I have to admit to being somewhat sceptical over what purports to be the Maltese community in Australia and the activities it organises on an annual basis to generate the concept of a Little Malta (can it really be any smaller?) that soothes emotions, fuels passions and perpetrates an identity.
Conversely, many believe it is a way of keeping the community together and maintaining, as well as justifying, a certain national pride. It is a very valid argument, but when it comes to the usual parochial mentalities and absurd piques that permeate Maltese society being trans-located to places like Melbourne and Sydney, I start having serious doubts.
There have been too many familiar instances in the not too distant past when Maltese band clubs, soccer teams, social centres and service agencies, including newspapers, down under split into two or more of the same when a united front is always imperative in the reality of a fast-dwindling ethnic community in such a big place like Australia.
But there are two facades of the Maltese in Australia. There are those rare – and rarer – species that still go about in the city centres wearing cloth caps and checked flannel shirts. They survive in the community that protects them from their obvious linguistic limitations, but it also tries to moth-ball them in cotton wool by organising those very same activities they miss so much when they left the island – the band marches, the festas, the fireworks, the anthems, the statue replicas, the pastizzi, the odd Kinnie and so on.
But is it fair on these people to lead to them believe that they really have not missed anything – or are they being convinced they have never really left, instead of being encouraged to integrate into the more cosmopolitan climate of the big Australian cities?
This is no condemnation. There are Maltese Aussies who are doing a sterling job in that same community and should be commended for their efforts. The purpose of this short piece is merely to delve into the realities that exist, this juxtaposition that sometimes perplexes as much as it reflects on the character of a nation on the go, a people who are always ready to face new challenges without losing touch with their origins.
The second façade is that of the Maltese who simply prefer to switch off, cut the national umbilical cord and throw themselves into the new and exciting society that characterises modern Australia. Some of them quickly merge into it and never reappear anywhere near any red-and-white hues, while others maintain a distant, if prudent, link with the past, refusing to mix genesis with opportunity, nostalgia with present-day scenarios and socialising in half-baked parodies of old village xalati.
There must be a compromise somewhere and indeed there are numerous living examples, as can be seen in the book Maltese Achievers in Australia, a recent publication by Maurice N. Cauchi. Cauchi, a world-renowned pathologist and author, was born in Gharb, Gozo, and spent several years in the UK prior to migrating to Australia in 1969. He was very much involved in migrant issues as chairman of the Education committee, and subsequently as president of the Maltese Community Council of Australia, so he certainly knows what he’s talking about.
Four hundred and thirty-eight packed pages are no joke. Cauchi manages to project a completely different image of the Maltese to that provoked by festa processions and statues carried on the sagging shoulders of Ku Klux Klan look-alikes on the wide pavement of a six-lane boulevard, fireworks let off in the restricted air space between sky-scrapers and band music that sounds so foreign when not played against the quaint and beautiful background of Maltese village cores.
Of course it is easy for someone living away from the whole scene, as is my case, to raise and question the wisdom of exporting the full clout of customs and traditions to such far-flung places in the world. I have discussed the issue with Maltese friends from Australia who visit the island quite frequently and it is no exaggeration to say they have contrasting views on the subject.
They rightly single out the Maltese language as the major unifying factor, though it is becoming less so today as the uncompromising cycle of life claims more and more first-generation Maltese who migrated to Australia in the great exodus of the 1950s and 1960s. The second, third and even fourth generations now find they have either lost it or simply do not have the time for it.
Such realities need to be tackled and analysed in a frank and sober way. A community that finds it needs to re-assert itself in a fast-changing society deserves all the support it can get. However, this does necessarily mean it should be encouraged to concentrate funds on the triviality and brouhaha they may have carried with them in their luggage so many years ago.
It is a very sensitive issue, with obvious political and religious undertones to it. Most of us have had relatives and friends going to Australia and most of us have witnessed the hilarious scene when these same migrants – back here for their holidays – are portrayed as looking down on present-day Maltese as opposed to “locals” thinking of them as walking time-warps who think the world stopped turning when they left these shores.
The playwright Joe Vella Bondin is known to be working on his latest work “Awstralja” which should offer ample examples of this classic situation wherein two sectors of one and the same nation give divergent interpretations of the other side’s social and material progress. I have seen level-headed friends take offence on both sides of the fence – how’s that for rhyming? – and they were only discussing fashion trends and technological prowess.
Much has been written and done in terms of the Malta-Australia syndrome and a lot remains to be seen. The realities at this moment in time, however, demand the focused attention of all those involved. The ageing members of Maltese communities in Melbourne, Sydney and other Australian cities deserve no less at a time when better-run day centres and homes, improved communications and neater financial and insurance services have become a priority over the singing and the feasting.
It is also in these terms that official action should be taken to further instil the awareness that, like it or not, yesteryear’s truths have become today’s bitter realities.