Malta is a speck or three of rock distantly cradled by the Tunisian-Libyan coastline, south of Sicily, midway between Gibraltar and Suez. It’s an ideal location for a Mediterranean Literature Festival.
Megalithic people built temples here six thousand years ago. The Phoenicians established a trading colony. The Greeks and Romans valued the place for its honey (and the Greek word for honey-sweet – Melite – is one possible origin for the name). For a few centuries Malta was ruled by Arab dynasties; a foundational period of immersion in that civilisation which brought in the Siculo-Arabic language, precursor to modern Maltese.
The language is Malta’s idiosyncracy: half Arabic in vocabulary, more than half in structure. The verbs, prepositions and pronouns are Arabic. The rest is mainly Italian. The air hostess asked us to store our bags ‘fowq raasikum’. When we landed she said ‘saha wa grazia!’ In the airport before the return flight I needed no translation for ‘Wait Behind the Yellow Line’ – Stenna Wara l-Linja s-Safra. (The only word there which isn’t Arabic is ‘linja’.) There is, I think, controversy over the extent of Arabic influence on the language. Our tour guide was certainly downplaying it. On the other hand, the Maltese prose writers and poets I met seemed very proud of the heritage. The writer Albert Marshall called Arabic ‘the mother’, and told me how, as he saw it, the gutturals of Semitic jostling Romance language softnesses offer a tremendous sound range for the poet.
It’s fiercely Catholic, which no longer means the Inquisition but only a gentle conservatism freeing the streets from drunken crowds, despite the presence of northern tourists. For centuries the islands were ruled by the Knights of St. John, a pan-European erstwhile Crusading venture. The Knights’ Cross (which flies on the flag) is stretched to eight points to represent the eight languages spoken by the Knights. The Maltese language is not one of them; indeed native Maltese were excluded from the order. A colonised people, therefore.
In 1565 the islands withstood a siege by the Ottoman empire. Eventually they fell into British hands. The British naval base was crucial to campaigning during the Second World War, and was therefore besieged by the Germans. (A good part of Thomas Pynchon’s novel “V” is set here during the siege.) Many Maltese have Italian names. Some have English names. Most are North African in physical appearance, although many bear northern European features and skin tones.
So Malta is a site of cultural interplay par excellence, just about the perfect location for meeting such writers: Tunisian poet and revolutionary Awlad Ahmad; French apocalyptic poet (and author of a novel on the Algerian War of Independence) Stephane Chaumet; Syrian feminist poet Rasha Omran; Maltese novelist Clare Azzopardi; Cypriot writer Nicki Marangou; Sudanese-Egyptian poet Tarek el-Tayyeb; poet and prose-writer Yasser AbdelLatif, Egyptian-Sudanese; and short story writer Mona el-Shemy, from Upper Egypt. I was flown in for forty-eight hours, but the others had attended a week-long translation workshop. As a result, texts were read on stage in their own language, then read again in English, Spanish, French, Arabic, Maltese. Alexandra Buchler of Literature Across Frontiers managed the workshop. Inizjamed ran the festival. It was the British Council who flew me in and put me up, and the BC’s Ingrid Eomois who made sure I was comfortable and happy.
I liked the heat, the shell fish, the temples and the turquoise-emerald water (which I jumped into twice). I liked the writers and their revolutionary conversation very much. But I’ll end my report with a complaint: forty eight hours was not nearly enough.