.

Visiting Palermo now, it’s hard to believe that bullet-sprayed bodies—the island’s “excellent cadavers”—were once regularly materializing across the city. After an exhaustive maxi-trial in the late 90s, the murder rate has drastically declined: gangsters are no longer in evidence, and classic coppola hats are clearly a thing of the past. But although violence has waned, Cosa Nostra’s business activities continue, with corruption, extortion and drug running still proving lucrative. They now face competition from the upstart Nigerian criminal element—gangs composed of migrants who have made the crossing from war-torn Libya. Although clearly a tiny minority of these newcomers become embroiled in the booming trades of prostitution and drug trafficking, recent violence related to the gangs has shocked the city.

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Meanwhile, beyond the salacious headlines, the sufferings of the migrants themselves is a far more pressing problem, part of a broader humanitarian disaster that is sweeping across Europe. Over the course of a single week in May, 880 people were drowned in the voyage from North Africa to Italy. So far this year, the death toll on this treacherous route has crept past 2,500, making it far and away the most deadly of the Mediterranean crossings.

The recent rescue of over 6,500 desperate souls, packed into over-crowded, flimsy vessels, is testament to the increasing audacity of Libya’s people-smugglers. (Angela Merkel has recently called for deals to be struck with North African nations, modeled on the now-flailing pact made with Turkey—a bizarre suggestion, given the perilous chaos of Libya, the major artery for migration.)

These deaths, like the mafia’s continued influence, are essentially invisible from the cobbled, crumbling streets of sunny Palermo, wedged as the city so prettily is between the mountains and the sea. Even the ghoulish Capuchin catacombs—where several centuries-worth of Palermitan society, dressed in their best clothes and displayed in orderly rows, are preserved—can’t counteract la dolce vita vibe of the city: crowds spilling out into the piazzas, sipping effervescent, sweet-bitter, neon-red Campari spritzes as the sun fades behind the looming massifs of Monte Pellegrino.

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And the island does have its own particular magic: an aesthetic verve all its own—primarily due to the successive waves of peoples that made it their home. Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Normans, Spanish: cultures from across the Mediterranean world (and further afield) have carved out their own spaces on this small patch of land, making the Med their highway and leaving a breathtakingly eclectic array of architecture.

The cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalu (both near Palermo), with their Latinate exteriors sheltering mosaic-bedazzled interiors—clearly Byzantine in influence and workmanship—and their combination of Roman Catholic and Orthodox design, are testament to the island’s golden age. The cathedral in Palermo itself is a stunning mix of Arab, Norman, Byzantine, Swabian, Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque styles: here is a particular version of multiculturalism, fostered by one land over generations, inscribed in stone.

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One of the most delightful examples of this “Arab-Norman” aesthetic is the small Church of San Cataldo, a nondescript block of stone flanked by palm trees and topped by three pinkish-red domes, its interior stripped of decoration. Further west, the influence of Arab North Africa becomes more pronounced: in the labyrinthine souk of Mazara del Vallo (tastefully decorated now with pictorial tiles) and the spiced Tunisian food I ate there; and by the salt pans of Mozia (settled for centuries by Phoenicians, a seafaring people from what is now Lebanon), where the Scirocco wind blows in from the vast continent, the scent of the Sahara on the breeze. To the east, the Greek and Roman underpinnings are more evident: Europe takes precedence here, in the overblown Baroque confections of Noto, the stately island-outcropping of Syracuse.

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As in Salonica, the darker side of such cultural cohabitation—the painful rejection of plurality—is woven into the fabric of the island. The Palazzo Chiaramonte Steri, presiding over a leafy piazza in Palermo, is an object lesson in tolerance: both its potential for cultural transcendence and its limits. The 14th century structure hosts both one of the most beautiful ceilings I have ever seen (in which biblical, mythological and historic scenes illuminating the Sicilian age of chivalry are edged around with gilt Arabic geometric motifs) and the dungeons of the inquisition, whose cramped stone walls are etched with the remarkable drawings of many prisoners. In this graffiti—satirical cartoons of the supposedly monstrous Jews, Old and New Testament scenes, detailed maps of Sicily, a ghoulish representation of a triumphant queen (perhaps the fiendish Isabella?)—the despair and bitter humor of condemned men whispers down the centuries.

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Catania, carved from disaster on the Ionian coast—its pavements and facades fashioned from the ash-grey stone that once ran red from Mt Etna, which glowers over the city—is Sicily’s second largest town and my last stop on the island. I spend my final morning mesmerized by the activity of its fish market: from a vantage point, surrounded by other spectators, I watch the crowds and ebb and flow around trays of shining sea-creatures.

Fishermen, touting their wares and splashing water over the cobbles, fillet expertly on the spot. Small cups of ready-to-eat sea urchins are snapped up. Whippet-thin asparagus sprigs are sold on the side. A flat fish stares balefully up at me from his tray. A groper’s gaping mouth rolls past, luxurious pink-opalescent scales glinting in the morning light. Little lobsters shake their claws defiantly at the edge of a tray. Old men carry away heaping plastic bags of writhing metallic fishes. A tuna is sliced carefully, with a buttery sweep of the great blade. A kid dodges between patrons, hawking parsley to whoever might listen. As one fish is partitioned, a smaller silvery fish slivers out of its stomach—free at last!—while a man hacks away at a block of ice, sending shards scattering across the square.

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As I make to tear myself away, a woman totters past, skittishly avoiding the fishy puddles and toting an exquisite embroidered bag—camels against a dessert background—before disappearing into the heaving crowd.