A Cultural Identity between Europe and the Mediterranean

This paper was presented at an international conference entitled, “Between Europe and the Mediterranean: Youth, Towns, Culture”, held in Rome as part of the IX edition of the Biennial Exhibition of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean, in June, 1999.

Although geographically and linguistically Malta lies between Europe and Africa, for many reasons it would perhaps be more correct, or convenient, to say that Malta lies, as the title of this International Conference unintentionally suggests, between Europe and the Mediterranean.

Most Maltese people identify themselves with Europe: Europe is ‘us’; the Mediterranean, which is often identified with the South, is ‘them’. This is not to say that the Maltese feel they are fully-fledged continental Europeans; there probably aren’t many islanders anywhere who consider themselves full members of an adjacent continental mass, and the Maltese are no exception. But because the Maltese have shared the same religion and culture (the Catholic religion has played, and still plays a leading role in the moulding of our culture) with Europe for centuries, and because the Europeans colonised Malta for a thousand years after the Arabs surrendered the islands to the Normans in 1090, most Maltese feel culturally closer to Europe. The Europeans are seen as trend-setters while the Mediterranean is equated with sun, sea, irresoluble conflicts and a rich, obsolete cultural heritage.

In a survey carried out by sociologist Dr. Anthony M. Abela in 1995, the Maltese were asked which of the following they felt most part of: their village or town; their district, Malta, the countries of the Mediterranean, Europe, the Western countries and the world. The results were then compared to the results of a similar survey held in Spain. According to the survey, most Maltese people, 65% of them, see themselves primarily as citizens of their country (Il-Óarsien Soðjali fis-Snin Disæin, Institute of Social Welfare, 1996) and only 6% of the Maltese and 2% of the Spaniards think of themselves as citizens of Europe. As regards the Mediterranean, what emerges in a very clear way is that while 22% of the Spaniards feel that they are citizens of the Mediterranean, only 2% of the Maltese identify themselves with the Mediterranean.

Two Political Slogans

The idea that Malta lies between Europe and the Mediterranean is an all-time favourite of Maltese post-colonial politics. In the mid-1990s, the Malta Labour Party led by Alfred Sant resuscitated one of Dom Mintoff’s slogans originally used in the 1950s. Malta, according to this slogan, will become a Svizzera fil-Mediterran, ‘A Switzerland in the Mediterranean’.

Political slogans rarely manage to capture the complexities of life and the policies that tend to shape and get shaped by it; ‘A Switzerland in the Mediterranean’ is no exception. Political metaphors are designed to simplify what the public views as highly complex issues, making them tangible and understandable. Perhaps the greatest limitations of the Svizzera fil-Mediterran slogan are that it ties the ideal vision of Malta to a particular country and to a set of relatively ‘remote’, idealised postcards, even though politicians have beefed the slogan up by insisting on what they perceive as the ideal Swiss concept of political neutrality. However, the Maltese politicians of the 1970s were not the first to idealize Switzerland and use it as a metaphor for another country. After the Second World War, politicians in Europe talked of Lebanon as the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’.

The resuscitation of this slogan in the 1990s does not reflect well on Labour’s policy regarding either national identity or foreign affairs; Swiss culture and life in general are not Mediterranean, so the metaphor has no depth because it only works on a limited, superficial level, namely that of political neutrality. Notwithstanding its clear limitations, it must be said that this slogan has stirred what observers of such political metaphors call ‘positive emotions’.

The slogan is symptomatic of Malta’s position between Europe and the Mediterranean, because it puts together Switzerland, the idealized neutral, prosperous European country, and the Mediterranean. In its 1998 electoral manifesto, the Labour Party talks about the ‘Maltese road to Europe’, a road that consolidates Malta’s focal position at the centre of the Mediterranean. The Maltese are European and Mediterranean: note the order.

