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Who on earth is ħamallu?

I met her over lunch at University. Sadly, she didn't want to talk about the national debt, or traditional Maltese values. I tried jellyfish but hers is a landlocked country and she wasn't interested. There was only one question on her mind: "What are the major fault lines of Maltese society?" I should have known leisure was not on the menu. She is, after all, a sociologist.

The face-saver turned out to be an unlikely word. 'Ħamalli' was probably imported sometime in the 20th century (I seem to remember something in Herbert Ganado on this) from the Greek 'hamalliki', which means 'stevedore'. The word 'pastaż', which has a related meaning, was also used in the past for a porter or bearer. Hardly surprising that those whose job it is to lug around other people's stuff should curse long and loud. I know I would.

So, who are the ħamalli? We tend to use the word in two ways. First, to describe individuals who are boorish, crass, loud, and the rest. One can be a ħamallu generally, as in a life project, or episodically, as in a lapse or moment of rudeness. There may, on occasion, be a certain subversive delight in performing ħamallaġni - the Prince of Hanover urinating in public sort of thing.

Which brings us to the second usage, which has to do with class rather than individuals. To a certain middle-class eye, the ħamalli are people who are fond of hoop earrings, mullet hairstyles, flashy cars referred to in the masculine, tile-clad façades, and frilly wedding dresses. They also tend to address people as 'ħi', talk of 'dik' and 'dak', and flail their arms wildly as they do so.

Ħamallaġni is thought to be a territorial animal, in Malta as elsewhere. Jeremy Clarkson, for example, commonly mocks the 'Cheshire-ishness' of car spoilers and alloy wheels, and the 'Croydon facelift' is not a compliment in contemporary British culture. No prizes for guessing which parts of Malta are imagined to be the prime lumpen candidates.

Things get more interesting if we consider the antonym of ħamalli. 'Puliti''s the word, and it means all those who abhor hoop earrings, mullet lifestyles, and so on. When they blaspheme, they do so in private. If they speak Maltese in public at all, they make sure they soften their 'r's. Ħamalli call this effete, but what do ħamalli know.

Puliti are also keen to maintain a certain aristocratic hauteur. Things like festa and regatta, which involve verve and passion, are not for them. (Incidentally it may well be that the recent Church document on 'restoring' feasts is also a class discourse.) Nor are a bit of noise and fun - puliti weddings, for example, are boring affairs where people stand around talking politics in hushed-up voices. So far so clear, but there are two problems. First, one man's ħamallu is another man's pulit, and it is in fact very difficult objectively to be the latter. One could always move to Ibraġ (soft 'r' at all times), run a family hatchback, wear greys and browns, and pretend not to know the neighbours. As much fun as slitting one's wrists, and less colourful. If we add to this the terrifying possibility of arriviste pulit-hood, there really is no escape.

Second, the word is hardly clinical. I wouldn't recommend walking up to Mr B.I.G. Silencer and explaining he's a ħamallu. Whether or not he thinks he's pulit, you're going to come away with one very black eye indeed. You'd deserve it too, because it's not nice to call people names. Ħamallu, then, is a derogatory word, and pulit a complimentary one.

Which brings me to the visiting sociologist. I could have said that the 'major fault line' (sociologists love geological metaphors) of Maltese society is class. But that would have been too easy, and she would have asked in what ways it is so. I therefore had to resort to our dear ħamalli and their avowed opposites.

The useful thing about the dichotomy is that it overcomes models of class that are static and rigid. There will always be some who say that being ħamallu or pulit is a matter of birth (more politely, 'breeding'). These prophets of pedigree argue that leopards do not change their spots, nor tigers their stripes, and so forth.

Animal kingdom apart, such trite hardly cuts ice these days. We know that respectability can be achieved just as convincingly as it is inherited, to the extent that notions such as 'a country boy made good' no longer impress.

If class exists and it isn't in the DNA, it must be somewhere else. That place is taste. I take the word in its broadest sense, which includes dress, music, etiquette, manner of speaking, and such. To be a ħamallu is to get it all wrong, so to speak. It is to have bad taste, where 'bad' is not easily defined and slips around according to one's circumstances and aspirations.

My lunching companion was fairly happy with this, not least since she could recognise in it a certain strand of 20th-century sociological theory. We could say that while class differences - and hierarchies - very much exist, they tend to take shape in ways that seem (but aren't, as far as consequences are concerned) banal and shallow.

Next time you hear someone softening their 'r's, think twice before sneering. You're probably hard at work building walls on other fronts. The ħamalli, it would seem, are us.

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