Knights Hospitaller, Boat People and literary translation: in a strangely Catholic stronghold of the Mediterranean, Youssef Rakha reencounters his own life and work
And then the storm comes. At first we mistake the thunder for celebratory canon fire, the lightning for pyrotechnic pomp. Together with Valetta’s church bells, both have been ongoing for as long as we can remember.
With all that poetry bubbling in my head – and in so many vernaculars of the Mare Nostrum – by then I am convinced of my metaphorical place on the island: it feels like I have been here much longer than is actually the case. The hilly pathways of this, my walled city are preternaturally familiar, the variously textured grey and sandstone surfaces all around, shimmering blue patches of sea at the foot of undulating asphalt-and-cobblestone arches that rear cobra-like off Triq ir-Repubblika (Sicilian Arabic – sorry, I mean Maltese – for Republic Street). So are my curt exchanges with the black-clad waitresses at the café trottoir by the stone gate (on the other side is the fountain encircled by Malta’s bright yellow public buses):
When I sit at my favourite table to order espresso, it is as if I have been seeking out this circle of shade my whole life.
In the day I work with the Others in an antique-filled room on the roof of the same unassuming building with distinctive bright-coloured balconies that turn out to have ancestral roots in the mashrabeyya. But naked now in the cramped hotel bedroom, cigarette case and lighter in hand, I leap from the bed to the window, as I have done so often; I lean out.
The chill night breeze is refreshing. Rain drops wet the cigarette before I can light it.
The Others are writers whose homes dot the same intimate shores and for a day or so – a sizable part of the virtual lifetime we will spend together – it is as if we are castaways stranded on unknown terra firma: in addition to the island-dwellers Pierre Mejlak and Guze Santago, the Fado-singing Valter Hugo Mãe from Porto, the staunchly Catalan-speaking Miquel Desclot from Barcelona, and the proactive and miniscule Nadja Mifsud (also a native islander) from Lyon; the modern-day Sicilian cantautor Biagio Guerrera will arrive later.
We communicate in English, which though Malta’s lingua franca is the only non-Mediterranean tongue heard here. While we go about discussing poems and places, we are vaguely aware of the two forces that conspired to bring us together among the antiques: the UK-based Literature Across Frontiers, run by Alexandra Buchler; and the Mediterranean Literature Festival, Inizjamed, organized by (among many others) Adrian Grima and Clare Azzopardi.
They want us to translate each other. Out of the English approximations of what we have written or sung, they want us to make literature in languages we know even better than English. It is risky business, twice removed from the original. But then the writers are there, you can hear the cadences in their own voices and ask them what the sentence literally meant when it first rolled off the tongue, whether the implications of the word are positive or negative, what the meaning would have been had they used a different phoneme.
It works: Valter’s poems in particular flow incredibly well in the standard Arabic for which I am responsible; he is a Nineties Generation Egyptian poet inexplicably but completely displaced. The English – “my/mother used to say, valter be careful, that’s no/way to play, you’ll break a leg,/you’ll break your head, you’ll break your heart. and/she was right, it was all true” – may well have been translated from Arabic, indeed.
They want us to translate each other and later, when we exit Valletta and walk downhill to the converted seaside cemetery managed by a non-profit organization called Din l’Art Helwa (Maltese for “This Land is Good”), they want us to hold microphones to our mouths before an audience of at least a hundred and, while the wind blows, to read.
It works so well several of us, once the poems are finished, also sing.
The storm takes place on Thursday night. Wednesday is one of five national holidays in Malta: On 8 September 1565, the Ottoman fleet that had laid siege to the island since June finally departed. In the time of Sulaiman the Magnificent, the Great Siege was a glorious moment for European Christendom, and the Maltese – devout Catholics to this day, even though the word for God in their language is Allah and the greeting, until recently, essalam alaik – celebrate it with parades and canon fire, rowboat races and fireworks.
Never mind that the Ottomans were fighting not the local population but the Crusader Order of Saint John, whom they had expelled from Rhodes in 1522: the knight in armour remains a symbol of patriotism on this tiny enclave wedged between Tunisia and Sicily; the Maltese Cross hankers back to Hospitaller iconography; and no one makes a distinction between the Knights and the locals as unlikely victors over the not so invincible Turk. Valletta itself, my fortified city, was built in response to the siege, named after the Grand Master of the Order Jean Parisot de Valette.
Now a few months before landing in Malta I finished my first novel, which evokes a formerly great civilisation and looks up to the Ottomans, the last champions of Islam as such; by the end the hero’s map of post-9/11 Cairo turns into a tugra or sultan’s seal, and the hero himself is convinced he is an agent of the late Mehmed Vahtettin, the last sultan-caliph.
