Reportage / 24 September 2019

Stage Hands of the World Theater

Malta or How to find one's place in the world among a ton of historical burden, overfactitious contentment and lingering self-doubt.

At the end of the 1970s, British network ITV produced an espionage series titled The Sandbaggers which, even though largely forgotten, was highly regarded by television critics at the time, and to this day maintains a cult following in the more obscure corners of the internet. In the last scene of the show's final episode, a senior agent of Her Majesty's Secret Intelligence Service sits calmly on the bench of Valletta's Upper Barakka Gardens, overlooking Malta's Grand Harbour, and commits suicide by swallowing a Zyankali tablet after having been unmasked as a double agent working for both MI6 and the KGB. The reason why this scene is significant is because it represents one of the rare cases in which the country's scenery does not stand in for another place. Throughout film history, the medieval architecture of Malta's cities and its rugged countryside have been serving countless times as stand-ins for other, usually more famous, if not entirely fictitious places; but most television audiences and moviegoers around the world would never know that. 

From large-scale ventures like the first season of HBO's fantasy blockbuster Game of Thrones to pseudo-historical epics such as Troy, Steven Spielberg's terrorist drama Munich, or By the Sea, the swan song to Brad Pitt's and Angelina Jolie's marriage: The only way to find out that a considerable number of the scenes constituting them have been shot on Malta is if one decides to read the fine print in the credits. 

But can you really blame the movie people for not giving the archipelago the recognition it deserves? The brawny charm of the original King's Landing, the vast battlefields of ancient Troy, the tense atmosphere of Tel Aviv in the 1970s, the seductive qualities of the French Rivera: Malta makes it easy for them, as its landscape doesn't merely provide them with a cheap substitute, but more often than not with an even better version of the original. 

Not that its inhabitants, of which there are barely half a million, have been suffering much from not getting enough credit for providing the backdrop to these stories. When one spends some time on Malta, it even feels like most of them are secretly proud of the fact that their country is rarely acknowledged. The general consensus seems to be that while the people living in the rest of the world watch these tales unfold amid rugged coastlines, picturesque villages, quaint towns and immemorial cities all believe these places to be elsewhere, for the Maltese, knowing that, in reality, they are theirs and theirs alone is good enough. 

It is not in the least Malta's peculiar geographic location that has contributed to this mentality. No matter from which angle you look at it: Above everything else, Malta meets the very definition of what constitutes ‘the periphery’; an archipelago on the crossroads of civilizations, located not on the edge of one, but indeed of several worlds at once. The shores of the continent, the political and economic union of which it joined in 2004, are almost as far away from its capital as those of the Maghreb. But even if the Maltese people have, historically and culturally, always felt closer to Rome and Athens than to Tripoli and Tunis, that doesn't necessarily mean they always perceive themselves as Europeans. Today one easily forgets that the vote on joining the EU in 2003 was a lot closer than in any other of the nine countries that had applied for admission to the confederation at that time. Only the tiniest of majorities, about 20,000 of 270,000 votes cast, made all the difference concerning the question of whether the former British colony should stay autonomous, or hand over parts of its national sovereignty to Brussels. 

In this day and age, there's probably no other public figure who embodies the metamorphosis Malta has undergone since then like the man who's been leading the country for the past six years. Back in the early 2000s, a dyed-in-the-wool socialist firebrand named Joseph Muscat was considered one of the island's most prominent young opponents of EU membership, fighting the Partit Nazzjonalista (Nationalist Party), which advocated for joining the union, tooth and nail. Somewhat telling, Muscat only shed his scepticism towards a more united Europe after serving a term as a Member of the European Parliament, subsequently making it a launchpad for his political rise back home which catapulted him all the way to the Auberge de Castille, the Maltese equivalent of the White House.

To this day, the locals – among them many who have never voted for him – like to show foreigners a YouTube video in which Muscat, who is 45now, starts giving a speech in front of the Strasburg branch of the European Parliament. He cuts it short, not even a minute in, because he realizes that none of the interpreters present are able to translate his Maltí into one of the three procedural EU languages (French, German, English). Then, the Honourable MEP furiously turns towards the parliamentary chair, accusing him not only of gross incompetence but flat-out chauvinism: ‘That's what we get when you say that Maltese is an official language of the European Union (...) What is the EU's official, written assurance worth, saying that we can speak our own language here? Give us our own language or thank you and good-bye’! 

