Sunday, 7 January 2007

Malta or House of Cards

One of the highlights of a visit to Malta is St John’s Cathedral in Valetta. This building is testament to the wealth, power and religious ardour of the Knights of the Order of St John, who used Malta as a military fortress for 200 years. Known as the Knights Templar, these noblemen from the most important families in Europe had a single mission – to protect Europe from attack by the Ottoman Turks and, thus, the Catholic faith from the influence of Islam.

Or rather, as Laurence Olivier narrates in the British wartime propaganda film, Malta, GC, ‘to protect Christendom against the infidel.’

The cathedral is simple on the outside with an opulent interior. Fantastic baroque stone carving on every wall and pillar, in the nave it’s still all covered with gilt. So in one way, the building is filled with light. But there’s a feeling of darkness here and violent death – not the serenity of a soul gone to meet their maker. One of many examples is a magnificent 3-D memorial to a fallen knight, executed in shiny black metal, decorated with shields and swords. You don’t get a sense of redemption, only a sense of anger. ‘It’s as if they’re still fighting,’ says my daughter.

Is that what the family (or the Order) requested from the artist? The entire interior, including many of the altar-pieces, was commissioned from the Calabrian Matthia Preti. Did he actually subvert the task to convey his own perception of the knights? The bucolic biblical scenes painted in pastels on the ceiling are marred at the bottom by giant figures of knights in black robes who cleverly but frighteningly emerge in 3-D from the fresco. They do not form part of the biblical story at all - they crouch ready to leap out.

The whole is designed to shock and awe the congregation.

Another highlight is the grand harbour cruise, where we learn that Valletta has numerous forts, accumulated from different periods of its turbulent history. The most beautiful is San Angelo. Originally built by the Phoenicians, with a temple to the goddess Astarte, it was taken over by the Romans - whose temple was to Juno. When the Knights Templar took over the fort, they also built a church to ‘Our Lady.’ They later turned the fort into a prison, in which the artist Caravaggio was incarcerated because he had (perhaps by subversive painting) offended one of the high knights. During world war two the British renamed the fort HMS San Angelo. Now the location is used by Hollywood filmmakers for epics like Troy, starring Brad Pitt.

The former capital Mdina (Medina, the walled city) was established by the Arabs when they conquered the island in the ninth century. Two hundred years later, Malta was taken by the Normans. After the Knights of St John established their sea-base at Valletta in the sixteenth century, the island suffered but withstood the three-month ‘great siege’ by Suleiman the Magnificent. But in 1798 Napoleon took Malta without a fight and forced out the knights.

‘With revolutionary fervour the French tried to impose their ideas on Maltese society, abolished the nobility, defaced their escutcheons, persecuted the clergy and looted the churches. In a spontaneous uprising the Maltese massacred the French garrison at Mdina.’(Lonely Planet 2004 )

At the War Museum on Vittoriosa we learn that the defence of Malta (1940 –1943) against the axis powers of fascism enabled the allies to take Egypt and French North Africa from German / Italian occupation. The whole island was awarded the George Cross for bravery, but in fact the Maltese people, caught in the cross-fire, had little choice but to struggle on as best they could, cut off by broken supply lines and under constant bombardment from German air-raids.

First line of defence

Control of Malta has always been essential for control of the Mediterranean -strategically located 1000 miles east of Gibraltar and 1000 miles west of Alexandria. Malta gained her independence in 1964, but is still the first line of defence for mainland Europe. But now the discourse is more of the north-south divide between Europe and Africa.

Walk down by the central bus station and you will see groups of north African men sitting at pavement cafes in new, maybe borrowed, clothing. One or two women in the hijab follow them as their men walk through the crowd.

For Malta has a problem with illegal immigrants from Libya, which is next stop south across the Mediterranean. They come across in fishing boats, trying to reach Italy but, because of poor navigation or other difficulties, land instead on Malta. An estimated one thousand ‘irregular’ immigrants were picked up at sea in the first half of 2006. Seven hundred are detained in an overcrowded former school. Cases are reviewed on an individual basis and some are awarded right of stay.

Interestingly, communication between north Africans and the Maltese is not too much of a problem: though now a Catholic country, Malta’s language is basically Arabic.

On Christmas morning, the internet café is the only open place in town. It is packed with young Africans, skyping home, checking emails, surfing for work or accommodation. One is on his mobile, discussing photographs for a new passport. Another has managed to get a short-term job as an electrician.

