Valletta: the capital of many cultures

A tribute to my favourite city
~ 10 minute read

Living in Valletta: a permanent surprise

A man reading in his car outside his garage on a Saturday afternoon

When I moved to Valletta five years ago, one of my greatest surprises was seeing that particular face expression each time I told somebody where I was living. “Valletta?” – they cried, turning their face into a display of disbelief and frustration – “but why?!” It was then my turn to be surprised and reply “Why not?”, only to learn that the problem was “those-ħamalli-hostile-to-every-stranger-and-whom-everyone-in-their-right-mind-avoids“, or, in brief, the stereotyped residents of Valletta. I usually replied by admitting that I had not noticed anything outrageous about my Valletta neighbours, compared to my previous neighbours in Msida and Gzira, and used to receive a skeptic look, followed by a short yet affirming “not yet”.

Although so much has changed in five years, ironically, the expression of surprise accompanying the question “Do you live in Valletta?” remains, but of a different kind. The alarmed look has now been replaced by a brow-raising suspicion of my riches. The most frequent question now is “How can you afford it?” This curiosity is easily understood: at this point in time, the monthly rent for a basic two-bedroom property is no less than €700, whilst more fashionably furnished properties cost between €1000 and €1500.

What’s happened? How has the capital so closely associated with “slums”, “criminals” and “ħamalli”  become trendy and barely affordable for an average earner within just a couple of years? One way to answer this question is simply the effect of gentrification brought on by handsome property investment prospects as part the European Capital of Culture 2018. However, the side effect of the approaching V18 is only part of a bigger picture. In fact, rather than being smoothly revamped into a “capital of culture”, Valletta 2017 has become much more of a battleground between antagonistic cultures and the winner is the one which promises highest profits.

What is Culture?

Symbolic funeral and mocking of the rival football clubs held by the fans of Valletta FC, champions of 2015-2016

The rapid transformation of Valletta is a source of many disputes. Some argue that Valletta is far more charming in a crumbling state, whilst others say that a facelift is necessary due to the hosting of the European capital of culture. One way or another, the ultimate majority of discussions about the future image of Valletta focus exclusively on the visual aspects of its facades and omit the stories of human relationships hidden behind them.

To start with, there is no universal definition of culture. In fact, the two most frequently referenced definitions contradict one another. According to one of them, culture is “a moral and aesthetic ideal, which found expression in art and literature and music and philosophy”. This definition is attributed to Matthew Arnold and his work “Culture and Anarchy”. The other author, Edward Burnett Tylor, suggested that culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, customs, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society”.

The fate of Valletta depends on which kind of culture it is going to be a capital of. Is it the culture limited to prestigious entertainment or is it the culture of everyday life experiences which bring the place and the people into a tangible bond? Is it the culture which only sees Malta’s capital as a gourmet backdrop for trendy performances or is it the culture which can be experienced only by becoming part of its daily fabric?

Valletta as two cities

I always thought that every place owns its unique spirit to the indissoluble relationship between its architecture and its people. However, soon after having become a part of Valletta myself, I began to realise that, in the eyes of the public, Valletta was two distinct things: one – a marvel of Baroque architecture and the other – a swamp. One – to be admired, the other – to be disdained and vilified. One – its facades and the other – its 3rd class residents.

I learned that Valletta was severely bombed during World War II and the majority of its A-list residents fled to safer places. Countless times the elegant ladies and gentlemen shrugged, spreading their hands to indicate disapproval and telling me “Valletta was a city built by gentlemen, for gentlemen … and look what it is now!”

The tragedy of this immensely charming city is that Valletta’s architecture and Valletta’s residents are not recognised as one coherent whole. Sadly, in the eyes of respectable citizens and heritage guards such Din L-Art Helwa, the residents and the architecture belong to different dimensions and worth of contrasting treatment. The residents, often stereotyped as primitive boors, leeches depleting the social welfare or criminals, are presumed undeserving of the places they inhabit, in which every stone tells a story of its past noble magnificence.

When an attempt at snobbery results in a total failure

The Maltese gentry, for whom culture and Baroque are interchangeable terms, goes at lengths to emphasize that the city built by their forefathers still belongs to them and it should be reserved for worshiping high culture. They denounce anything unfitting of Valletta’s noble image. The Monti, pastizzi shops, clothes lines – everything inseparable from the daily lives of many of Valletta’s residents – is classified as desperately brutish, plebeian and culture-lacking. The social housing units of Mandragg and lower Valletta fall into the same “shameful eyesore” category.

Hipster Valletta: regeneration with a taste for venerating poverty?

The neighbourhood of Tico-Tico in Strait Street

Unfortunately, the nation-wide pride of its architecture did not protect “the city built by gentlemen” from decades of neglect. In his renowned photographic essay “Vanishing Valletta”, David Pisani documented the crumbling abandoned buildings which neither “gentlemen” nor the government rushed to restore. The most beautiful facades were not deemed worthy of care until a few years ago, when shabby suddenly became the new chic. New bars on Strait Street and lower Valletta (former red light districts) were injected with a new vibe. However, these trendy outlets rely mainly on the fashionable hipster crowd who visit Valletta for a sip of “authentic experience”.

Valletta in a nutshell by Nadine Noko (published in the issue 5 of Patron Magazine)

The hipster crave for “authenticity” deserves a special mention. Unlike the conservative baroque-worshipping gentry, the predominantly young creative middle class is not repelled by shabby walls and laundry lines. On the contrary, the youth unfamiliar with the realities of true undignified poverty sees dilapidated spaces as aesthetically pleasing and “cool”. Thus, to the hipster culture, Valletta’s crumbling facades are a splendid backdrop for a trendy party.

The hipster culture does not seek a deeper relationship with the city because its interests do not go beyond the aesthetics of the facades. This way of experiencing the city also deprives its residents of their humanity as it folklorises them into exotic creatures. The condescending acceptance of embarrassingly styleless specimen best manifested itself in a LovinMalta’s article: with a touch of sentimental sadness, it waved good-bye to the Triton Fountain kiosks, classifying them as amusing, yet unfitting to the upscale image a European Capital of Culture is expected to flaunt.

The contrast between the outspoken poverty of a few Valletta’s neighbourhoods and the trendy entertainment culture thriving on romanticising this poverty is stark. Hipster’s willingness to hang around dilapidated spaces sets a precedent for opening of more bars designed to suite a particular taste. While Tico-Tico, Café Society and the Gut physically belong to Valletta, they remain an isolated bubble which overlooks the life of the local community.

However, my skepticism towards the hipster attitude to Valletta does not extend to criticising all of the younger vibes. On the contrary, Valletta’s population is ageing, which means that many more houses will become vacant in the near future. Will these houses be reborn as homes or will they turn into outlets whose only contribution to Valletta’s life is commerce?

Boutique hotels for the tasteful caste

SU29  luxury boutique hotel (suites available at €135 to €325 per night) and its neighbour, a regular Valletta house in St. Ursula Street

The handsome profitable prospects brought by the European Capital of Culture have turned Valletta into a goldmine and a battleground between various interests at once. After the decades of neglect and distant worship, the vacant houses and residential properties discovered a new meaning of existence – that of a boutique hotel.

It is easy to lose count of the permit applications for boutique accommodation popping up practically around every corner.

The only house which (so far) miraculously avoided being converted into a boutique hotel

With no exaggeration, there soon will be more boutique hotels than residents in Valletta: exclusive accommodations such as Ursulino, Casa Ellul, SU29 and Palazzo Consiglia are now competing for distinguished clientele with La Falconeria, De Vilhena, Valletta Boutique Living, Valletta Vintage and a dozen more boutique hotels-to-be at Republic, St. Paul’s, St. Christopher, St. Ursula, St. Barbara, Old Theatre, Old Bakery Streets and Valletta’s old fish market Pixkerija. Barbara Bastions can now be safely renamed into Boutique bastions since only a couple of houses in that location are not being converted into exclusive accommodation of some kind.

The construction works were criticised by the local council as “the worst siege ever” and slammed by the residents, the heritage organizations and the intelligentsia alike – albeit for contrasting reasons. Whereas the residents have to endure the non-stop sounds of drilling, the cranes above their roofs and the clouds of dust, the reasons for critique from the heritage activists and the creative class are not as straight-forward. It is not the appropriation of residential houses into boutique hotels that the “baroque or nothing” heritage activists protest, but the obscure appropriators whose cultural unawareness and opportunism are enough to infuriate the gentry. The creative crowd predictably protests the visual aspects of the developments: the cranes distorting the skyline, the disappearance of venerated shabbiness and the heavy presence of scruffy workers, so unpleasant to the aesthetically sensitive taste.

On the other hand, the ever-growing number of boutique accommodations provides a perfect opportunity for implementing interior designer skills and entrepreneurial ambitions – the traits highly respected by the tasteful critics. Thus, once the cranes, the trucks and the workers are gone leaving behind a new deliciously designed hotel, the critique is immediately replaced by ovations and excitement at the prospects of welcoming the esteemed guests. Gentrification of Valletta is not only barely spoken about but is openly celebrated. Same is true about the Three Cities – Senglea, Cospicua and Birgu.

