The Malta Independent 14 April 2021, Wednesday


Charles Flores Sunday, 21 March 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 26 days ago

The babbling, ruffled-haired figure of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has come out strongly against Britain returning the Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, to their rightful owners - Greece and its people. He did so while saying he appreciates the feelings of the Greek people, but the marbles were "legally acquired" and are rightfully owned by the British Museum.

Johnson insisted the UK government "has a firm longstanding position" on the magnificent, 2,500-year-old marble sculptures which is "that they were legally acquired by Lord Elgin under the appropriate laws of the time". More predictable than that he could hardly be, given the issue has been rumbling for many decades with every British Prime Minister parroting the same old excuse.


The sculptures were removed from the Acropolis in Athens more than 200 years ago with Lord Elgin later claiming to have obtained, in 1801, an official decree from the central government of the Ottoman Empire, which at that time ruled Greece. As if the Turks at that moment of superiority would have given a hoot over Greek culture. Funnily enough, the document, known as a firman, has never been found in the Ottoman archives and its veracity is rightly disputed. Any wonder the Greeks still fume over this theft and the illegal tactics used to take the marbles away from their original place? The Greeks, long backed by the EU in its dispute with the UK, could have finally cracked it when Unesco offered, in 2014, to mediate between the two nations to help resolve the issue, but the offer was turned down by the British Museum, crammed as it is with other precious objects looted during the colonial era, on the hollow basis that the UN organisation deals with government bodies, not trustees of museums.

It is acknowledged that all major museums in Europe, tourist attractions annually pumping millions into the national coffers, are filled with colonial "acquisitions" and whenever the original owners, seeking to reclaim parts of their national heritage, made strong demands, they were either ignored or appeased by the symbolic return of some insignificant pieces.

Even for tiny Malta to have Grandmaster Jean de Valette's exquisite dagger taken out of its covert, dust-filled corner in the Louvre, and publicly and proudly displayed for a few months among the Maltese population, which once owned it, it had to be on condition it was returned. Just out of curiosity, or pure naiveté, I remember asking at the time whether it would have been alright to organise a polite heist and making it disappear, the way Napoleon's soldiers had after all taken it out with many other priceless items. Needless to say, I didn't even get a Mon Dieu in retort and the Maltese authorities subserviently had it returned with, no doubt, a note of many thanks.

Now only last Tuesday, it was revealed France has agreed to return the only painting by Gustav Klimt in its national collection to the heirs of the Jewish family that was forced to sell it at a knock-down price by the Nazis more than 80 years ago. France had bought it in 1980 unaware of its history.

Good point for the meanies, I guess, and certainly an astute piece of public relations, but it is, in truth, just an insignificant gesture when compared to what France and all the former colonialist nations had amassed during centuries of war, bloodshed, theft and exploitation. The mentality is yes, we stole that and you're not going to get it back.


There's no escaping us

For better or for worse, it seems there's no escaping us as a nation in the many thoroughfares and vicissitudes across the globe. I keep being fascinated by how much Malta and the Maltese feature in the literatures of other countries, the history books and the news domains regardless of their territorial and demographic size. Most of that is of course credited to our unique geographical position, but there is also this politicised mindset which we have and which so many visiting or ruling foreigners found most intriguing at their own expense, like the British Governor who lamented his posting to the Island from the Raj in India where, according to him, life was much less politically compounding!

The trend continues. I was amused to discover the other day how a famous Macedonian-Australian novelist, Bozin Pavlovski, got us a mention in his book on migration, his favourite topic with an accent on the Macedonian diaspora, entitled Ahasferia (Return to the fairytales).

In his novel, Pavlovski, who is considered one of the key names of contemporary and modern European literature, projects a Maltese character by the name of Don Mendoz, not very Maltese-sounding by my reckoning, who happens to be a good friend of the protagonist in the story.

This Don Mendoz is described as reluctantly deciding to stay put in Australia at a time when Malta was breaking free from British rule, following an appeal from his homeland's Prime Minister that there were more Maltese abroad than on the island itself and the sudden influx of many returning migrants would paralyse the fragile government.

A Macedonian colleague with a sense of humour told me he was as amused as myself by the anecdote, but for opposite reasons. He said given the same situation, Macedonians would choose to scram all the way to Australia.


Non-academic hug

I do not find anything cultural in one Pakistani university's decision to expel a young couple of students who were shown hugging on social media. The accusation? The couple were found guilty of "violating its code of conduct"!

The video of the two University of Lahore students, a boy and a girl, by the way, had gone viral, showing them embracing after the girl had publicly proposed to her partner, bending on one knee and offering him flowers. He takes the flowers and pulls her up for a hug, a touching moment which was met with applause and cheers by the many students around them.

For the university bigwigs, though, this harmless gesture of young love was too much. Thank goodness we have, as a society, long done away with such ludicrous mentalities, not that we did not once have them. Who from my generation does not remember the police inspector, in plainclothes, roaming the Valletta-Floriana dark areas in the 60s, not the time of the Knights, to check against kissing couples? Time will catch up with the Pakistanis too.

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