Malta.. A Nation Living in a Castle

Malta.. A Nation Living in a Castle

Has Mount Etna ejected enough lava to build a nation? Are they islets split from North Africa and settled halfway between two worlds thousands of years ago? Have they derived their brightness and sharp claws from the sun to show invaders that they are indomitable. That invited humans, birds and flowers to live in peace and quiet there.

Despite its remoteness and shelter behind the Mediterranean waves, Malta, the land of pointed rocks, witnessed a succession of colonists who left a military mark on it, each adding further fortifications, thinking that would lengthen their stay there. That s why Malta has become a nation living in a huge castle.

Malta Malta I wonder where on the map this country is. I heard about it twice: When the strong European football teams scored more than half a dozen goals against its team. Secondly, Maltese fever . I checked the map and located Malta.

The first question that crossed my mind was: Isn t it more logical that this archipelogo is part of Africa rather than Europe? But when was logic the norm in geography and history? Take these examples: Britain considers Gibraltar, which is a Spanish territory, part of it; Spain considers Ceuta and Mellila, which lie on the Moroccan coast, part of it.

Valetta and the old country

I first thought that flights from Beirut to Limassol, or from Kuwait to Bahrain, the shortest until it was departure time from Catania airport in Sicily (Italy) to Malta airport. Flight time was the period between fastening and unfastening the seat belt.

Malta is only 316 km2 in area including the capital Valetta. It is an old country whose narrow streets were designed for an earlier age. You never get lost there; as if all its landmarks were around you and you didn t need to go around them. The streets slope down then rise again, and when it rains they become extremely slippery, and what makes things worse is that they hardly allow two cars to run in opposite directions, and when a minor accident occurs, traffic is held up in the whole area.

Improvements to make life easier, such as heating, communications and drainage, were carried out too gently to notice with the naked eye, a difficult task as most of the existing buildings are forbidden to demolish. That s why there are no modern high-rise towers in Malta. Nightlife matches the country s quiet, except for a few places in St Julian area, where Malta s only cinema is. As there are no rivers in Malta and rainfall is low, it suffers from water shortage. Buses are the main means of transport between Malta s cities and towns, and ships carry people between its main islands. Malta s old buses are unique in shape and colour.

Have we actually left our countries?

Having a short rest in a café in central Valletta, (named after its founder St La Vallette), during which I made some notes and had a cup of unsweetened coffee after a long journey on foot from Sliema to Valletta, I saw an old woman from afar walking slowly towards us. She had a bent back and carried a walking stick in her right hand and a basket of vegetables in the left. As she came nearer I noticed how her face was all wrinkled and old.

She was greeted by every shopkeeper she passed by, and she returned the greetings without looking up at the shopkeepers probably because she was quite familiar with their voices or her neck didn t allow her to nod. Some of them talked loudly to the old woman, some of whose words were unmistakably Arabic. Everybody offered to help her by carrying the basket, but she refused pointedly. She stopped at a door which she knocked on, and when it opened she was surrounded by her grandchildren whom she kissed one by one warmly, standing erect in a youthful manner. As I paid the bill and was on my way out of the café, the mashrabiya (oriel window) opened and the same old woman appeared and upon uttering some words, another mashrabiya opened out of which another old woman looked. I wondered whether I was really in a European country! The warm social relations and the colourful mashrabiyas on house facades make you look closely hoping to see a beautiful face which looks at passers-by to relieve boredom or waits for the lover. Victorias are still alive and well. People have Eastern social habits in terms of speech and favourable attitudes to strangers. As far as the features are concerned, I don t think I was far away from Beirut, Tunis or Cairo.

The Maltese Arabic tongue

We heard people using Arabic words. Harbour signs carry the word marsa (meaning berth ). A Maltese newspaper is called Illum . As for numerals they are purely Arabic. Maltese is a mixture of Arabic and Italian. The Arabic influence comes from north African dialects; the Italian from the Sicilian dialect due to geographic adjacency. English is widely used in Malta, and the Maltese have the best command of English in Europe.

The Arab-Islamic conquest of Malta was a continuation of the Islamic presence in Sicily led by the Aghalibs, the Abbasids governors of Tunisia. The Aghalib army conquered Malta in 870 during the reign of Prince Muhammad II. That helped introduce Arabic and mix it with Maltese even after the departure of the Muslims.

Mdina, a major Maltese town, has retained its Arabic name. It has a special status, being the former capital of Malta before Valletta. It is a fortified town with a distinctive architectural style and many palaces of aristocratic families. Due to its narrow streets, it is inaccessible by car. In Mdina we watched a short documentary film about the history of Malta and the succession of powers which colonised it the Phoenicians, Romans, Muslims, Normans, St John s Knights, French and British. The most interesting thing in the film is the stratagem used by the Maltese to avert the threat of Ottoman naval blockade in 1565. Women were dressed in soldiers clothes so that the city s defenders would appear greater in number than they really were, and the traditional helmets concealed the feelings of the female fighters whose gender couldn t be distinguishable from afar. After fierce resistance the Maltese forced the Ottoman navy to retreat.

