Mayor of Palermo
By Lucia Martines
LM: There are numerous initiatives that see the city of Palermo engaged in the front row for issues closely related to the Mediterranean area, from the Mediterranean Archipelago Biennale to the Week of Tunisian Culture, up to the proposed models and the results obtained in the reception and integration between different cultures. This strong commitment has been one of the motivations counted among the many that have allowed to obtain the title of Capital of Culture 2018 and the additional awards earned in recent years, from the creation of the Consulta of Cultures to the Charter of Palermo 2015. What is, in your opinion, the role that Palermo can and must have in the coming years in relations between the shores of the Mediterranean and therefore between Europe, Africa and the Middle East?
LO: Palermo is not a European city. I’m sorry for Frankfurt and for Berlin, I love Germany, German after Sicilian is my second language, but Palermo is not Frankfurt or Berlin. Palermo is a Middle Eastern city in Europe, that is a Mediterranean city, Palermo is Istanbul, Palermo is Beirut. Our project is to make Palermo a Beirut with wi-fi and with the tram, try somehow to conjugate virtual connections with human connections, Google and Ahmed the migrant are our points of reference. In this framework, in this identitary collocation of our city, we are a city of culture, to be more precise, of cultures; but what is culture? Culture is a whole, a musical note is not culture, a letter of the alphabet is not culture, a color is not culture. More musical notes make a score, it begins to be culture. And more letters of the alphabet make a book, it begins to be culture. More colors make a picture, and it starts to be culture. What applies to the artistic dimension for me also applies to the social and human dimension. Palermo is a city that makes the presence of the different its own identity and it does so by capturing the true dimension of a Mediterranean that continues to be a liquid continent of rights and peace. We do not use the expression “Euro-Mediterranean” because my African friends say “why not Afro-Mediterranean?”. We use the expression “Mediterranean” to identify a continent, a continent of water that since 1492, after the discovery of America, after the death of Lorenzo the Magnificent and always in the same year after the Expulsion of the Jews and Muslims by the Catholic King and Queen, it has slowly turned into a lake of suburbs and conflicts motivated in an absolutely pretentious manner by the different religions. With the opening of the Suez Canal and thanks to migration, the Mediterranean returns to be a real ocean, a real continent and in this dimension the Charter of Palermo is in some ways the reference point of a city that wants to be the capital of the artistic, musical, theatrical, figurative arts cultures, but also of other cultures, the culture of hospitality, the culture of life, the culture of sport, but also of different cultures that, coming from other parts of the world, become an essential part here, precious pieces of the only mosaic that is the Palermo mosaic. Paintings do not need a frame, the paintings by Caravaggio, Mirò, Picasso, or Borman are beautiful even without a frame, but a mosaic without a frame becomes a confusing mix of pieces of stone. Therefore, we need a frame and our frame respects the human being. To be different, because we are different people, to be equal, because we are human beings, we have the same rights. This approach constitutes the true meaning of the recognition of Palermo as the capital of culture, indeed, of the cultures that live in Palermo together. When I presented the candidacy of Palermo for the World Heritage List of UNESCO as a World Heritage Site for the Arab-Norman Itinerary, for the Cathedrals of Monreale and Cefalù, I said to the commission that in Palermo the dog, the cat and the mouse stroll together. It is a way to remember how Palermo is not migrant in its monuments but is migrant in his life today, in his everyday life. This makes Palermo a city certainly at the forefront of the national and international context and is a great change. Palermo is the city in Europe that has probably changed the most in the last 40 years, Palermo has gone from the capital of the mafia to the capital of culture, it was a great change of which we must be grateful to those who sacrificed their lives for the fight against the mafia, because its criminal violence forced the people of Palermo to open its eyes, mouth and ears and had a dramatic success. It is the same positive change that produced Nazism in Germany, the Germans after Adolf Hitler are better than the Germans who were before with Adolf Hitler, and it is the change that the Islamic State is producing with its dramatic criminal violence that is forcing the Islamic world to open mouth, eyes and ears, and make that necessary change. And this is the overall sense of a city in which I am proud to be the mayor, a city where Pino Puglisi was born, a priest, a dear friend of mine, a simple priest, we would say in Palermo a simple “parrinieddo” who did not fight the mafia but who asked that the children of the neighborhood could have a school, and this scared the mafia bosses more than the weapons and the policemen, or the judgments of the magistracy, and they killed him. The Pope proclaimed him Blessed also to mark a difference and