This article first appeared in Malta Today
I was at an establishment recently, and while I was waiting, simply to make a small talk and because I am genuinely interested in people, I asked the young woman serving me where she was from. I could see her visibly tense up before she answered very quietly “Serbia.” “That’s nice”, I replied and changed the subject.
I immediately realized that her reaction to my completely innocuous question is a reflection of the pervasive atmosphere of resentment against ‘the foreigner’ which has gripped the country. Those from other countries who are living here are starkly aware of it too – hence this woman’s tension. Serbians, after all, are one of those nationalities which are inevitably blamed whenever trouble breaks out, because of a few bad apples who have hit the news.
But if you think that the resentment is only directed at certain nationalities or based on race, think again. Other incidents have continued to drive home just how bad it is getting and you often do not know whether to laugh or cry.
In one case, a British woman described how she was dropping her kids off at school this week when a Maltese woman drove through a stop street directly in front of her. “I hooted and braked hard. She stops in front of me, winds her window down and shouts “You’re a foreigner, you don’t have right of way”. ..My son asked what would happen if she killed someone who is a foreigner. He is 13 and went to school asking why Maltese people hate our family…”
Is this really the message we went to send to children growing up here, that we hate them?
Before I go any further, all this requires a very important disclaimer. Obviously, and perhaps inevitably, we have found to our detriment that among the thousands who have come to live here, there are some who are undesirables. So if a foreign national does not obey the law or poses a threat or danger to society, then they need to be dealt with accordingly. You know, in the same way that a Maltese national who is a law-breaker and criminal should be dealt with. However, I also understand that what rankles with many locals is the fact that we seem to have imported more problems by opening the floodgates to everyone, so that on top of our own petty thieves, troublemakers and hardened criminals, we now have to deal with the international variety as well. This is a sentiment I can empathize with because the last thing we need in a society already rife with homegrown crime is for the problems to be exacerbated by an injection of more lawbreakers.
But, and this is a very significant but, it is simply not on to keep treating anyone who is not Maltese as some kind of second-class citizen who is looked upon with contempt and treated like dirt. I have witnessed first-hand how a scowl of disgust sometimes washes over the faces of some Maltese people when they come across the blessed ‘foreigner’. If said foreigner happens to be black or Arab, the frown turns positively thunderous with suppressed rage. There is often no attempt to hide the blatant racism: it is verbalized quite loudly and spitefully, not because these people have done anything wrong, but simply for existing in their line of vision, standing there, in your face, in the ‘wrong’ skin colour which marks them out so starkly from Caucasians. (Let us leave aside the supreme irony of our own mixed bag of genetic make-up, and the very Arab-like skin tones and even features of many Maltese people, who almost perversely, are always the ones who seem to be the most racist).
This cannot go on for a variety of reasons, the most clear-cut of which is that it is simply unfair to make sweeping generalizations about all non-Maltese just because there are those who are hitting the news for the wrong reasons. We simply cannot keep assuming the worst of everyone just because they are ‘foreign’, without getting to know the person behind the label first. Like every single nationality under the sun, including our own, you get all sorts.
The other, equally important, reason is that unless it is defused, we are sitting on a powder keg of anger and resentment which I fear might explode any minute. Hatred and fury against ‘the other’ for no reason at all, simply because they are not Maltese is just plain dangerous in any society, and we only have to look at the rising spectre of nationalism bordering on fascism and white supremacy in other countries to see why this is so. Do we really want what is bubbling just underneath the surface to be unleashed, possibly turning into a type of gang violence as one group is pitted against the other?
This brings me to another point, which has to do with mutual understanding and breaking down of misconceptions. Those who come to live here also have to understand and appreciate something about our history. We are a very proud people who, after living for a couple of hundred of years as a British colony, when we were often considered to be an almost inferior race in our own land, only achieved independence a mere 54 years ago. This, short space of time, you will agree, has not given many people enough distance to be able to shake off those feelings associated with the yoke of colonialism. Even after Independence, the British presence was still quite considerable. There were places such as (ironically enough) the now endangered Pembroke and Marsa sports club, which belonged exclusively to “l-Ingliżi” and the Maltese were not allowed to set foot there, unless it was to render a service. It is this I think, more than anything else, which triggers those embedded, almost primal feelings of animosity and acrimony when a ‘foreigner’ comes along and is perceived to be telling us what to do, or seems to be interfering in some way.
Anyone coming to live here and realizing just show tiny Malta is bound to be coming from a much larger country – because, let’s face it, anywhere is larger than here! But that realization also has to be tempered by the knowledge that, no matter our size and yes, despite the numerous flaws and shortcomings, this is still our home, which for better or worse, we have a deep-rooted love for.
So it definitely does not help when those who set up home here, immediately start off on the wrong foot by being arrogant or adopting a ‘looking down their nose’ type of attitude towards Malta and the Maltese. Hey, we are not perfect, we of all people, know that, and we can fill reams and reams of Facebook newsfeed pointing out everything that is wrong with our country and ourselves. Criticism from others though (no matter how justified) still tends to rub us the wrong way, and is still something many people need to learn how to take in their stride. It is this knee-jerk reaction which often leads to the by now classic mantra of ‘go back to your country’.
I have often tried to explain why so many Maltese people are so twitchy about foreign nationals and the impression that ‘they are taking over’. It is because for a long time it was just us, and tourists came and left, leaving our way of life and culture mostly intact. With entire communities from all over the world now settling here, setting up their own shops and introducing their own cuisine and traditions, it has been a case of too much, too soon. No one was really prepared, the change was too quick and drastic and the adjustment has been, to put it mildly, a challenge.
I still maintain, however, that the blanket resentment towards ‘the foreigner’ is misplaced because the problems we are all experiencing are not their fault. On the one hand you have a Government which is insisting we need more foreign workers and on the other hand you have a nation which is struggling to cope simultaneously with a densely-populated island while learning to share its space with a multi-cultural diaspora of a people who are often, just passing through. There was no planning, no foresight, and no attempt to regulate – a by now familiar scenario which is at the root of many of the ills Malta is suffering from.
So next time you are tempted to be nasty or churlish to someone simply because they are “foreign”, just stop and think that this person uprooted themselves to come live in a strange new land which is foreign to them, and for the most part, many of them are just working hard, living their lives and just trying to get along.