Back home, appearances like this earned Muscat so much sympathy and goodwill from a population still unsure about its place in the new Europe, and within the new world order at large, that he quickly rose to the top of the Partit Laburista, the Labour Party. He went on to win the general elections in 2013, making him the youngest prime minister ever leading an EU member state at that time. But this being Malta, his rise came at a high price, for him as well as for the international reputation of his country. 

When, in the early afternoon of 16 October 2017, a remote-controlled bomb exploded near a field road in the rural hamlet of Bidnija, killing prominent journalist Daphne Caruana Galicia, the majority of Maltese blamed Muscat and his government for her death. The 53-year-old Galicia, whose unique brand for more than three decades consisted of mixing investigative journalism with highly personal attacks against the members of Malta's political establishment, had claimed that, while sorting through the so-called ‘Panama Papers’, she had come across a Panamanian shell company used for money laundering, and an Azerbaijani bank account used for dishing out bribes, both of which she tied to Muscat's wife. 

The body of the murdered journalist hadn't turned cold yet when her family, supported by tens of thousands of people, took to the streets and demanded for Europol and the FBI to be called in to investigate Daphne Caruana Galicia's killing. They simply did not trust the local judiciary and the police to handle the case properly. In terms of politics, the distrust the Maltese show for authority on a regular basis goes just as deep. 

Yet, compared to the rest of Europe, much more of them participate in parliamentary elections – on the last ballot, in June 2017, a whopping 92 percent of eligible voters went to the polls – that doesn't necessarily mean they trust the system. Quite to the contrary. A widespread sentiment against the political class is not an unusual reaction given the mysterious circumstances of Galicia's murder and the general perception of the island as a remote tax haven which has, for instance, turned into an Eldorado for gambling and betting companies from all over the planet. It is not for nothing that the newest industry Malta is becoming known for is the cryptocurrency business which, in our day and age, for good reason, appears to reliably assemble the shadiest of shady actors. 

At the same time, the mass protests following the controversial journalist's death were also an expression of a widespread feeling of helplessness among many of today's Maltese; the prevailing sentiment being that, despite all efforts, at the end of the day, the young nation is still not up to the task of governing itself properly because the checks and balances which constitute the hallmarks of any liberal Western democracy just aren't working here the way they're supposed to. (If they exist at all in a two-party system that, very much like in the US, leads to the kind of extreme partisanship which tends to result in quashing any free-wheeling debate about fundamental questions from the get-go.)

To put it even more drastically: The reactions of the Maltese public to Galicia's murder – including a good number of conspiracy theories surrounding her death – can also be interpreted as just the latest result of a centuries-long history of authoritarian rule and oppression that has left deep scars on the collective psyche.

For over 250 years, until Napoleon's forces finally liberated the island, the Knights of St. John had ruled Malta with an iron fist. They did as they pleased—and why not? It was literally their private property, bestowed upon them as a gift by the Holy See as a thank-you for their loyal services after Suleiman the Magnificent had kicked them out of Rhodes for good. After successfully keeping the Ottomans from gaining a foothold on the continent, surviving siege after siege, the descendants of the original crusaders managed to establish Malta as a major trading port, but above all they seem to have been focussed entirely on one thing and one thing only: Building as many places of worship as humanly possible. 

Today, the nation averages one church per square kilometre, one for every day of the year, making Malta the undisputed champion of Europe in that category. (Just one of several bizarre records the country has been setting lately: Thanks to the blessings of the local cuisine, in comparison to other EU member states, Malta's population is by far the most obese. Also, the Maltese traditionally dominate the world rankings in illegally killing migratory birds.) Hence, even if Malta is nowadays leading the EU in granting full human rights to homosexual and transsexual people, the influence of members of the clergy, whose privileges had been left virtually untouched even by the protestant Brits, who ruled the archipelago from 1800 to 1974, is still palpable. 

A fact that, surprisingly enough, is also true regarding the strange legacy of the man who took up the political struggle against the remnants of colonial rule in the second half of the 20th century, as well as the one against the British' traditional local allies, the Church and the Nationalist Party. It was a fight that pushed the country close to civil war.