to distance himself from too many churchmen who in the past colluded with the mafia, they were accomplices of a mafia culture. And I’m also proud because we organize the biggest gay pride in Southern Europe every year. This is the key to understanding a city that has become a reference for rights. No longer only of law, but of rights. And migrants are the occasion to remember “I am a person”, migrants remind us of our rights. One day I received a beautiful letter of a girl from Palermo, daughter of parents from Palermo, forced to live in a wheelchair, who wrote to me “Dear Mayor, thank you. Since you welcome migrants I feel more normal, more equal and less different” and this is the extraordinary function that migrants have. For this reason I argue that the future of Palermo are Google and Ahmed the migrant. Google expresses a virtual connection and Ahmed the migrant is a human connection. Living in a world where there is only Google is terrible, living in a world where there is only Ahmed perhaps does not give hope for change and future, putting together Google and Ahmed is exactly the sense of the bar that we keep high in our vision of a city that has made innovation and mobility its fundamental rules. Few people know that Palermo and Milan are the two best cabled cities in the Mediterranean, not in Italy. Our broadband is equal only to that of Milan and that of Milan is equal only to that of Palermo. Thus the desire to be Beirut with wi-fi or, if you want, Brussels that welcomes everyone, is realized. From the city of the crimes to the city of rights. It is an extraordinary mental change. I know very well that Berlin has changed, that Warsaw has changed, that Vilnius, Prague and Riga have changed, but these cities have changed due to international changes, due to institutional changes, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the unification of Germany. We have changed without changing the regulation of the City Council, without changing the Constitution of our country. For this reason we are a city strongly oriented towards future, towards mobility, a city where tourist reception practices are growing enormously. A few months ago I received a visit from the Airbnb founder who came from California to meet me because Palermo is the city where in the last year his company has obtained the biggest percentage increase in the world. This is to say that Palermo has finally moved from quantity to quality, from marginalization to internationalization, from the economy that was claimed to make culture to the culture that produces economy. And this is exactly why I have made a parallel between Palermo and wine in Sicily. In the last 40 years, they both have recorded an extraordinary change in quality, in internationalization and in the production of the economy starting from culture. After Saint Petersburg and Zurich this year Manifesta, the largest traveling Biennale in Europe, is in Palermo and is different from the previous and the future ones because Manifesta has captured the essence of this city in the Planetary Garden. Palermo is a city where there are no native plants, the plants that are in Palermo and Sicily are all from other countries. But the extraordinary thing is that therefore we are biodiverse not by birth but by choice, by reception. So, after 100 years in which Palermo was ruled by Sicilian ISIS, ehm…from the Sicilian mafia, when in this place before me there were friends of mafia bosses, sometimes it was the mafia boss himself who was at the same time the head of the mafia and the political and administrative representative of the city, we have moved from a dimension of a Palermo as the capital of the mafia to a Palermo as the capital of rights. And this is due to this extraordinary choice of harmony between history and the present. During the 100 years of the government of Mafia there were no migrants in Palermo. Until I was 30, the only foreigners I used to see in Palermo were Germans women who took care of the children of the rich Palermo, of the aristocratic Palermo. Now that the Mafia no longer rules, Palermo is finally full of migrants and we live in harmony because, in front of the mosque, there is no longer just a Christian but there is also a Muslim. All this makes Palermo an exciting and safe city, exciting for this plurality of colors characteristic of mosaics, but also safe. When some “strange” Muslims arrive, the Muslims who live in Palermo warn the Mayor, the Mayor calls the Police, they defend their city, what they consider their city before their country of origin or their religion, and it is this extraordinary dimension the reason why when someone asks me how many migrants there are in Palermo I do not say 60, 70 or 80000, I say “nobody”. Who arrives in Palermo becomes a person from Palermo. And this is the extraordinary strength of the future of this city that is the protagonist, along with other cities, of the Global Parliament of Mayors. I am one of the founders of this Parliament, with mayors from all over the world, from Rotterdam to Amsterdam, The Hague, Oslo, Stockholm, Helsinki, Copenhagen, Paris, Montpellier, Madrid, Barcelona, Mexico City, Atlanta, Denver, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Bogota, Rio de Janeiro, Amman, Cape Town. So, all this is the overall sense of a city that has finally opened up to the world and which can show the world its history and build its future on its history.
