A Cultural Identity
between Europe and the Mediterranean
  Part One

This paper was presented at an international conference entitled, "Between Europe and the Mediterranean: Youth, Towns, Culture", held in Rome as part of the IX edition of the Biennial Exhibition of Young Artists from Europe and the Mediterranean, in June, 1999.


Go to Part Two, "Promoting Cultural Identity"


Although geographically and linguistically Malta lies between Europe and Africa, for many reasons it would perhaps be more correct, or convenient, to say that Malta lies, as the title of this International Conference unintentionally suggests, between Europe and the Mediterranean.

Most Maltese people identify themselves with Europe: Europe is ‘us’; the Mediterranean, which is often identified with the South, is ‘them’. This is not to say that the Maltese feel they are fully-fledged continental Europeans; there probably aren’t many islanders anywhere who consider themselves full members of an adjacent continental mass, and the Maltese are no exception. But because the Maltese have shared the same religion and culture (the Catholic religion has played, and still plays a leading role in the moulding of our culture) with Europe for centuries, and because the Europeans colonised Malta for a thousand years after the Arabs surrendered the islands to the Normans in 1090, most Maltese feel culturally closer to Europe. The Europeans are seen as trend-setters while the Mediterranean is equated with sun, sea, irresoluble conflicts and a rich, obsolete cultural heritage.

In a survey carried out by sociologist Dr. Anthony M. Abela in 1995, the Maltese were asked which of the following they felt most part of: their village or town; their district, Malta, the countries of the Mediterranean, Europe, the Western countries and the world. The results were then compared to the results of a similar survey held in Spain. According to the survey, most Maltese people, 65% of them, see themselves primarily as citizens of their country (Il-Óarsien Soðjali fis-Snin Disæin, Institute of Social Welfare, 1996) and only 6% of the Maltese and 2% of the Spaniards think of themselves as citizens of Europe. As regards the Mediterranean, what emerges in a very clear way is that while 22% of the Spaniards feel that they are citizens of the Mediterranean, only 2% of the Maltese identify themselves with the Mediterranean.

Two Political Slogans

The idea that Malta lies between Europe and the Mediterranean is an all-time favourite of Maltese post-colonial politics. In the mid-1990s, the Malta Labour Party led by Alfred Sant resuscitated one of Dom Mintoff's slogans originally used in the 1950s. Malta, according to this slogan, will become a Svizzera fil-Mediterran, ‘A Switzerland in the Mediterranean’.

Political slogans rarely manage to capture the complexities of life and the policies that tend to shape and get shaped by it; 'A Switzerland in the Mediterranean' is no exception. Political metaphors are designed to simplify what the public views as highly complex issues, making them tangible and understandable. Perhaps the greatest limitations of the Svizzera fil-Mediterran slogan are that it ties the ideal vision of Malta to a particular country and to a set of relatively 'remote', idealised postcards, even though politicians have beefed the slogan up by insisting on what they perceive as the ideal Swiss concept of political neutrality. However, the Maltese politicians of the 1970s were not the first to idealize Switzerland and use it as a metaphor for another country. After the Second World War, politicians in Europe talked of Lebanon as the ‘Switzerland of the Middle East’.

The resuscitation of this slogan in the 1990s does not reflect well on Labour’s policy regarding either national identity or foreign affairs; Swiss culture and life in general are not Mediterranean, so the metaphor has no depth because it only works on a limited, superficial level, namely that of political neutrality. Notwithstanding its clear limitations, it must be said that this slogan has stirred what observers of such political metaphors call ‘positive emotions’.

The slogan is symptomatic of Malta’s position between Europe and the Mediterranean, because it puts together Switzerland, the idealized neutral, prosperous European country, and the Mediterranean. In its 1998 electoral manifesto, the Labour Party talks about the ‘Maltese road to Europe’, a road that consolidates Malta’s focal position at the centre of the Mediterranean. The Maltese are European and Mediterranean: note the order.

But in 1998, the Labour Party promoted another slogan too: Id-dar Maltija fl-Ewropa ('The Maltese House in Europe'). It is not clear whether id-dar Maltija means 'the Maltese House' or 'the Maltese Home', because the Maltese word ‘dar’ does not distinguish between ‘house’ and ‘home’, probably because it doesn’t need to. This is an interesting point. The cornerstone of the so-called Mediterranean way of life, of so-called Mediterranean culture is the home. In the Mediterranean, the family is the focal institution; it often comes before the community, before the Church, before the State, before the Party and even before the individual. If the house or home our politicians are talking about is a typical Maltese home then one would expect it to be the fort or defensive redoubt that anthropologists have observed in many parts of the Mediterranean. In rural Andalusia, one owes primary allegiance to one's household, to those, as anthropologist David Gilmore puts it, 'with whom one shares a private and secret life'. In this sense, the world as portrayed by this metaphor is typically divided into us (the Maltese) and them (the others), that is the Europeans. This is hardly consonant with the stated EU ideal of European social, cultural, political and economic union. What 'New Labour' seems to be proposing is the shifting of the island-fortress of Malta from its location at the heart of the Mediterranean Basin to another location at the heart of Europe. But an island-fortress it will nonetheless be.

