Friday, 13 July 2007

Life on the Maltese Islands: Religion, Sex, Italian Cuisine, and Politics

I was born in Malta, one of the three inhabited Maltese islands. Although I have lived in other countries, most of my life was spent in Malta. Being a keen observer of human behaviour, I would like to report my comments about life on the Maltese islands.

Malta has a very long history. Various foreign powers colonised the country over the centuries. Many say that an analysis of the mixture of peoples, languages, and traditions that was witnessed on the Maltese islands is necessary to understand several aspects of what might be called "Maltese behavioural characteristics".

Broadly speaking, the Maltese society could still be regarded as a theocratic one. Although the influence of the Catholic Church on everyday life has waned during the last decade or so, there are many things which serve as powerful reminders that the Church is still very powerful. Just to mention a few examples, it is impossible for a married couple living in Malta to obtain a divorce (It is said that the Philippines is the only other country where divorce is not allowed.); abortion is illegal; there are over 300 churches spread around the islands; there is no law that allows gay couples to get married...

As an institution, the Catholic Church could be praised for countless projects that it has carried out around the world. The work done by various missionaries to combat disease and poverty is fascinating. Yet, there is no denying the fact that just like any other religion, even the Catholic faith is rooted in dogma. Hence, when a society is strongly influenced by a dogmatic way of perceiving life and the world, the attempt to introduce new perspectives is often met by very heavy resistance. Questioning various religious beliefs or criticising the Church are still frequently frowned upon by several Maltese people, regardless of their age.

Before the use of the Internet revolutionised the ways in which people made friends or even sought a date (not to mention other things!), one of the only ways to socialise was by joining a group that was somewhat related to the Church. To this day, although there are non-religious social groups, many would agree that the amount of people attending the activities held by religious ones is far greater than the number of individuals who are more interested in more secular gatherings.

Any foreigner would probably be amazed at the sheer number of religious feasts that are celebrated in Malta. Such celebrations could easily give the impression that the typical Maltese person is a model Catholic. Of course, there are many Maltese people who strive to emulate Jesus, but there is also a huge amount of hypocrisy. This appears to be most evident when one takes a look at two things: the perceptions of several Maltese individuals concerning irregular immigrants and the ways in which sexual matters are often handled.

Starting with the first issue, I would say that there are numerous individuals who have statutes of various saints all over the home, but who then forget about the concept of viewing other human beings as brothers and sisters. Whenever there is a discussion about irregular immigrants (most of whom are black), one can often hear extremely nasty comments which offend the feelings of any person who believes that all human beings should have the same rights. For many Maltese people, loving one's neighbour does not apply to the thousands of irregular immigrants who came to the Maltese islands during the past few years.

Moving to sexual issues, it might be interesting to note that there are no sex shops in Malta. There are some shops which sell a handful of sex games, but I have never come across a shop selling pornographic movies. When Playboy was introduced in Malta sometime in the 1990s, there was a huge fuss made about this; the magazine - which is incredibly soft-natured compared to what is presently available on the Internet - was perceived by many people as a symbol of sin! Prostitution is apparently not a crime, but soliciting is. The Church's history of promoting chastity and its numerous attempts to tarnish any sexual activities outside marriage as sinful have undoubtedly affected the perceptions of countless Maltese individuals. Even though the younger generations are more open to talk about sexual matters, I often still get the impression that the average Maltese person does not like to portray himself/herself as a sexual being. Hence, even though one is frequently exposed to sexual jokes, any person who attempts to have a frank discussion about sex in a public place is often labelled as a pervert. Again, I believe that this is very hypocritical because some of the most popular Maltese chatrooms on the Internet are packed with sexually-loaded comments! Of course, while online, people can hide behind a nickname and they can, therefore, talk as they please and express their fantasies without any restraint. Although Malta still does not have any sex shops, I can only imagine the number of people that are presently downloading pornographic pictures and videos from the Internet!

Sexual repression in a society is unhealthy in many ways. First, if people never talk openly about sexual matters, it is very likely that ignorance will pollute the minds of countless individuals. Sexual myths and unrealistic expectations could cause a great deal of harm as people try to build and to maintain romantic relationships. Second, if there is fear or shame to analyse sexual issues, it is quite probable that people will seek inappropriate or even damaging remedies to any problems they might have.

Turning to food, the Italian influence on the local cuisine is incredibly evident. Pizza and pasta are among the favourite foods for a large percentage of the Maltese population. Coffee and wine are also consumed in great amounts. These characteristics make the Maltese islands highly attractive to those who are in love with countless Italian dishes such as spaghetti alla carbonara. Of course, there are also some local specialities such as the famous "pastizzi" or rabbit cooked in a wine sauce.

