The Malta Independent 24 September 2021, Friday

Introducing Malta: A City State, complete and fragile

Oliver Friggieri Monday, 22 June 2015, 15:08 Last update: about 7 years ago

An introduction to the island

The newcomer can immediately discover the real essence of that stretch of land permanently lurking alone, in apparent oblivion of all, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea: that rock is equally small and complete. It has consistently attracted the attention of numerous powerful nations, and some of them also managed to fall in love with it. Eventually, they all left their indelible mark on its character, and this has gradually grown into one complex phenomenon; all its historical phases tell a different story, but lead to one substantial conclusion: assimilation. That is how history has been equally benevolent and despotic with the place. Since Malta is also a prominent tourist resort in the region, it boasts of its past as it seeks to justify its pretensions according to the demands of the present. The British connection, strong and fruitful, is particularly significant in this respect.

A very rich history has contributed to make Malta a prominent spot for whoever wants to discover the uniqueness of living on an island, and to get the special feeling of experiencing a country where past and present habitually go hand in hand. The most diverse historical eras do so through conviction as well as convenience, at times peacefully and naturally, at others with difficulty and in defiance of all the other attractions of postmodernism. The perennial dispute between the immobility of the past and the velocity of the present is an aspect which greatly explains what life in Malta implies. Indeed, given its limited space, Malta has to make exceptional efforts to survive as well as to keep in touch with the outer world, infinitely bigger and enormously different. But that is what makes Malta a fascinating story to narrate. I have tried to provide a modern interpretation of the island's dual personality in the novel Fil-Parlament ma Jikbrux Fjuri (No Flowers Grow in Parliament), first published in 1986, when the conflict between Dom Mintoff and Eddie Fenech Adami reached extremely dangerous heights. Political tension of a partisan nature is a constant in the island's modern way of life. Its causes go well beyond seasonal controversies, as the novel seeks to identify and illustrate.

Never has the country been self-sufficient, as no other country is, but an innate passion for initiative has kept the world moving, whatever the circumstances. A small national community, which also includes huge thousands of migrants spread throughout the world, has managed to build itself into what it is now a state enjoying recognition worldwide. Three tiny islands, Malta, Gozo and Comino, as well as some islets form the Maltese archipelago, about 100 kilometres from Sicily. The distance from North Africa is 288km. The whole area, known as Malta, is about 246 kilometres. The longest distance is about 27km, and the widest is 14km. Numerous harbours, low hills and sandy beaches characterise the place.

Valletta is the capital city, as well as an important commercial centre, characterised by a number of harbours, the main one being Grand Harbour, the site of numerous historical events. The archaeological patrimony is about 7000 years old. Malta is most known for its megalithic temples, the oldest free standing stone buildings in the world. The Hypogeum is an early document of the real definition of Malta: the fusion of culture and religion. The cart tracks, commonly assigned to the Bronze Age, are a unique aspect of the historical character of the island.

The identity of early Malta has been shaped by the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians, and the Romans. St Paul was shipwrecked in Malta in 60 AD, as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. This has given birth to the strong uninterrupted Christian tradition of the island, the main cause of what has subsequently constituted its complex identity. Archaeology and the 'spoken' Maltese language must be the oldest, perhaps the only, archives of a tiny, submissive community, already building itself into a nation, namely a people identified through common descent, history and language. The Arabs ruled Malta between 870 and 1090, succeeded by the Normans and then by the Order of St John. This period denotes a decisive phase in the formation of Malta's cultural identity: Christianity, Semitic language, Latin culture.  

The Knights of Malta left a rich architectural heritage scattered throughout the place. In 1798 Napoleon invaded Malta and forced the Order to leave. The uprising of the Maltese against their French occupants led to the British blockade. They asked for British protection in 1802. Malta was annexed to Britain under the Treaty of Paris in 1814. It attained Independence from Britain in 1964, and in 1974 became a republic. The British Military Base was definitely closed down in 1979.