LM: Let’s talk in more detail about the Charter of Palermo 2015 which, proposing a right to mobility understood as the inalienable right of the human being to choose the place where to live, recalls the values of universal citizenship proclaimed by cosmopolitan ideals. A strong message that has a further value today as winds of closure, new nationalisms, new racisms and the use of violent tones in national, European and global politicians’ speeches blow. Among the purposes indicated at the launch of the Charter, you stated that it would have been sent to national and European authorities, to the United Nations Organization, to all international agencies and to Pope Francis, in the hope of opening a debate leading to the launching of a European petition to put these issues on the table of the international community. What were the later implications? What are the answers? What will be, in your opinion, the future of this Charter?
LO: For now, I must say that the first result of this Charter has been to increase the self-esteem of people from Palermo, the awareness of being bearers of a positive cultural dimension. Our self-esteem is also the awareness of our culture, of our history, of our culture of hospitality and we have had so many feedbacks on this. The World Parliament of Mayors as its first act has formally assigned to me what they call the Nobel Prize of Mayors, the Benjamin Barber Global Cities Award, which is basically inspired by Benjamin Barber, an American scholar who has devoted his attention to the idea of interdependence. A new value with respect to dependence and independence, we are all interdependent. In the face of the financialization of life, States lose their sense. The financialization of the economy does not destroy States because it finances the economy, but when an unemployed or pensioner thinks like a manager they think that God is money, the State loses sense and the only realities that make sense are precisely the local realities where the mayor is called to combine vision and concreteness. All this certainly is a very strong stimulus, my fellow mayors, in Poland or in Great Britain tell me “we need to connect to Palermo because it is the only way we have not to be a copy of our national governments, sometimes intolerant towards the different “. This gives us the possibility of being in a middle ground that makes us to have a role, without being copies of the choices that we do not share with our national governments. Pope Francis sent me a beautiful letter, the Dutch royal family affected by this culture of hospitality takes part in Manifesta with an African opera, an opera on the African condition. All this to express a consensus that is growing in the human being, because in man’s stomach there is no intolerance, intolerance is in the sick head of some politician or in the bloodstained wallet of some speculator. I know very well that when you put the bar high you submit yourself to the calculated risk of appearing inadequate compared to the level you indicate, but if you keep the bar low you do not change reality. I also formally submitted a complaint to the Court of Justice in The Hague, and I also presented it to the President of the European Commission, to the Commissioner for Migration, to the Chief Public Prosecutor because I believe that at this moment European politics is responsible for a genocide and I formalized this complaint. The European Commissioner replied to me with a very long letter full of obvious embarrassment about the things I was saying and the things that Europe is unfortunately allowing us to do, and the European Parliament announced my hearing on this complaint because I am convinced that a second Nuremberg trial will be held, I do not know if it will be written in history books or even before a court of justice but a second trial of Nuremberg will be done with an aggravating circumstance, that while our grandparents, our great-grandparents, could say that they did not know the Nazi-Fascist massacres we can not say that we did not know it. And this is exactly the overall sense of the position taken by this city, and it is also the reason why this city has acquired an extraordinary attractiveness. I was invited around the world to talk about the fight against the mafia. Now it’s beautiful! They invited me around the world to talk about the residence permit, which is the new slavery, the new death penalty. It is a long way to be free from slavery, it is a long way to be free from the death penalty, just think that 57 years ago someone in a so-called civil country said that he had a dream, I have a dream, Martin Luther King. What to say? Palermo is the only city in the world that gives honorary citizenship to men condemned to death, it is the only city in the world where a man condemned to death from a city in Virginia has asked to be buried there as his last wish. I hope that Pope Francis in the name of Jesus Christ will be able to abolish the death penalty from the Catholic world. The Vatican formally abolished the death penalty only in 2001. It means that until 2001, the Vatican, for ethical reasons connected to respect for the right to life, could not have been part of the European Union if it wanted to enter it. It is clear that getting rid of the residence permit will be a long way but we have begun.
