Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Maltese Chav

A word I came across often in childhood was one which portrayed the bogeyman of social standing, the one label you avoided, the ultimate condescending insult. Here, Dr Mark-Anthony Falzon, Head of the Sociology Department at the University of Malta dares to tackle the social connotations of the word - ħamallu.

So, who are the ħamalli? We tend to use the word in two ways. First, to describe individuals who are boorish, crass, loud, and the rest. One can be a ħamallu generally, as in a life project, or episodically, as in a lapse or moment of rudeness. There may, on occasion, be a certain subversive delight in performing ħamallaġni - the Prince of Hanover urinating in public sort of thing.

Which brings us to the second usage, which has to do with class rather than individuals. To a certain middle-class eye, the ħamalli are people who are fond of hoop earrings, mullet hairstyles, flashy cars referred to in the masculine, tile-clad façades, and frilly wedding dresses. They also tend to address people as 'ħi', talk of 'dik' and 'dak', and flail their arms wildly as they do so.

Ħamallaġni is thought to be a territorial animal, in Malta as elsewhere. Jeremy Clarkson, for example, commonly mocks the 'Cheshire-ishness' of car spoilers and alloy wheels, and the 'Croydon facelift' is not a compliment in contemporary British culture. No prizes for guessing which parts of Malta are imagined to be the prime lumpen candidates.

Things get more interesting if we consider the antonym of ħamalli. 'Puliti''s the word, and it means all those who abhor hoop earrings, mullet lifestyles, and so on. When they blaspheme, they do so in private. If they speak Maltese in public at all, they make sure they soften their 'r's. Ħamalli call this effete, but what do ħamalli know.

Puliti are also keen to maintain a certain aristocratic hauteur. Things like festa and regatta, which involve verve and passion, are not for them. (Incidentally it may well be that the recent Church document on 'restoring' feasts is also a class discourse.) Nor are a bit of noise and fun - puliti weddings, for example, are boring affairs where people stand around talking politics in hushed-up voices. So far so clear, but there are two problems. First, one man's ħamallu is another man's pulit, and it is in fact very difficult objectively to be the latter. One could always move to Ibraġ (soft 'r' at all times), run a family hatchback, wear greys and browns, and pretend not to know the neighbours. As much fun as slitting one's wrists, and less colourful. If we add to this the terrifying possibility of arriviste pulit-hood, there really is no escape.

Second, the word is hardly clinical. I wouldn't recommend walking up to Mr B.I.G. Silencer and explaining he's a ħamallu. Whether or not he thinks he's pulit, you're going to come away with one very black eye indeed. You'd deserve it too, because it's not nice to call people names. Ħamallu, then, is a derogatory word, and pulit a complimentary one.

1 comment:

  1. Good article, but I believe that 'tal-pepe' rather than 'pulit' is a more suitable antonym for 'ħamallu'.