Tuesday, August 21, 2012

This Must Be The Place: Malta

There are places which end up being exactly as you imagined. You imagine Japan is beautiful and alienating to a foreigner, and it essentially is. You think Italy will have gorgeous light, good food, and attractive people on scooters and it does.When travelling, you discover the subtleties of a place but the guts of your expectations will probably be met. Then there are those times when you have no preconceived ideas about your destination, or even more discombobulating and enjoyably, when your notions are proven wrong.

I thought Malta would be chic, like photos I’d seen of Sicily, or perhaps even the south of France. It was not chic, but it was interesting, which is not to say that they are mutually exclusive, only that in Malta’s case I was glad to discover that the realities of the place had exceeded my expectations, in an unexpected fashion; it was different, in a different way.

What I thought was going to be a frivolous vacation island instead struck
me as a diffident, gracious place with idiosyncrasies which reflect its history as a tiny place that has been colonized by a whole bunch of people, starting with the Phoenicians around 1000 BC and only independent from Britain since 1964.

There are three islands: Malta, Gozo, and Comino, where a single family lives
and maintains a bed and breakfast. I heard a lot about a 95 year-old woman who has never left the island, ever. I also heard that it wasn’t unusual for people who live in East Gozo to have never visited West Gozo (the entire island has a population of around 31,000) let alone make the 30-minute ferry ride to Malta. “They enjoy their fields,” shrugged a large man named Ernest when I asked him about it. Maybe there isn’t a connection between the fact that during the second World War Malta was bombed more than any one single place, a record amount that has not been topped since, and the Maltese’s general air of unflappable easiness, but I like to think that the places we visit show us both their past and their present concurrently.

A lot of people don’t know where Malta is or that there is a Maltese language. The small arid island is in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Libya, and its language is a strange hybrid of Italian, Arabic and English with some French thrown in there for good measure. You say “Bonjoo!” when you arrive and “Ciao!” when you go. Every word jumps and kicks: jekk joghbox, haxix. The place names! Birzebbuga! Gharhur! Ta'Xbiex! Xewkija!

The language might be the first indication of just how close Africa is, even though you can’t see it on the horizon. It looms though, in the hot winds that douse everything in sand from the Sahara, and in the people who live on the periphery of this rock and its culture. The Maltese like to say that Sicily, not
northern Africa, is their true neighbor, but the architecture, landscape, and the faces of the people quietly tending bar or walking to the office or tidying up the front patio, all point to the large continent hovering just to the south.

The Church is the strongest bond between Malta and Rome, soccer a close second. The Hospitaller Knights of St. John came to Malta in 1530 after they lost Rhodes to the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent.

Most of their time and energy was spent fighting the Muslim Turks and Malta still celebrates the victory of the Great Siege of 1565, in which the Knights defended the island from a fleet of more than 200 ships and 30,000 men, killing the famed Muslim corsair, Dragut. Statues inside St. John’s Co-Cathedral depict the Grand Masters of the Knights of Malta crushing Ottoman Turks and African slaves.

Old conflicts have not faded with time. “We are a little racist,” a soft spoken Maltese woman told me my first day here. “Xenophobic, perhaps, is a better word. It is not nice to say, but it is true. It’s our weakness.”

Not too far from Malta’s massive shipyards, in a twilight that smells sometimes like horse manure and sometimes like desert blossoms depending on what field you’re passing, I caught a glimpse of a group of women in wrap skirts with their hair covered, walking towards a collection of tents and broken shipping containers. They were lugging plastic bags of groceries and yelling at their kids to stay out of the road.  Illegal immigrants from Africa pile into ramshackle “boats” hoping to get to the EU and wash up on Malta’s coasts, frequently dead. Nights lit by a full moon are busier than others. Those who make it usually end up in one of two refugee camps: one from which people can come and go from as they please, and another that acts as a makeshift prison. Most of the Maltese I asked about the camps seemed
ambivalent on the subject, at least to an outsider. Maybe after a couple of glasses of wine, they might mention that the Africans make an already slim job market even more competitive or that efforts to build another mosque on the island are proving controversial. Malta is 98% Catholic.

The center of Maltese Catholicism and the seat of the Knights of Malta is St. John's Co-Cathedral. Its baroque grandeur is an odd counterpart to the homely temples on both Malta and its smaller neighbor Gozo, which are older and more complex than Stonehenge or Knossos. Forensic anthropologists
and archaeologists believe that the Temple culture of Malta existed for several centuries, with no monarch or central leader, in peace. Then, inexplicably, everyone disappeared and the structures gradually fell apart, forgotten.

On the St. John’s audio tour, the last thing the voice tells you is that "this large box once contained the forearm of John the Baptist -- the hand that baptized Christ. " Who precisely had the forethought to hack off the man's hand before Salome could, I'm not sure, but someone apparently did and then apparently got it to Malta somehow, and it was there for a long long time before one of the Grand Masters fled with it. Why, where, when, and whether the hand was ever brought back, the audio tour declined to say. 

The Knights of Malta were organized into the different langue ("long"), each with their own chapel, with rank signified by distance from the main altar. Each chapel features incredibly ornate busts of different Grand Masters of the langue --sculptures of such fanfare that you'd think that each piece was dedicated to the Grand Master who presided over the Great Siege, or maybe the defense of Acre, but more often than not you’d learn that that Master was in charge 2 years, and commissioned the piece six months into a not particularly eventful tenure. Every spare inch of St. John’s is embellished, most notably its floor made of 405 colorful marble inlaid tombs, contrasting starkly to the dour exterior which reflects the cathedral’s original restrained design. When Baroque came into fashion, Malta didn't want to seem like a backwater in comparison to Rome, so renovations were in order. Regardless, it's the garishness of the cathedral that makes its real relic of worth all the more remarkable: Caravaggio's "The Beheading of St. John The Baptist."

Caravaggio had killed a young man in Rome and fled to Malta to escape scandal and punishment. Securing several commissions in the cathedral, he went so far as to pledge himself as a Knight of Malta, but didn't last long. Eventually he fled Malta as well, but not before finishing this piece, the only painting he ever signed -- in the bright spill of John's blood. I cried, staring at the thing, dumb audio tour machine against my head. It's dark in that area, and the painting is eerie, unnerving with its arresting humanity.

There are no angels descending to witness his death , just two prisoners gazing with bored interest from their own cell. The Baptist has no halo around his head; he's not a saint, just a man. That prison guard is doing his job. It's not martyrdom, just another senseless death in a dark room. An old woman reels, horrified.