To integrate was to recognise diversity and complexity of the Maltese society.
by Raisa Galea
I admit I am no longer the same person who came to settle in Malta in 2009 – the years of immigration have significantly altered my perceptions of the world. I did not change alone though – these past few years Malta itself has been through a speedy transformation. The faster pace of life and the swift cultural changes have certainly influenced the perceptions of many locals too. In other words, none of us – neither me nor the locals – are the same as we were back in 2009.
After 8 years in Malta, separating my own experiences from those of the locals feels uncomfortable because I have become a local myself.
The phases of integration
I clearly remember my first couple of years in Malta – the years of struggling with bureaucracy which made me feel unwelcome. Those years (let’s call it Phase 1) I used to treat Maltese as a homogeneous group of people whom I often generalised as “too loud”, “indifferent to art”, “disrespectful to nature” or “enamored with fast food”. I seriously considered leaving and would have left, had the memories of the past unhappiness back in the home town been not so vivid.
In the few following years, I was lucky to meet people who made me feel at home and challenged my perceptions of Malta. In those years (Phase 2), I also met the locals whose lifestyle entirely discredited all of the clichés – some were into art and anything but loud, some worshiped nature and others loathed pastizzi. However, to my great surprise, the majority of my new “non-conventional” friends were eager to convince me that, apart from them, the majority of Maltese live up to stereotypes. These locals often felt foreign in Malta and sought comfort in communications with foreigners like me.
After a few years of socialising with different groups of Maltese, I began to realise the full range of diversity of the Maltese society (Phase 3). I understood that Maltese were divided into a few social bubbles whose membership was defined by the family background, ties to a political party, attendance of a particular school and belonging to a particular subculture. Clearly, Maltese did not see each other as equals. I also learned that foreigners like myself could enjoy a quicker access to the upper-middle class artsy circles than could ordinary Maltese (if they wished to).
Socialising with different groups of Maltese – environmentalists, festa enthusiasts, adventurers, intellectuals, hipsters, to name a few – was a process of self-discovery which taught me about my priorities more than any other past experience. Despite the common interests, I could no longer stick with a number of artsy, well-read, entrepreneurial, predominantly Anglophone Maltese who deemed their cultural habits superior to those ‘who care nothing for art and culture‘ and held their privileges as a logical consequence of that presumed superiority. At the same time, I began to appreciate communicating with people who shared none of my long-term passions but whose honest attitudes I found compelling.
To integrate was to recognise the diversity and the complexity of the Maltese society. I could no longer utter a phrase like “all Maltese are rude” or “all Maltese are racists” because I knew it was not the case. Maltese are different – a platitude from Captain Obvious which was not at all obvious a few years ago. I thought I could define fairly well what a ‘lack of integration’ means: inability to recognize diversity of a host society.
Why do Maltese stereotype themselves?
Calls for integration are usually accompanied by one-dimensional claims and stereotypes of what it means to be a true Maltese – which would themselves scream lack of integration, had they been uttered by a foreigner. In fact, if successful assimilation into a host society means being aware and accepting of its cultural diversity, then many locals are poorly-integrated by this definition, because they do not seem to appreciate the full broad spectrum of the Maltese culture.
The absence of a shared understanding of what encompasses the Maltese identity exists side-by-side with numerous attempts to stereotype it. Politicians exploit these stereotypes by pointing out that it is their – and not the opponent’s – electorate which deserve to be called ‘true Maltese’.
Adrian Delia stated that ‘true’ Maltese must necessarily be Latin and Catholic, implying that non-Catholic Maltese are ‘false’ by this definition (not to mention that such a definition downplays Malta’s Semitic language and heritage). In the case of the Nationalist Party, true Maltese-ness can even coexist with a dislike of pastizzi (remember how slamming pastizzi as ‘common and crude‘ was followed by ‘Jien nagħżel Malta‘ in just a few months time?)
To some, being a Maltese means respecting ‘European liberal values’ (sorry, conservatives, now it’s your turn to be rejected authenticity). Prime Minister Joseph Muscat once associated Maltese character with “positivity, optimism, energy, goodwill, unity and equality”, but I know quite a few Maltese who are neither positive nor optimistic, yet are Maltese nevertheless.
In other words, any attempt to define a national identity through a fixed, static combination of characteristics – be it religion or cultural preferences – inevitably excludes individuals who do not identify with them, despite being born and bred in Malta. Thus, stereotyping Maltese culture is a sure way to reject its great diversity. And if foreigners are expected to recognise and respect the diversity of the Maltese culture, it is fair to assume the locals to lead by example.
The local foreigners and foreign locals
Although criticising Malta is generally seen to be a habit of foreigners, the locals frequently engage in it. The very same criticism of Malta meets different responses, depending on whether it comes from a local or a foreigner.
Whenever a non-Maltese makes a gross generalisation about Malta, more often than not, he is advised to ‘go back to his country’. However, when a Maltese – unseemly indeed – labels his country ‘backwards’ or even makes a racist statement by calling it ‘Maltastan’, nobody advises him to return to ‘his country’ because he is already there. If a fervent criticism of many things Maltese indicates foreignness, then, by this definition, many Maltese are foreigners in their country.
The major difference between living in Malta as a local from doing so as a foreigner is the privilege of the former to share opinions about the country’s rapid transformation without any remorse or fear of backlash.
It is necessary to distinguish between different kinds of criticism. Whereas labeling Malta as ‘backwards’ and ‘mediocre’ is certainly intended to disparage the country, disapproval of the rampant development, for instance, shows a genuine concern for Malta and its residents. Undeniably, nothing signifies belonging to a community more than a conscious concern for its future.
Returning back to my initial statement – what do I mean by saying that I have become a local? I have no Maltese passport, none of my parents are Maltese (nor Latin/Catholic for that matter) and my place of birth is far away from here. However, I am a local in Malta because I have become part of its diverse community and share a genuine concern for its future. I fought for my right to live here and it was not easy.
It is the relationships I have with the locals – Maltese and non-Maltese, uncaring and sensitive – that make me part of Malta’s social fabric. I admire Malta of green fields and colourful balconies as much as I am repelled by the ever-expanding construction sites and the corporate developments. I sympathise with the Maltese who struggle to afford their rent and barely make their ends meet (just as do my relatives back in Russia) as profoundly as I decry the market-worshiping developers and tax-dogging companies.
Finally, my relationship with Malta might not be simple but it certainly is non-commercial. This complicated relationship, too, makes me a local. My experience is not unique – there are plenty of local ‘foreigners’ who grew roots here, who share my concern for Malta’s future and who wish to be accepted by the Maltese as locals.
P.S. Identifying as a local would have proved difficult had I not adopted my husband’s surname. The new surname has completed my baptism as a local: Raisa Galea has something which Raisa Tarasova could only dream about – the right to participate in online discussions about Malta’s transformations without fearing discrimination.