Valletta Vintage exclusive accommodation offers rooms with a view

It certainly is positive that the buildings of such beauty and history are being restored, yet it is equally sad that the restoration of these buildings is deemed worthy only if it promises solid investment rewards. Besides, the “boutiquefication” of Valletta reduces the residents and the everyday life to a decorative view from a holiday room.

The Capital of Whose Culture?

Valletta 2018 – the only protagonist of culture?

Another unsubtle declaration of what kind of culture is to be respected came from the artistic director of Teatru Malta, Sean Buhagiar. A few months back, when snap elections were not on the horizon, he urged the Prime Minister to abstain from disturbing the “culture” with such an uncreative event as general elections. Sadly, this point of view is shared by the various creative professionals – artists, designers, performers – to whom Valletta 2018 is, first and foremost, an opportunity to impress an eminent international audience with the presumably high degree of creativity .

The employment and career opportunities offered to a broad category of professionals by Valletta 2018 are certainly among its positive aspects, yet the statements like those said by Sean Buhagiar are indeed irritating, because they refuse to acknowledge any other definition of culture except from artistic performances which he and his colleagues play an imperative role in. Indeed, the demand for sophisticated entertainment is at the core of the middle- and upper-class cultural habits yet culture, in its broad sense, is not equivalent to the consumption of concerts, performances and exhibitions.

Sincerely, I have lost count of various Valletta-related arguments to disagree with.

I disagree with sentimental conservationists who morn the Valletta of crumbling facades and regard it as far more dignified than Valletta restored. While shabbiness might appear particularly spiritual to spectators, to many residents it simply signifies poverty and the inability to carry out restoration works on their own.

I disagree that the only way to restore Valletta is to convert it into a host of exclusive guest houses for the privileged caste, trendy bars and luxurious shopping outlets. The Valletta of boutique hotels would be hollow and soulless. The void of community spirit, which makes every city so unlike any other, would be replaced by temporary visitors who don’t have a profound relationship with the city. It would turn locals and their households into somebody’s room with a view. Yet, how can Valletta resurrect as a city with its own vibrant community life, if properties here are out of reach for the majority of the Maltese population?

Finally, I disagree with reducing Valletta to a backdrop for upmarket entertainment and tasteful consumption wrapped into “the European Capital of Culture 2018” package. As any other place, Valletta does not lack culture of its own. On the contrary, it has plenty of it – the little mundane rituals of “hello” and “how are you”, the feasts, the relationships between the people whom Valletta comforts and makes feel at home. Unlike the pre-packaged commodified experiences offered by hipster culture and Valleta 2018, the culture of daily participation cannot be exhibited at a museum or performed on stage – it cannot be experienced in any way other than becoming a part of its fabric. Too bad this kind of culture does not offer profitable returns and hence is not held in high regard.

Follow MaltaSketches on Facebook. Not to miss any posts from MaltaSketches, click the button “Following” and then select “See first”. This will mean that your feed will always contain our posts. We only post a few times a month, so you won’t see too much of us. Grazzi!

P.S. The culture of everyday life

What Malta EU Presidency brochure is telling you

Here is the brochure “Moving Forw>ard” issued by the Government of Malta. First (but not foremost), let’s give it a credit for the sexy design. Do not worry, your government is not embarrassing you with the exposure of bad taste as you might suspect, on the contrary, the design is quite artistic. Now, if you are one of those overly sensitive individuals who put the aesthetics before the content, rejoice and read no further because further is all about the content.

1. Maltese have grown fonder of environment

“Have we moved forward as a country?” asks Sarah Haider from Communication Office of OPM. “Indeed, we have” she replies and supports her confidence with sound evidence. “Families now worry less about the costs of utilities and more about environment”.

Let’s give this argument a credit for both, its relevance and unmasked cynicism. On the one hand, it is a spot-on observation: the number of environmentally-concerned Maltese is certainly on the rise, proportionally to the steadily growing Maltese middle class. The environmental discourses are traditionally harboured within the middle class because

  1. exploitation of environment is not visibly linked to their source of income
    and
  2. a pursuit of such concerns requires having the basic needs covered, the access to education which promotes environmental awareness and the free time to follow this awareness up.

Thus, the brochure conspicuously implies that the Maltese have a luxury to worry about the environment more than about the costs of utilities because their material prosperity has significantly improved and – important! – the government is to be thanked for that. In other words, the worries about environment are powered by the economic advantages of the exploitation of this very environment. Had the environment not been exploited, the Maltese would not have the privilege (or the opportunity) to express such virtuous concerns.

But could the material prosperity be the only explanation for the growing public concern for nature conservation?

This is where the unmasked cynicism steps in: the concerns about environment are not only a luxury, sustained by the generally high prosperity level, but also are fueled by the objective reasons. The both parties in government gave the green light to the development of Tigné Point, Manoel Island, Zonqor, industrial aquaculture and the privatisation of the beaches.

Another reasonable question to ask is whether environment alone is central to the concerns of the Maltese people. And the answer is: unlikely. The remnants of undeveloped countryside and the lifestyle are being sacrificed in the name of the profit for the selected few. Thus, what is described as “worrying more about environment”, in reality refers to a broad spectrum of social and economic issues.

Take a deep breath and remember: the more you “worry about environment”, the more pride the major parties can take for mobilising your civil concerns.

2. Top priorities: digital single market and entrepreneurial ambitions

As follows from the brochure, the government is convinced that the digital single market is a way forward. The massive new digital monopolies and tech companies have amassed the power to move entire economies and Malta cannot resist the temptation to flirt with the world’s most powerful business lobby. The rapacious belly of iGaming companies and tech start-ups craves new food for their growth– consumers such as us.

The brochure advises, boldly and in caps, to stop relying on government as a source of income and to set-up a business instead. The government is committed to facilitate the perfect conditions for such endeavors: “start-up businesses will benefit from the abolition of the trade licences for a number of commercial activities”. “The law regulating shop-opening hours will also be changed. Businesses in Gozo will benefit from better IT connectivity” and “€3.2million will be invested in a second fibre optic link between Malta and Gozo”.

It wouldn’t harm to ask who benefits most from this new policy. The answer is: a number of foreign investors, tied up with the international tech giants and digital monopolies. While the construction business still remains a powerful lobby, the IT lobby is gaining strength and deserves your attention – the majority of the investors are foreigners who set foot in Malta to pursue their own mercenary interests and NOT for charitable, nor philanthropic reasons. The investors believe that “society works best when it’s organised around the entrepreneur.” If you don’t happen to be one, your only place in a society is to serve one.

In case you have any questions, these ladies and gentlemen should be able to answer them.

It’s time to stop referring to the money- and fame-grabbing rat race in such Christian terms as “greed”. The official governmental policy gives its full support to the manifestation of entrepreneurial skills and to the fulfillment of ambitions which hardly have any reference to God (except for that of profit).

3. Gozo: the new “nurse of the Mediterranean” (or selling Gozo to foreign investors)

Another chapter of the brochure is dedicated to the branding of Gozo as “the Medical hub of the Mediterranean, with visitors arriving throughout the year to receive first-class healthcare in a state-of-the-art hospital with world-class facilities in a tranquil environment”.

The upbeat and enthusiastic tone of this chapter might be misleading if you do not pay attention to such important detail as healthcare privatisation for the benefit of foreign investors. Quoting Times of Malta, “privatisation of national health services has become a source of concern in those countries which have opted to entrust state-funded health services to commercial companies. Their experience suggests that privatisation of health provision serves neither the best interests of patients, nor the state’s finances.”

Privatisation has led to lower priority being allocated to patient care because of the profit-driven nature of such an arrangement. There has been a severe loss of accountability with scrutiny of public spending being obscured by complex contracts. It has not been unknown for private health companies to reduce staff to a minimum and overcharge the state for outsourced services once they have won the contract.

The arrival of the “world-renowned Barts and the London School of Medicine and Dentistry” puts the free medical education in Malta at risk. Maltese medical students held a mock-up protest against this move.

“Our resources at hospital have been set up at the expense of the Maltese taxpayer. Barts are not building any new facilities, bringing in doctors of their own, or expanding infrastructure. They are hijacking what we have cultivated over decades. How will the Maltese working class, who paid for our NHS, benefit from a medical school that charges such exorbitant amounts?”

The access to healthcare services is not only a basic need but a fundamental right and this right should never be sacrificed in the name of profit. Wake up or lose your healthcare!

Coincidentally, these news is followed by tax cuts on the purchase of property in Gozo. Not only the island is promised to receive a better IT connectivity to enable its full incorporation into EU’s single digital market, but also the special conditions are set to promote the sales of property there. In 2017, a buyer of property in Gozo is required to pay 2% on the purchase transition instead of 5%.