LM: Returning to Palermo, the recognition of the Arab-Norman itinerary as a World Heritage Site decreed in 2015 by UNESCO constitutes an architectural and urban metaphor of the link between the Muslim and the Christian world. How, in your opinion, the city can contribute and propose its model of integration with the Islamic community in a delicate historical moment like the present one, in which, on the one hand, terrorism uses religion to perpetrate violence and, on the other hand, the stereotypes and prejudices about Islam seem to reproduce and grow, driven by the instrumentalization of the feeling of fear by some political forces?
LO: Nobody better than a person from Palermo can understand the tragedy of the Islamic world under the Islamic mafia that is the Islamic State, and nobody better than a Muslim can understand the tragedy of the people of Palermo condemned to have the Sicilian mafia. All this passes through some messages. A message that I send is that I believe in God but I always say do not ask me what is God’s name because when I enter into a mosque I pray to Allah, when I enter into a synagogue, I pray to Yahweh and when I am in a Christian Church I pray to Jesus Christ. It’s not an insurance contract for my second life, it’s just a way to secure the rejection of intolerance, it’s a way to say no to intolerance. All this constitutes the life of this city, constitutes the experience, which participates in all Muslim religious festivals, all Jewish religious festivals, all Hindu religious festivals and Palermo is a city where those who experience a war abroad, here must stay in peace. I gave honorary residency to Barghouti, a Palestinian imprisoned in the State of Israel who considers him a terrorist, but I am strongly committed to finally building a synagogue in Palermo; I gave honorary citizenship to the Dalai Lama but I celebrate the first day of the New Year in Palermo with the Chinese community by lighting a candle in the steps of the Teatro Massimo. What is the meaning of this message? To go beyond the letters of protest that I received from Israel, the Turkish government, the Chinese government, and send a message that what is in contrast abroad, here in Palermo must live a dimension of cultural sharing because culture is, I repeat, being together.
LM: The awareness of young people on these issues is fundamental for the creation of a sea that constitutes a bridge, a cultural way to peace. The initiatives aimed at creating a network of young people belonging to the States bathed by the waters of the Mediterranean seem to be an opportunity for a relevant dialogue toward this path and for the formation of a new citizenship. Can it be, in your opinion, a road to follow for the creation of a future cosmopolitan political class, capable of starting real prospects of constructive confrontation and joint collaborations?
LO: Every year we give one hundred honorary citizenships to one hundred children who come from all the countries of the world. The first act of this administration in 2012 was to give honorary citizenship to all those residing in Palermo and send the clear message that in Palermo no one is foreign and that this city wants to be a mosaic, wants to be a place of culture, that is where the different live together, it can be basically a house of all and this is the true message of peace. I know this is much easier to do as mayor than as Prime Minister but everyone has to do their part. I believe that if a mayor from Poland, a mayor from the UK are a little better because there is the experience of Palermo, maybe even the Prime Minister of our country or of other countries can become better if a network of mayors says things differently from those that are commonly said. At the last municipal elections in Palermo, some have calculated that I have received 82% of the votes of young people between 18 and 32, it means that young people are less tied to old lifestyles, old habits, old parental closures and also, as if this was not enough, Salvini’s electoral list got 1%. I prefer to make Palermo a city that is itself rather than a city that is a bad copy of Frankfurt and I have no contrasts with those who are intolerant, I have no dispute with Minister Salvini because he plays cricket, I play volleyball, they are two different fields and two different sports, with absolutely different values.