Robin Yassin-Kassab

Posts Tagged ‘Malta


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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.

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Written by Robin Yassin-Kassab

October 7, 2011 at 10:29 am