Unthinking the sister island

Back in 2011, at the height of what could have developed into a major refugee crisis then Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi swooped in on Lampedusa and promised to sort things out within a few days.

I find it refreshing that Labour seems to be tiptoeing away from the gift/grandiose gesture formula with respect to Gozo
- Mark Anthony Falzon

Characteristically, he then threw in a few extra goodies. A golf course would be built and trees planted, and he also pledged to buy himself a house on the island. As far as I know, this last was the only promise he kept.

I well remember the sleepless nights and listless days as I tried hard to work out the link between golf courses, pine groves, the nth holiday home for a billionaire, and solutions to humanitarian crises. Toil as I might, the formula eluded me.

Two years on, I think I’ve cracked it. The pledge-fest on Lampedusa was typical of what happens when politicians meet places that are peripheral and/or thought to be so, islands being a textbook case. Somehow they feel obliged to bring gifts and perform grandiose gestures.

Take of all people Alternattiva Demokratika’s Gozo candidate David Camilleri. I had to check the expiry date on my coffee jar when I heard him say on television the other day how splendid it would be if Marsalforn were transformed into a yacht marina. It turned out the coffee was okay and that Camilleri had said things off the cuff which weren’t within AD policy.

The man is now back on surer EcoGozo ground, but I find it telling that even a Green should lapse and buy into and preach the grands projets cult.

Which is why I was mildly (and pleasantly) surprised when Joseph Muscat unveiled the Moviment’s plans for Gozo last week. Mildly, because the surprise was one of quantity rather than quality. Muscat did promise to bring gifts, only not as many as I thought he would.

In particular his goody bag was relatively light on the usual proġetti. The only thing approaching that, in fact, was the promise of a cruise liner terminal, which he said would probably be built in Mġarr and definitely not on ‘virgin land’. I’ve yet to figure out exactly where in Mġarr Muscat plans to locate his deflowered patch. The place is, after all, a microscopic harbour hemmed in on all sides by some of the least butchered natural habitat anywhere in Malta.

But that’s not my point. Rather, I find it refreshing that Labour seems to be tiptoeing away from the gift/grandiose gesture formula with respect to Gozo. It’s early days yet and proposals are just that. Still, here we are, and it’s a beautiful day, and we’re not playing golf.

My optimism is linked to my exasperation at two things. First, at what we might call para-nationalism. It’s neither regionalism nor nationalism proper, though it’s a close relative of both. In the case of Gozo, it means the tendency to believe that the island should be somehow complete, self-sufficient, and distinct from Malta.

Take the Pope’s urbi et orbi Christmas message. I’m sure I heard His Holiness wish ‘all Maltese and Gozitans’ (‘lill-Maltin u l-Għawdxin kollha’) a Happy Christmas. Now that’s a bit like wishing ‘all Greeks and Cretans’ the same, which doesn’t happen since it’s assumed that ‘all Greeks’ includes Cretans.

I’m not for a minute suggesting that the Pope thinks that ‘all Maltese’ excludes Gozitans. In fact, I suspect he has no profound convictions on the matter, and that he is wont simply to read what his speechwriters pass on to him. Somewhere along the line, a Maltese para-nationalist (possibly from Gozo) is at work.

Now that would be alright if Gozitans were planning to secede and form their own divorce-hating state. That would be a perfectly legitimate wish – a bit barmy perhaps, but then all nationalisms are. The problem is that in the case of Gozo, para-nationalism is coupled with the second source of my irritation.

Let’s call it peripheralism, meaning the tendency to think of and relate to Gozo as an outlying region which somehow lags behind and which needs special care by the centre in order to catch up and ‘develop’ (‘l-iżvilupp t’Għawdex’, ‘politika għal Għawdex’, and such). Thus the politicians bearing gifts.

There’s deeper trouble too. Peripheralism and para-nationalism are logically opposed in obvious ways. This causes schizophrenia and a way of doing politics that promises to make Gozo complete on the one hand, to keep it dependent on the other.

Like all maladies, this one is not terribly productive. Certainly, it nourishes a particular brand of handout politics in which the flow of gifts is controlled by powerful brokers who emerge as key links between centre and periphery. A type of mafiosi without the sawn-off shotguns and quotable lines in other words, though the horses’ heads and omertà do, on occasion, slip into view.

It also leads to some strange conclusions. Take jobs, the horror apparently being that Gozitans are increasingly compelled to work in Malta. But why should this be more of an issue than say people from Siġġiewi who work in Sliema? I know two excellent electricians from Mellieħa for example, and I haven’t so far heard them complain about the fact that most of their assignments take them well beyond that village.

Incidentally, that happens precisely because they are such good electricians. Likewise, the droves of Gozitans working in Malta and elsewhere are surely evidence of the mushrooming of highly-qualified people in the smaller island. To think otherwise is to go the way of the xenophobic idiots who assure us that Africans will stay put once Africa ‘develops’ (whatever that means).

I particularly love the debates over whether or not Gozo should be cultivated as Malta’s presepju (Christmas crib), a place where life is quiet and slow-paced and where the cheese and eggs somehow taste better.

Reminds me of a little story I was told by someone who had been on a weekend break to Gozo, and who had asked a passer-by where they might find a bakery that would do their Sunday roast. The lady looked puzzled and replied they all had electric ovens at home thank you very much.

Never mind her brutal modernity. Judging by the backdrops chosen for (much bucolic loveliness for Muscat’s press conference) and the language used at (Lawrence Gonzi’s ‘sbuħija naturali t’Għawdex’) campaign dos, crib’s the word as far as politicians are concerned.

Then again, all the talk of a ‘permanent link’ (tunnel, bridge, and so on) does sort of threaten to take the flavour out of the cheese and eggs, and the smokiness out of the roast.

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