Blessed are the Papermakers
July 05, 2005
On our last day in Palermo, we walked as far as our feet would bear: from our hotel down to the marionette museum (alas, closed, despite what our guide book had predicted), past the beautiful twelfth-century church of St. Francis of Assisi (which we couldn't enter; a wedding was in progress), through a densely-packed street market where pyramids of glistening eggplants vied for space with t-shirt stalls decked in the pink-and-black of Palermo's football club. In a warren of tiny curving alleys -- the kind we'd seen all over Sicily, though these were harder than usual to navigate, on account of being torn up by construction -- we ran across a baffling street sign:
Neither my patchy Italian nor my badly-rusted Latin offered a match for cartari (my best guess was that it meant "map-makers") and I couldn't fathom why this sign, unlike all the others we'd seen, was trilingual. What had we stumbled upon? Was this tiny lane relevant to the Jewish history of Palermo, or its time under Arab rule? Did it have Abrahamic religious significance? We peered around the cement blocks and piles of rubble, but couldn't pick our way further down the street; we turned around and wandered elsewhere, the sign defined by its inscrutability, like a koan.
Of course, being me, I couldn't let the koan stand unresolved. A thorough googling, once I got home, yielded a bed-and-breakfast called Ai Cartari, in the neighborhood we were rambling around that day, housed in "an ancient building in which paper was made." Papermakers must be the cartari in question, and the narrow alleyway we stumbled across must lead to where they once worked -- now a hotel. But I still can't explain the existence of the Hebrew (cartari is transliterated, not translated) nor the Arabic (which I can't read; is it a transliteration, too?) Blessed are the papermakers, for their street will spawn contemplation for centuries to come.
By the by, my favorite 100 or so photos from the Sicily trip are online here. I appear only as an absence (hey, they're my pictures -- I was behind the camera), but I hope you enjoy.