Naples, The Beauty And The Horror

Luigi De Magistris, a left-leaning former prosecutor, was the latest would-be savior for the troubled Italian city. But look around, things in Naples are worse than ever.

Naples' garbage crisis piling up, again
Naples' garbage crisis piling up, again
Andrea Malaguti

“The monastery of Santa Chiara has a dark dark heart, but why, why every evening, do I think of how Naples was, how Naples is.”

NAPLES — Some considered him the “Sun King,” when he was elected in 2011. Luigi De Magistris, the left-wing mayor of both the most beautiful and ugly place on earth, now must manage a city teetering on the brink of economic collapse after the Court of Auditors rejected his 10-year plan to balance Naples' finances.

What happened to the man they thought would be their Messiah? Two and a half years after his election, De Magistris appealed to President of the Republic, Giorgio Napolitano, so that Naples would not be reduced to ruin. Is the end of an era far away?

View of spaccanapoli (c) from Castel Sant'Elmo. Photo by marioriccio via Instagram

“If he wants to know how we are doing, I’ll tell him: we’re like these courtyards,” says Renato Nunziatelli, a middle-aged plumber, adding — “follow me.”

We go to Via Benedetto Croce — known better as spaccanapoli, the street that “splits” the city — to the convent of Santa Chiara, a masterpiece commissioned by King Robert of Anjou, just a few dozen meters away from where the tour buses stop. The walls of the basilica are filthy, covered in blue paint and black soccer-team graffiti. Three steps alongside the church lead to two courtyards.

The first is closed by a gate and inside it are empty cans and plastic bags. This scattering of garbage is in one of the most prestigious dumps on the planet. The stench of urine is unbearable and it’s the same a bit farther up in the alley of San Pietro a Majella. Scooters whiz past, their passengers without helmets, others smoking cigarettes loiter on the sidewalk.

The second courtyard is a haven of oleanders, if you can manage to avoid looking at the empty wine bottles, remains of a DVD, and syringes. A stumbling man climbs out of a bush, swearing. “It’s like the Berlin Zoo here," my guide quips. "The drug addicts come to shoot up.” Welcome to Naples, indeed.

It’s raining now, and water begins to soak the mattress that’s resting on the wall, the dirt washing off the cobblestones and forming pools on the bags that are resting on the dumpsters.

The area is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but Pietro Treccagnoli, a journalist for Il Mattino newspaper, notes that the UN organization may withdraw its sponsorship because of the deepening degradation. "It’d be the first time in history,” says Treccagnoli.

Outside the main train staion. Photo by SpirosK photography via Flickr

It goes without saying that all of this, as much as one can summarize such a complex situation, can’t escape the fault of the mayor. The social fabric is so uneven: Both the poverty and aristocracy follow you from the train station at Piazza Garibaldi up to the highest perch of the city at the Castel Sant’Elmo fortress.

Along the train tracks outside Naples' train station. Photo by 77alis via Instagram

The economist who had been De Magistris' budget commissioner, Riccardo Realfonzo, before resigning in protest, said that the Court of Auditors has done exactly what he'd recommended more than a year ago. “The city is broke.”

Realfonza says the entire public sector needed to be overhauled, with major job cuts and new priorities. "Instead, we’ll have to have the highest taxes on public services in Italy,” he says. Why? The answer that Realfonzo gives is fierce: “Because De Magistris is a character from an operetta. He doesn't know basic arithmetic.”

Photo by Michael Tinkler via Flickr

Former mayoral candidate Roberto Fico is pitiless against the first citizen of the city. “He presented himself as the new era for the city, but has fallen into the old, broken models of Italian politics. There’s a lack of transparency and citizens are uninvolved.”

Photo by chrisjohnbeckett via Flickr

Meanwhile, back at City Hall, De Magistris has said that these have been the most difficult hours since he took office, but he swears that the city will rise again. Two and a half years ago there were 2,500 tons of waste on the streets of this city, but not any more. “We run a city with a half billion euros worth of debt but we still haven’t fired anyone. In truth, that’s not much short of a miracle. But we can’t be held responsible for the previous budget deficit. Get rid of 3,000 people? That would create an uncontrollable social unrest. It won’t happen.”

There are scars on all this city's architecture, but it’s here at Piazza Bellini where the contrast between the absurd and the sublime reaches its apex. A woman points out the inside of the Greek-style walls, a dump for the last millennium.

“The mayor didn’t involve the healthy forces for the city — the world of culture. But, perhaps in this failure the city will be reborn. We are bent, not broken. Naples is immortal and it’s good that you know it now,” concludes Maurizio de Giovanni, a writer.

