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Entries in Malta (8)

Tuesday
May312011

Divorce in Malta

While in Malta a few months ago I commented that Malta is so conservative that it is one of only three countries in the world to outlaw divorce. Well, fair is fair, there has been a referendum and 53% of the Maltese people voted in favour of legalising divorce. The new laws, when they get passed by parliament, will still be among the most restrictive in the world, but it is progress. Actually, the proposed new laws are so strict that it is remarkable that only 53% approved:

Do you agree with the introduction of the option of divorce in the case of a married couple who has been separated or has been living apart for at least four (4) years, and where there is no reasonable hope for reconciliation between the spouses, whilst adequate maintenance is guaranteed and the children are protected?

Seems pretty straightforward to me, hard to find an objection to that law. Of course, that is forgetting the role of the Catholic Church. No surprise, they came out in force against the law - the Archbishop of Gozo went to far as to say that whoever votes yes will never be accepted back into the Church or receive communion again. In other words, vote to allow divorce and go to hell for eternity.

What is most revealing, though, is how the Church has tried to play both sides. Like always, it will campaign hard against any form of progress, whether it be in anti-slavery movements, women's rights or individual freedom, but once it loses it will try to sweep its past under the mat. Threaten everyone with excommunication to force them to maintain the Church power, but once the law has passed pretend like the Church wasn't an implacable foe and try to keep as much credibility (and power) as possible.

In Malta, the Church started its damage control before the voting had already begun - they wrote a statement saying that they regretted it if anyone was hurt by the words of the Church and they would unconditionally forgive anyone who voted "yes" (the sanctimonious pricks). Yes, they wrote this statement days before the referendum and gave it to the media - but placed an embargo on its release until voting closed. Iron-clad evidence that they were throwing around empty threats of eternal damnation in order to sway the political debate. How many times can the Church do this before their bluff gets called once and for all?

Wednesday
Feb232011

The Megalithic Temples of Malta

The stone-age inhabitants of Malta, who lived in Malta from 5200 BCE to 2500 BCE, left behind unique artefacts, distinct from the stone-age cultures across the rest of the Mediterranean. The collection of megalithic temples in Malta, including the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni and the Tarxien Temples are the oldest surviving buildings in the world. The oldest parts of the Tarxien Temples date back to 3600 BCE, with not only the structures intact, but also artefacts such as large bowls and stone carvings clearly visible. The Hypogeum is younger, dating to around 2500 BCE, but is an amazing structure of subterranean sculptures painfully carved into the limestone with reindeer antlers and stone tools.

Knowing their immense age, I had expected the structures to be crude and rough-hewn. Far from it. The chambers of the Hypogeum were extremely sophisticated. On the ground floor (now underground) were chambers were bodies were left to decompose, then in two underground levels were chamber after chamber where the decayed bones were transferred in mass graves from where at least 7000 skeletons have been extracted. The lower chambers were well proportioned, long straight corridors and circular pits, with the walls polished smooth and the edges straight. Entire stone facades are carved to look like megalithic trilithons and the ceilings are covered with the faded remains of red ochre spirals.

Wednesday
Feb232011

I finally have something in common with Saddam Hussein and Eric Bana

So I dropped my camera today and had to go out to Santa Venera to get it repaired. The hotel called up one of their drivers to take me there and back, and he sure had a few stories. Among other jobs he has had as a secured driver was driving around Saddam Hussein's family while they were in Malta on vacation, and chauffering Eric Bana while he was filming Munich in Malta.

We spent the trip talking about the latest from Libya, with fifteen defectors apparently turned back today at Malta airport, and the EU and US at odds with Malta and Italy on Gaddafi. The guy was sure that things were going to get worse and that international troops would have to move in soon. In his opinion Gaddafi miscalculated this one - after the first riots he should have made a backroom deal to give up the Presidency in return for being able to leave alive and with a lot of cash. Let's just hope my driver was wrong that this would turn into a blood-bath.

Wednesday
Feb232011

The land of the pygmy elephants

We are in Malta, the tiny Mediterranean island where, until 7000 years ago, pygmy elephants and hippos, only 90cm tall, once roamed.

The first stone-age immigrants wiped out the pygmy elephants, but left behind the oldest known free-standing structures and mysterious "cart tracks" that still cover the island. Around 700 BCE the stone age inhabitants were replaced by ancient Greeks and Phoenicians. It is thought that it is the language of the Phoenician traders that evolved into modern Maltese. Like most of the Mediterranean world, Malta was part of the Roman and Byzantine empires until their fall, and was then incorporated into the Arabic and Islamic worlds.

According to loyal myth, the Arabs were cruel slave owners over the Maltese, although there doesn't seem to be any evidence to support this, and indeed freedom of religion, agricultural innovations and a new prosperity seemed to mark the Arabic age. In 1091 the Normans conquored the island, and over the next 150 years converted the population to Christianity, expelled the remaining Muslims and probably created the myth of the cruel Arab as justification for their conquest. Malta was passed around Europe under the Feudal system until it was given to the Knights of Malta in 1530.

