"Seeking Sicily: A Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean" by John Keahey
Over the past few years - more than a few, in fact - I have been actively engaged in tracing my ancestry and trying to discover my roots. It is a theme that has often made its way into my short stories and novels as well as some of the more later poems I had written. It’s a tough slog to try to track this stuff down, being that my family, having arrived in the United States a little over a century ago, became very much assimilated, much like most immigrants from those days. It was important for them to become “Americans”, leaving behind most - though not all - aspects from the “old country.” I lie somewhere between second and third generation Sicilian - Italian, my mother’s side hailing from Naples and Salerno, my father’s side hailing from Sicily. I’ve pretty much got my mother’s side traced back to 1797, from a pretty extensive genealogy that my mother’s cousin had done, which took years. So I’ve been very interested in tracing back my father’s Sicilian side - and I have made significant progress, tracing my paternal grandmother’s family way back to 1710. I still have a long way to go.
In my research, I’ve also read extensively on the history of Sicily in particular, and southern Italy in general. A fascinating history that many - if not most - pre-1960s Italian-American immigrants came from. The majority of what most people learn as “Italian” culture is mostly Rome and north. Much of the culture from the south - the majority of Italian/Sicilian American descendants - is largely untaught and unknown. Books on this are rare but there are a few good one’s out there to help point the way and to make clear the distinct cultural differences and the actual culture in which most Italian-Americans come out of. One writer that I can think of that is helping to bridge this gap is Tom Verso, who regularly writes a blog at I-Italy.org. But generally speaking, books about southern Italian life, culture, arts, etc are few and far between and those that do exist are nearly impossible to obtain or find in your Italian History section at your local bookstore.
This is why I was thrilled to hear about a new book, John Keahey’s “Seeking Sicily: A Cultural Journey Through Myth and Reality in the Heart of the Mediterranean.” It is a very accessible book, something of a cross between a travel narrative and a history book. A pleasure to read. Usually, when I find books like this, they are filled with information that much of the other books have dealt with. Well, you have this here too but Keahey really digs deep and explores the deep cultural roots of Sicily and Sicilians in general - and what he discovers and passes on to the reader is nothing short of astonishing and eye opening. Of particular interest to me is his exploration of Sicily’s Islamic past. The impact of Arab/Berber culture on Sicily cannot be ignored and it was a pleasure to finally read a book that not only acknowledges it but takes pride in it as well. The book also explores the heavy Greek impact on Sicilian culture but it is evident after reading what Keahey had learned himself on his journeys to the island, that it was the Arab/Islamic culture that had the strongest impact on its people - and even acknowledged by the islanders themselves (“We are more north of Africa than we are south of Italy.”)
For those who are interested in Sicilian culture and especially those who are actively seeking their own roots and want to know more about the culture in which their families had come from, this is a must read. It will definitely make you think and it will absolutely make you look at yourself with a different eye and realize that you are descended from a very unique and colorful culture. For history buffs, you also can’t go wrong here. This book is chock full of interesting perspectives on language, genealogy, the origins of particular foods and customs, poetry and literature. Highly recommended.