But in 1998, the Labour Party promoted another slogan too: Id-dar Maltija fl-Ewropa (‘The Maltese House in Europe’). It is not clear whether id-dar Maltija means ‘the Maltese House’ or ‘the Maltese Home’, because the Maltese word ‘dar’ does not distinguish between ‘house’ and ‘home’, probably because it doesn’t need to. This is an interesting point. The cornerstone of the so-called Mediterranean way of life, of so-called Mediterranean culture is the home. In the Mediterranean, the family is the focal institution; it often comes before the community, before the Church, before the State, before the Party and even before the individual. If the house or home our politicians are talking about is a typical Maltese home then one would expect it to be the fort or defensive redoubt that anthropologists have observed in many parts of the Mediterranean. In rural Andalusia, one owes primary allegiance to one’s household, to those, as anthropologist David Gilmore puts it, ‘with whom one shares a private and secret life’. In this sense, the world as portrayed by this metaphor is typically divided into us (the Maltese) and them (the others), that is the Europeans. This is hardly consonant with the stated EU ideal of European social, cultural, political and economic union. What ‘New Labour’ seems to be proposing is the shifting of the island-fortress of Malta from its location at the heart of the Mediterranean Basin to another location at the heart of Europe. But an island-fortress it will nonetheless be.

This point leads us to a discussion of what the main political parties in Malta, that is the pro-European Union Nationalist Party which is now in government and the Malta Labour Party mean when they say Mediterranean. The Labour Party sees the Mediterranean region as both a geographical and a political region, not as a cultural reality. The Mediterranean is not seen as a cultural baggage that is relevant to Malta’s elusive national identity. The peoples of the Mediterranean happen to be our neighbours, so it is natural that we should befriend them and promote peace in our neighbourhood. Most Maltese people do not see the Mediterranean region as our home: it is our residence. As central Mediterranean islanders, many other Mediterranean peoples have crossed our path, and that supposedly makes our role as peace brokers in our region more pressing. But otherwise, we are Europeans.

This second, more recent slogan in particular, and the 1998 electoral manifestos in general, do not shed much light on our politicians’ views on national identity. And yet Labour has repeatedly warned that as a full member of the EU Malta will jeopardize its national identity. The fact is that our politicians haven’t given much thought to what this elusive ‘national identity’ might be and Labour’s slogans don’t augur well.

The rationale behind these slogans is wrong-headed. From a cultural point of view, whether we choose to join the European Union or not is essentially beside the point. We may be full, active members of the EU and respect our mediterranean identity; we may be outside the EU and ignore our mediterranean characteristics. The EU may, or may not prompt us to search, or come to terms, with our Mediterranean ‘soul’. What is important is that we decide to embark on a creative, soul-searching exercise of cultural self-awareness. Promoters of Malta’s membership in the EU, namely the Nationalist Party (but also Alternattiva Demokratika) claim that full membership will create the right environment for the promotion of such a process of cultural self-awareness; detractors believe that the Union will jeopardize our national identity.

But really only the Maltese can decide whether to embark on their own much-awaited journey of cultural self-awareness. This journey must start from the Mediterranean, not only because Malta lies at the so-called ‘heart’ of the region, but also because ‘it is clear,’ quoting from Russell King’s essay on Mediterraneanism, ‘that on physical, cultural and historical criteria the Mediterranean presents itself as a more unified region than either Europe or Africa’. In this process of self-identification and culture planning, Mediterranean Malta must take into account the fact that ‘it is the multi-layered interactions between physical, cultural and contemporary social and economic geographies which define the essence of the Mediterranean landscape and Mediterranean life, and which make the littoral regions of the Mediterranean states cohere as a recognisable geographical entity.’

In a provocative passage in what he calls his ‘handbook’ of the Mediterranean, Predrag Matvejevic claims that mediterraneity is not something you inherit, but something you achieve; it is not an advantage, but a decision you make. Anyone could become mediterranean; ‘they say,’ writes Matvejevic, ‘that there are increasingly less true mediterraneans in the Mediterranean Sea.’.

This implies that the Mediterraneans can choose not to be Mediterranean: according to Professor Tonino Perna, ever since the unification of Italy, the South of Italy has been progressively integrating with the powerful areas of the North. The South’s economic exchange with the Mediterranean countries has been slowly decreasing. On the cultural level, the homologation of the new generations has produced a profound detachment from the Mediterranean roots of the culture of the South. This escape from the Mediterranean has been accelerated by the eurocentric ideology that has been imposed on us by the mass media.