Gozo as you know it will soon seize to be. The implications of this change vary depending which side you are on. If you are weary of “the misdeeds of the canny Ghawdxin and their overindulgence of hunting”, rejoice – the foreign investors will not tolerate the lack of discipline from the provincial small folk, especially if it interferes with the running of their business. The investors will certainly attempt to tackle hunting and, most likely, they will succeed.

On the other hand, if you appreciated Gozo as the Malta’s prettier sister, an oasis of tranquility of immense charm, be prepared to mourn it – that place will soon exist only in your memories and photos. The cost of living in Gozo will shoot up to the sky and so will the cost of your previously affordable weekend holidays.

4.Wi-Fi State instead of the Welfare State

This point deserves a specific mention. Despite the claims that the digital age empowered literally everyone with a unique opportunity for self-education, the reliability of this “digital age” brochure leaves much to be desired. The welfare state is quite a recent achievement, brought by the social democracy in the second half of the 20th (not 19th!) century.

“The welfare state is a concept of government in which the state plays a key role in the protection and promotion of the social and economic well-being of its citizens. It is based on the principles of equality of opportunity, equitable distribution of wealth, and public responsibility for those unable to avail themselves of the minimal provisions for a good life.” The Nordic countries such as Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, and Finland, which regularly score high on the quality of life and democracy, are all described as social-democratic welfare states.

How can Wi-Fi access be an alternative to the free education and healthcare? Could it be that the government is dressing up the budget cuts on healthcare and education as the “modern and progressive” measures? If you truly believe that the “Wi-Fi state” taking over the welfare state signifies progress, try connecting to Wi-Fi next time you are in need for a medical assistance and see whether it will do just as good.

5. Minimum wage will increase … by €4 per week

Now, that’s a sound commitment! The Maltese on minimum wage can finally feel privileged. It is time to get the message: the government does not favour the unfortunate who are unable to start their business and stand on their own feet.

Conclusions?

In the case of the PL, the torch fits more as a symbol of the Statue of Liberty, not Labour which is more often represented by the rose.

In a nutshell, if the PL’s past alliance with the working class left you sleepless at night, worry no more: Laburisti are completely cured from the bug of socialism. On the contrary, in case you thought the PL was a Labour Party, you are in for disappointment because Laburisti are completely cured from the bug of socialism. The “PL” abbreviation now stands for the “Liberal” Party, not ”Labour”.

Follow MaltaSketches on Facebook. Not to miss any posts from MaltaSketches, click the button “following” and then select “See first”. This will mean that your feed will always contain our posts. We only post a few times a month, so you won’t see too much of us. Grazzi!

I am not against migration – I am in favour of a fair playing field!

Interview with Emmanuel Psaila, former Marine Estimator at Malta Drydocks
~4 minute read

I was born in Cospicua, just 500 metres away from where Dominic Mintoff was born and lived in his younger days. Many of the Drydocks and port workers used to live there due to the vicinity of the port.

with MDD apprentices in 1976

In 1975, I started working at the Drydocks. Previously at the Secondary Technical School, I learned the trade of woodwork and metal work besides many other subjects, such as engineering drawing. During break time, some of us had the privilege of learning how to
build wooden boats or canvas canoes whilst the metal work practice even taught us how to make many types of screws. In fact, a screw is one of the most difficult things you can produce on a lathe machine. The acquired skills and knowledge helped me a great deal. At the age of 16 I was able to start working literally right upon leaving school. The next day after my last GCE examination, I was at work.

I remember it was the time when the Labour Party was in government again after a long time in the opposition. It was a revolution! The wages started to grow, especially the wages of the workers – such a great difference from how things used to be before, when clerks, or “workers of the pen” as they were called, were paid more than trade workers. My wage increased to 7 Maltese pounds per week. It was the time when the Labour party had three persons from the Drydocks as Members of Parliament – it literally was a Labour Party!

The other party, the PN, represented the high class. They teamed up with the church and did their best to undermine the workers’ movement. They also considered Maltese language as the language we use in the kitchen and some of them still hold that perception up to this day.

There was a lot of work at the Drydocks. There used to be no less than 15 ships at a time. We were about six thousand people working there. There were no foreigners at that time except a few specialists, maybe. All the work was done by the Maltese.

Everything worked quite well until about the year 1978. What happened then is that some Labour MPs started abusing the government: it began sliding into a kind of dictatorship. Most of the work came from the communist countries; the workers from Russia, China, Korea and Libya started coming over. But the situation became even worse when the USSR collapsed. In fact, we manufactured six ice breaker/timber carrier ships only to discover that they were to remain at the Drydocks since there was nobody to buy them! At the end, the ships were sold at a bargain price to Finland, if I am not mistaken. At the same time, some ship agents started bringing Polish workers with them. And that was the beginning of the end!

Times of Malta article from 19th December 1997 states that the price at which the timber carrier ships were sold was not made public and the GWU metal worker section was not involved in the deal

Clearly, the ship agents preferred bringing the foreigners because they had much lower wages than ours. The Drydocks started stagnating, going back further and further. The last 12 years I was there, from 1990 to 2002, I worked as a Marine Estimator. Our estimates were a hopeless case – the workload dropped so much that the Drydocks couldn’t cope.

In 2002 I retired from the Drydocks and started looking for temporary jobs. After having found a job at a renowned high-profile hotel, I discovered that the majority of other employees were foreigners. Though they all were hard-workers and decent people, their pay was quite low – and so was mine. At my previous job I was paid an equivalent of 1400 Euro and the job at the hotel paid 800 Euro.

The majority of the workers were from the Eastern European countries, mostly Bulgaria, who were willing to take as much work as they were ordered to. Apart from that, I have seen the history of the workers’ movement and knew how much we needed to fight for our rights! I thought that all our previous achievements were undermined by the foreigners willing to work more for less. Yes, they were hard-workers but I couldn’t say they always followed the quality procedures either. I could tell they were desperate: they agreed to work with no insurance and did not care for their own safety.

In fact, this is the main reason of my objection to the proliferation of migrant workers: we, the locals, are becoming unnecessary. I had to struggle a lot to acquire the job of a technician at MCAST.

The worst, however, is that there is nobody willing to listen to people like me. Nobody represents our interests anymore. The Labour Party has vanished. Joseph Muscat seems to know nothing about what happened during my time. To me, he is an aristocrat who cannot represent a party which calls itself “Labour”. Whenever I raise these concerns about the unfair competition which favours foreign workers over the Maltese, because they can be paid less, I am called a racist. I suspect that calling us racists is a legitimate excuse to humiliate and discriminate us, to give us a bad name. I beg to differ: the true racists are those for whom the workers, Maltese or from any other part of the world, are only numbers and tools of generating profit!

—————–

Afterword:

During the recent months, undeniably, we all came across openly xenophobic and racist comments, shocking to many of us. However, there is certainly a need to differentiate between such comments and the reasonable criticism of the conditions the local and migrant workers are facing at the moment. Labeling everyone a racist or a Nazi, without giving them a chance to defend their arguments, does disfavour to the cause of social justice and only makes the matters worse.

Unfortunately, the wide-spread misconception that the working and lower classes are responsible for spreading the seeds of racism and fascism due to their lack of cultural awareness and artistic education is gaining strength. This prejudice is a convenient way to blame all misfortunes on the lower levels of social hierarchies – which is much easier than searching for the causes of the apparent nationalism and racism of the working class. The worst, however, is the eagerness of the better educated, office-working youth to turn away from their working class parents. The youth have forgotten that the free education they enjoyed was brought by the very same people who are now often labeled “racist and bigot”. If not even children are willing to listen to the reasoning of their parents, who will then?

The four political parties to appear in Malta if PL&PN were abducted by aliens

alien-3
The collage includes a cartoon of Malta traffic by Steve Bonello

Just imagine! ~7 minute read~

Just imagine: one fine morning you wake up to the news of an unexpected late night visit of an extra terrestrial mission which abducted ALL the politicians from the both major political parties. What a shocking loss! Your mind quickly runs through all the stages of grief (joy?) from denial to acceptance, finally hitting a question: “what does Goebbels Daphne Caruana Galizia have to say about it?” Oh, my! She is absolutely certain it is yet another PL conspiracy: “the PN are taken hostage to the PL’s shady deal on the new intergalactic hotel for adult entertainment!”. You wonder if such allegations are a tad too much for an “internationally acclaimed journalist” and look for some objective proof, alas in vain.

You are enviously picturing how freely the former officials (and un-officials) are speeding through the Universe towards Kepler-442b while you are stuck in traffic on your way to  work. You stare at the sky once more before another question hits your mind like an asteroid: “what about the elections?!” “Who on Earth am I going to vote for?!” Do not panic! Well, although this wake of sudden and refreshing anarchism is nothing to be afraid of, you’d better make up your mind on where your interests belong.

One option to do so is to take this test. Its disadvantages, however, are significant: the questions and the options to choose from are too limited and standardised to represent one’s realistic political worldview. So here is another option: choose which worldview fits you most and see which local party would best represent it.

