Exploring Arab Folk Literature

By Pierre Cachia | Go to book overview

15
Maltese: Arabic Roots and Sundry
Grafts

A. Cultural Cross-currents in Maltese Idioms1

The vicissitudes of history that made Malta part of the Aghlabid domains for more than 200 years, then for even longer centuries the battered but unconquered bastion of Christendom against Islam, have left it a strangely mixed inheritance. On the one hand, its language has obvious, close and today widely acknowledged bonds of kinship with Arabic. On the other hand, not only is there among the common people a conscious antipathy to the Arabs which makes the very word għarbi a term of abuse, but almost every manifestation of Maltese cultural life other than the language places it clearly in the stream of European, more specifically Italian, civilisation.

This European affiliation is not merely a veneer taken on by the educated classes, nor is it entirely the result of that penetration of the Near East by the West which began in the nineteenth century and has coloured the life of the Arabs themselves.

It is, of course, most patent in the Maltese literary movement, in that its pioneers were men steeped in the Italian literary tradition, in several instances men with a reputation as writers in Italian before they turned to the native idiom. But Maltese folk literature, too, although not so homogeneous, betrays profound and longstanding European influences. The folktales, for example, are strongly reminiscent of the Arab ḥadduŧah, with its characteristically luxuriant fantasy–although even in these there are curiously revealing twists, as when the role which in Arab tales is usually filled by a Persian ḥakīm or a Maghribī magician is, in its Maltese counterpart, assigned to a German professor.2 As for folksongs, their metrical forms are Italian, and they are sung to Italian music, usually played on the guitar.

Significant also is the testimony of Fāris aš-Šidyāq, who lived and worked in Malta from 1834 to 1848 and reported at length on the customs, the superstitions, the social demeanour, the mannerisms, even the conventional gestures, of the Maltese. Biased and inaccurate as his observations often were, it is clear that he was reacting to a way of life that on the whole seemed foreign to him, and his final verdict on it was that ‘the island of Malta pleases but few Europeans. The reason is that they find nothing novel when they come of it, nothing that cannot be found in their own country–for everything in it is but the refuse of what they possess… Of the Arabs it would please no one. This is because the Maltese all hate the entire race of Arabs and Muslims.’3

It is the Maltese language, then, that is the abiding monument of the Arab connection with Malta. The morphology and syntax of Maltese remain remarkably close

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