The situation in Malta is similar. Perna talks of ‘bringing’ the Italian South back to the Mediterranean; in our case it’s about time we brought Malta back to the Mediterranean. This point about choosing to be Mediterranean does not contradict the other point about the existence of Mediterranean culture/s and about Maltese culture being inevitably tied to the Inner Sea. Choosing to be Mediterranean respects what Perna calls our Mediterranean roots and ensures that we do not throw away what geography and history have given us; moreover, choosing to be Mediterranean is not an exercise in archaeology but a well-thought out process that shapes the future by taking into account our past and present. Choosing to be Mediterranean is a challenging, creative process that will enable the Maltese people to understand themselves and to shape their future.

Adrian Grima | Published in The Sunday Times, Malta, (17 October, 1999)


Part Two: Promoting Cultural Identity

In the first part of this paper, it was argued that although geography and language place Malta in the Mediterranean, practically midway between Europe and Africa, our political and cultural aspirations lie further north. Moreover, Maltese perceptions of the Mediterranean are limited to its geographical dimension and to commonplaces about the region.

An informed reassessment of Malta’s cultural baggage by the Maltese would bring our Mediterranean roots to the fore. But this process should not be infected by the same viral clich’s that the Mediterranean tourist industry sells to its clients, because that would, at least partially, distort the truth, or truths, and lead us nowhere. It was suggested that Malta should, perhaps for the first time in its history, chooseto be Mediterranean. In other words, it was nature that first chose the  Mediterranean for the Maltese; now it is high time for the Maltese to make this choice themselves – a cultural decision.

One possible objection is this: the Maltese have been Mediterraneans without being aware of the antropological implications of being Mediterranean from time immemorial. Whether they realise it or not, whether they decide it or not, they are and will always be Mediterranean. But in reality, cultures, like plants and creatures, are being wiped off the face of the earth by forces which are greater than them: some people would call these forces cultural globalization, or homogenization, or homologation. Whatever you call them, whatever they are, they’re consciously or unconsciously pushing whole cultures to the fringes and then letting them fall off alone.

A Determined, Enigmatic Poet

What follows is an attempt to analyse the role of the Maltese writer in Malta’s search for a cultural identity, taking the lead from a fictional character created by Maltese post-Independence novelist Frans Sammut in Samuraj (1975). The fictional character is called Xandru, Maltese for Alexander. He is perhaps one of our small literature’s most enigmatic figures.

Xandru is about 22 years old. He describes himself as a free butterfly. He is an unemployed, skinny young man with long hair who presents himself as a poet. Both Xandru the Poet and Samwel, the protagonist of the novel, are ill at ease with the small, rural community in which they live; both despise the way the community tries to control their lives. One of the important differences between the Poet and the protagonist is, however, that the Poet is a thinker, an intellectual. The protagonist moves away from the rest of the community because he feels them breathing down his neck; on the other hand, Xandru the Poet faces them squarely and fights back. The different ways their stories end reflect their different approaches: Samwel takes his own life because in the circumstances he feels he has no alternative; but the Poet is taken away by force by the nurses of the mental institution. Samwel takes his own path to the very end; the Poet fights back and loses: his seemingly unlimited freedom is much more fragile than he thought: imprisonment is a phone call away.

The Poet’s story would not have been relevant to us today if it had not been a metaphor of Malta’s creative environment. The novel I am referring to is full of images of frigidity and infertility. Many important characters are unable to have children: the protagonist, on the other hand, refuses to have children because he does not want to inflict on his offspring the suffering his father inflicted on him. This is symbolized by the fact that Samwel, the protagonist leaves his fertile fields fallow like his father did before him. Samwel himself realises that the sorry state of his potentially fertile fields would bring tears into his proud grandfather’s eyes. When he eventually embarks on a plan to revitalize his farm and makes noteworthy progress, he is spiritually ambushed by the village community.