Worldview type 1:

  • The social hierarchy is necessary and justified: some people are clearly worth more than others because they are born that way. Titles and degrees help to distinguish the capable from the rest.
  • Thinkers are worth more than manual workers. Manual work is for plebs.
  • Intelligence and propriety can never be evil. It is a duty of the educated, well-mannered and sophisticated to rule over those who are none of that.
  • People do not change: a person born into an uneducated family will always be driven by inferior concerns unless reading comes to the rescue.
  • The main responsibility of the government is to discipline the people. The plebs should never be let into power because they ruin everything.

Briefly: you approve of the social ladder but you dislike the climbers.

Worldview type 2:

  • The social hierarchy is justified: some people are clearly more capable than others. I hold entrepreneurial skills and creativity in particularly high regard.
  • The job of an artist or a scientist is more important than that of a farmer or a cleaner because the former are responsible for progress. Innovations lead us to the brighter future; mundane and non-creative work does not count.
  • Personal ambitions should be encouraged. Talents should be rewarded by higher income and a higher social status.
  • A person is what he makes of himself. Take risks, compete, build yourself, climb up and the world is yours!
  • The creative mind are the main asset of the country. Their non-conformism is part of their nature. They should always be free to create. The government is there for the mob.

Briefly: you approve of the social ladder and you disrespect those who fail to climb up.

Worldview type 3:

  • The social hierarchy is unjustified and unfair. Everyone’s input is equally valuable.  Personal altruism is as high on my scale as creative and technical skills.
  • Everyone deserves an equal respect for his contribution to the society. A farmer, an artist, a manual worker and a lecturer are all valuable.
  • Personal success is a fallacy – nobody becomes successful on his own. Individual success can never be possible without the help from the other members of society.
  • The more prosperous ones need to help the others to reach the higher levels of prosperity. Equal opportunities must be provided to everyone.
  • The main responsibility of the government is in sustaining of the social welfare.

Briefly: you think the social ladder is a bad idea but you do not blame the climbers.

Worldview type 4:

  • The social hierarchy is never justified. A fair society should have no distinctive social classes.
  • Material needs come first. Contributions of a manual worker and a farmer are more crucial than those of an artist and a writer unless their art is devoted to mass empowerment.
  • Personal ambitions need to serve a purpose of collective success and social justice. Individual advancement is unethical.
  • Collective effort and cooperation is the key to a better society. The collective success is more important than the individual success. From each – according to his ability to each – according to his need.
  • The government is an administrative tool to redistribute wealth and to sustain egalitarianism. Good enough is enough.

Briefly: you think the social ladder is a bad idea – everybody should be equal in opportunities and results.

Ready to see which of the parties would represent you best? Here they are:

mpp1Worldview type 1 (Conservative / fascist)
Party: Malta’s Patrician Party
Slogan: Save Malta from savages!

Agenda: Our agenda is short but effective. We must defend the country from the continuous attacks of the common and crude! Only we can protect Malta from the dark and unenlightened masses.

Ħamalli and the penniless migrants are the root of all our problems. We promise to re-establish order: no more pastizzi in the public places, no more tacky shoes in the parliament! To rule is our birthright and we do know how to rule in style. Panama accounts are for the ħamalli, we state that the British Virgin Islands is a much more appropriate place to evade tax.

We propose to build a few reservations in the south of Malta where we will keep all the peasants. We will keep them disciplined with the help of the army. We will make them work more for less! The festa “celebrations of sweaty polyester” will also be banned because we ought to teach the peasants some discipline. The low cost of labour will bring the established and respectable foreign companies to Malta. We will make Malta sleek sophisticated, polished and attractive to the most distinguished people in the world – green lawns, best architecture, golf courses and high culture. We will make Malta great again!

 

plm-1

Worldview type 2 (Liberal)
Party: Malta’s Liberal Party
Slogan: Entrepreneurial and creative mind for modern Malta!

Agenda: the absence of the PL&PN has opened the door towards true meritocracy. It is time for the creative, innovative and entrepreneurial mind to lead the country towards modernity. Liberal values are the key to the modern, prosperous Malta.

We are liberal economically and socially and promise to ditch the old-fashioned religious morality as unfitting to the new liberal order.

We stand for the free market economy with maximum transparency. The income tax for the higher tax brackets will be lowered to encourage the businesses to declare their profits. We will not increase the minimum wage not to harm the business. Malta is a tax haven and will remain it.

Privatisation is the solution to all our problems – it will unburden the tax payers and the government from extra spending. The country is to be governed by entrepreneurs and the creative mind. Malta will be promoted as a cultural hub of the Mediterranean, welcoming the artists and the writers to live and create in the country. Festa celebrations will be restricted to facilitate the perfect conditions for the innovative creativity.

 

psdm-1

Worldview type 3 (Social democrat)
Party: Malta’s Social Democratic Party
Slogan: Malta deserves better!

Agenda: the absence of PL&PN has given us a chance to turn Malta into a better, fairer society. It is time to ensure the greater equality by revising the country’s tax laws and introducing stricter repercussions for tax evasion and tax avoidance.

We stand for immediate abolishion of healthcare privatisation plans. No to the privatisation of the country’s main assets!

Wealth redistribution is our major commitment. The country’s welfare will be strengthen by the new tax laws. Tax rates for the lower income brackets will be reduced from 15% to 9%. Average family incomes above €80K will be taxed by 45%. The tax refunds for foreign companies are to be reduced from 6/7 to 4/7 highest. VAT on luxurious products and services will be increased up to 25%. The purchase of the third and the consecutive residential properties per household is to be taxed higher. Top earners and all the local companies are to publicly declare their revenues and bank statements.

The welfare funds will allow to increase the minimum wage and to ensure the better standards of living. Working hours will be reduced – that will ensure employment of more people and will create more free time. Civil liberties and gender equality will be encouraged.

We promise to regulate the rental market. The maximum amount of rent will be established for the different kinds of property and locations. We promise to improve public transport by building a monorail. The latter will also create jobs, decrease the amount of cars from the roads and improve quality of air.

 

psm-1

Worldview type 4 (Socialist)
Party: Malta’s Socialist Party
Slogan: Together for social justice in Malta!

Agenda: The people have finally got a chance to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.

We propose to implement partial or complete nationalisation (with minimum or no compensation) of Malta’s major assets which were previously given to the private sector. Malta International Airport is to be nationalised to keep AirMalta afloat.

Construction industry tycoons are a threat to democracy – their lobbying is the major source of corruption in the country. For as long as they continue exploiting the country’s beauty for profit, the well-being of Malta and the Maltese is at risk. We propose to nationalise the major construction companies on the ground of their harm to the country. All profits from the nationalised industry will go to the national funds.

Priorities to the Maltese producers! We will encourage the local small-scale cooperatives in tourism. Malta will be an exporter of the great quality food: olive oil and pastizzi. Pastizzi global export will be an excellent source of national funding.

We promise to improve the housing conditions: 1) the amount of rent will be fixed for the different kinds of property and locations and 2) more social housing will be built.

Minimum wage will be increased to €15/hour. Jobs in construction sector will be created from building more of cooperative and social housing as well as from building a monorail. The latter will improve efficiency of the public transport, decrease the amount of cars from the roads and improve quality of air.

=====
confused-smiley-cliparts-co-rmsgwn-clipart“Hmmm” you say. “Doesn’t the Patrician Party look a bit like a cross between the PN and Emperium Ewropa? And the Liberal Party sounds pretty much like an airbrushed wholesome kind of PL… And the Social Democrats is AD plus some substantial propositions. Imma vera ma nafx who the socialists in Malta are.” To which we reply: we had no slightest intention to mock any of the Malta’s political parties, thus all the possible similarities are apparent and strictly coincidental.

Did you find your political party? Any party to add?

Not to miss any posts from MaltaSketches, click the button “following” and then select “See first”. This will mean that your feed will always contain our posts. We only post a few times a month, so you won’t see too much of us. Grazzi!

What it means to be a ‘global citizen’, an ‘expat’, a ‘migrant’ and a ‘refugee’ (in Malta and not only)

The state of affairs described below is not unique to Malta but the size of the country and the physical proximity of its different elements makes it more obvious.

global-citizen-3

In a nutshell, the terms ‘expat’ and ‘migrant’ echo the profound class and racial inequality which is still present in the world. ‘Expat’ is usually reserved for an individual from the EU&Co, North America and Australia who left his native country for work in a multinational company or for leisure. ‘Global citizen’ describes the specific, most privileged kind of expat, who sees the world “without borders” because the borders literally do not exist for him. The advantages of his golden passport and the financial assets spare him from the humiliating struggles for the freedom of movement.

A migrant, on the other hand, is everyone else who leaves his place of birth in search of a better life. A migrant only aspires to become a global citizen because his opportunities for re-settlement are institutionally restricted. ‘Refugee’ is the most disadvantaged kind of arrival: his resettlement is not driven by the free will but is forced upon him by war, natural disasters and/or extreme poverty.

