In his defence of feasts and the call for one national day, Oliver Friggieri pitches his battle for the preservation of Malta's identity. Kurt Sansone interviewed him at his home.

Nothing is more distant in character and substance than the measured ways of academic Oliver Friggieri and the bubbly attitude of politician Joe Debono Grech but the two do share a common passion: feasts.

Audiences were recently regaled with Mr Debono Grech's passionate defence of feasts during the TV show Xarabank when he insisted the celebrations "belonged to the people" and not the Church.

In a less exuberant way but no less passionate, Prof. Friggieri adopts a similar line when talking about the Church's drive to "restore feasts".

Religious feasts started from the Church, he says, but eventually ended up belonging to the community.

"They symbolise a community's rite of passage. The yearly appointment helps the community remember its dead but it also is a celebration of those who are born," he adds, eyes welling with tears as he recalls his father's boding when he participated in his last Floriana feast.

"The same year my father died, he told me it was the last feast for him and sure enough the following year he was not there to join the community in celebration - but his friend was there with a newborn niece in hand."

To be able to 'restore' feasts, the Church authorities have to understand that restoration does not mean destruction, he cautions.

"When you restore a Caravaggio you do not turn it into a Chagall, you leave it a Caravaggio but you clean it, bringing out the colours," Prof. Friggieri says.

He defends the outcry against the Church's policy document, arguing it is representative of a people who see the Church as part of their family.

The youngster who swears but then goes on to dedicate time to create an angel from papier-mâché, he adds, does so because he cares.

"The Church is his family and so he is comfortable behaving in that way; otherwise he would not bother at all and abandon everything. Our forefathers left us with unwritten memories etched in our language and our stone.

"Houses were built around the Church. Even if they lived in modest or poor households they boasted about the richness of their church. They built the church, they sustained it. It was theirs," he says, hoping the authorities realise the need to purify feasts from illegal behaviour without changing their genre.

A devout Catholic, Prof. Friggieri's stand on feasts is more than a mere defence by someone who loves the yearly celebrations. It is a defence of Maltese identity, which he says is intrinsically woven with the Church and Christianity.

In his analysis of the national anthem, Prof. Friggieri argues that Dun Karm Psaila captured the essence of Maltese identity in the anthem's verses: Christian faith, Semitic language and European culture.

Under threat from a rapidly changing society, open to foreign influences and gradually embracing a secular outlook, Prof. Friggieri believes Dun Karm's portrayal is still valid today even if the traditional structures are dying.

The loss of traditions worries him, even if this is probably the natural result of economic and social progress. His most recent publication, the autobiography Fjuri li ma Jinxfux, is in essence the author's yearning for a traditional Malta that is being lost.

Containing detailed personal accounts of childhood capers, sour experiences and historical events intertwined with vivid descriptions of community life, the book had long been in the making.

It even inspired three novels, which the author holds very dear: Ġiżimin li Qatt ma Jiftaħ, It-Tfal Jiġu bil-Vapuri and La Jibnazza Niġi Lura.

The novels revolve around traditional concepts, pictures of a time when the priest was the village's fulcrum and child-rearing was exclusively a woman's job.

Prof. Friggieri's explanation for this throwback in time sounds very much like the oxymoronic concept in the 1985 film Back to the Future. He wants to move forward but yearns for the past: "Nostalgia for the future", he calls it.

"A tree can only grow upwards and be strong if it has deep roots. Malta was like a parked car. For centuries it did not change. Now we have our foot on the accelerator but we do not know where the brakes are. We are moving head on and we risk crashing into a wall. Progress requires a culture of prudence and restraint," he says.

Where does the problem lie? His answer would have feminists jumping up and down.

"The importance of the maternal figure has diminished. Women, in the past, foolishly, had no civil, political or economic rights. They could not vote, they were paid less, they were stupid prejudices. But historically, women held a moral force over their husbands and children. The mother was an unacknowledged legislator in society, but today that moral strength has weakened," he insists.

This exaltation of the maternal figure, which Prof. Friggieri immortalises in the three novels inspired by his autobiography, forms part of the nation's identity.

He justifies what apparently seems to be a contradiction: his lament over the loss of the mother's moral strength and his description of the traditional model as stupid to deny women equal rights.

The legal, political and social changes required to do away with the "stupidity" automatically led to a change in the traditional model.

