He escorted me to a chair in a very African fashion, as if I was about to drive away, and was he was graciously accompanying me to my car.
We fell into a familiar pattern and spoke in the ritual fashion of reporter and government official for nearly a half hour. I felt quite naked without a pen and pad, but then remembered that I had been summoned here on a personal whim, and not on an official impulse. Charles spoke a great deal about the political strength of the government, and then, surprisingly, its weaknesses, being careful to never mention the president during the course of his analyses.
He did this without emotion, as if we were two doctors in consultation discussing a patient’s infection which could, if not properly treated, lead to death. He was careful not to be too gloomy in his prognosis. But it was apparent from my questions that he viewed both possibilities – continued life or death – as equally possible. He was not a prophet. He did not know if one day he would be the ruler’s successor (a persistent rumor) or dangle stripped and beaten from a tree. But he smiled his ubiquitous Ono smile throughout, as expansive as his upland home with its wandering marabouts with their bags of amulets, spells, incantations, for everything from cancer to a tooth ache. Here he was, this Christian functionary, praying toward Mecca.
Then he did something that was unexpected even for the intimate tone which he had set for this meeting: he took both my hands and pulled them toward him, as if to close them over his heart.
Again, it was an African gesture, but in this room, as a Westerner and African spoke technically of politics and war, it was not appropriate. As gently as I could, I extracted my hands. But this did not detract from the unruly emotions that were governing him. Large tears formed in his eyes (although they did not fall). And he pressed his own hands to his chest, as if to substitute them for mine.
“But you are Sicilian,” he said, and then quickly, to correct himself. “… I mean of Sicilian ancestry. Mr. Servi. You must understand us. Your ancestors were Muslims. Palermo was called ‘The City of A Thousand Mosques,’ and I do not think such a number was oriental hyperbole. Your ancestors worshiped God in those magnificent mosques. And then the country was conquered and colonized, just like ours. Just as our nation was created by an external power – so was Sicily. And now we are forced to govern what others created. Did you know that our colonial power divided the country into districts, to promote fractiousness which was there already, and make it worse? It is the tried and true strategy of the conqueror, is it not? We must rule people of diverse religions, languages, customs, all as a legacy of what this power imposed onto us.”
I explained to him, politely, that the political legacy of Sicily and his country were not co-equal, but he shook he head emphatically while I spoke, and when I concluded he took my hand once again, not to press it to his heart, but only to squeeze it for emphasis from some secret origin.
“You must come north then, with me. I see that you do not understand. With your perceptive dissertation, I imagined you would. But sometimes the mind and heart move on different tracks. It takes experience to bring them together. The Qu’ran says ‘Our hearts are covered…’ So you must come with me. I am leaving tomorrow to speak at a school near the northern border. Due to the war,” and here he used that banned word, “it is forbidden for reporters to travel there, but I can secure permission, and of course insure your safety. I will protect you as a father does a son,” and he pumped my hand repeatedly. I said yes, I suppose, although I have no conscious remembrance of doing so.