Is there any other film as puzzling as Howard Hawks' Maltese Falcon 1 ? Everybody loves Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor and the film noir atmosphere but ends up admitting that they did not fully understand the story. May be what is so fascinating about it, is precisely the – illegitimate - pleasure of not fully understanding.
While spending my summer holiday in Malta for the first time, I have the same paradoxical feeling of loving it for its mysteries.
Start with the Maltese language, what is this strange guttural tongue ( idiom), sounding Arabic ( actually descending from siculo-arabic, an Arabic dialect spoken in Sicily), written with Latin letter, close to Italian, full of English words, impossible to decipher ? All cities have two names one English and one Maltese, the capital city of Gozo is Rabat and Victoria. What are those Victorian houses with bow windows made out of limestone, which give Malta some Moorish style ?
What about the English red phone booths ? Pubs ? People playing polo and badminton ?
The small archipelago ( Malta, Gozo and Comino) was one of the first European countries to elect a woman for President.
Agatha Barbara, who worked as an air raid warden during WWII and was elected head of State in 1982, did not mean to be a figurehead. Leader of the women's movement in Malta, she had been a respected minister of Education who imposed compulsory school, as a President she fought for equity between men and women. The rumour « according to contemporary sources » as Malta Times puts it, is that she was a lesbian. No wonder why Malta was one of the first to legitimate wedding between people of the same sex in 2014 granting them to adopt children in Europe. A huge step if you consider that female and male same sex activity has only been legal since 1973.
But this very catholic country with some 350 churches « one for every day » as our taxi driver mentions, still refused to legalize abortion again very recently. People are now wondering if that was not a mistake for « some young people still believe that babies are brought by sheep », explains another taxi driver, and therefore illegal abortion leads to dangerous practices and unwanted children.
Talking with taxi drivers is often the best way to feel the pulse of a country. When arriving in a country, you should write immediately about your feelings because you capture something essential and then you should wait for another year before daring analysing anything because your vision is then blurred by your prejudices.
In Malta religion is everywhere, on almost every house. In Victoria, in Gozo, even if you can find some door with « Shalom » on them, it seems that there is a competition between Saint Georges killing the dragon and Mary. The power of the church explains why divorce only became legal only in 2011 (indeed) after a popular referendum, when 53% of the Maltese voted in favour of divorce. With only 6 % of unemployment ( Malta is also the 7th small country in term of safety feeling. Malta is now implementing a huge university financed by the USA, investing also in health and new hospital, which is the future of the country as puts it the Times of Malta. I wish our European politicianswould share the same enthusiasm !
So it appears that Malta offers two different faces, that of a very liberal country and that of a very conservative one. A strange mix between modernity and tradition. Of different civilisations too.
What I love about this island and all islands in general, is that they escape globalization and mainstream thinking. To think differently, even if they might be very wrong about abortion. The possibility given the small numbers of inhabitants of experiencing life differently.
Malta has had many lives that I found fascinating. It became independent of the British Empire in 1974, after having been colonized by all the possible fashionable invaders, Romans, Byzantines, Vandals, the Normans, they enjoyed a Moorish period, the Sicilians, The Spanish, two centuries under the order of the Knights of Saint John.
The military and religious order who bravely resisted to the siege of Suleiman the Magnificent in 1565.
But impossible is not French ; the Maltese had to cope with another two years of French occupation from 1798 to 1800 – On his way to Egypt, Napoleon in full glory, decided to add a new card to his Monopoly game. Bonaparte who spent six days (less than God), organized the country, creating government commissions, twelve municipalities, public finance administration, transformed education, abolished feudal rights and privileges, and slavery, freed the Turkish slaves.
So far so good but when the Maltese did not like it when Bonaparte decided to close convents and stole church treasury. The sword of the Maltese hero, Jean de la Valette, which is still in Le Louvre, is still stuck in the Maltese throat.
The Maltese called for help and whom did they call ? The best enemies of the French: the British. The admiral Horatio Nelson organized a blockade and the French garrison surrendered in 1800 and Malta remained more or less under British rule until 1974.
Before its independence, Malta established its worth during WWII. So close to Sicily, it became an easy target for Mussolini who thought it would be a piece of cake as English forces were limited to 6 Gladiator biplanes at the time. When in 1939 France was in an uneasy situation, French Prime minister Paul Reynaud thought Malta could be a « concession » likely to calm down the fury of Benito. but even though the British were themselves under the threat of a German attack, Winston Churchill convinced his war cabinet that Malta was crucial to control the Mediterranean.
The British joined by the American fought back together in La Valette, where you can visit their incredibly clever headquarters worth a visit; the « Lascar rooms » lies in the former tunnel the Knights of Saint John dug in order to prevent an other siege of the Ottoman empire.
Malta, at the crossroad of Europe, Africa and the Orient, became indeed a strategic stake for Italy and Germany and was generously bombed until a very clever RAF pilot, managed to have fighters permanently in the air to intercept bombers; obliging them to fight and the sea and not over Malta and organised the rescue of pilots on the sea saving hundreds of pilots lives.
Malta became also an infirmary hub for the whole zone. Some 140 000 injured people were taken care of in Malta hospitals. George VI granted them the George Cross of Malta for their bravery that still floats on the Maltese flag.
These sentimental ties to Britain, did not prevent the Maltese independent leader Dom Mintoff to create strong ties with Gadhafi’s Libya, who helped the island with generous loans at the time.
After the fall of the Libyan dictator, Malta has been faithful to its donator and still granted many scholarships to Libyan students. Even if in January 2015, the Islamic State bombed a Maltese owned hotel, the Corinthian hotel, the Prime minister, Joseph Muscat, very wisely kept his calm in front of the international community : "our interest is that Lybia finds peace as soon as possible". In late August a scheme of visa scam was a big scandal. It involved the Maltese consul and accountant in Tripoli who sold visas for 1500 up to 3000 euros, and may only be the tip of the iceberg of a more general corruption in Lybia. The Prime Minister called for a big investigation, crucial not only for Malta, but also for his European partners, regarding shengen agreement.
With its aura and multiple cultural identities, the small island is today at the cross roads of civilisation. Malta who has been organising some Mediterranean forums from 2012, intends to be a link between Europe and the Arab countries.
The more I learn about Malta, the more I find the Maltese Falcon easy to understand...