‘Global citizens’, migrants and refugees do not receive an equal treatment. In fact, the treatment they receive directly corresponds to their status. Where a wealthy expat is greeted with an open gate, a migrant finds endless bureaucracy and a refugee – a barbed wire. For instance, this inequality of treatment was exposed by the favourable attention to the insensitive rant of the white, privileged, proud-to-be-expat Canadian who labelled Malta a “developing country”. Unsurprisingly, many Maltese swallowed the offence with resignation. Too many just nodded with embarrassment, apologising for the lack of sleek sophistication they could offer to such a distinguished guest.

***

While some expats bathe in public attention, homeless migrants die in poverty. The three-paragraphs-short articles reported the tragic events in a plain and casual manner, stating that one migrant was found dead under the bridge and the other – in a games room at Xatt il-Mollijiet in Marsa. Both Somali men came from afar only to find their lonely death in Malta. They left their native countries but poverty stayed with them until the very end.

identity-malta-1
Identity Malta office is a migrant’s torture chamber. Applicants have to queue from the early hours often just to be dismissed

While a refugee and a migrant constantly live in fear of deportation and repercussions, a wealthy ‘global citizen’ is welcomed with open arms and with the exclusive offer of a Maltese passport (if he happens to need one). On the other hand, a refugee is unwelcome: due to an alleged mysterious deal between Italy and Malta, a few refugees disembark here.

While refugees risk their lives and constantly battle the exhausting bureaucracy for a better life in Malta, the fat-walletted expats claim that the country is not good enough for them. Isn’t it profoundly disrespectful to wave the privileges and the superior demands in front of those to whom these privileges are out of reach?

Just like the natives, expats and migrants often complain about the treatment they receive in Malta – but they do so in a different manner and for very different reasons. When a privileged expat complains about Malta, he implies that the country fails to meet his exclusive demands, suitable for his high rank. A migrant (myself included) complains about the frustrating experience which obtaining of a residence permit involves. Anyone is likely to derail having to battle for their rights on a day-to-day basis, yet the luxury of the “hassle-free residency” do not stop a wealthy expat from expressing his constant dissatisfaction. The migrant’s complaints are the cries of distress whereas those of a privileged expat are a means of morally instructing the locals.

***

Overall, migrants contribute to their new home country much more than do the ‘global citizens’. Migrants perform the most necessary jobs – care taking, nursing, cleaning. If employed by the local companies, migrants pay their tax in Malta and contribute to the Social Security funds. An ordinary migrant is not too different from an ordinary local. All he aspires to is a secure job and a stable, decent quality of life.

The privileged expat hops from one country to the other with a mission to verify whether or not the many dots on the world map live up to his expectations. He wishes to customise every country according to his demands. He has no interest in participating in the celebratory, eccentric and often absurd spectacle of life which makes Malta so special.

Integrating into a foreign society is below a ‘global citizen’. He has the whole world to cater for his demands – and everybody seems eager to respect his privilege. Yet, concerns on integration immediately raise when migrants and refugees happen to pursue their cultural habits. In fact, the cultural particularities of migrants and refugees are always blamed on their ‘lack of civilisation’ while the disdainful attitudes of ‘global citizens’ are excused for their superiority.

***

malta-citizenship-by-investment-specialist

Migrants are part of the crowd and for that reason they are visible. A crime committed by a migrant causes an outrage and quickly leads to an anti-migration movement. Though much more grave, the crimes of a ‘global citizen’ are invisible to the majority. These crimes are executed in an elegant, quiet manner: tax evasion, tax avoidance and shady business investments to mention a few.

The crimes of a global citizen are legalized. He prides his intelligence for tax avoidance and that is why he specifically chooses Malta to save – not spend! – money. While most of the inferior mortals – migrants and natives alike – are struggling to keep up with the soaring high rent, more luxurious property is designed to lure the ‘global citizens’ into the country. The luxurious apartments are built by the migrants for the expats to benefit a few tycoons.

A ‘global citizen’ rejects the blame for being the cause of global inequality. He pretends to be a charitable philanthropist. The facts, however, prove the opposite: the recent research has established that the wealthy investors extract more profit from the poorer countries than vise versa. They set foot in a country to take – not give – money.

***

stgeorge
the proposed residential development in St. George’s Bay is designed for the ‘global citizens’ (the estimated price of the apartments is over 1 million Euro each)

The new luxurious development projects in Malta are not designed for the ordinary Maltese and neither they are affordable to the migrants. Have a look at this website to see who owns the country. Malta is being given on a plate to the wealthy ‘global citizens’ – to that same cast of the privileged who call it a “developing country” and come here for “sun and the low tax”. And if the economic reasoning prevails, ask yourself: is it even worth to be humiliated by someone who comes to Malta to save – not spend! – money?

Venting anger is a physiological need in a setting of high economic pressure and social injustice. The universal tolerance is a poor response to the deepening inequality of opportunities and results. How can we pretend to treat the people, whose status and life conditions are profoundly unequal, in an equal way? Contrasting attitudes can be the basic act of justice, aiming to compensate for the abundance of privileges or the lack of them.

Do not keep “go back to your country!” to yourself but use it justly. Venting your anger towards the least privileged, the most vulnerable, the lowest levels of social hierarchy is too easy, not to mention unfair and unkind. Vent your anger with a purpose – channel it at the privileged representatives of corrupt institutions. Stand up for those in need of help –  tell the parasites to go back to wherever they belong and tell them to quit tax avoidance for good.

Contemporary art in Malta: how and where it happens

Experiencing the arts as part of Malta’s social landscape ~10 minutes read~

Last year Malta was marked by the triumph of developers, conspicuous privatization plans and the steadily growing media attention to ‘arts and culture’. Curiously, in spite of the seeming attempts to popularise the latter topic, various articles concluded that there is a public indifference to arts and culture in Malta.

Instead of proving or denying these allegations, let us first figure out whether the general public has an unobstructed access to the arts locally.

Experiencing the Arts [Part 1]
Arts as a frame for socialising … around the artist’s persona

damien-hirst
Artist as a brand: Damien Hirst, a multi-millionaire, poses in front of his artwork in London’s Tate Modern art gallery in April 2012

In speaking about the way local art is experienced, the first question is where to find it. In Malta, only a few places such as  Spazju Kreattiv at St. James Cavalier and MUZA (still in the making, previously, National Museum of Fine Arts) welcome the general public. Other than that, contemporary artworks are displayed at art events, of which there are plenty. Most frequently, art is showcased at private exhibitions and book launches which, by default, imply their secluded or commercial nature.

As far as genuine contemplative interest is concerned, socialising around the artists and their art lacks the opportunity for intimate and solitary engagement with artworks. In a small, densely populated country like Malta, a person usually meets artists before their works, unlike in the majority of larger countries where pieces can be seen as anonymous and independent from their creators. This either results in a few fan clubs surrounding the artist or, on the contrary, the audience rejects the works straight away because they are repelled by the artist’s persona (or by her/his political views). Had he lived and created in Malta, with his reportedly bad temper, Picasso would have never gained any recognition for his works locally in such proximity to the potential audience.

Mixing art with the artist’s personality does a disservice to the works since it pre-conditions seeing them as personifications of their creator. In the essay Death of the Author, Roland Barthes points out how interpretations of a work should not be reduced to seeking answers in the author’s personal experiences. Regarding artworks as direct expressions of the artist’s personality inevitably turns them into a dull and limited subject, as the artist’s personality is hardly more important than anybody else’s.

As for an artist, art is a source of income. In the context of art business, an artist produces goods of a potentially high market valueThis makes art a prestigious job. Self-promotion at events and on social media is intended to add value to the artist’s personality and to establish them as a brand in order to facilitate the sale of their intellectual property. However, it would be unfair to blame artists for self-promotion since it is a necessary evil for making a living in a neoliberal society where literally everything is a commodity.

Experiencing the Arts [Part 2]
Personality-driven art scene and loads of politics

dcg-charles-callejja
Presence of a politician or a controversial political blogger at the exhibition opening automatically turns it into more than just socialising around art (credit: Lily Agius Gallery, photo by Charles Calleja)

Another aspect of experiencing art at social events is the type of crowd which attends them. In fact, attempts to evaluate public interest in art and culture by attendance of exhibition openings and book launches inevitably end in misleading results. In a country where just about anything is interpreted in the context of political affiliations and class symbolism, events-going is another political and social statement which has little, if at all, to do with the art. 

The art scene in Malta shares many common traits with the local politics: the lack of transparency, nepotism and being personality-driven, to name a few. Openings of exhibitions are little spectacles of cult where it is expected of attendees to praise the artist (“prosit, keep it up!” or “this is so interesting!”). The act of launching a personal exhibition is a manifestation of creative net worth which, sadly, overshadows the works.

The complicated web of social interactions which surrounds arts in Malta is one of the many obstacles between artworks and the public. Who in their right mind would attend an event where they are unwelcome and marginalised?