A life filled with names and churches

It is my personal belief that the Maltese have excaggerated the naming of streets in the areas we toured. Each time we walked on a pavement we were told we were in the so and no town. Crossing the street to the opposite pavement we were in another town. For example, in the Sliema area where we stayed, Valletta was nearby, only separated by a narrow bay. Travelling by car or in a bus is like fast-forwarding a videocassette. All these names are for adjacent areas not more than 2 or 3 km2 each. A feasible alternative was using numbers or street names instead of naming the areas, and at the same time expanding the geographical and administrative area of the principal towns. Sliema, e.g., which was built after World War II, and Valletta are just 2 km2 each. So, why was a new town founded when Valletta is narrow? The main island, Malta, is overpopulated relative to its small area.

Secondly, Malta has too many churches in comparison with its area and population. There are 32 churches in Valletta alone, and in the island of Gozo, which is almost uninhabited, churches spread among the fields, and at each intersection there is a statue of the Virgin Mary. The predominantly Catholic Maltese boast of the number of their churches and say this number is equal to the number of days in a year, which is true and not an exaggeration. The Maltese seem to be happy with this situation, but we strangers are astonished at the big number of areas and churches in a very small country in terms of area and population, which is not more than half a million. It s worth noting that Malta was the first European country to embrace Christianity when St Paul s ship was wrecked at its coast in 60 BC.

The Muslims in Malta

In may 2009, there was a protest rally against the closure by the zoning authorities of a place of prayer for the alleged misuse of the place. The fifty protesters carried a prayer rug as a sign of peaceful protest. When it was time for the noon prayer, they performed a congregational prayer on spot. The Muslims in Malta rent a flat or suitable place and furnish it to use as a place of prayer. We visited one of these places accompanied by Dr. Ahmad Alkharaza, the first Kuwaiti graduate of University of Malta Faculty of Medicine. It was midway between the sunset and evening prayers. We knocked at the door and climbed a narrow staircase to the carpeted first floor, where I found a number of Africans who smiled warmly at me waiting for the usual Muslim greeting As-Salam Alaikum (Peace be upon you). We shook hands and talked for a little while, then continued climbing to the second floor where Badr Zina, President of the Maltese Islamic Association, was waiting for us. A Palestinian by origin, he acquired Maltese nationality four years ago after 16 years waiting. He estimated the Arab-Muslim community in Malta at 1,000 including permanent residents and temporary workers, mainly from Libya, Egypt and Syria. In 2002, the number of Arabs and Muslims was only 3,000, and the increase is due to Malta s manpower needs and adoption of the new European laws which require a more open labour market, leading to an increase in illegal immigration from the neighbouring countries.

As Zina pointed out, the Muslims are in need of conveniently spread houses of worship to be more easily accessible as they can t afford to buy private cars and are forced to use time-consuming public transport. This problem arises more particularly at Friday prayers, but on the other days, prayers are performed in the places of prayer or work subject to the conditions of work which does not stop at prayer times. Houses of worship have more purposes than just being places of prayer: They foster Muslims relationship with God and protect them from committing sins. As you know, we live in a European country and a different environment. The most serious problem facing us is the Christian missionary work with big promises to be granted Maltese nationality and payment of marriage costs. To that end ceremonies are held even if a single immigrant converts to Christianity, but after baptism the promises are not fulfilled, Zina added. To conclude, he said the Islamic Association, which is still in the process of foundation, is concerned with religion rather than politics.

A cruise to the island of Gozo

In the early hours of a cold, rainy day we went on a cruise to Gozo, the second largest island after Malta in the archipelago of Malta. This is a regular 45-minute hourly cruise during which we enjoyed looking at the beautiful blue water, counting jellyfish and imitating sea gulls.

The population of Gozo is 30,000, seven thousand of whom live in the capital Victoria which is exactly in the middle of the island. We didn t know exactly why Malta is not connected with Malta despite the many advantages of such connection, including the easy flow of goods and equipment which the island and its people need. Is it to maintain the quiet of the island of fishermen and farmers? Is it due to lack of resources? In this way Malta delays the development of Gozo and misses a solution to the problem of overpopulation.

