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Reflections The Malta Metaphor

By Sunanda K. Datta-Ray

February 07, 12

Malta was astonished to learn that Malaysia's imams are up in arms at Christians having the effrontery to call their god Allah

Mario Mifsud, a Mal t e s e travel agent in Va lletta, is a devout Roman Catholic who spent a couple of months in Kolkata working voluntarily for Mother Teresa. He prays to Allah, not because Mifsud is an Arabic name but because Allah is the only word for god in Maltese. Maltese is the only Semitic language in the European Union, and is uniquely written in the Roman script.

Such cross-cultural evidence in Maltese towns with Arabic names like Mdina (not Medina) and Rabat, and a statue of the Virgin Mary on a church's baroque facade described in the inscription as “Sultanah“, make one wonder whether this little Mediterranean archipelago of three small islands is the forerunner of global universalism in which languages enrich each other and racial frontiers slowly fade out. Even religion, the last jealously guarded bastion of identity, borrows and mingles. Coming from a land in which, leave alone Shiv Sena bigotry, Hindus from East and West Bengal lay fierce claim to distinctively separate cultures, Malta seems like a metaphor for integration.

In the more obvious melting pot of London I was twice accused in the course of one morning last week of speaking “Dhakai Bangla“.

No, the accusers didn't mean what Kolkata would call a Dhaka accent. Both British born and bred young men of Bangladeshi ancestry whose first language is English meant I didn't speak the Sylheti variant which they use to communicate with aged relatives. Any other Bengali was “Dhakai“or “standard“to them. One of the two, Kai Chaudhry, a voluble and personable young banker, did concede that “Kolkata Bangla“was also “standard“. But he probably thought Kolkata had stolen it from Dhaka! Malta's British-educated Speaker and former foreign minister, Michael Frendo, who lost out to Kamlesh Sharma for the post of Commonwealth secretary-general, sees Malta as a link between Europe and North Africa. Geography is destiny for him.

While the name Mifsud could have come from anywhere in North Africa (Tunisia is only 284 km to the west), Mr Frendo thinks the Arabic influence comes from the more distant Levant. The Maltese believe Arabs can understand Maltese though the Maltese can't follow Arabic.

Despite its linguistic cosmopolitanism, breathtaking views, massive fortifi cations and ornate Italianate architecture, Malta could also be a bit of England that has strayed away, especially if you listen without seeing. Most people speak English and they speak it in the manner born. English is the official language, together with Maltese. It’s the language of notices and pub and restaurant signs. Malta’s high commissioner in London, Joseph Zammit Tabona, says he owes his English accent to the school in Malta patterned on an English public school where boys were beaten for speaking in their mother tongue.

Adding injury to insult, the beating was with the nail studded sole of a shoe.

British rule has left an indelible imprint on this only country that an English monarch honoured with the George Cross for its heroism in resisting two years of Italian-German siege and bombardment during

World War II. First names like Abigail and Pembroke are common, and people drive on the left of the road — the only place in the EU outside the British Isles where anyone does so.

Not that British colonialism wiped out earlier history. Ninety per cent of the people are Roman Catholic.

Ethnically, they claim to be of Sicilian stock. But then Sicily, only 93 km away, is itself a melting pot of history where Turks and Arabs, Franks and Spaniards have interbred over the centuries with Byzantine officials and crusaders from every European nation. Mr Mifsud tells me of a Bengali accountant, Joydeep Ghosh Roy, who married a Maltese girl and settled down in Valletta. “Indians are everywhere!“ exclaims a Pakistani tourist after encountering Merchants Street's Daswani and Vaswani shopkeepers.

I once asked a British diplomat with an impeccably English name but a Chinese-origin wife from Malaysia whether his children regarded themselves as English, Chinese or Malaysian.

I expected him to reply “British“. Instead, he said they were Londoners.

“That's a new identity, “he explained. “Your people can come from any part of the British Isles or, indeed, the world but you were born and brought up in London and speak like a Londoner! “Such speech is certainly not the Queen's English in style or content.

It's a relatively new refined version of Cockney -the traditional speech of the working classes within hearing of Bow Bells, the bells of the historic church of St. Mary-le-Bow in the East End -and is called Estuary English. Now a fashionable dialect, Estuary English is probably a unifying factor across class and race barriers.

Diplomacy is setting a healthy trend. Sanjay Wadvani is Britain's highly popular deputy high commissioner in Kolkata, and Peter Varghese successfully represents Australia in Delhi. But not everybody welcomes universalism and many Bangladeshis didn't like Britain sending a Sylheti, Anwar Chowdhury, to Dhaka as high commissioner. I get hysterical emails about the “Talibanisation“ of West Bengal by Bangladeshi migrants, and Britain's Times newspaper once warned sourly that uncontrolled immigration would mean “a coffee coloured future“.

Malta was astonished to learn that Malaysia's imams are up in arms at Christians having the effrontery to call their god Allah.

With strong ideas on what Muslims and non-Muslims can and cannot do, they have also ruled that chopsticks are not halal; they may be good enough for Kafirs but followers of the Prophet should eat only with their fingers. Presumably, knives and forks are permitted since there's been no edict as yet against cutlery. Such recalcitrants may not succeed in aborting the global push towards integration but will delay it for as long as they can.

The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author

Source: The Asian Age, New Delhi