Yesterday we drove around the island, along to north-west coast to the Maltese fishtail, where we could see the islands of Gozo and Comino.

One isolated cove had been converted into the movie set for the film Popeye, and three decades later still attracts fans (which is more than can be said for the movie).

We visited the Three Cities, on the harbour overlooking Valetta

In the Baroque city of Mdina we ate piping hot pastizzi, delicious pastries filled with peas, while old Maltese men sat around comparing the song-birds they had trapped in tiny cages.

Then to Marsaxlokk, a traditional Maltese fishing village, to stroll along the harbour front.

Tuesday
Feb222011

Protest outside the Libyan embassy in Malta

We happened to pass the Libyan Embassy in Malta just when this protest was starting, with only a dozen people in the crowd and three police officers standing outside. It seems that things grew quite quickly, to have 250 people protesting.

Monday
Feb212011

The Knights of Malta

We have been in Valletta now for two days, seeing the past glory of the Knights of Saint John, better known as the Knights of Malta. The poor Maltese, they weren’t even the first choice for the Knights of Saint John to rule over with an iron first. They were, of course, first founded in Jerusalem in 1050 as a chivalric order during the Crusades. In 1291 they lost all land in the Holy Land, and had to move to Rhodes, where they ruled from 1310-1523. Then they lost all the land in Rhodes, but fortunately the King of Spain gave them Malta in 1530.

In Fort Saint Elmo (now a Police Academy), at the tip of Valletta, we watched a re-enactment of the further military prowess of the Knights. Full of enthusiasm, but decidedly lacking in acting ability, the Knights of Malta paraded backwards and forwards until the French under Napoleon marched in on the way to Egypt in 1798, and annihilated the Knights in two days. Amusingly we watched the brief months of peace, while the Republic the replaced the ancien régime and institutionalised legal equality. Soon after the Maltese ineffectually rebelled, but with the British penchant for occupying strategically placed rocks, gained help in throwing off the yoke of French equality and becoming part of the British Empire. 162 years of British rule gave them Marks and Spencer and British traffic rules, before Malta became a republic in 1974 and Valletta became the de facto capital.

A large part of the rebellion against the French came about as the Republic took away the privilage (and gold) of the Church, so we visited a key site of the French pillaging, the co-Cathedral of Saint John. With all the gilt and rare marbles, all I have to say is that if this is what was left after the French pillaged Malta, the Priests must have been using gilded toliet paper before the Republic.

Sunday
Feb202011

Maltese

We have been in Valletta enjoying our first exposure to Malta. One of the messages that Malta has really driven home to me is that there is a continuum between Mediterranean and Maghreb culture, whether you move down from Spain into Morocco or from Italy down to Tunisia. When we first heard Maltese we thought it was Arabic with an Italian accent. Maltese. Maltese is a Semitic language, descended from Arabic, but heavily modified by exposure to Italian and English. In writing, Maltese certainly looks unlike any other European language, the only Semitic language transliterated into Latin characters:

Ilna fil-Belt Valletta għal jumejn issa, li jgawdu l-ewwel espożizzjoni tagħna lejn Malta. Wieħed mill-messaġġi liMalta tkun verament misjuqa dar lili hija li hemm tkomplija bejn Mediterran u l-kultura tal-Maghreb, kemm jekk intitimxi 'l isfel minn Spanja fis-Marokk jew mill-Italja isfel lejn it-Tuneżija. Meta aħna ewwel smigħ Malti ħsibna li kienGħarbi b'enfasi Taljan. Malti. Malti hija lingwa Semitika, imnissel mill-Għarbi, iżda modifikati ħafna minn espożizzjoni għall-Taljan u Ingliż.

The architecture, too, has more than a hint of North Africa, with dense sand-coloured stone buildings, slowly decaying. The people also look quite Arabic, and have a strong outdoors culture. If you replaced the Basicilias with Minarets, there is no obvious sign to pointing out of Africa.

Saturday
Feb192011

Conservative Malta

We just landed in staunchly Catholic Malta, the most religious country in Europe. Malta is so conservative that divorce is still illegal, one of only three countries in the world not allowing any form of divorce (the others are the Phillipines and the Vatican City). Discrimination against homosexuality has been legally disbarred, for the country to remain complient with EU law, but support for same-sex marriage is only at 18%.

As you might expect, for such a conservative country, abortion is completely illegal, under all circumstances. Maltese girls that want an abortion need to fly to Italy. Even then, the anti-choice brigade try to interfere, in our Air Malta inflight magazine was this anti-abortion ad, with a link to a religious propaganda website full of medically incorrect advice.