We disembarked at Gozo harbour to start our tour of the island with a group of tourists and a tour conductor who was very strict with the time like football match referees. As we were going out of the harbour there was a queue of tourists waiting to embark the same boat on the return journey to see again quiet green fields and churches built in the wasteland not known who built them. No wonder, however, if we remember that, relative to its size, Malta is the country of churches in Europe. As I was taking these notes the bus stopped for 15 minutes in front of a huge cathedral similar to the ones in Rome surrounded by big palm trees. The quiet Excellendi Bay shore, a fishing boat berth, is a popular domestic tourist destination, having been developed and a number of hotels, restaurants and cafes built to receive those who want to spend a few days near it. The most beautiful place in on Gozo is the area known as the Blue Window , a semi-rectangular natural hollow in a rocky mountain, a very popular destination frequently visited by artists to draw and paint it, by divers as well as tourists to swim in its large holes filled with sea water, like natural swimming pools.

Malta in the world of the strong

Malta has opted to enter the world of the strong. As previously mentioned, it is closer to Africa than Europe; however, it didn t miss the opportunity to join the circle of the strong. In 2004, Malta celebrated its joining the European Union, and in 2008, it officially joined the Schengen agreement, which opened the markets of all member states to Maltese goods. This very small island has become a powerful military base, in spite of not having a big army or a lot of weaponry.

Not regarded as a great added value to the European Union, Malta depends heavily on agriculture, tourism and fishing, taking advantage of its position to be a huge Mediterranean shipyard, a major reloading station as well as a cheap European yacht marina. Malta is fortunate having survived all earlier colonial eras without being seized by a nearby power, mainly Italy. Is Malta stronger than French Corsica or even Italian Sicily? I wonder. It is a lucky country indeed!


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi


The Maltese can’t do without fishing boats, a major source of income and a means of transport to the other islands

A huge cathedral among green fields on the island of Gozo

A copy of the Maltese daily "Illum”, the same name as in Arabic but in Latin script

Many remains have survived from the fortifications built by a succession of invaders on the shores of Valletta

An open used car market near the busy Republic Street in Valletta

A Maltese girl in the traditional clothes of the town of Mdina, the former capital of Malta

An old town with streets going up and down, becoming very slippery when it rains

Mdina, which retains its Arabic name, is a fortified town with a distinctive architectural style and many palaces of aristocratic families

Map of the archipelago of Malta

Badr Zina, President of the Islamic Association in Malta

A general view of Col. Muammar Al-Qaddafi of Libya Mosque in Valletta

The same as in Sicily, palm trees remain in Malta bearing witness to the Arab-Muslim presence which introduced them into these islands

Because of their good quality and depth, Maltese yacht marinas attract hundreds of boats from different European Mediterranean countries

Excellendi Bay shore, a fishing boat berth and a popular pienic area nearby

On 9 April 1942, i.e. during World War II, this German shell penetrated the wall of St Mary’s Church on the island of Gozo but didn’t explode, which earned the church its legendary reputation

Going through the capital Valletta’s narrow gate leads to this largest square where the famous Republic Street branches off leading to the castles on the sea

One of the guns used in defence of Valletta. A number of these are kept in the same place to give an air of beauty and history to the old city

Colourful mashrabiyas (oriel windows) decorate the facades of Maltese houses whose dwellers retain their old style and don’t make any significant alterations

Because there are no trains, Malta’s public transport system is based on buses which are unique in shape and colour

A breathtaking view of the harbour of the island of Gozo with a population of only 30,000. The capital Victoria is exactly in the centre of the island with a population of 7,000. The small island of Comino, which is inhabited, lies between Malta and Gozo

A ferry prepared for a regular 45-minute hourly cruise between Malta and Gozo

Malta is 316 km2 in area. All its streets lead to the sea, and all its landmarks are around you and you don’t need to go around them

The "Blue Window”, one of the most beautiful sites in Gozo, a semi-rectangular natural hollow in a rocky mountain, is a very popular destination which is frequently drawn and pained by artists as if they see it for the first time

Busy streets and tourists from around the world provide sources of income for those who earn their living doing a job however menial or physically or mentally exhausting it may be. Tourism provides Malta’s main sources of income

Busy streets and tourists from around the world provide sources of income for those who earn their living doing a job however menial or physically or mentally exhausting it may be. Tourism provides Malta’s main sources of income

Victorias are widely and indefinitely used in Malta, a small island whose land will not expand or be levelled

All forms of handicrafts are thriving in Malta. Glass-blowing is one of the professions in which whole families are engaged and work as a team. We visited a house turned factory, an exhibition and a store for fine glass objects

All forms of handicrafts are thriving in Malta. Glass-blowing is one of the professions in which whole families are engaged and work as a team. We visited a house turned factory, an exhibition and a store for fine glass objects

All forms of handicrafts are thriving in Malta. Glass-blowing is one of the professions in which whole families are engaged and work as a team. We visited a house turned factory, an exhibition and a store for fine glass objects

All forms of handicrafts are thriving in Malta. Glass-blowing is one of the professions in which whole families are engaged and work as a team. We visited a house turned factory, an exhibition and a store for fine glass objects

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