 

Experiencing the Arts [Part 3]
The revolving-around-art social bubbles

14330087_604496363063319_3306825850623793658_n
BLITZ exhibition poster. BLITZ is an independent, not-for-profit, arts space which also featured on Tate Modern Art gallery’s website. Tate’s reference is highly prestigious – “one of the best-loved arts brands in the world” also enjoys a proportionally large corporate sponsorship. Some of Tate’s previous partners included BT, Louis Vuitton, Unilever, Vodafone, UBS, Google and Le Meridien

Finally, ‘interest in arts’ is a traditional privilege of the upper- and middle-classes. Replicating the conventions of the privileged by flaunting art awareness and art consumption is a sure way to affirm or to boost the social status.

Meanwhile, the low attendance of the art events by the general public – that is, the majority whose professional and consumption interests are not directly linked to the arts – is used to justify a few people’s claims on exclusive monopoly on  understanding and valuing ‘true’ art. As many other expressions, arts preferences is another opportunity to insulate the ‘true’ art-appreciating social bubbles (‘pedigrees) from the village festa fans (‘peasants’). Alas, socialising around the arts feels like a perpetual You Are What You Buy” performance. Sadly, we all are evaluated on the basis of prestige of our consumption preferences. So it happens that the prestige of art consumption is incomparably higher than that of fast food.

Grossly generalizing, the avid art-followers in Malta are of two kinds:

  1.  the ‘blue-blood’ Maltese
    and
  2. the middle-class art producers, art dealers and intellectual consumers.

The art circles’ membership is available to the candidates with the right family background, the right occupation, the right dressing style and, as suggested by the G Plan exhibition, the specific taste in furniture. Although the pathway to contemporary arts is barricaded by snobbery, foreigners might be awarded a bonus pass.

Let’s not be fooled by appearances: to art dealers and art consumers, art is a special kind of Big Mac, with the only difference in the price and the resale possibility. Keeping to their little well-insulated circles, the art-following crowd seems unwilling to ditch snobbery in favour of welcoming the ‘dark unenlightened masses’ to ‘arts and culture’. Their main interest is in guarding their trademark of ‘© cultured’.

 

Finding a passage to the arts: newspaper culture columns

2017-01-07-2
The title of the article in MaltaToday. Appealing to patriotic senses is meant to attract public attention to Adrian Abela’s sensitive works

In theory, newspaper culture columns are meant to spark public interest, yet it is not quite so in Malta. Given that the attendance of (and attention to) the events is driven primarily by the social and political factors and not by the content displayed, the reviews turn into a redundant formality. As long as the local art scene remains personality-driven, the critics do not have an opportunity for honest criticism because it may result in a personal grudge (or even a conflict), capable of provoking a greater isolation between the little art fan clubs and bubbles. The lack of honest criticism is quite unhealthy for both, boosting genuine public interest and challenging professionalism of the artists.

The limited opportunity for honest criticism forces culture journalists to report the activities of their close circle of friends whose works can be acclaimed with a clear conscience. At the same time, this still does not help the reviews to be seen as credible and unbiased. The conclusion is: with a seeming purpose of stimulating the public’s interest, the reviews are written by the art crowd, for the art crowd.

Also, in a personality-driven environment where critics too are ambassadors of the arts, a critic’s persona often receives more attention than her/his professional merits. Thus, positive reviews by a critic, who is known to be personally unpleasant or politically opinionated, might discredit an artwork in the eyes of the public, no matter how valuable and engaging it is.  In such circumstances, arts reporting has a chance of attracting public attention only if the ‘Maltese artist exhibits abroad’ formula is applied. Then, it is the sense of patriotism, not the content, which is celebrated.

‘Interest in art’ cannot be treated as a phenomenon of its own, unaffected by the social interactions surrounding it, because there is simply not enough distance between the artists and the critics, on one hand, and between the artists and the audience – on the other.

 

Public-friendly art displays: scarce, yet powerful and much needed 

Not all is dark and hopeless about experiencing the visual arts in Malta. Unlike the pretentious rubbish displayed at many private exhibitions, these works are the stunning examples of art with a meaning. Spared from snobbery, they are anonymous, harmonious with their physical environment and for everybody to contemplate on. “Euro Jesus” by Twitch is a spot-on profile picture of Malta 2016. Hypnotising and meditative, the wind vane at Exiles beach by The Rubberbodies Collective is a tribute to Sliema’s past serene relationship with the stories of fishermen, wind and sea (isn’t it ironic that the excellent article about the public project is part of the Times of Malta paid content?).

Conclusion?

It is safe to conclude that the popular cries about the lack of ‘care for art’ in Malta do not refer to the to the lack of spiritual devotion but to the particularities of events-going and the lack of prestigious art consumption. In this context, it is profoundly hypocritical to expect ‘care’ for contemporary art from the members of society who are not only discouraged from attending the events but who are also not accustomed to value this kind of art since they are unable to approach it and to purchase it.

Surveying sentimental care for art is as intrusive as evaluating love. In a broad sense, everyone has a tender relationship with an art object – be it a photograph, an altarpiece, a graffiti, a Valletta corner statue, a firework or a pickled shark by Damien Hirst. And if love is a deeply personal choice, educating people on which kind of art is right to love is not unlike the ‘gay cure’ therapy (thankfully, banned now).

2017-01-09
To paraphrase the statement in the article in MaltaToday, “it’s your pocket we’re after, not your heart”. The art crowd indirectly admits: art is just an enterprise. And if this enterprise fails to provide space for greater social cohesion, why is the public expected to hold it in a higher esteem than any other occupation?

While personal  tastes are entirely up to individuals to pursue, the claims that ‘interest in the arts’ is to be given a paramount status of national importance should be followed up by boosting public arts venues and arts displays in public spaces – squares, gardens, streets, beaches and schools. Yet, the opposite is being done by giving these spaces away for private development – which ensures not only a poor access to the arts, but a general drop in living standards.

Connect to Malta Sketches Facebook page if you like to read more analysis of Malta. Here is more about prestige of consumption preferences. 

Lions on your door: lion head door knockers of Malta and Gozo

Among the great variety of door knockers that grace townhouses in Malta and Gozo, the lion head ones enjoy a particular popularity. None of the motifs are present in such a range of shapes as the lion, which brings a question – why is it exactly the lion and not Triton, Athena or the Maltese cross that won hegemony over the Maltese doors?

During the centuries preceding the 1700s, the human perception of the world was dominated by symbolism and the lion too had a place in it. In times when”the world of nature was freighted with symbolic meanings of such density that they can no longer be perceived by the modern observer”, the lion was seen as a perennial attribute of Strength and was associated with symbols of royalty which made it a popular theme in heraldry. Lions occupied a prominent role as a heraldic charge from the very earliest development of heraldry in the 12th century. The English and the Scottish crowns, among many others, adopted lions as their heraldic emblem.

The rampant lion, symbol of the English crown, also features on the Royal Coat of Arms of the United Kingdom. Given that Malta was a colony of the British empire for one and a half century, could the particular popularity and variety of lion head door knockers be a reflection of its colonial past? The knocker on the door 10 Downing Street in London, the official residence of the British Prime Minister, is also lion head-shaped.

There are at least 24 different types of lion head knockers guarding the doors of Maltese (Gozo included) houses. They are a significant element of the great sentimental experience that a stroll by a line of traditional townhouses brings. All the elements – the balconies, the windows, the doors, the knockers, the whole of the façade – welcome the curiosity about the people whose lives are hidden behind them.

1. The Guarding Lion

The most popular “don’t mess with me” lion head knocker.

wp_20160817_19_24_13_pro-edt

2. The Smirking Lion

Although it might look like a weathered copy of the previous motif, this one was produced using a different mould. Location: Rabat, Gozo.

wp_20160816_18_36_42_pro-edt

3. The Red Rebel Lion

It might look similar to the first two, yet this lion on the door of the abandoned Rabat’s (Gozo) house still bears unique features.

wp_20160702_19_24_08_pro-edt

4. The Tamed Lion

The lion on the door of Valletta townhouse looks peaceful and welcoming.

wp_20160820_12_04_40_pro-edt

5. The Gallant Lion

Another similar-yet-different lion on one of Mdina’s doors.

wp_20161008_15_16_09_pro-edt

6. The Hangover lion

The lion’s muzzle looks so swollen as if it had been drinking all night long. Location: Rabat, Gozo.

wp_20160702_19_18_40_pro-edt

7. The Grumpy Cat Lion

Located in the lower Republic street, this must be the oldest lion knocker in Malta.

wp_20160817_19_00_27_pro-edt

8. The Fierce Lion

This intricate lion motif can be spotted in Valletta, Mdina and Rabat (Gozo).

wp_20160817_17_55_24_pro-edt

9. Prime Minister’s Lion

This lion is a painted replica of the knocker on the formal residence of the British Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street in London. Installed in the 1770’s, the door featured a centre door knob, lion head door knocker and brass letter plate which bore the inscription ‘First Lord of the Treasury’. Soldiers heading to off to the trenches during the First World War used to touch the lion head door knocker for good luck.

wp_20161019_17_37_37_pro-edt

10. The Pretty Lion

One of its kind – spotted in the Lower Republic Street in Valletta.

wp_20160817_18_58_45_pro-edt-2

11. The Roaring Lion

Sculptural and naturalistic, this type of lion head knockers is especially common in Valletta and Mdina.

