The Malta Independent 16 July 2018, Monday

This is not about racism. It’s about ħamallaġni.

Daphne Caruana Galizia Sunday, 5 July 2015, 14:00 Last update: about 4 years ago

After I wrote my column for The Malta Independent last Thursday, in which I joined the chorus of condemnation of what was done to Daboma Jack, I set to thinking about it a little more and realised that this is really not about racism at all. It is about ħamallaġni. That is not to say that the sentiments driving those actions are not racist. Of course they are. But the cause and reason for those scenes was not racism. It was the perennial Maltese affliction of ħamallaġni.

If we keep on framing the attack on Daboma Jack, the clapping of bystanders, the behaviour of police, in terms of racism, we will avoid dealing with the real cause of the problem: Maltese people are in the main ħamalli. Too many people here make the mistake of taking that word to be a reference to social class or, as the pollsters would have it, socio-economic group. But it is not. It is a reference to behaviour and cultural attitudes that are rooted in sheer, unutterable ignorance and failure to be exposed to anything outside their own small world of near-savagery.

I know several racists of my own kind. I think there are probably more racists among so-called tal-pepe society than there are racist ħamalli. People who have little or no exposure to that part of Maltese society find this hard to believe. Civilised, well-mannered, supposedly educated people (in reality, most of them left school at 15 or 16, which was completely the norm) are racists? I don’t like to shatter any illusions, but yes, they are the most dreadful racists.

Tal-pepe people tend to be extremely right-wing and very suspicious of, in this order, Muslims, blacks and gay men (gay women are fine, because tal-pepe men think it’s kinky, not disgusting). They are also very patronising to women in general. Why else do you imagine Manuel Mallia was so popular among that part of the electorate? He is not popular now, not after those scenes with the driver and the gun and the babysitter in Gzira. Now, they have him down as yet another ħamallu. “How wrong we were to think he was one of us.”

My point here is that if the people massed in that bus terminus queue had been mainly tal-pepe types instead of mainly ħamalli, none of this would have happened. They would have been waiting in an orderly line, the women fanning themselves with pieces of paper and the men exchanging small talk about business, politics and the weather, so Daboma Jack would have had no need to explain the principles of queuing. Good manners would also have overcome their fear and suspicion of black foreigners and they would have engaged in some form of time-passing conversation with him. Or rather, the women would have engaged his wife on the subject of their baby.

In the unlikely event that they would have been milling around in the heat, forming a crush rather than a queue, with Daboma Jack suggesting that they get in line, what would have happened? Some ex-military (not the AFM)-cum-business (not a boutique in Birkirkara)-cum-Maltese public school types would have joined him in clapping everyone into a series of short queues, their generalised racist views unchanged but not particularised to the individual in their company. There would have most definitely been no spitting, slapping or shouting, and anybody who even remotely tried that would have been subjected to embarrassed mutterings of ‘Shame’ and ‘Għarukaża’ – not because the victim was black, but because the perpetrator had let the side down, let herself down, by spitting at all, regardless of who or what the victim was.

The scenes at the bus terminus a few days ago were not the behaviour of racists, but the behaviour of ħamalli. That the ħamalli also happened to be racists and that it was racist sentiments which gave them the excuse for giving vent to yet another bout of ħamallaġni is almost incidental. I too have been spat at and assaulted by people like that, which is why I sympathise with Daboma Jack and can understand his disbelief. He has to know that it is not racism which does it, but sheer ħamallaġni. If he were a Maltese woman who writes about their favourite political party and their favourite politicians, and against whom public sentiment is whipped up by that same political party and its television and radio stations and newspapers, exactly the same thing would have happened, in the way it has happened to me. On a couple of occasions some years ago, I had to walk into a Valletta café to literally wash some ħamallu’s revolting spit off me. The main difference is that the police wouldn’t have wrestled him to the ground for a wide variety of reasons, even though they might have wanted to, and to deliver a few kicks in the process too. They would have known it instantly to be a very bad idea.

I am not a black man but a little over two years ago I was subjected to a far worse assault by a small mob of ħamalli at the feast of St Joseph in Rabat. This was just a week after the general election and mob fever was still running high. It was so bad that the priests at the convent nearby pulled me and two others inside and slammed the door shut against them. They carried on baying outside: “Oħorġuha minn hemm.” The ring-leaders were the Labour mayor of Zurrieq - Ignatius Farrugia, the woman who runs the bar at the Rabat Labour Party club - Maria Vassallo, and her daughter. I was fortunate in that, when the police were called and I filed a report, unlike Toni Abela I didn’t find any pulizija Laburisti. If I had, they wouldn’t have pounced on me and arrested me, but they certainly would have protected the perpetrators, who were ‘their own’. The mayor of Zurrieq and the two Vassallos were prosecuted, found guilty, and fined a total of €7,500 between them. We forget that Cyrus Engerer is not the first Labour politician with a criminal conviction for harassment. The mayor of Zurrieq got there before him.

Did the mayor of Zurrieq, his friends from the Labour Party club bar, and their small mob of agitators attack me because they are against freedom of speech and freedom of association (and the freedom to walk around in public among people who don’t agree with you)? No, they attacked me and then stood baying for blood at the convent door because they are ħamalli. The fact that they do not understand freedom of speech, or the free press, is incidental. Plenty of tal-pepe people can’t stand my guts and really can’t understand what I write or why I write it. But they do not harass me in the street, shout insults at me in public (they might tear me to shreds in their kitchens instead) or incite a mob attack on me. Would, say, Martin Scicluna spit at me and slap me when we next bump into each other? Of course not; the most he will do is write another bitchy column. And the most I will do is give him my back.

The fundamental problem that needs to be addressed is not racism; it’s ħamallaġni. People can espouse all the racist sentiments they please and if they keep these sentiments to themselves and behave with good manners, who cares. Conversely, ħamalli can be non-racist but their ħamallaġni will emerge in other ways. Ignatius Farrugia is a case in point. They will find other reasons to behave intolerably – politics, for instance, or football, or festi or disagreement with other people’s opinions. If the Minister for Civil Liberties wants to change Maltese society, she has to start by tackling the gross ħamallaġni that makes Maltese life so unbearable most of the time. But she’s not going to be able to do that with Ronnie Pellegrini in her office.


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