The history of the island closely reflects the historical evolution of Europe. Malta has consistently absorbed all influences coming from outside, moulding them according to its own nature. This gave room to the formation of a unique identity equally typical of the region and distinctive. Religion, language and domination have all contributed to the formation of its character. The most intriguing example of this is the language spoken by the community, now enjoying full prominence at all levels. Maltese goes back to the Arabic period (870-1090). It is the only national tongue in Europe belonging to the Semitic family that is written in the Latin script. Together with English it is also an official language of Malta. 


The discovery of roots

Colonialism has left an indelible mark on Malta. However, political emancipation has provided the people with the full rights enjoyed by any democracy. The old man still lingers on in the Maltese, but they have to come to terms with themselves and to realise that they are politically new, namely free after so long. Contemporary life demands development of all sorts. Where is national dignity actually to be found, and what is it made up of? Can the past and the present go hand-in-hand together?

The island's heritage is essentially embodied in stone, and the inhabitants had to be builders of some sort. Navigation gave way to construction. Maltese history recognises its prehistorical birth in ritual, and since then it seems that the islanders have not changed substantially. Their attitude towards their heritage in stone is still ritual. Churches are built with the same facility as villas. A church may resemble a villa, and vice-versa. It is not only useful but also symbolical; so is a Maltese house. It is equally an abode and a solid image of the inhabitant.

Different cultures have produced specific psychological traits, especially an unquenchable thirst for the new. The major eras, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Spanish, Arab, Norman, French, British, illustrate submission to superior forces and the gradual formation of an indigenous identity through assimilation and adaptation. The Maltese character has been moulded by foreign dominations.

The Maltese language is the most characteristic feature of the local community. As a mixed medium of expression it exemplifies what Malta has gone through for a very long time. Cantilena, the earliest written document in Maltese (mid-15th century), is an essentially religious allegorical poem, an example of the unique fusion between an Arabic form (language) and a Christian content (the Gospel). Since the Norman Conquest, Maltese has been widely exposed to non-Arabic influences. What happened to the language is indicative of the complex process pervading the whole of Maltese reality. The main source of development for Maltese today is English. New words are easily adapted to the indigenous Semitic patterns to express added needs. 


The existential islander

The precariousness of islanders is the fundamental theme from which all variations may emanate. The Maltese have always lived on the cutting edge and their nature has been moulded by a persistent accumulation of civilisations. In a character there has to be a fusion of influences, all contributing to the formation of a specific Mediterranean type. The inhabitants of Malta are strongly aware of being born on a tiny land and take pride in being stubborn survivors, defying time, absorbing the lessons of time. That makes them equally resolute and undecided. Invasions and occupations have indeed transformed such islanders into crusaders in search of a promised land which must ultimately be somewhere within.

An island like Malta primarily embodies antiquity. It has to be that in a modern way. A paradox is thus meant to be lived, and eventually transcended. The dualism is inherent in all this, and various parallel manifestations of it can be identified: God is timeless, and history conveys that sense through the transience of time; the land, which is limited, faces the sea, which looks infinite; the self is supposedly known, whereas otherness (what lies beyond the visible ocean) is unpredictable. Such outsiders may not be  existentialists, but they are definitely political, historical, deeply rooted somewhere in the middle of the Mediterranean where Malta stands as a sort of meeting place, a spiritual hub, a timeless roundabout. Such a frontier country cannot be understood if not in terms of what is a sort of precariousness.


The formation of nationhood

Certain factors have forcefully contributed to the definition of Malta, at least that Malta which is immediately identifiable in terms of its objective characteristics, namely the unique geographical position midway between two distinct continents, the long colonial experience, the mixed character of its history and culture, the strong and uninterrupted religious tradition which is as old as its ancient stone constructions. All this is contained within a very tiny space, which is also complete. Smallness and entirety: the paradox sums up the real essence of the Republic of Malta, a British colony which peacefully and respectfully attained Independence as if it were the natural result of a long historical process. The Anglo-Maltese relationship is quite positive and unique.         