It is as if the celebrations are a historical insult directed at my person; it takes self-control to abandon my plans of running around the cathedral screaming “Long live the Ottoman Empire, long live the Refuge of the World” on the day. Still, I do not feel besieged in Malta. The siege for me has more to do with EU restrictions on smoking which, though condoned by the Maltese, cannot be said to reflect their temperament in particular. It seems wrong to antagonise an entire population just because I cannot light up in bed.
There are closer kin than the sons of Osman (who have long given up their Islamic prerogative anyway). There are Africans like myself stranded on the same terra firma, although in a different and much more serious way. Often Muslim, they are black, and because they arrive on sardine can-like boats from the shores of Libya, they are known as the Boat People. It is hard to see how they represent in the minds of some Maltese the threat of a Muslim takeover of Europe, but they are illegal immigrants and the island is hard pressed to accommodate them. Only the Catholic clergy seem to care for them, ironically. In the early morning they gather outside the Detention Centre in a quarter known as Marsa (Arabic – God, sorry: Maltese) for “harbour”, offering themselves for manual labour. They will do anything rather than return home.
I do not have time for them.
A week is not enough time to explore the island and its little sibling, Gozo – let alone listen to the stories of ID-less young men from my unfortunate continent – especially not when so much of the day is taken up by literary interaction at so many different levels. It is not enough time to prod Maltese intellectuals regarding their complex sense of national identity and how comfortably their unflinching alignment with Europe as opposed to North Africa sits with the Arab (Semitic or Phoenician) side of their heritage.
It is not enough time to discover the history of this simultaneously polyglot and insular place, to engage with its politics and mores, to feel welcome or unwelcome as an English-speaking Arab-Muslim among its by and large affable people, or even to attend Sunday mass in their beautifully mongrel speech. A week is not enough time.
Yet a workshop and a festival do provide opportunities, thankfully. And besides Valter’s poems and Pierre’s warmth, to mention but two causes for gratitude, I will happily recall reading the Lebanese poetess Hyam Yared’s French work in English (my accent notwithstanding), having run into her outside the hotel and spent some time revising the translations with her.
Likewise Nial Griffiths, author of Grits and Sheepshagger: a disarmingly down-to-earth Brit from Liverpool, currently living in Wales. For his 45-minute interview with the Maltese translator Albert Gatt – a beret-wearing beau who speaks English like Prince Charles – Nial carried his wine bottle on stage. Irreverent, funny, passionate about writing and dialect – not to mention, now that I have read his work, brilliant – Nial would have made the perfect mate back in Hull, where I went to university. I would not have met him otherwise.
A week is not enough time to learn Maltese, which having encountered it I know, rightly or wrongly, that I could learn in a month. Perhaps the most remarkable encounter of all, this: theories abound as to the origins of the language, with native speakers traditionally denying any connection with Arabic. Yet aside from philology, as an avid explorer of Arabic dialects, I will readily attest to this being one of them (Italianate though it can sound to Arab ears).
True, a good half of the diction is Latin – no abstract concept seems to occur in Arabic at all, giving rise to astounding phrases like responsibilte kbira (big responsibility) – but the phonetics, the grammar, the rhythms are all Arabic. Elements of Middle Eastern and North African vernaculars are mixed in such a way as to suggest this really does have origins in the Arabic once spoken throughout Sicily. One theory holds that, when the Arabs arrived from Tunisia, they forcefully evacuated the people and relocated them in Sicily. Malta remained uninhabited for at least a century, and when it was repopulated the language of the Sicilian newcomers, ethnically Latin though they may have been, was Sicilian Arabic. This would explain why, while it died out completely where it originated, that once very current dialect lives on in some form in Malta.
The Maltese do not often accept this theory because it seems to break a line of continuity dating back to the time of Saint Paul – the Saint Paul, who wrote the Gospel? But of course! – who is said to have conversed with the people in their own language – presumably some variety of Phoenician – when he arrived on the island during his travels.
Identities are constructed anyway, but perhaps the Maltese are not aware of the extent of variety within spoken Arabic irrespective of what you call or how you choose to transcribe any one variety of it. Suffice to say it is easier for me to understand Maltese than Moroccan Arabic.
Which is why as I lean out of my hotel room window holding the by now soaking cigarette and looking out over the dome of the cathedral where lightning will strike again, I continue to marvel at one expression for “I thank you” that I heard on first arriving: irringrazzjekom. Irrin is a corruption of or a variation on urid (standard Arabic for “I want”, which in the vernacular becomes arid, nrid and many others), grazzie is the Italian word for thanks, and kom is the objective second-person plural suffix normally attached to the end of a verb in Arabic. Out of these three elements, the Maltese have forged a single, beautifully expressive word.
While I try to light another cigarette, I feel no word in any language can express me better.