Dominic ‘Dom’ Mintoff died in 2012 at the tender age of 96. The first time the little man from Bormla started clashing with Malta's powers-that-be came in the post-war period, when he first became prime minister. At the time still a supporter of Malta becoming a part of the United Kingdom, Mintoff, who as a young man had been sent to Oxford to study architecture in the late 1930s and married a UK citizen of both Dutch and British nobility, took a sharp turn towards isolationism after integration had failed. The reasons for his change of heart was partly born of political opportunism, partly out of historical experience: Because the Italians and their Nazi allies had wanted to cut off the British supply route to Africa during World War II at all costs, between 1940 and 1942 no other country in the world received a higher share of Axis bombs than the tiny archipelago in the middle of the Mediterranean. At that time, also a fact largely forgotten today, it had literally been the most-bombed place on the planet.

The lesson Mintoff took from his country's role in the war, and the massive brain drain it suffered from as soon as it had ended, might sound highly problematic from today's perspective. Of course, this didn't change the fact that, over time, the core of the political message for which Mintoff, at least for a certain period of time, became famous for around the world, fell on fertile ground within large sections of the island's population. 

‘Malta First’: After the talks of joining the UK in the 1950s had failed once and for all, according to Mintoff, never again should the island and its people serve merely as pawns for any great power, but they should become truly independent. Hence, when he and the Labour Party came back to power in the early 1970s, he translated this philosophy into concrete policies. This happened much to the chagrin of the church, the Conservative Party and its Western allies, and very much to the delight of dictators like Muammar Gaddafi and Tunisia's Habib Bourguiba, who happily welcomed him to their club of – supposedly – socialist, anti-colonial and bloc-free nations. When Mintoff became the first Western European head of government to make an official state visit to Mao's China in 1972 (about a month after Richard Nixon), there wasn't a single Western powers' foreign office left in which alarm bells about the direction Malta was heading weren't ringing at full volume.

While unpredictability became a hallmark of Mintoff's foreign policy, on the home front he managed to turn the tables on the British. By the time he and his entourage took their places in the Auberge de Castille, her Majesty's Royal Navy still considered Valletta's Grand Harbour essentially a domestic port, paying only the smallest of fees to dock there with its NATO allies. After years of virtually making sure that negotiations went nowhere, by the end of the decade, Mintoff had succeeded in throwing them out. On 31 March 1979, the last battleship mounted with the Union Jack on its bow left Malta for good. Since then, March 31 is celebrated on the island every year as ‘Freedom Day’. 

Today, with the notable exception of a considerable number of buildings built in the brutalist style typical for the period, most visible traces of the Mintoff era have largely vanished from view. Still, if one dives deeper into Malta's contemporary political battles, more often than not one discovers that, in the minds of many Maltese, the legacy of the man they called ‘The Architect’ still feels much more alive than his former opponents would like to admit. To prove this point, the only thing one has to do is to skip through the pages of the Times of Malta. The island's paper of record, founded in 1935, first served as a mouthpiece for the British colonialists, and after independence seamlessly fulfilled the same role for the Archbishop and the Conservative Party – the reader cannot help but think that its columnists are seriously still afraid that the old man and his motley band of questionable advisors might rise from their graves at any given moment, proclaiming what they consider revolution. 

What a political culture like this can lead to can currently be studied first-hand in the US, where a third of the population has seriously convinced themselves that Donald Trump is a devout Christian and Hillary Clinton the devil incarnate. Hence, if one throws in the usual kind of misrepresentation, if not outright suppression of historical memory that has never done any nation any good, in theory all the ingredients for future disaster could be considered to be in place on Malta. Why it nevertheless won't happen is because of the Maltese people who, after all they've been through, are still so full of doubt about themselves and their country's place in the world that, just like in the movies, they seem to have become content with their role as serving merely as a backdrop, as invisible stage hands in the big theatre that is the world. 

And why not? After all, it might be the most rewarding job there is.


JM Stim

aka Klaus Josef Stimeder is an author and a journalist who lives in Los Angeles, California. In Germany and Austria the former war correspondent became known as the founder and publisher of political monthly Datum. In the US and Canada he is mostly known for his 2011 book Here is Berlin.