David Friggieri | Sunday, 08 March 2009

The Possibility of an Island

In his latest novel, La Possibilité d’Une Île, French author Michel Houellebecq describes a country, Spain, which has lost all its traditional bearings. In the space of a single generation the religion which had regulated people’s lives from cradle to marital bed to grave, has collapsed as if it had never existed. Observing the way young Spaniards go about their sexual lives, the narrator concludes that it is in societies which were strictly regulated by social constraints that people’s thirst for freedom and liberty is most extreme once the flood gates swing open. There are entire passages in this novel which describe the rapid changes which certain Western societies have gone through in the past two decades.
As a narrative, it is useful to understand how things are unfolding in our own small society. If the comments people post on blogs and on-line newspaper articles are anything to go by, one cannot avoid the fact that people feel emotional about what’s going on around them.
Journalists and opinion columnists are doing a good job of weeding out examples of blatant racism and xenophobia but one gets the distinct feeling that naming and shaming a few individuals by calling them fools or bigots is hardly going to swing the growing tide of resentment.
Recognising that in the space of 10 years Malta has gone from being one of the most sheltered places in this part of the world to one of the most open to rapid change is, I think, part of the narrative we must accept if we are to come to some sort of understanding of what is happening and to think about what measures should be adopted to deal with the resentment and antagonism.
Certainly, other countries have also witnessed migration flows and several welcome large immigrant populations. But ignoring the particularity of each individual country’s recent history and vision of itself would be naive.
One cannot simply brush aside (or worse, simply mock) the fact that Maltese identity is largely tied to its insularity; that the Maltese, encouraged by their religious and political leaders, have come to think of themselves as a Chosen People; that our literature and history books have extolled our fortress mentality and our glorious ‘victory over the infidel’; that we have been – and still are – encouraged to look at the world in binary terms (good vs evil/red vs blue) and that a major political party was, until very recently, ibezza’ bl-Isqallin.
These are factors that all the parties involved must engage with. And I mean everyone: religious leaders, educators, politicians, journalists and writers.
From a personal point of view I have been surprised to notice, for instance, that while living in a multicultural community in Brussels feels entirely natural and enriching, queuing up with a group of immigrants waiting to board their bus at the Valletta terminus still feels somewhat odd in an ‘unexpected’ sort of way.
What I would like to say is that on one hand we have the UNHCR’s professional monitoring of our international obligations, the sober stance taken by Prime Minister Gonzi, the hard technical and political work of our representatives in the European institutions and a few columnists who name, shame and pillory the ‘racists’ and ‘bigots’. On the other, we have the panic, anger and resentment of a shocked public, the strident position of several far-right elements and a few mainstream politicians who have decided to raise the tone of their game.
What we don’t have, I think, is a suitable narrative to reflect and help us understand where we’re coming from and where we might be heading. This is an appeal for our intellectuals to emerge from their slumber and to take this delicate bull by its horns. Ranier Fsadni should be commended for leading the way.

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