Moving on to politics, there are two big political parties in Malta - the Nationalist Party (Partit Nazzjonalista) and the Labour Party (Partit Laburista). Taking a look at the political spectrum, both parties are currently fairly centrist. This has led certain people to argue that there are presently very few differences between the two parties. I will not delve into this issue here; I will limit myself to saying that belonging to one party or another can still strongly affect a person's life. In order to understand this phenomenon, one must devote a few words to the historical relationship between Malta's principal political parties. During the 1970s and, especially, during the 1980s, there was a great amount of bitterness between the two parties. Indeed, I strongly believe that a civil war could have easily broken out during the 1980s. Even though the political situation in Malta has calmed down a great deal since those times, the memories of certain events are still very fresh in the minds of countless individuals. For this reason, it is possible to find people who will refuse to employ a person simply because of his/her political beliefs. Since the Maltese islands are so small, it is not so difficult to find out who supports which type of party! My dad, who was a fervent Nationalist for many years, always told me that if I wanted to marry a girl that supported the Malta Labour Party, he would not attend my wedding!!!

There are several other things that could be said about life on the Maltese islands; I could write a volume about each matter discussed above! Having said so, I hope that this article serves to throw some light on certain aspects of life on these islands that are hardly, if ever, mentioned by a tourist guide.

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Anonymous said...

Oh my gosh, I can't believe you can't get divorced in Malta. Everybody gets divorced in the U.S. ;-)

Anonymous said...

Interesting realistic review of maltese life welldone!

Very true about political bitterness and one could also add the fact that many people (especially from the south labourite supporters) had to emigrate to the US, Canada and Australia cause they simply couldn't make a living as the 1960's on the island. Infact these days there are more maltese living in these three countries than there are actually living on the island.

re-sex shops and divorce......The church and the perception of the "right moral way to live" brainwashed by the local church has obviously left it's mark in society...nevertheless like in the case of prohibition in the US and underground reaction exists and one can find even sex parties going on!!
divorce will enevitably be introduced by a liberal (democrate) government as the conservative party is too buddie buddie with the church in malta (as it has always been since the early sixties) There are shameful religious-political incidents that scar our history unfortunitly which was counteracted (in my opinion) in the eighties with other political incidents which you refer too as nearly a civil war!
One should add though that Malta seems to have matured politically and socially since than and is now a very stable safe country part of EU

Anonymous said...

I am Maltese by birth but having lived in Australia since age 3 I am not Maltese in any way barring in the mirror. I did think a few years back of retiring to Malta but after two short visits there, I found Malta too alien for me. I was baptised Catholic of course but I dislike and distrut just about all religions, Christianity being one of them. I have my religious views but they have nothing to do with any Near Eastern derived religion like Christianity, Judaism or Islam. My belief system would put me at odds with Maltese people in Malta. It is better for me to stay in Australia than try to fit into Maltese society.
I dislike the Maltese language, Malti. Too Arabic. Nothing wrong with Arabs but Islam and that language is gross.
I feel sorry for you.

Anonymous said...

I assume that Ponto has a maltese background or some maltese relatives...Re his thinking to retire on the Maltese Islands is definetely a NO_No as although english is very well spoken we are not losing the native language for someone like ponto just because he hates the language and therfore also the kindhearted natives.he must also remember that he would also have an `A`on his i.d card number thefore no need to say who the alien is

Anonymous said...

"I dislike the Maltese language, Malti. Too Arabic."

Ofc it is Arabic. You know, about 50% of the vocabulary is from Italian and Sicilian, and 20% from English... that ofc makes the Maltese an Arabic language!

Tom said...

I thought this essay on Malta was very well written, very objective and insightful. Of course religious hypocracy has no national boundry...and the Catholic Church certainly doesn't have a copyright on the matter as it is pervasive in most all ideologies. What fascinates me about Malta is its rich history in the Heart of the Meditteranean. Close to Arab, and African countries, and the rest of the EU and Middle East. The anit arab comments are the Islamic and Arab world is full of extraordinary history, enlightened ideas and advancements in all aspects of culture and life. With Malta being so close to that I can't help but be enchanted. Being an Island always creates some
degree of isolation, but it also provides a fascinating culture. If anyone knows or understands the histoy of language every language is composed of its iinfluences, sounds and ideas through trade and historical interaction, so thats a mute point. At any rate...I appreciate your writing Red Malta, I very much hope to spend time if not live there for extended periods. Thank you

Red said...

Tom: Thanks a lot for your comment! :)

ShereKhan said...

Hi, I've lived in Malta for about two years, and I must say that I start to get bored. Once one has seen and enjoyed the qualities of the country, it remains that the maltese population in average is unskilled and uneducated and this, along with the size of the country, limits seriously the possibilities to encounter interesting people. It is true that the language is as gross as people are, and that this arabic, lax and flaccid mentality underlying a European veneer is not very stimulating. As for maltese women, they show a lot of their bodies, but don't do much with them. While maltese guys are inhibited.

Anonymous said...

I agree with much of the above. I grew up in Malta but had to leave at 18, the country is great for a short holiday but incredibly boring and monotonous after a while as it is just so small. Living there, you will never be exposed to different cultures and opportunities are limited, which means that you are missing out on what the world has to offer. Maltese people can be lovely and down to earth, but they can also be jealous and competitive. Also, when I go back and talk to Maltese people now, I get bored very quickly because they don't have many interesting things to talk about, frankly. On the bright side, Maltese food is amazing, and the people are quite good looking.

Unknown said...

Why get married then?

Unknown said...

Why get married then?