Gennaio 3, 2022

Queuing by number in an unequal waiting regime

By Ayşe Şanlı


The tourism posters for Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalù and Monreale  – UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites in Cefalù, Sicily. Photo courtesy of the author (2021).


The European ‘migration crisis’ often makes the headlines with what is happening on border zones, such as Turkey-Greece, Libya-Italy, and more recently Belarus-Poland. Such media coverage has constructed the popular imaginary of suffering immigrants at the border or in detention camps. Yet, borders and bordering practices also exist in everyday life where immigrants encounter “locals.”


Palermo is the regional capital of the island of Sicily. It is a popular tourist destination for its UNESCO “world heritage sites” known for the visible Arab-Norman influence. This multicultural heritage on the island has been a tool to justify and promote the city as “immigrant-friendly.” The current mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, has continuously challenged the anti-immigrant regulations and populist discourses. For instance, when Salvini’s right-wing populist government attempted to close Italy’s ports to migrant rescue boats, Orlando subverted this decision by declaring Palermo as a ‘safe port’ for immigrants. My conversations with local Sicilians further suggested that some of them perceived the recent influx of immigrants more as a part of the long history of migration on the island than an exceptional situation. This banality of migration helped produce the image of Sicily as a morally superior place compared to the “North,” both within Italy and in Europe more generally. Sicily is indeed a multicultural place, most notably in its architecture, cuisine, language, as well as other components of “Sicilian culture”. However, this immigrant-friendly image is confounded when juxtaposed with the immigrants’ quotidian experiences along with other dwellers in the city.

In September 2021, I moved to Palermo as a visiting PhD student. One of the first things I was told by Italians and non-Italians alike was that waiting in line would become an integral part of my life as a new arrival. People told me that the bureaucracy was so messy that I should get used to waiting in long queues and visiting the offices multiple times for any paperwork, even with an appointment. Some friends even commented, “I can imagine things are more disorganized in Sicily.” Knowing that Italy is famous for its bureaucratic inefficiency in general, I thought such a remark noting Sicily’s “worse” situation must stem from stereotypes of the Italian mezzogiorno (southern Italy).


One October morning, I went to an ASP branch (Azienda Sanitaria Provinciale or Provincial Health Authority) to figure out some paperwork for registering into the Italian public healthcare system. It was around 10 AM. The main gate seemed closed, and there were quite a lot of people waiting outside, both with and without face masks. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the ASP decided to decrease the volume of the crowd indoors. Instead, people waited outside and were notified to enter in groups of five at a time. I asked the woman holding the list with people’s surnames to add mine and then sat at a corner to await my turn. My surname was listed as the 98th and people with the surnames in the 30s were still waiting to enter. Looking around, I noticed several people who looked like “foreigners” waiting there among other “Italians.”


At some point, two young men, probably from a South Asian background, arrived. It turned out that their names were already crossed off. They nevertheless attempted to enter the ASP. The anger of the crowd, directed at the institution so far, suddenly redirected towards the young men. Amongst several sentences in a heavily Sicilian dialect, I could pick up one particularly impatient man’s words (I’ll name him Totò for the rest of the story). He stood in front of the guys and said in an arrogant manner: “This is Sicily; we are all equal here.” He was most likely implying that people are not equal in whichever country they are from – an abrasively white supremacist comment. “You missed your turn; you cannot enter now.” After some back-and-forth, the two men left without managing to enter the ASP.


As time passed, the remaining crowd was tired but dedicated to wait for their turns. Totò was hastily going over the names on the list to see anyone left and to cross off the names. It did not take too long for me to realize he was going especially after foreign surnames, including my Turkish surname. At around 1 PM, half an hour before the closure of the ASP, an Italian woman who missed her turn showed up. The security person at the gate initially said: “No, you cannot cut into the line.” After the woman’s insistence, he compromised: “You should ask for permission from the others.” The woman said that she was there to bring her child. Totò, still waiting impatiently, talked to the woman in a surprisingly kind manner and helped her cut in the line. I asked myself why Totò acted completely different this time. Was it because she was a woman, was it because she had a child, or was it because she was a white Italian?


Around 1:20 PM, there were six people remaining outside. In a momentary absence of the security person, Totò took the advantage, opened the gate, and snuck in with another Italian man. The remaining people, including me, did not. At 1:28 PM, the security guy came and told us: “Sorry, we are closed. Come back tomorrow.” I argued back that I have been waiting for three hours and people cut into the line. He responded, “Well, why didn’t you just sneak in with them?” Taken aback, I replied, “I was waiting for my turn. This is ridiculous!” He replied indifferently, “Yes, it is ridiculous.” In the end, I gave up and left.


Queuing by number seems to be an equal system and is widely used by public institutions and service sectors. However, this anecdote demonstrates how institutional racism starts even before the complex bureaucratic processes of inclusion and exclusion that immigrants encounter. In this case, the border, exercised by some white citizens and with the complicity of the gatekeeper, is rooted in the perceptions of entitlement vis-à-vis the immigrants. I do not intend to generalize Totò’s attitude to all local Palermitans. However, the experience of queuing, in which foreign names were easily dismissed, overshadowed the humanitarian considerations of Palermo’s renowned migrant-friendliness. Is everyone really equal here, as Totò claimed? Or perhaps, as George Orwell’s famously remarked: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”



Ayşe Şanlı is a PhD student in Anthropology at Brown University. Her doctoral research explores migrants’ daily material practices in Sicily, Italy, and the politics of border-making within the broader context of the ‘refugee crisis’ in the Mediterranean. She is interested in the intersections of migration, materiality and material culture, borders, and (il)legality. 

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