Friday, January 18, 2008

The Maltese

I have always been fascinated by a side of Malta that the Malta Tourist Board neglects. Back in the late sixties, Desmond Morris used the Maltese to showcase body language on the BBC. Indeed, one of my main pleasures when visiting is man-watching. The Maltese show their heart on their sleeve. Their expressions are manifest in their faces and their hands. They are loud and theatrical.

When I first introduced my partner to my extended Maltese family on a bright Sunday at my late grandmother's home, I could see the look of alarm on his face. Their normal conversation (Greek to my partner) veered towards politics and what to my family was a normal, if slightly passionate, discussion - came across like a fully fledged and aggressive fight. The loud voices, the exasperated hand gestures close to the face, the frowning brows - all suggesting my family was about to throttle each other. All this while chowing down on my grandma's appetizers.

All this drama is highlighted in the way Maltese live out their faith. The religious festas, the OTT decorations and statues, their love for masochistic manifestations during the Lent period (soon with us) when they follow statues of the "Duluri" (The suffering Madonna- complete with 7 daggers in her heart), and when some followers in Ku Klux Klan like attire whip their backs, dragging weights attached to their legs. They are also a people of contradictions. Neighbouring villages compete for the best village feast while insulting their neighbour's village patron saint. They are also well known for the most "creative" swearing, combining the sacred with the profane.

If I had to compare any other city to that of Valletta and a people to the Maltese, it would be Naples. Whilst the Malta Tourist Board presents pristine pictures of tranquillity, Malta and in particular Valletta is a picture of cacophony and noise, both aurally and visually.

That the Maltese are a big part of what sells the islands of Malta is acknowledged, but only the sanitized version is presented. It is of course sweet to see the Valletta G-House neighbours lowering down their baskets whenever the bread delivery van shouts his wares. It is also very helpful that most Maltese would go out of their way to attend to a guest, but nothing compares to watching them gossip in a corner of the street, magnified expressions on face, thundering voices even when hushed with secrecy. It is also exciting to watch them drive, waving through the traffic - no indicators, driver's hand out of the window, still gesturing to make his/her point to the passengers.

No door bells are necessary when God gave them a fine pair of lungs. In the narrow streets of Valletta, people have whole conversations from one window to the other.

This beautiful theatre of the street takes place amidst the baroque surroundings, faded glory from the time of the Knights when the Grand Master built "a city of palaces built by gentlemen, for gentlemen" (Benjamin Disraeli). The city is Baroque in character, with elements of Mannerism and Neo-Classical theirfore grand in its character but the crumbling edifices are still obstructed by layers of electricity wires that somehow add to its charm (OK I'm stretching it there).

The Maltese people are a mixture of Sicilian and Arab ancestry and it shows in their character.

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