20 Very Important Days

If I was back in the United States, I would have barely taken notice of the music blaring through the sound system of the slowly passing car, despite the early hour. I’ve grown quite accustomed to this phenomenon. It’s never about the music, which is invariably some average Top 40 hit that no one will remember in a month’s time. It’s about showing off the car, the speakers, or the person who owns them both. I was however, not in the United States. I was in the Republic of Malta; normally a fairly quiet place from what I know. I read a somewhat recent piece in the Times of Malta urging a “return to the tranquility” after some two-dozen people staged a protest at the Libyan embassy.

The radio was cranked up to 11 but just behind the painfully forgettable beat I could make out the sounds of fireworks popping and people cheering as though Malta had just won independence from the British Empire for a second time. I had to investigate. Through the bars of the window I could see that the people hanging out of the Jeep were energetically waving flags.

What I was witnessing, and what the whole neighborhood was waking up to, was indeed a celebration.

Malta has just held a national referendum. In question was whether people would be allowed to continue hunting certain birds in the spring. On one side stood conservationists who argue that springtime is the crucial period during which the birds reproduce and repopulate. On the other side were those who really like to shoot birds and consider the practice to be a proud Maltese tradition. Apparently the turtle-dove population has declined by some 77% since 1980.

Since we arrived two weeks ago, every issue of the Times of Malta has carried a few articles regarding the Spring Hunting debate. Somewhat less prominent are pieces on North African immigrants, debates about social spending, and information about the pothole problems in various villages. A billboard down the road from our host family’s residence shows a happy family alongside some sort of pro-hunting message. The exact wording is a bit difficult to recall because someone spray painted “Fuck the Hunters” across the whole thing and this is a much more memorable slogan.

The hunters won the right to continue Spring Hunting, which means they can shoot up to 2 birds in a given day and no more than 4 birds in the season. That this has been such an intense fight strikes me as a bit strange. But then a lot of things about Malta strike me as strange.

There are no railroads here and everyone seems to have a few cars on hand. The total number of citizens is just over 400,000 people. That’s smaller than my hometown of Corpus Christi, Texas. There are two national languages, English and Maltese. The first is the result of the islands having been under the control of the British Empire for a few hundred years. The second is a blend of Arabic with a dash of Italian, and plenty of words borrowed from several other European languages. In the cultural parlance of the island, the population is made up of two basic sociocultural categories: Hamalli and Tal-Pepe. The former are supposedly lacking in culture and come typically from the lower classes. The latter are apparently quite posh and always hail from the upper classes. Some would also say there’s a third category: “normal” Maltese. Political allegiance is generally divided the center-left Labour Party and the center-right Nationalist Party.

Malta just banned forced gender-assignment surgery on intersex infants but abortion is still illegal. Same-sex civil unions are recognized and are officially equal to marriages but divorce was only legalized in 2011. There are some 3,000 Muslims (mostly foreign born) and according to Wikipedia there are 40 Buddhists. The other 94% of the population is at least nominally Catholic.

Besides the scores of limestone churches and shrines that dot the landscape, the most common site around Malta might be the hunting lodges. These one story, single room, limestone structures appear at first glance to be the remains of pre-industrial Malta but are actually used quite regularly and most of them can’t be but a year or two old. The hunters are everywhere and they make up a very sizable voting bloc. I’ve heard a few people say that Muscat, the Prime Minister, is terrified of alienating the hunters lest Labour finds it impossible to win another election. In this tiny island country, the question of Spring Hunting is big time politics.

My second cousin Ramona says that a lot of non-hunters voted for Spring Hunting because it’s backed by Muscat and Labour. This is not a traditionally pro-Labour household. Ramona’s husband Mark comes from a firmly Nationalist family. His grandfather was among the founders of the party. Our political conversations at the dinner table have been quite interesting. Ali, my third cousin, says she intends to vote for Democratic Alternative in the next election. They’re a small third-party of the Green persuasion with strong animal welfare policies. It’s possible that in the wake of the referendum, “Alternativa” could find a number of new supporters.

The hunters won the referendum by a mere 2,220 votes. Mark points out that the turnout was much higher in the villages that were also holding local council elections. These villages were largely Labour Party strongholds. In his view, it’s just another example of the underhanded ways that politics are conducted in Malta. The turnout was high in Gozo, the other populated island of the republic. Apparently the whole of Gozo is a Labour stronghold as well as a den of nepotism, corruption, and kinship politics. According to John (better known as “Goofy), a family friend and Nationalist mayor of a nearby village, the Sicilian Mafia was founded by Gozitans.

Malta is the place about which we knew the least before our arrival. Thanks to the Spring Hunting debate, we have a better idea of how things work (and don’t work) in this tiny republic that a lot of Americans have not yet heard of.

– Jason

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