"The foundations in a building are important but are useless on their own. Yet they are required to have strong buildings. We need to have a sense of history. A woman cannot stop working today, although there is a price to pay as well, but she needs to have greater self confidence, a belief that she is the moral driving force of this world," he insists.

But, if in the academic's world women should be the moral driving force, the same cannot be said of the Church he pertains to. The patriarchal attitude of the Church denies women the right to be ordained priests.

Prof. Friggieri is unfazed by the argument.

"A time will come in the not too distant future when women will be ordained priests. The Church has realised priests need the help of lay people and eventually it will also open up priesthood to women," he says.

Underlining the fact that the issue of whether women should be ordained priests was a cultural matter not a religious one, Prof. Friggieri refers to San Ġorġ Preca's actions at the turn of last century.

"He went against the grain. Dun Ġorġ encouraged lay people, including women, to preach the Bible; something unheard of at the time. He used the vulgar language to communicate Christ's teachings at a time when the Church conducted its proceedings in Latin. He preceded the Second Vatican Council," he says, positing the first Maltese saint as a model of change for today's Church.

The discussion, not coincidentally, veers back to its roots: the debate on national identity. Prof. Friggieri says it is important to have one national day that celebrates the nation, its history, its language and its roots.

However, anyone expecting him to choose between Independence Day or Freedom Day will be disappointed. All our national days are partial, he says, either pseudo-Nationalist or pseudo-Labourite.

His solution is the arbitrary choice of any other day, calling it Malta Day, preferably chosen by schoolchildren untainted by adults' political blinkers.

"It will be their feast, their future. It will not be a tribute to the nation after Independence, which almost all our current national days are. Our identity goes back thousands of years. We are not an economic or political power but, being the roundabout of the Mediterranean, Malta is a strong cultural force," he says.

Does the country risk being swamped within the EU?

The referendum result in 2003, he muses, was a very precise characterisation of Malta. The close result was "perfect" because it ensured the country entered the EU fully conscious of its obligations but also very much aware of the dangers.

"We could not have had only the certainty of the Nationalist Party since it would have been presumptuous. We could not have had only the Labour Party's doubts because we would have remained outside. We are a mature people," he says.

A maturity, he adds, reflected in the post-Independence years when the country transformed its ways without going down the road of civil war like many other colonies that severed their ties during the same period.

"We had our clashes, at times dangerous ones, but because of our smallness we managed to take the maximum with the minimum price. We got a very good deal," he says.

For the academic, the good deal, however, needs to be nurtured. The country embarked on a voyage and while the destination may be known the point of departure is being lost.

"I want the comfort of today and the serenity of the past. I want to have the best of both worlds. I want to have the cake and eat it. It is possible for Malta. We are small. Let us defy the world, because we can do it," he says, echoing US President Barack Obama's electoral rallying cry, 'Yes we can'.

He goes off at a tangent, lamenting the end of an epoch when leaders were prophets. George Borg Olivier, Dom Mintoff, Karmenu Mifsud Bonnici and Eddie Fenech Adami, all fall within his description of prophetic leaders who inspired people with their vision.

The epoch came to an end with the clash between Dom Mintoff and Alfred Sant in 1998, which Prof. Friggieri interprets as a clash between a father and his son.

"Lawrence Gonzi and Joseph Muscat represent a new generation of politicians. They are administrators following an agenda set by someone else, possibly even by Brussels," he says, admitting he is the type of person who wanted to be led.

According to Prof. Friggieri the world lost two great leaders in recent years: Mother Teresa and Pope John Paul II.

He describes the Albanian nun as a political leader, who kept the world's conscience on edge with her unstinting work among India's poorest.

"She shamed us all," he says, visibly moved by the strength of this diminutive, unassuming nun.

As for Pope John Paul II, the image that lingers in Prof. Friggieri's mind is that of a frail, dying man clinging on to the cross, kneeling down and praying. "He was old, decrepit but he wanted to live despite the suffering. He believed and made sense of life even though it was slipping through his hands. That was a beautiful message. Where do you find leaders like that today?" he asks.

Maybe Barack Obama?

"Hopefully he will be, but Obama needs to be encouraged," he says.

Prof. Friggieri's nostalgia for the past may be compared to the musings of any 62-year-old who believes that his times were better than today's, but his is a much deeper yearning of a man who loves his country and recognises its centuries-old identity, which many seem to miss.

In an increasingly cynical society, he is a rare find indeed.

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