NEWS | Sunday, 23 December 2007

The storyteller

Karl Schembri

From a distance, the sober-looking academic stood out in the company of gruff and tough local folk singers, strumming on their guitars and improvising their songs, while he introduced them gently to the curious crowds.
It was through his introspective outlook and straightforward delivery, his unassuming but authoritative approach that to the unfamiliar may have verged on the austere, that Ġorġ Mifsud-Chircop managed to gain the trust of the multitude of għana singers from villages and the countryside – a veritable virgin territory for the world of academia and much of the rest of the nation.
His death last Wednesday after a long-fought illness at the age of 56 marks the loss of a true listener with the enthusiasm of a child who embarks on a voyage of discovery of his own people’s roots, making it known to the nation and beyod through a long, painstaking documentation of the minutest details.
It was indeed with a terrible sense of loss that għannejja and world class academics alike, among others, reacted to the news of his passing.
The void was immediately tangible out on the field and inside the lecture rooms where he collected and transmitted the stories passed from one generation to the next.
From narratives of folk singers and craftsmen, to the evolving ħrejjef and praspar through time, the work of Mifsud-Chircop is encyclopaedic in its enormity and vastness, yet unprecedented in its depth.
For one, the ethnographer, linguist, author and authority on Maltese folklore and culture actively dispelled the mediocre misconception, propagated through some of the most influential educational and cultural institutions, that folklore is a thing of the past that should just be preserved.
“Folklore is often presented with an aura of romanticism – this is far from the truth. Folklore is alive,” he said in what must have been his last interview, given in February 2006 to MaltaToday.
Far from museum pieces, for Mifsud-Chircop the narrators of oral culture were in a continuous evolution that demanded serious research in a constant battle against prejudice and indifference, largely fuelled by the irrelevant and outdated material on the national syllabus that is passed on as Malta’s only identity.
Himself a prolific author and for many years the editor of Mis-Sillabu and Analiżi – the defunct seminal journal for students of Maltese – Mifsud-Chircop was progressive in his outlook and highly critical of the material being imposed on the syllabus.
“The Maltese literature being presented in textbooks is archaic,” he said in the same interview. “It does not ‘talk’ about present real-life situations. Textbooks should reflect what’s happening out there – the suffering, marriage crises, adultery and new family structures, failed or neglected loves… there are too many social issues which are being ignored… An artist, an author has to be creative with his medium. Language grows if its users are creative… There are too few, not enough, socially engaged authors. Authors have to take on issues which are specific to Malta. That’s one way of distinguishing themselves from the rest of the world.”
Battling the frozen images of the għonnella and the archaic metaphors in our literature embodied in Dun Karm, Mifsud-Chircop fought against the grain, largely successfully, to instil his enthusiasm for our folklore not just in the classrooms where he lectured but also on television, radio and mass popular events that reached thousands of people otherwise oblivious to the wealth of Maltese culture.
A staunch believer in his commitment to make the Maltese aware of their culture, Mifsud-Chircop was also the founding president of the Għaqda ta’ l-Għalliema tal-Malti with a group of young, enthusiastic teachers of the Maltese language.
But he was a reliable reference point not only for the students of Maltese, who also resorted to his expertise in Arabic to understand the roots of Maltese language, but also the many curious and knowledge-hungry callers on his radio programmes asking him all sorts of questions about our language.
Ever respectful towards the people he studied and those to whom he communicated his knowledge, Mifsud-Chircop was bitterly disappointed when seven years ago he found himself treated like a blasphemer by Arab academics when he was giving a paper in a conference that convened folklore experts, linguists and specialists in diverse dialects here in Malta.
His paper critically analysed Maltese proverbs and the racist outlook towards Muslims, Turks and Arabs, as evidenced by the many maxims inherited since the times of the Great Siege of 1565.
To illustrate the point, he had referred to a famous one which says it all about the historical contradictions of the Catholic Maltese, who refer to God as “Alla” following hundreds of years of total Islamic conversion: “Alla ħanin, Muhammed ħanżir” – (God is merciful, Mohammed is a pig).
It was at that point that academics from the Maghreb stood up in protest, with some of them even storming out of the conference room.
“I honestly didn’t expect them, as academics, to be so sensitive,” Mifsud- Chircop had told me years later as Muslims were raging in the streets against the Danish cartoons depicting their prophet. “It’s a pity because it means that even at an academic level, there cannot be a free and objective analysis. I was insensitive to their sensitivities.”
As for għana, the country will remain indebted to him for having single-handedly lifted its protagonists out of the shadows against a deep-grained, innate culture of pique and suspicion shared by a good part of the għannejja themselves, and brought them to national and international attention while consistently encouraging them to evolve and keep up with the times, as evidenced through the Festival Nazzjonali ta’ l-Għana which he set up and organised since 1998.
Getting għannejja together was his lifetime project, for which he sacrificed even his own PhD thesis: postponed time and again in his hurry to research and document as much as possible.
Religiously accompanied by his wife, Marlene, who supported him through thick and thin, Mifsud-Chircop selflessly pushed and promoted countless għannejja here and abroad, who in turn trusted him as their loyal spokesman and campaigner as he uncovered their richness through analytical scholarly studies and popular documentaries.
In one of the last public events he organised, Mifsud-Chircop teamed up with Poeżijaplus through his Narraturi 21 – the group of storytellers of the 21st century – to celebrate the wise fool embodied in the character of Ġaħan in a festival of oral narrative.
“Narrative is part of our popular culture. It evolves, it changes, it reflects the people’s developments, it reveals our story,” he had said.
“We enjoy telling each other jokes. If you take notice of how different people tell the same joke you’ll understand what I mean. Reception or understanding also varies according to audience and context.”
To illustrate his point, Mifsud-Chircop not only collected narratives passed on from previous generations but also asked his storytellers to repeat the same stories along the years. His discovery was that narrative changes according to mood, political situations, age, personal experiences and so many other factors that enrich the very act of storytelling.
In his memory, his wife and children have set up a fund to finance the holding of public lectures on Maltese folklore, while Campus FM announced it will be re-running a series on Maltese għana he had produced and presented back in 1999.
It remains inconceivable to imagine who could ever fill the void left by Mifsud-Chircop’s demise, yet the wealth of documented history he has left remains living testimony to our richness and complexities, so easily overlooked as the facile and superficial discourses on culture tend to dominate our notions of identity.
Were it not for him, our nation would be much poorer today.

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