Scholars as well as politicians have long identified what makes such a tiny stretch of land a nation, and eventually an autonomous state, as any other. Its smallness is already an indication of something exceptional which has managed to stand the test of time, to outwit the dictates of history and to finally arrive at the point which defines a nation as fully accomplished. The fact that Malta is now the tiniest member of the European Union is a significant indication of the persistency with which the Maltese have traditionally stuck to the conviction that their nationhood should be finally rewarded by all. That is Malta, the ancient nation gradually emerging into a modern state.


The Maltese inhabitants

But what about the inhabitants, the Maltese, those few thousands of people who have persistently built themselves up into what they are today? Survival has been the main challenge, and continuity is the sort of process which made them reach their point of destination. A history of Malta may be substantially distinct from a history of the Maltese. The land and the inhabitants: they are or have been for quite a long time, historically speaking, two diverse entities, since history has put the people in a situation where they had to spend most of their life asking who they were, what right they actually had to exist, what sort of relationship could be the most convenient for them to establish with their foreign landlords.

Religion and language have actually shaped their condition, and both are intimately intertwined in a manner rarely found in the chronicles of much bigger countries which did not have to face the most elementary of problems: survival. The challenge of overcoming extinction went hand in hand with striving to construct nationhood, to keep alive that degree of ethnic coherence which is necessary for a community to be defined as unique and compact. For a long time it all seemed to be important to guarantee existence at least in terms of the primeval notion of common social conviviality. In any case, whichever the complex implications of such premises, one can safely consider Malta as a very old nation, endowed with a civilisation of at least 7,000 uninterrupted years. Being Maltese, therefore, is equally a source of profound pride and a question of self-investigation. The fundamental issue beckons: what does it actually mean to be able to survive and to define yourself as Maltese in the process?


The land-sea relationship

The central point is the reality of someone living on a land surrounded by sea. The land is tiny, and the sea is infinite; both contradict the inhabitant's sense of space and preciseness. An island is thus seen as an open secret, an exception to the rule of the much wider spaces, a peculiar reality worth exploring which is  quite different, perhaps more intriguing and inspiring, from the one which a visitor can get on the mainland, the so-called 'terra ferma'. In the specific case of Malta, things are perhaps much more engaging. Here a whole continent has its boundary. The periphery begets a special feeling.

This is the essential list of elements constituting this unique exception, a diminutive island which is equally a city and a nation, a geographical dot and a formidable fortress of history, standing midway between two continents, belonging to the south of Europe and so close to North Africa, looking very far ahead from itself. The Roman and the British experiences are the ones which best explain how a small colony could fully exploit its belonging to such great empires. 


Archaeological evidence

Archaeological evidence in Malta goes back 7,000 years. Here are the oldest free standing stone buildings in the world. Its megalithic temples are a marvel, the earliest "churches" which actually established the major feature of Maltese identity: the unity between religious faith and national culture. Both have uninterruptedly flourished together in partial isolation, indeed a splendid one which has not deprived any of what is essential and common to any other anywhere else. It then had to be St Paul, shipwrecked on the island in 60 AD, to give a different and much more distinctive shape to that pre-existing conviction that heaven and earth must meet somewhere in the human soul, if both are to be understood. They do meet in the Maltese spirit, and that is quite interesting for anybody who would like to look at Malta from the inside. The inner aspect of the island resembles an unlocked mystery, whereas the outer one seems to exemplify just another segment of the complexity of the south. Regionality provides a complete definition of a country.

Either directly or in disguise, from festivity to cuisine, that connection is always there. It has caused much joy to the Maltese, and it has sometimes heightened their bitter conflicts, but never to disagreeable degrees. Maltese conflicts somehow reach a point and then come to a halt so as to calm down and lead back to normality. The Church-State encounters normally illustrated this tendency. Life on an island must in any case look like a family event, an unpredictable story in itself which must then have an agreeable point of arrival. Celebrations of any sort are frequent, church village festas are a continuous occurrence, whereas politics is indeed an entertainingly controversial commitment to most inhabitants. When all these ingredients are put together, the product must be contextualised isolation.