The majority are economic asylum seekers or refugees. Not all are from Libya itself, disenchanted with Gaddafi’s islamic socialism which has failed to deliver expected opportunities for its young people. Libya has become a jumping-off point for youth from war-torn Somalia and even from Ghana (probably via Gao in northern Mali, a thriving illegal immigration centre which manages several routes out of West Africa).

Public debate has been facilitated, for example through a four-part series in The Times (Malta) by Martin Sciuna (December 13th-16th 2006). A majority of the Maltese population agree that, while appreciating charitable support for refugees from (Catholic) religious orders, they do not wish this to be used as a wedge to open up the island to illegal immigrants

Malta’s foreign minister Dr Michael Frendo has been successful in getting the EU to recognise illegal immigration from Libya as a serious problem – and not only for Malta. Several conferences have been held since July 2006 to try to come to an agreement on practical measures for the Mediterranean.

In November, after several months delay through lack of support from Libya (which for various reasons seems not to be able to patrol her own coastline) the EU border agency Frontex finally began a two-week marine security operation, which deployed Maltese and Italian military vessels along with French, Greek and German aircraft.

This is in addition to the Frontex rapid reaction team on the island of Lampedusa, the more direct staging post for mainland Italy (an estimated 23,000 illegal immigrants entered Italy through this route in 2005).

The other main route to Europe from West Africa is via the Canary Islands to the Spanish mainland. Because of thae large numbers involved, Spain has been receiving ‘emergency aid ‘ from the EU - and Frontex patrols have been active off the coast of Senegal since August, deploying Finnish aircraft and Spanish / Italian vessels.

Unholy wars

But further west along the north African coast another problem has arisen. Much consternation has been caused, particularly in France and Spain, by the recent release of 2,600 ‘terrorists’ from Algerian jails. European intelligence sources suggest that some of these may join the GSPC (Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat) - who formally announced their allegiance to Al Qaeda in September 2006, have escalated their acts of violence inside Algeria and constitute ‘one of the biggest threats to France.’

According to El País (21 December 2006) a third of suicide bombers in Iraq come from the Magreb (basically former French colonies). Al Qaeda has tasked GSPC with attacking Europe, developing links with similar groups in Morocco and Libya, as well as forming a federation across the Sahel (Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Chad).

‘Our Algerian brothers will be a thorn in the side of the yankee crusaders and their allies,’ says Ayman el Zawahiri (Al Qaeda’s number two) in a video on the internet ‘and will continue our holy war (jihad) in Algeria.’ Meanwhile Bush is talking about winning the ‘ideological war’ by sending more soldiers to Iraq.

In contrast, Gaddafi’s denunciation of Al Qaeda, his decision to renounce support for terrorism and eliminate his own WMD programmes, has earned Libya praise from the US ‘as an important model for regime behaviour change’ (Condoleeza Rice May 15 2006)

Gaddafi’s previous vision of pan-arabic unity has never met with success, perhaps unfortunately, as this may have helped to provide different solutions to current problems. His promotion of a pan-Sahel tamashek (touareg) republic still holds some currency – and may be a factor in the rejection of the salafiste influence in northern Mali by the predominantly touareg population.

Meanwhile, on October 7th 2006, Mali, along with Benin, Mauritania, Morocco and Tunisia, took part in a trans-national day of action against migration controls - to commemorate the anniversary of the shooting of Moroccan immigrants in southern Spain the previous year.

House of cards

Amnesty International’s EU office warns against ‘the deep divide between Europe’s repressive immigration agenda and Africa’s interest in increasing development and opening up legal channels of immigration.’

In Malta, the non-governmental organisation Moviment Graffitti argues from an anti-capitalist position, against the construction of ‘fortress Europe’ and the fact that ‘free movement of capital around the world is accompanied by restrictions on the free movement of people.’

The island is orderly and hospitable. But a holiday on Malta is a neatly packaged reminder that, while separate ideologies may wax and wane, the god ideology remains, rampant.

The entire floor of St John’s Cathedral is tiled with giant tombstones for illustrious knights. The guidebook calls it a unique treasure of heraldic devices. The suit of swords predominates, the black eagle soars and death, grinning, holds up the hour-glass. These are not religious symbols. They are the language of the tarot cards, which, though not harmful in themselves, reveal for us the influences which have not yet passed away, that which has been ordained and which has not yet come to pass.

December 2006

1 comment:

Gattaldo said...

Loved your insight on the Co-Cathedral. I found myself nodding in agreement.