“Do you value your life?”
I wasn’t sure how to answer at first. The woman asking the question was someone I had known for roughly an hour. Perhaps she thought I was talking about something else. It was a long table after all and there were several people all chatting about one thing or another. Through the din of conversation, she had heard me talking about going to Turkey. Prior to this moment, Nathan and I had been regaling those around us with tales of travel and adventure throughout Europe.
We had been in Malta for about a week by this point.
During his own weeklong stay in Malta, the conquering Napoleon Bonaparte personally reorganized the government, abolished slavery, swept away the remnants of feudalism, and established a public school system. Compared to the First Consul-turned-Emperor, Nathan and I spent a fairly lazy two weeks in the Malta. Compared to the average visitor though, I think we can safely say we were quite busy. We hiked and climbed through sometimes precarious terrain to take in absolutely breathtaking views of the Maltese coastline. We took a tour of the dungeons of Imdina, where heretics were once tortured using some of the most heinous devices. As one might imagine, Turkish slaves were regular visitors.
“Ah yes, the Turks. We gave them quite the drubbing didn’t we?”
This man, let’s call him Buster, heard that we were going to Turkey. He was referring to the Great Seige of 1565, when the Turks failed to conquer the island. Malta has a lot of natural defenses along its’ beautiful coastline. There’s also a string of forts which were constructed in such a way that islands, any invaders could be seen and the information could be spread via smoke signals to all of Malta. We visited a few of these forts. I climbed one which had previously also been repurposed as a disco in the 1980’s.
Buster told us all about 16th century Malta and which books to buy to read everything he had just said. All of that history was enough to make our heads spin, not just because of Buster’s storytelling but because that whole period is just a blip on the timeline. Even the Roman architecture is relatively recent in Malta, which is home to the oldest stone structures in the entire world.
When we first arrived at the site of the Ħaġar Qim temple complex, I had to pause at the threshold to spend a moment taking it all in. I was about to cross over into a structure that was older than a lot of people in the U.S. believe the world is. Far too little is currently known about the civilization that created the megaliths during Malta’s “Temple Period.” Construction at these sites started in the Early Neolithic and ended during the Bronze Age. The people responsible for them disappeared without a trace.
The most awe-inspiring of their creations was the Hypogeum of Ħal-Saflieni, a prehistoric necropolis and the oldest known underground structure in the world. It was discovered in the early 20th century during the construction of a rainwater cistern. Luckily the workers had the good sense to point it out rather than just cover it up for the sake of the project, otherwise human history would be even further misunderstood than it already is.
“There’s been quite a bit of history on our little rock.”
Ramona wasn’t joking. The Maltese are so used to this stuff, perhaps overwhlemed by it, that they can tend to forget just how amazing it is. We were told two different stories about recent building projects that uncovered more of Malta’s rich history buried just beneath the hustle and bustle of contemporary life. Both were covered up and few people know anything about either case. It’s actually quite heartbreaking to consider the possibility that the keys to unlocking the mysteries of the past might be on the other side of a flimsy wall in some guy’s wine cellar.
I can’t think of a better example of how disconnected our lives can really be from all that’s come before us and all that is happening around us. It reminded me to stay sharp and keep on the lookout for things I might miss along the way.
On one of our daily excursions I caught a glimpse of some graffiti on the wall which read “Power to the People” in big, bold letters. Below it were three raised fists. A few days before we had visited a coffee shop in Valletta that adorned with Palestinian flags and anarchist literature. They had told us that there wasn’t much in the way of an activist “scene” or much of a culture of dissent that young people could plug into. Later we would hear about a punk rock show at a club called Zion in a village we hadn’t yet visited but we didn’t manage to make it out. With that one miscalculation in our schedule (which was my fault) we missed the chance to experience something that we had been specifically on the lookout for.
“Why don’t you go to the North of Europe for your holiday? Go to Turkey once things have calmed down a bit.”
Holiday? Lady, if you only knew the shenanigans we’d been getting into. If you only knew the company we’ve been keeping along the way.
I spent an afternoon meeting with members of the Communist Party of Malta at their office in Valletta. In a country that has seen none of the social chaos of its’ neighbors, the Communists are happy to celebrate the development of anything progressive with which to relate. They spoke at some length about their desire to build some new political/social coalition to the left of the Labour Party, which they regard as corrupted. As for their chances of gaining a mass audience in the future, it’s impossible to say. We were only in Malta for just over two weeks and my interactions with activists on the fringe of mainstream politics were too few to draw any conclusions.
“So, what do you think of Malta?”
It was great and I would like to come back. Two weeks time is hardly enough to do much more than scratch at the surface of a whole society, if thats what you’re really trying to understand. We’ve known this since day one but every experience from Porto to Naxxar has confirmed it a hundred times over. We enjoyed ourselves, we ate a lot of pastizzi, and before we knew it, we needed to secure our visas for Turkey.
“Turkey, you say? Do you have any idea what’s going on over in that part of the world?”
Maybe she thought I was going to eastern Turkey to join the Kurdish militia and fight Isis or something. We were headed to Istanbul though, which is as far away from Syria and Iraq as Malta was from Libya.
“All the same, dear. The question is do you value your life or not.”
“Well, I suppose I do and that’s why I’m trying to live it.”
She gave me a sort of harumph and wished me “all the best” because I was going to need it. She then excused herself from the table to have a cigarette, pausing only to make sure she had her inhaler handy.