The Poet’s story must be seen in this wider context: the asphyxiating village kills every form of life. The Poet’s freedom cannot last long, because he uses it to challenge the community’s right to dominate the lives of ‘erring’ individuals like Samwel. His challenge cannot be ignored, not only because he targets the Church, which is by far the most powerful institution in the village, but also because it undermines the moral, social, political, and economic power of the community. The Poet threatens the status quo, the established order, and this marks the end of his apparently boundless freedom: the butterfly, as he himself unwittingly predicts, is caught in a net and taken away for re-education or permanent exile. This makes Xandru the Poet the novel’s greatest outsider.

Xandru is an enigmatic figure because the characters in the novel repeatedly suggest that he is out of his mind, that the look in his eyes is not normal, that he has the devil inside him. Even his friend Samwel sees this devilish look in his blood-red eyes, but we are not given any independent confirmation, so to say. Everything from his physical appearance, to his ideas and his language make him the ultimate ‘Other’. The parish priest talks about his ‘crazy eloquence’. Like Samwel he doesn’t seem to have a family, either, and this symbolically means that nature has itself uprooted him. The family is the focal institution in the Mediterranean, and socially and culturally speaking, both Samwel and Xandru lack that focus, that point of reference.

The parish priest with whom Xandru argues with vigour describes him as a poetaster and considers him insane even before the young poet jumps onto his desk to dance and destroy whatever comes into his path. But the priest’s judgement of Xandru’s ability to write poetry is both unfair and uninformed. Xandru complains to Samwel that in Malta poets and artists in general are not judged on artistic merits: it’s not a question of how good your poetry is, but of who you are, or what your connections are. In such a frigid environment, real, free art cannot flourish.

This talk about whether Malta offers fertile ground for art to grow is very much in line with the symbolism of infertility with which the novel abounds. Today we know, of course, that no art can be judged on its own merits, because those exclusive, objective, ideal merits do not exist. But Xandru’s point about the fertility of the cultural environment is clear enough, especially when one keeps in mind that the anonymous Village (written with a capital V throughout the novel) is a metaphor of Malta. The priest, who is the most powerful person in the village, the leader and the epitome of the community, cannot understand Xandru’s anger because he cannot understand, or accept, Xandru’s unorthodox ways and his iconoclastic views about the Catholic Church and its behaviour in the Village. The parish priest cannot understand why Xandru takes somebody else’s suffering so much to heart. Xandru claims that for the parish priest, people are just numbers; ‘The individual’, he tells the parish priest, ‘means nothing to you.’

The poet makes a number of clear cultural choices which are relevant to us today: he writes in Maltese, his native language, but he also adopts ‘haiku’, a Japanese poetical form. He is aware that people ignore poets and artists, and that many neither understand nor appreciate his poetry; for him, connecting with one person is enough. What he cannot put up with, though, is people abusing their power to subdue the individual.

His meetings with Samwel show that he is both sensitive and perceptive. When he meets the parish priest face to face for the first time he is immediately aware of the priest’s patronizing/condescending attitude and then of his attempts to ridicule him. These attitudes are part of the priest’s attempts to browbeat the young infidel, to dominate him, even to monopolize his language, but Xandru sticks to his guns and to his challenging language which contrasts sharply with the priest’s stock answers and absolute truths. This is an important cultural and intellectual statement which is, needless to say, relevant to us today too.

Another point to be made is that Xandru is close to nature. His sensitivity towards people who are victimized by the community and by the institutions and his affinity with nature are manifestations of his spiritual and intellectual openness. It is the creative openness which the Maltese need to foster if they are to reassess their cultural identity and plan ahead. Xandru is respectful of his immediate natural environment and this is something the Maltese will have to keep in mind when re-examining their cultural heritage and their way forward. The conservation of what is left of their natural environment should be at the top of their agenda, but most Maltese politicians refuse to tackle the issue head on because they calculate that it does not make any electoral sense.

A Conclusion

Xandru describes himself as a free butterfly, but the butterfly is only as free as the community allows it to be. Without the community’s consent, Xandru’s creativity is seriously hampered. Moreover, although the individual’s freedom to be creative is an important issue here, we are talking about a whole nation’s cultural journey: this demands more than mere consent. This demands conviction.

Adrian Grima (June, 1999)

Published in The Sunday Times, Malta, (17-24 October, 1999)




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