wp_20160817_19_07_57_pro-edt

12. The Wrinkled Lion

Another one of its kind pair of knockers were spotted in Rabat (Gozo).

wp_20160702_19_00_51_pro-edt

13. The Round-faced Lion

One of the lesser common knockers spotted in Sliema.

wp_20160924_17_32_06_pro-edt

14. The Devil Lion

Another one of the lesser common knockers – spotted only in a couple of copies. Location: Floriana. One of the knocker designs recommended for recreating the style of Victorian era.

wp_20161019_17_41_46_pro-edt

15. The Abstract Lion

One of its kind knocker in Valletta.

wp_20160929_18_18_46_pro-edt

16. The Chiseled Lion

One of the lesser common knockers which could be spotted in Valletta, Mdina and Sliema.

wp_20161001_12_34_28_pro-edt

17. Monkey lion

One of the Floriana lion head knockers.

wp_20161003_09_09_57_pro-edt

18. The Largest Lion

You can spot the largest lion head knocker in Malta on one of the Mdina’s doors.

wp_20161008_15_09_53_pro-edt

19. The Noble Lion

One of the few unique knockers of Mdina.

wp_20161008_15_00_35_pro-edt

20. The Fancy Lion

One of its kind, intricately designed lion head knocker on one of Valletta’s doors.

wp_20161026_18_09_17_pro-edt

21. The Brutal Lion

Spotted only in a single copy in Sliema.

wp_20161124_16_27_22_pro-edt

 22.  The Timid Lion

Although only a single copy of this particular knocker has been spotted (in Sliema), similar motifs are more common.

wp_20160924_17_29_30_pro-edt
23. Brothers but not Triples

The Original (Edwardian?) knocker and its more recent modifications, all spotted in Valletta.

24. The Lion King

This impressive celebratory knocker was spotted on one of the Valletta’s doors.

wp_20161010_17_59_46_pro-edt

Feel free to share pictures of the lion head door knockers which remain unnoticed and didn’t feature in this post.

Like Malta Sketches Facebook page if you like to receive more article about Malta from an avid Malta’s explorer.

Malta’s Yin and Yang: ħamalli, pepè and those in between

There is more to it than stereotypes ~8 minutes read~

yin-yang-symbol-variant_318-50138

The first few words of Maltese any foreigner learns soon after having moved to Malta inevitably include swearwords as well as some specific ones – ħamalli and pepè – whose meaning is not at all clear despite their popularity. Although considerable volumes of writing have been dedicated to the subject, here is a take on it from an outsider’s perspective.

In a nutshell: if you are fond of oriental philosophy then you’ve come to the right place since Malta has its own yin and yang elements too. No matter how opposite ħamalli and pepè are perceived to be, they are entirely inseparable at the core. The more detailed description of Malta’s best known social species might also serve for better understanding of the country.

Ħamalli

Noun and adjective: ħamallu (masculine singular), ħamalla (feminine singular), ħamalli (plural)
Adjective: ħamallata (something that has attributes of ħamalli). Example: this car is a bit of a ħamallata.

hamalli-1
Cartoon from “Sausage people” series by Seb Tanti Burlo

Ħamallu is a negative label. In a nutshell, it alludes to the stereotypical class prejudice or moral indictment.

The Maltese see ħamallu regular (latin: Ħamallus miletensis or Ħamallus vulgaris) as a separate species whom they try to dissociate from as much as possible – that makes Ħamallus vulgaris a key stereotype of Maltese society. The curious fact about Ħ. vulgaris is that, despite the fear to resemble him, nobody quite knows what it means to be one. Some might tell you it’s the bad manners and vulgar clothes, others are convinced it’s the lack of education and culture awareness while some would insist Ħ. vulgaris originates from certain localities and family backgrounds.

This scope of mixed indicators points at the wide-spread class prejudice in Malta. For instance, by labeling a certain dressing style as ħamallata, one underlines the lower class habits of the other. Thus, the privileged Maltese blame the inferior mortals for belonging to the lower class or for expressing the lower class social habits.

As a moral indictment, ħamallu implies a profound disrespect and hostility to anything outside of one’s little world. It is usually reserved for somebody who refuses to consider anything except himself, his house, his little social club or, maximum, his locality. Ħamallu is anyone who has no consideration of others and recognizes no authority higher than himself. He blasts the sound in his car or house, parks on two parking bays, builds a property on public land, disturbs his neighborhood with outbursts of loudness just because he can.

Ħamallu is not thrilled by nature. His approach to anything is mercenary. If he ever notices anything delicate it is only for the sake of his pocket. In this sense, the label cuts across all the social strata.

The ħammalu label cannot be applied to anyone with acute sense of solidarity, class solidarity included. Also, a fisherman or a farmer is seldom ħamallu since he has a great respect for the force much greater than himself – nature.

hamallu-2
Cartoon by Seb Tanti Burlo

One particular variation of ħamallu stereotype is ħamallu advanced (Ħamallus pergrandis). While still bearing the main characteristics of ħamallu regular (i.e. profound disrespect to anything outside his little world) he enjoys quite a bit of power and has access to the decision-making procedures at the national (sometimes international) level. He might not be of royal origin yet he shares Louis XIV of France’s maxim “I am the state” and expands his little world to as far as he can get.

Ħamallu advanced is a dangerous species, for his financial assets allow him to implement his maxim without much resistance. Locally, this stereotype embodies the public image of the construction industry tycoons but he truly is an international kind. The perceptions of Ħamallus pergrandis vary tremendously:

  • to the pedigree Maltese, he is an opportunist who has managed to rise to their level of wealth and power while still clinging to the lower class habits;
  • to the socially- and environmentally aware Maltese, he is the epithome of nature destruction and social injustice;
  • to the various others, he is a role model.

Pepè

Noun: pepè (masculine singular, feminine singular, plural)

sliemasausage
cartoon by Seb Tanti Burlo

Ironically, pepé phenomenon is intertwined with the one of ħamallu since the main struggle of the former is to distinguish himself from the latter. The fear of him influences the absolute majority of pepé social interactions in Malta. Definitions of ħamallu/a/i vary and so do definitions of pepé. Pepé regular (Pepé vulgaris) sees himself a civilized, cultured, distinguished kind and makes sure everybody gets to notice his polish. To the rest of the population who is fortunate not to belong to either of ħamalli or pepé species, pepé regular is a smug philistine, a snob who craves to be recognized as pedigree. Although pepé sees his main life achievement in being of a non-ħamallu bunch, his self-absorbed insulated social habits makes him indistinguishable from ħamallu.

The saddest fact for pepé would be to admit he is not authentic. Whatever pepe regular does, it is a reaction to his definition of ħamalli:

  • If his idea of ħamalli is “ċwieċ ta (fools from ) [fill in the blank]”, he prides himself for growing up in “Sliema, the way it was in the older days”;
  • Pepé prefers English because ħamallu is not fluent with it. For same reason, he also tends to be a grammar nazi;
  • Pepé travels because ħamallu cannot afford travelling;
  • Pepé carefully selects his clothes not to resemble ħamallu dressing style;
  • Even though pepé is secretly indifferent to culture, he has to emphasise his literacy by “reading books”, “loving culture” and “watching films” because, by doing so, he underlines his non-ħamallu nature. To pepé, books are countable physical objects that can be displayed on shelves or whose titles can be flashed for sake of prestige;
  • Pepé often adopts a double-barrelled surname for his children to hint at their superior origin;
  • Pepé craves titles, degrees and privileged jobs. He firmly believes he’s in great service to humanity;
  • Pepé cannot be relaxed, he’s always on alert. He has to prove his excessive genteelness, proper manners and “good breed” behaviour. He simply is too afraid to be playful or humorous, again, not to be mistaken for ħamallu. His pseudo-sophistication and snobbism are suffocating;
  • Just as when you are afraid of spiders they all come to you, pepé suspects there is ħamallu in every corner. He is so frustrated of a ħamallu encounter that goes all the way to develop his own set of indicators to spot them from afar;
  • He avoids locations particularly rich in ħamalli yet, still, firmly believes Malta is infested with them so it’s time to leave the country for good;
  • His main issue with the political might of ħamallu advanced is that the latter dares to be corrupt while wearing those horrible shoes and necktie. From pepé’s political perspective, elegant clothes and sense of style justify a few misdeeds.
  • Finally, pepé wastes so much time and energy to distinguish himself from ħamallu that does not even know what he likes. He sees everything through thick glasses of class symbolism and is unable to form a genuine interest of his own.

***

“Is there hope?” you’d ask. Is there anybody else apart from ħamalli and pepé in the country? The answer is yes. There is a fair number of decent people in Malta but making new friendships requires an abandonment of class prejudices.

Breaking from the stagnant dualism is impossible without creating new combinations. The universal principle of evolution, be it biological or social, is that the new combinations result from mixing. New initiatives ought to aim at stirring up a greater social cohesion among the young generation who see these clichés outdated. There will be light.