A special breed

Islanders are a special breed. They tend to be inward looking and yet are always in search of the outer world. Tourism, Malta's major industry, depends largely on the hospitality of the average people. The Maltese instinctively greet foreigners and go out of their way to make them feel at home during their stay. That verdict is unanimous and the Maltese trace this virtue back to biblical times (Acts of the Apostles, 28:1). In actual fact, this may be due to what seems to make the Maltese consistent in their feeling about themselves and the universe at large: the entrenched feeling of duality, namely a world view inevitably divisible into two, 'the self' and 'the other'.

The major political parties have, for many decades, shared power and support between themselves. Most Maltese belong to 'their' party from their early years, since 'belonging' is equivalent to 'being'. One is born within a group, and different choices can only be made within that decisive perspective. Islanders cannot afford to be capriciously exposed to the whims of the other. And 'the other' is the sea, that huge expanse larger than oneself, different and challenging. It recalls the past, when sieges have occurred, and it ushers in the future, when the wide world comes closer with its dictates.


The Maltese Identity

The Maltese are quite proud of their identity and therefore they will not find it very difficult to recognise the more important truth that their political party only constitutes a half, and that the sense of incompleteness must be overcome. There they are: partisan in all respects, critical of the opposing party, and yet ready to acknowledge that they are all survivors. Otherness, as represented by the opposite group, is necessary for the islanders to be sure of their completeness. Being foreign is not what it is in a different context, namely where the sea is not so close and does not constitute a boundary. Hence the Maltese are tied to the sea as much as to the fields. To many it is equally necessary to own a car as well as a boat.

      Much of the pride of the Maltese is derived from their profound attachment to the land and from the fact that they have an ancient language which they all speak and which enjoys, though belatedly, all the normal constitutional and academic recognition due to any other national tongue.  Maltese has been also recognised as one of the European Union's official languages. Another stage in the process of modernised isolation is normalisation. That only involves the adoption of international criteria.

The fact that the Maltese tend to be divisive on most issues is only indicative of their need to discover otherness. They are aware that the ocean is a wall, and the land a sort of open harbour. The fortress image which Malta had for so long has been assimilated as part of the people's mental apparatus.  But even this is partly elusive since things, ideas and people in Malta must be conceived in terms of whom they belong to. Such an illusion is necessary, a sign of the times, indicating an urge which is fast gaining ground among the younger generation, even though the traditional structure will still be there for a long time to come. The predominance of the genitive case in surnames and nicknames is, for instance, only an indication of a profounder characteristic of the islander: immobility.


The attainment of Independence

An island of this sort is quite unique: exceptionally small and remarkably rich in culture and traditions, an age-long colony which in the past few decades has managed to rebuild itself psychologically and structurally. The process of self-reconstruction goes on, assuming a different nature as times change and as globalisation takes its toll on whatever survives and flourishes through relative isolation. There came the need, throughout the 20th century, for Malta to rediscover itself, to evaluate its heritage and to present it to the outer world. There lies its justification for being accepted in all normal terms within the European family of nations. The fact that such an island has built itself into a state is indicative of the great amount of self-confidence the inhabitants have always had in their homeland and in themselves. The territory as well as the mental frame are closely related to each other in the average life of islanders, especially so when the island is tiny. Tourism has turned self-recognition into an economical opportunity. As this industry assumes greater importance, it becomes more obvious that an island can only survive by going on being itself: its future somehow resides in its past.

The Maltese character must embody a compromise between various foreign sources of influence, equally economical and cultural. Finally, during the British period the tiny community was in a position to decide for itself. It was a long and weary way, during which culture was enriched, and morale wandered through varying degrees. It is indeed remarkable that Britain and Malta have always had excellent relations; the peaceful attainment of Independence  is itself the most glaring example of this fact.

Malta, the southernmost part of the south (about 100 kilometres south of Sicily), an epitome of Mediterranean culture, a point of reference to the whole history of the region, the abode of a well meaning people, an ex-colony of the British Empire, an independent state within the European Union: it is indeed a long story with a happy ending.  

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