Not long after, nearby, a boy drops a bottle of beer. The sound of the shattering glass sends a shiver down my spine.

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Iran-Saudi Arabia Rivalry May Be Set To Ease, Or Get Much Worse

The Saudis may be awaiting the outcome of Iran's nuclear talks with the West, to see whether Tehran will moderate its regional policies, or lash out like never before.

Military parade in Tehran, Iran, on Oct. 3


LONDON — The Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said earlier this month that Iranian and Saudi negotiators had so far had four rounds of "continuous" talks, though both sides had agreed to keep them private. The talks are to ease fraught relations between Iran's radical Shia regime and the Saudi kingdom, a key Western ally in the Middle East.

Iran's Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian has said that the talks were going in the right direction, while an Iranian trade official was recently hopeful these might even allow trade opportunities for Iranian businessmen in Saudi Arabia. As the broadcaster France 24 observed separately, it will take more than positive signals to heal a five-year-rift and decades of mutual suspicions.

Agence France-Presse news agency, meanwhile, has cited an unnamed French diplomat as saying that Saudi Arabia wants to end its costly discord with Tehran. The sides may already have agreed to reopen consular offices. For Saudi Arabia, the costs include its war on Iran-backed Houthis rebels fighting an UN-recognized government in next-door Yemen.

The role of the nuclear pact

Bilateral relations were severed in January 2016, after regime militiamen stormed the Saudi embassy in Tehran. Amirabdollahian was then the deputy foreign minister for Arab affairs. In 2019, he told the website Iranian Diplomacy that Saudi Arabia had taken measures vis-a-vis Iran's nuclear pact with the world powers.

It's unlikely Ali Khamenei will tolerate the Saudi kingdom's rising power in the region.

He said "the Saudis' insane conduct toward [the pact] led them to conclude that they must prevent [its implementation] in a peaceful environment ... I think the Saudis are quite deluded, and their delusion consists in thinking that Trump is an opportunity for them to place themselves on the path of conflict with the Islamic Republic while relying on Trump." He meant the administration led by the U.S. President Donald J.Trump, which was hostile to Iran's regime. This, he said, "is not how we view Saudi Arabia. I think Yemen should have been a big lesson for the Saudis."

The minister was effectively admitting the Houthis were the Islamic Republic's tool for getting back at Saudi Arabia.

Yet in the past two years, both sides have taken steps to improve relations, without firm results as yet. Nor is the situation likely to change this time.

Photo of Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in 2020

Riyadh's warming relations with Israel

Iran's former ambassador in Lebanon, Ahmad Dastmalchian, told the ILNA news agency in Tehran that Saudi Arabia is doing Israel's bidding in the region, and has "entrusted its national security, and life and death to Tel Aviv." Riyadh, he said, had been financing a good many "security and political projects in the region," or acting as a "logistical supplier."

The United States, said Dastmalchian, has "in turn tried to provide intelligence and security backing, while Israel has simply followed its own interests in all this."

Furthermore, it seems unlikely Iran's Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will tolerate, even in this weak period of his leadership, the kingdom's rising power in the region and beyond, and especially its financial clout. He is usually disparaging when he speaks of Riyadh's princely rulers. In 2017, he compared them to "dairy cows," saying, "the idiots think that by giving money and aid, they can attract the goodwill of Islam's enemies."

Iranian regime officials are hopeful of moving toward better diplomatic ties and a reopening of embassies. Yet the balance of power between the sides began to change in Riyadh's favor years ago. For the kingdom's power has shifted from relying mostly on arms, to economic and political clout. The countries might have had peaceful relations before in considerably quieter, and more equitable, conditions than today's acute clash of interests.

For if nuclear talks break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive.

Beyond this, the Abraham Accord or reconciliation of Arab states and Israel has been possible thanks to the green light that the Saudis gave their regional partners, and it is a considerable political and ideological defeat for the Islamic Republic.

Assuming all Houthis follow Tehran's instructions — and they may not — improved ties may curb attacks on Saudi interests and aid its economy. Tehran will also benefit from no longer having to support them. Unlike Iran's regime, the Saudis are not pressed for cash or resources and could even offer the Houthis a better deal. Presently, they may consider it more convenient to keep the softer approach toward Tehran.

For if nuclear talks with the West break down, Iran's regime may become more aggressive, and as experience has shown, tensions often prompt a renewal of missile or drone attacks on the Saudis, on tankers and on foreign shipping. Riyadh must have a way of keeping the Tehran regime quiet, in a distinctly unquiet time.

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