The soul of Malta: Opening and closing

Because it is small, Malta has always been a part of larger empires. It opens up to the world so as to better concentrate on its security. “Malta is at the edge, a periphery to itself.” Divided on everything, it somehow always manages to reach national consensus. That, at least, is the analysis of Oliver Friggieri*, professor of literature, poet and literary critic.

Typical bus in Valetta, 2008. "Malta is an outer edge, a periphery to itself, on the edge of itself"

Friggieri’s work revolves around the problem of belonging to a nation – an island – that lies close to Africa and Southern Europe, with a mixed Latin and Semitic culture alongside other influences. His view is that, “I don’t write about Malta but about a human being.” Friggieri has published a considerable number of books, poems, novels and essays that have been translated into many languages. All of his books explore this tiny island which is an obsessesion; Malta and its multiculturalism.

Constant duality

“The Malta I grew up in is completely different from the Malta of today,” he explains. Today the island resembles a town. At the centre of the village there a church used to stand and opposite, a square (misra), then houses and beyond these, fields. The church at the centre was a symbol of power and culture. Huge churches, “because we are small”.  Beyond that, there lay yet another village with the same design. And then it these villages fused together and interlocked. But inspite of everything, the nation retained its identity. Malta is a nation where everybody lives in close proximity to everybody else. The ‘misra’ underwent a change. Nowadays, the capital, Valletta, is deserted after six in the evening. The centre is no longer there. Today, people prefer to go out in St Julians with its diverse entertainment and leisure facilities. 

The basis of the Maltese nation’s culture is Christianity and language; within each of which there lies a duality. For example, that of the magnificence of St John’s Cathedral in Valletta on the one hand and the small village churches on the other.  

An important characteristic of the country is that it has always been on the side of major powers. With Napoleon when he was at his strongest (between 1798 and 1800) and afterwards with the English, alongside Nelson and Alexander. “Malta was always part of a big empire and now Malta is in the EU…We tend to exaggerate: the biggest, the strongest, and the greatest,” says Friggeri.

Again he takes the example of St John’s Cathedral and the sense of duality and ambiguity. “From the front, it looks like a garage. And the interior looks like a theatre. They always want to portray the image of the importance of Malta.”

Divisions and consensus

On Malta, public opinion is always initially divided. For example, on EU membership, one of the two big parties, the Labour party was in favour of a partnership, but not full membership, while the Liberals advocated the latter. A referendum was held that produced a clear vote in favour of membership, which the socialists accepted. “That's Malta,” says Friggieri, “first it divides and then it comes together. But the national consensus is strong.” A dividing line runs through this large island, with the more liberal North and more conservative South. “We don't agree on everything but we need the coming together to survive. And when the next challenge comes along, we divide again and then come together again. Always a boxing session, then peace and then boxing again,” he says.

But this ambiguity reflects a profound truth, that of the wholeness of Malta: “Very small but complete, like a small insect with a whole organism, not half a nation.” The country’s political vision is like the Maltese soul. “There is a sense of attachment to the inner circle, to the parish, to the party. Who are you? Where are you from? Sect, cast, regions, social groups, these are all important in Malta. So our psychology is older than we are,” he continues.

The Maltese have defined their identity in terms of land and sea. A map of the country shows a small island surrounded by forts. They are always thinking of a possible invader, with a fear of being attacked. Says Friggeri: “Valletta is a fortress. The city can be locked. Wherever you are in Malta, you have those inside and those outside. Who are you? Where do you come from? The people of Malta harbour the memory of being persecuted in Rhodes.”

About 100 years ago the divide was on linguistic issues. Should the language be Italian, the language of tradition, or English, the language of power? The question resurfaced, albeit with less passion force, at the time of independence. In the meantime there was the Second World War during which Malta lent considerable support to allied troops, and the recognition shown by England in awarding it the George Cross medal (the only time a place has received such an honour). English had naturally come to be established as the second official language, Maltese being, in addition, the national language.

But feelings are still divided, smiles Friggieri, especially at a football match when Italy plays England: “It's deeper than just sport. It's older than that. It is something to do with the image of the father. Our identity precedes us. Islands mean tradition, identity, and resistance to change.”  Malta is thus very much an island but one that has absorbed a great deal from the large countries that surround it. It has adopted, compared, and modified a great many things to suit its needs.

Arabic language for a European people

Maltese is without doubt a Semitic language and to be precise, has an Arabic structure. In fact, Malta has almost always been exposed to the arrival of populations from the North, yet paradoxically it is Africa and the Middle East that gave it its language, the basis of its architecture and so many other aspects of its culture. 

Membership of the European Union

Friggieri believes that Malta has a sense of security and self-sufficiency. Coupled with this is the search for the father as protector. “So, there is a government and there is Brussels which brings an international identity.” But, he adds, many feel that Brussels is very distant. “Why should I care about it?” The local media speak very little about Europe except when giving practical information, the rate of the euro or major political events. “Malta is an outer edge, a periphery to itself, on the edge of itself,” he concludes.

* Oliver Friggieri is a professor of Maltese and comparative literature at the University of Malta. His books have been translated into many languages and his poems are included in several international anthologies. His works have won many prestigious literary prizes all over the world. He is also the composer of a number of musical works and presents cultural programmes on TV and radio (see, for example, The International Who's Who 2007, London).







Hegel Goutier

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