This point leads us to a discussion of what the main political parties in Malta, that is the pro-European Union Nationalist Party which is now in government and the Malta Labour Party mean when they say Mediterranean. The Labour Party sees the Mediterranean region as both a geographical and a political region, not as a cultural reality. The Mediterranean is not seen as a cultural baggage that is relevant to Malta’s elusive national identity. The peoples of the Mediterranean happen to be our neighbours, so it is natural that we should befriend them and promote peace in our neighbourhood. Most Maltese people do not see the Mediterranean region as our home: it is our residence. As central Mediterranean islanders, many other Mediterranean peoples have crossed our path, and that supposedly makes our role as peace brokers in our region more pressing. But otherwise, we are Europeans.

This second, more recent slogan in particular, and the 1998 electoral manifestos in general, do not shed much light on our politicians' views on national identity. And yet Labour has repeatedly warned that as a full member of the EU Malta will jeopardize its national identity. The fact is that our politicians haven’t given much thought to what this elusive 'national identity' might be and Labour’s slogans don’t augur well.

The rationale behind these slogans is wrong-headed. From a cultural point of view, whether we choose to join the European Union or not is essentially beside the point. We may be full, active members of the EU and respect our mediterranean identity; we may be outside the EU and ignore our mediterranean characteristics. The EU may, or may not prompt us to search, or come to terms, with our Mediterranean ‘soul’. What is important is that we decide to embark on a creative, soul-searching exercise of cultural self-awareness. Promoters of Malta’s membership in the EU, namely the Nationalist Party (but also Alternattiva Demokratika) claim that full membership will create the right environment for the promotion of such a process of cultural self-awareness; detractors believe that the Union will jeopardize our national identity.

But really only the Maltese can decide whether to embark on their own much-awaited journey of cultural self-awareness. This journey must start from the Mediterranean, not only because Malta lies at the so-called ‘heart’ of the region, but also because ‘it is clear,’ quoting from Russell King’s essay on Mediterraneanism, ‘that on physical, cultural and historical criteria the Mediterranean presents itself as a more unified region than either Europe or Africa’. In this process of self-identification and culture planning, Mediterranean Malta must take into account the fact that ‘it is the multi-layered interactions between physical, cultural and contemporary social and economic geographies which define the essence of the Mediterranean landscape and Mediterranean life, and which make the littoral regions of the Mediterranean states cohere as a recognisable geographical entity.’

In a provocative passage in what he calls his 'handbook' of the Mediterranean, Predrag Matvejevic claims that mediterraneity is not something you inherit, but something you achieve; it is not an advantage, but a decision you make. Anyone could become mediterranean; ‘they say,’ writes Matvejevic, ‘that there are increasingly less true mediterraneans in the Mediterranean Sea.’.

This implies that the Mediterraneans can choose not to be Mediterranean: according to Professor Tonino Perna, ever since the unification of Italy, the South of Italy has been progressively integrating with the powerful areas of the North. The South’s economic exchange with the Mediterranean countries has been slowly decreasing. On the cultural level, the homologation of the new generations has produced a profound detachment from the Mediterranean roots of the culture of the South. This escape from the Mediterranean has been accelerated by the eurocentric ideology that has been imposed on us by the mass media.

The situation in Malta is similar. Perna talks of ‘bringing’ the Italian South back to the Mediterranean; in our case it’s about time we brought Malta back to the Mediterranean. This point about choosing to be Mediterranean does not contradict the other point about the existence of Mediterranean culture/s and about Maltese culture being inevitably tied to the Inner Sea. Choosing to be Mediterranean respects what Perna calls our Mediterranean roots and ensures that we do not throw away what geography and history have given us; moreover, choosing to be Mediterranean is not an exercise in archaeology but a well-thought out process that shapes the future by taking into account our past and present. Choosing to be Mediterranean is a challenging, creative process that will enable the Maltese people to understand themselves and to shape their future.


© Adrian Grima

Published in The Sunday Times, Malta, (17 October, 1999)


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