Cumin, pepper and other spices: roots of Maltese racism

Posted in 1 by Editor on September 13, 2010

Remember Paola Maijstral, Pappy Hod’s Maltese wife in Pynchon’s V, saying that the “Maltese think they are a pure race and the Europeans think they’re Semitic, Hamitic, crossbred with North Africans, Turks and God knows what all”? One still meets Maltese readers of this great American novel who are irritated by the reminder that not all in the West regard us – a form of life endemic in this “stone fish (Malta) and Għawdex and the rocks called Cumin-seed and Peppercorn” – as quite Western. This irritation, fuelled by our own unspeakable subterranean doubts regarding our own identity, drives some of us to racism. It is as if by despising those we regard as not Western, we suppress our lack of confidence in our claim to be Western.

Get back to V after you’ve read Colin Calleja, Bernard Cauchi and Michael Grech’s Education And Ethnic Minorities In Malta. At 51 pages, it is a small booklet but a step forward for the self-understanding of those of us that identify themselves as Maltese. This study was commissioned by the Malta partner of e-Spices (Social Promotion of Intercultural Communication Expertise and Skills), a European project involving partners from Belgium, Germany, Greece, Malta, Poland and Turkey.

Mr Calleja, is European coordinator of the Let Me Learn project, has worked in Sudan with the Christian doctrine society MUSEUM and teaches at the Faculty of Education. Mr Cauchi, formerly assistant coordinator of Let Me Learn, teaches history at St Albert’s College. Mr Grech lectures philosophy at the Junior College.

In their words, this study, “explores the relation between institutionalised education and ethnic minorities”. This issue “has for long been considered as irrelevant, owing to a prevalent mistaken belief as to the common ethnic and historical origins and character of the inhabitants of these islands”. They note that “Maltese cultural models tend to promote an essentialist understanding of Maltese history, identity and civilisation”. Referring to a previous paper by Mr Grech, they characterise these templates as a “set of properties and features… believed to be rigid, constant and inflexible”.

These properties and features are promoted by local elites as being eternal, include (quote) “the Catholic religion, a particular language (Italian or, later on, Maltese), descent from a particular ethnic group and certain characteristics like generosity and valour”, the latter imagined as “common to all Maltese”. Within this self-understanding, one “cannot be Maltese and not exhibit these characteristics”. According to this world view, close encounters of our culture – conceived of as always having been as it is now imagined to be, homogenous and monolithic – with another, cannot take place “without corrupting or obliterating” our own.

Our imaginary cultural oneness requires us, firstly, to repress any memory of disturbing elements in Malta’s own culturally and ethnically complex history – even a cursory study of which is enough to dispel any dream of uninterrupted homogeneity – and, secondly, to construct an “other” or, even better, an “enemy”. The authors cite Koster’s Prelates And Politicians In Malta. Under the Order’s regime, he argues, the idea of a common enemy – a confused amalgam of Turks and Arabs, Moslem and black – provided the Maltese “with a reason to accept the rule of a foreign oligarchic clique: it protected them against the ‘horrible Muslims’”. Any extant memories of a Muslim past, therefore, had/has to be extinguished.

The authors point out that, under British rule, Maltese elites demanding a share of power invariably emphasised the otherness of non-European subjects of the Empire and our cultural oneness with our foreign rulers. Admittedly, it took the elites a while to come to terms with the mother country’s own linguistic and religious otherness. Eventually, however, an increasingly idiosyncratic English language replaced Italian and the Protestant bogey was exorcised. Happily, we could now again concentrate on the ultimate “other” and “enemy”, the same Saracen fought by our ancestors under the Knights (albeit the Order regarded the natives as an inferior race). Finally Malta was where “all history seemed simultaneously present” (again, Pynchon).

In these cultural circumstances – which we may dislike but which are nonetheless real – the inflow of predominantly sub-Saharan African asylum seekers since 2002 has caught us psychologically unprepared. Although African immigrants constitute only 1.4 per cent of the population, although they are a fraction of all those of them that landed here, the sight of biblical boatloads has triggered irrational fears of Africanisation and – although many of them are Christians and Catholics – of an Islamisation of this country.

These are the ideal circumstances for racism. This is especially true in times of slow economic growth when workers are subtly and not so subtly encouraged to blame immigrant labour for the increased uncertainty of their future (one way of discouraging them from demanding a wage that enables them to cope with the cost of living) especially by employers with an outrageous record of disrespect for employment laws. It is not enough to condemn racism for it not to spread. The migration of thousands of workers from the parties of the left and centre-left in Europe to racist and xenophobic parties of the far right is principally due to the fact that little was done to address the fears of employees, unemployed and self-employed for their livelihood.

This article appeared in Dr Vella’s regular column on The Times of Malta on September 13, 2010. The original, as well as the online debate it stimulated, may be accessed at  http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20100913/opinion/cumin-pepper-and-other-spices


One Response

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  1. Monalisa said, on September 15, 2010 at 9:38 am

    Our insecurities vis-a-vis our roots and consequent neurosis regarding our longed-for ‘westerness’ is undoubtedly a major factor feeding the growing wave of xenophobia.
    The vast majority of the Maltese are thankfully not passionate enough about their feelings in this respect to militate in right-wing racist groups, but there are vast numbers whose fears of ‘Il-barrani’ stem from the excessive nationalism of mainstream political parties. In the run-up to the EU membership referendum, the fear of ‘foreigners taking our jobs’ on the one hand and the horror of being denied the chance of finally becoming officially European were exploited to the death by both parties, which fears have firmly entered the general Maltese psyche.
    From the point of view of the economy, it would be very short-sighted in terms of eventual social instability, if Government were to embark on a tacit policy of closing an eye to private employment of cheap foreign labour. There are already many Asian women working as carers for children and the elderly in the families of skilled and professional women who are thus enabled to enter the working force. Desirable as such an effect may be in pure GDP terms, it is essential that foreign workers are ensured a proper wage for the sake of social fairness and to avoid ending up with the real problems of the burning Paris ‘banlieus’ and similar.

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