A typical Maltese bus.
Malta is a Mediterranean archipelago with a history as rich as the surrounding deep blue sea and just as inviting.
The three islands that make up the archipelago, Malta, Gozo and Comino, were eyed covetously and sometimes conquered over the centuries by powerful and ambitious nations wanting the strategic rocky maritime crossroads for themselves.
They came and conquered only to be conquered themselves some years, decades or centuries later. But each left its indelible footprint in Maltese rock. From an underground complex of cave-like tombs to temples and cathedrals, the buildings of Malta are stunning and envelop the visitor in an awesome, warm historical embrace.
Malta offers the possibility of kicking off with one of many prehistoric sites before plodding in the footsteps of ancient temple builders, seafaring Phoenicians and the traveler Apostle Paul, to the Knights of St. John and Napoleon – just to mention a few.
The main island of Malta covers 95 square miles with sister island, Gozo, being a mere 26. Wedged in between is tiny tot Comino at all of one square mile upon which sits a hotel, a few permanent residents and not one single car!
The total population of the islands is 375,000, including about 120 Jews, most of whom are living on the main island and make up one of the smallest active Jewish communities in the Mediterranean basin.
Over the last three decades I have been to Malta half a dozen times. Close relatives of mine moved there from Birmingham, England in the late 1960s, the same year I made aliyah. Sadly, in recent times both my aunt and uncle died on the island and are buried in the local Jewish cemetery in the corner section of a large Muslim cemetery – a high wall blocking the Jewish section off from the Muslim one. However, the minaret of the mosque immediately on the other side looms above and beyond the top of the wall.
My aunt and uncle were extremely involved in the small Jewish community comprising in the main ex-pat Brits and Israelis and the extended Ohayon family whose roots are in Morocco.
They were also very involved, as they had been in Britain, in inter-faith groups, and were staunch supporters of the local hospice. Their tremendous efforts for those in need and their desire to have people of different faiths achieve religious tolerance and understanding were recognized by Queen Elizabeth when she honored them with the OBE and MBE respectively. I am purposely not mentioning their names as they were both modest folk who always preferred to be in the background doing rather than in the foreground engaged in chitchat.
When the building which was used as a synagogue at the time that they first went to Malta was demolished to make way for a new road, my uncle and the Ohayons went searching for a suitable building to serve the Jewish community. The end result was the purchase of a very large abode on the second floor of an apartment block in Sliema – possibly one of the reasons why it has to be one of the most homely and user-friendly synagogues I have ever visited.
I remember my uncle telling me that some of the other tenants in the building were engaged in ‘the oldest profession in the world,’ and was convinced he was pulling my leg.
One of my visits fell during Pesach and I went to synagogue with them. A few of the rather scantily dressed ‘ladies’ on the street corner greeted the worshippers with friendly waves as they entered the building and nobody, except me, seemed to think it was a little odd.
Later discussing the situation, Uncle told me about the time when a youth orchestra from Kiryat Ono was invited to visit Malta and they, as the Jewish community, felt they should also meet with the Israeli youngsters whilst they were in town and organized a reception for them.
“Can you imagine, dear,” said Uncle, “when the bus pulled up and out poured these rather handsome young men, how the local ladies reacted. One of the congregation had to have a quiet word to let them know they were not potential customers being bused in!”
Until the l980’s there was an Israeli embassy in Malta. The last ambassador was a lady in her early sixties and the embassy staff consisted of a young married couple. The husband was the ambassador’s driver and bodyguard and his wife, the embassy secretary.
Whilst the ambassador was alighting from her car one day, a passing motorcyclist fired a number of shots at her, all of which, thank goodness, missed their target. Enraged, the ambassador removed her shoes and gave chase on foot down the main street of Sliema and became the talk of the town. Following the assassination attempt the embassy was closed and from time to time the Israeli ambassador to Italy comes a-calling.
Malta is a fascinating place. The air seems permeated with a large dollop of relax, take it easy, tomorrow never comes. Although this can be somewhat infuriating at times, the well mannered and good-natured Maltese people are absolutely infectious.
I remember very well a description of the locals I found in a guidebook: ‘Work always gets done in Malta,’ it had said, ‘even back-breaking toil if necessary – but it is not taken too seriously.’
Traveling the roads of the islands is where it first strikes one that there are many issues the Maltese don't take too seriously. Most roads are in bad repair and the driving seems to be on the lines of making up the rules as they go along.
The Maltese islands, except for Comino, have to be an old car enthusiast’s idea of four-wheeled heaven, a sort of Mediterranean Cuba. Every third or fourth car seems to have been snatched from an open museum collection of automobiles and put back on the road, some in good condition others held together by rust and a little extra wiring – external wiring that is!
The old public buses - painted yellow and orange - have to be seen to be believed. Not only are they extremely wide and box shaped, but adorned with religious artifacts and personal memorabilia belonging to the drivers. I was almost charged down whilst crossing the road by one of these living museum pieces that happened to be resplendent with a set of bullhorns strapped to the front for extra effect.
Arab rule over Malta ceased 900 years ago with the Norman invasion. They and subsequent powers that controlled the Maltese people tried to force them to speak the languages of the occupiers. However, the Maltese language – known as Malti and somewhat similar in sound to Arabic – has survived. All Maltese speak English and possibly Italian and as happens when people are afraid that their native tongue will die a natural death as the youth lean more to English than their own lingo, there has been a reawakening of the importance of keeping Malti alive.
There is so much to write about Malta but one should go and see the sights for oneself such as the massive honey colored stone walls looming up from the docks to Valetta above on the promontory. Decorative lookout posts with carved eyes and ears stick out from the tops of the walls in many places. They seem to be on the lookout for would be friendly visitors these days as opposed to the foe of old.
One of Malta’s most beautiful and interesting spots is the historic citadel of Mdina. Intriguing and secretive with narrow alleyways between enormous stone buildings, some of which are the palaces of Malta’s aristocratic old families. Mdina is not unlike the Old City of Jerusalem. Sitting on low stools in shop doorways, nimble fingered local women craft lace, some of which is used to border linen tablecloths or handkerchiefs.
If you happen to hit Malta during festa season then be ready to be literally blasted out of bed early of a morn. Each parish has its own saint and it is the duty of the parishioners to celebrate their saint’s day with cannon fired early in the morn and late at night, and revelling in the streets in between.
With 64 parishes in Malta and another 14 on Gozo, that makes lots of colorful parties and parades to attend during festa time but would I suggest a small packet of ear plugs be added to the list of necessary items for that time of year.