What does it mean to be “Maltese” anyway?

The whole individual investor programme controversy—or if one chooses to call a spade a spade, the easy selling of our Maltese citizenship and EU passport—has made me rack my brains trying to answer precisely the above question.  As a dual-citizen, the question for me personally is even more tortuous. I carry a Maltese passport for the obvious reasons: I was born here, I grew up here, I belong to this land and its people. But, like the many who have been through the difficult legal and—much more crucially— enculturating process of becoming a resident and citizen of another country, I know full well that to fulfill the responsibility of carrying another passport, to truly embrace and embody another cultural identity, requires way more than paperwork and certainly, cannot be bought.

Enculturation, in particular, through birth and early education, is the most profound process of indoctrination and personal formation. By definition, cultures, in particular those which fetishize navel-gazing (and, in the Maltese case, we do suffer from the infamous “island mentality”), make worldviews seem inevitable. One is systematically fed and morphed into a lifestyle that will go unquestioned, unless one engages profoundly with an alternative. That immersion into another reality exposes the contingence, malleability and fragility of one’s own cultural assumptions. At the same time, as one learns to know an “other”, one appreciates more who one was shaped to be.

And that’s the rub. Maltese identity is fundamentally schizophrenic when it comes to the “other” and thus unwilling (or unable?) to know and appreciate itself deeply, because it regards not the “other” as they are.

In my own generation, through schoolbooks and history lessons, we were systematically fed a patriotic rhetoric of Maltese pride and might contra “il-barrani”. From the vitriol contra “Konti Ruggieru”, to the glory of l-“Assedju l-Kbir”, to the resilience of WWII, the Maltese were depicted as small and vulnerable, but who always rise to the occasion through delineating a clear “us” in strict opposition to a “them”. At the same time, it can hardly be denied that from infancy we were systematically shaped not only to openly admire and secretly envy anything foreign, but to esteem it as superior… as if the aura of material and cultural capital would rub off our (“backwoods”?) selves.

Even today, forty-nine years after Independence, thirty-nine years after becoming a Republic, nine years after EU accession, when we should have had ample opportunity to develop the cultural maturity to relate to other nations and peoples as equals, we remain trapped in our identity issues. On one hand, the fear of the “other” dominates in our racist attitudes. On the other, our desire to be like “big boys and girls” is revealed through the rhetoric of attracting foreign money/talent through the swift acquisition of citizenship or other means. The seemingly irreconcilable—wanting to be like the “other” even while the “other” threatens me—belies a radical crisis of identity.

We cheapen Maltese identity at the same time that we elevate it beyond the reasonable, because we have made it vacuous. Pastizzi, festas and Paceville are practices that reveal character traits, but they do not a noble ethos make. Unlike our ancestors, we can no longer define ourselves and be proud that we are brave, tenacious, hospitable, generous, kind… at least not while keeping a straight face. Hence, our cultural identity, what defines us as Maltese in substance rather than superficially is up for grabs.

What will (and should) mark us in and through our relations with the “other”? In other words, what can (and should) we contribute to the world as Maltese?

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