Monday, 25 June 2007
From one European island to another ...
Owen Powell - 25th June 2007
The working title of Sharon’s PhD is ‘The race to nation: An analysis of the discourse of race and nation in stories of migration appearing in the Maltese press before and after EU membership’. (I hope I’ve got that right). It’s a topic that Sharon has personal and professional (as well as academic) interest in, as she used to write for The Times, Malta’s leading English-language newspaper, for thirteen years. Now, of course, she has personal experience of being a migrant as well, having left Malta in 2003. “In Malta,” she notes wryly, “all people talk about migration purely in terms of people coming in. They hardly notice that lots of young people are spreading their wings and moving out, but this is less newsworthy.”
Alex and I have spent so long thinking about London as a hot seat of immigration that it’s both baffling and fascinating to hear about another place that has had a dramatic history of diverse comings and goings. Malta seems to have an identity crisis – right in the middle of the Mediterranean, its culture, language, and even climate seem to be a mixture of European, North African and Middle Eastern. “Maltese people consider themselves a homogenous mass,” explains Sharon. “The general myth is that we are descended from the Phoenicians and Carthaginians, whereas our language has Arabic roots but is written in Roman script. Our most recent rulers were the British – we still have red pillar boxes – but the dominant cultural influence now is Italy. Maltese people resent being thought of as Arab, or North African – while I was doing my Masters, which looks at Maltese journalism and how people define themselves, we joined the EU, so everyone is happy now we’re seen as European.”
Malta is a tiny island, about 300 sq km in size, but is responsible for a vast area of surrounding sea – more than a quarter of a million sq km. This means that many of the boat people found trying to cross the Mediterranean from Africa to Europe end up being detained in Malta. “Italy has provided us with armed forces and equipment to help patrol our waters – the cynics would say it’s to stop the boats getting further and reaching Italian waters. The Maltese people – although they can be self-obsessed and see Malta as the centre of the world – pride themselves on their hospitality and charity, so we try to help as much as we can. The first visible boat people in recent times came from Albania – they were welcomed, but, then again, they were white and European. After the Lockerbie bombing, al flights from Libya were banned so the main route out became by boat, via Malta, to elsewhere in Europe. So, fairly suddenly, black faces were more visible through the 1990s, policemen would stop them in the streets. There are now 2000 asylum seekers in detention, including lots of Asian people. It’s funny, when I was growing up, there were only two or three Chinese restaurants on the whole island. Going to one was a special treat, but now Malta feels more diverse.”
Sharon says she had a very privileged childhood, and spent much of it reading – despite Malta’s wonderful scenery and climate, she says she’s “not very outdoorsy”. She grew up a Catholic, as do 98% of Maltese people, which is no surprise given that Catholicism is mentioned in the country’s constitution. But she would describe herself as lapsed now. “I was made to go to doctrine lessons, Mass every Sunday – I consider myself brainwashed even now. It’s hard to get out, really. I was lucky, in that when I became a journalist I had to work Sundays, so I could legitimately avoid it.” Much of her work was on crime stories, and so she had to constantly translate from the Maltese used in court to the English used in the paper. Both are official languages, a legacy of Empire, and the British compromising with the locals in order to ensure that Italian wasn’t spoken. Maltese in now an official language of the EU as well, although it’s proving hard to find enough competent translators to get all the necessary documents produced. “It’s a hard language,” Sharon admits. “It’s only been written down properly since the 1930s, and the Academy of the Maltese Language should do more to standardise it, but the teachers all speak it differently. Also, all new words, bespoke words in areas like technology, science and IT are just English words spelt in a Maltese style, like ‘kompjuter’. Even more embarrassing is the Maltese presence on the internet – outside of any official sites, people use text speak, it’s all wrong. We’re meant to feel positive about citizen journalism, but I have my doubts ...”
Sharon has kept in contact with the Times, and still writes a column for them about migration. Although she’s been in the UK for four years, she spent the first couple of years outside London, doing her Masters in Cardiff, then beginning a Research Masters in Glasgow (“I had a full scholarship there, but I ran away – I didn’t like it,” she says). Now her study is based at the Sussex Centre for Migration Research in Brighton, but she’s currently in the middle of a six month intermission to earn money by temping in London. “I’m supposed to be doing research as well, but London’s so distracting I haven’t managed any in four months. I’m tempted to move to zone four to avoid going out in the evening.” Apart from the distractions, and the expense, Sharon loves London – especially the things that drive many locals mad.
“I don’t like returning to Malta in the summer, as it’s too hot – I much prefer London’s climate to the Med. Also, I love how unfriendly it is here. I like getting on the tube to read my book, listen to my iPod. Actually, that’s not entirely fair – any time I’ve been standing, looking lost with my A-Z someone will always come and help me. The same if I have a suitcase on the tube. I love it here. I really haven’t stopped having fun since I came here.”
But would she ever go back to Malta, I wonder? “Well, I need two more years to finish my PhD, then I think I’ll try to get some teaching work, or some more in-depth journalism, writing longer pieces for a monthly magazine. But not back in Malta – I’d reached my limit there, in terms of my social life and my career. When I left, I was 29, all my friends were married, and I was sick of having conversations about bathrooms. What happens to intelligent conversations when you get married?”