Don’t forget to like Malta Sketches Facebook page for more posts like this one.

Who gets the Maltese audience: DCG’s Notebook vs LovinMalta

LM vs DCG

Have you noticed that the Maltese blogosphere has finally lost its unipolarity? LovinMalta, the new media company everyone is talking about, has finally offered the local broad audience an alternative to Daphne Caruana Galizia’s Notebook which, until very recent, enjoyed its unique status of the only unofficial largely followed source of updates on Maltese life, entertainment and political revelations.

Controversy surrounding DCG’s Notebook is as undeniable as its fame. On one hand, the Running Commentary challenges political establishment (Labour side, to be precise) and points out relevant corruption-related issues, while on the other, it is a pillar of Malta’s segregation, class-frustration and the constant “Nazzjonalisti vs Laburisti” rival. The infamous “pesants vs pedigree” concerns might be well-understood and supported by the Maltese older than 40, yet the accentuated cast symbolism is no longer meaningful to the younger bunch whose adolescence happened well after the 1990s. The younger bunch, which certainly could no longer uphold these views, was in great need of a breath of fresh air – a new media source reflecting their vision of Malta 2016 and not Malta 1980.

Both, DCG’s Notebook and LovinMalta, approach their topics in ironic and playful manner yet their targets differ significantly. While the Running Commentary primarily focuses on deriding the ’embarrassing low class habits’ of Labour Party establishment, LovinMalta covers a broad range of topics appealing to the audience from diverse backgrounds, aiming to shake the existing symbols of segregation. LovinMalta is gaining momentum not only in “7 ‘Subtle’ Ways Your Maltese Family Calls You Fat“-like stories but also as a source of political irony. If until very recent, the Running Commentary was the only credible source of such (rather bitchy) humour, LovinMalta contested it with their “Muscat On Cannabis Law, Property Prices And His Strict Diet Regime”. The cleverly spotted vacant niche, the witty content and the refreshing style resulted in a blast that is more than a million views in just four months.

Here are three reasons why LovinMalta wins over DCG’s Notebook in a longer run:

13705124_10157215270420038_1631806499_n

  1. Target audienceaudience
  2. Contentcontent
  3. Vision of Maltavision of Malta

LovinMalta has indeed made a historical shift away from the persisting dualism in anything politics, society and culture. Let’s see whether it will succeed to eventually blend the isolated social clusters into something new and refreshing.

How to survive a Maltese wedding

creative-wedding-invitations-28

Now, that’s a strange topic for a write-up. Weddings are known to be fun and certainly do not require survival skills unless they are replicas of GoT’s Red or Purple weddings. So why does anybody need to know how to survive a wedding in Malta? Simply because weddings here tend to be too formal and, for that reason, outstandingly boring. In fact, it is a mystery how a nation known for its colourful religious feasts, buzz and a refreshing irreverence for formalities came to adopt such a sombre fashion of (supposedly) once-in-a-lifetime event celebration. Given that the wedding season is in full swing, it doesn’t hurt to learn a tip or two on how to make the most of it.

On making their first inquiries about weddings in Malta, foreigners usually hear a lot about an open bar and loads of food. Although the promise of an open bar and loads of food is true, reality, as usual, rarely lives up to expectations. Unlike Gozo where weddings celebrations are mainly executed in a traditional, seated style, in Malta it’s a standing-up reception normally held in a villa or a garden. The wedding venue manifests itself by the melancholic jazzy tunes and the absence of parking spaces in its proximity. Once a bright-coloured caterpillar of sparkly evening gowns, high heels and black ties ceremoniously proceeds through the entrance, it immediately breaks into small groups, couples and single individuals in search for acquaintances among 300-600 guests or chairs to rest on. To be fair, a few tables and chairs are scattered around the venue but they are meant mainly for elderly, so unless you are at least 65 years old, you better keep wishing someone gets tired of seating down sooner or later.

The classic Maltese wedding party consists of three well-define phases:

  1. The Cool phase: the first hour at the party;
  2. The Phase of Desperate Boredom: 2nd hour until cutting of the cake;
  3. The Phase of Wild Joy: after cutting of the cake.

The Cool Phase

creative-wedding-invitations-36

The first hour at the wedding party is fun. The relatively small number of guests still allows some space around you to breath freely. Everyone is still too relaxed or too busy taking selfies to queue for drinks. The ladies are very pleased with their looks and the gentlemen are delighted that the ladies are pleased. The sound level still allows small-talk conversation – if you are lucky to run into an acquaintance and strike a conversation in the first place. And if you are unfortunate to know not a soul around, the ambiance is still enjoyable thanks to the music. And what music that is! You just can’t stop humming “The Girl from Ipanema”, “Fly me to the Moon”, “My Favorite Things” and, of course, “Xemx wisq sabiha” (you better learn the lyrics as you are going to hear that one a lot of times).

The cool phase is reaching the plateau. In the meantime, the newly wed are walking around and welcoming guests with a well-concealed struggle to remember who all these people around are. Inviting everyone and their dog to a wedding is a norm in Malta. Often the wedding celebrations are the only chance for distant relatives to meet – no wonder the groom struggles to recognize the bride’s mother’s third cousin and the bride meets her husband’s great aunt for the first time right at the wedding.

Once the greetings are said, hugs – given and pictures – taken, you can briefly enjoy a few bites of finger food and another glass of bubbly flowing by on trays. The fun phase smoothly turns into the phase of desperate boredom.

The Phase of Desperate Boredom

2-Funny-Wedding-Invitations-Top-20-Hilarious-Cards-9

Now, this phase does require survival skills not to end in a state of severe grumpiness. It begins when a temptation to find a chair reaches the level of obsession. In the best case scenario, your group of friends finds and guards a chair which all of you, in turn, rest on. However this could be rather tricky if you are just a couple without a sight of a familiar soul among 300-600 guests. The music is still too melancholic to beat the growing boredom yet already too loud to hear anything else apart from it. Very soon you discover that, although the bar is open, you are separated from it by a long queue of other guests. Food trays reach you in an emptied state encouraging to move closer to their source (and you aren’t the only smart pants – the same idea occurs to the others as well). Despite the large quantities of finger food, consuming it with no proper social interaction and no continuity of courses gives little satisfaction. Therefore, unless you do not intend to suffer all the way to the end, it’s time to entertain yourself somehow. Here are some tips to consider:

  1. Inspect the cake and decide whether it’s worth staying any longer. If you are indifferent to cakes and their like, you still have a chance to save the rest of the evening by heading some place with more chairs and people you know (nobody will spot your absence anyway).
  2. If you are vegetarian or vegan, try to enjoy your remote engagement with food by watching others eat.
  3. If you are a woman, forget about your aching feet and purposelessly walk around looking pretty. If you are a man, enjoy the sight of pretty women purposelessly walking around.
  4. Take as many selfies as you can (when will the next occasion to wear that dress/suite, be after all?).
  5. Entertain the idea of jumping into the pool to the shock of the hosts or imagine a random guest falling into the pool. In case you didn’t know, the wedding venue pool is there for a decorative purpose only. Should anyone happen to fall into it, the hosts have to pay a lump sum of a fine.
  6. Learn the lyrics of “Xemx wisq sabiha” so you can sing along – helps to pass time as well. “Ga-a-a-awrha ta’ qa-albi lilek irrid“, “Iva lilek irri-i-i-id“.
  7. The cost of the wedding that is killing you with boredom is likely around 30-40K Euro. Thanking your lucky stars for it is not actually your wedding might boost your mood a little.
  8. Once you’re done queuing for a drink, start queuing for another one right away so, by the time your glass is empty, you’ll have a full one. Thus, while everyone struggles with boredom, you’re spending time with purpose.

The Phase of Wild Joy

dirty-dancing-just-married-wedding-invitation

Once you’ve stoically made it through the Phase of Desperate Boredom, be sure the worst is over. The reward – a piece of the cake you decided to stay for is served immediately after the couple is done with the waltz. Moments later the music abruptly switches from jazzy mellow “You raise me up” to the mix of wild rock n’ roll with a splash of tarantella and hava nagila. Finally, with the support of the open bar and the upbeat music, it is beginning to feel like a wedding. The new jolly ambiance calls to the dance floor but the tortured feet refuse to follow. To gentlemen’s delight, a bunch of ladies still makes it to the dance floor, shaking off their fatigue while courageously ignoring their stilettos.  A few more bites of dessert and it’s time to go home. Never mind the bride’s bouquet.

This slightly exaggerated yet not entirely untrue sketch of weddings in Malta might make you wonder why the heck your peers are so enthusiastic about being invited to one. For a long time, this puzzled me as well until I have finally found the key to this mystery. A wedding reception is a sip of glamour, a chance to entertain a few celebrity red carpet moments for today’s Cinderella. While for some it is an opportunity to air that fab outfit and to try that hairstyle, others take a chance to explore the open bar content and to admire the beauty efforts of the fairer half. At the end of the day, everything boils down to a selfie.

Happy wedding season to all! Like Malta Sketches Facebook page if you like more articles like this one.

selfie-time