Thursday, May 28, 2020

Trains, roots and witches

One risk of this blog is that it occupies a dangerous space between the personal, the political and the public spheres. It is obviously spurred by everyday happenings, political anger and personal anxieties. It gives James the chance to stray away from the analytical impersonal style of a newspaper article. It also gives him the chance to write about his introspective thoughts, which are lurking beneath the surface. In many ways the past weeks of semi isolation have been an ideal context for a journey dominated by three images; roots, trains and witches. Roots because these represent what anchors us to reality and connect the future to the past, creeping incrementally and seeking new sources of nourishment without breaking the chain.  Trains because these represent the opportunity of a journey towards the next stations, a chance of a mapped out flight which may lack an ultimate destination.  Witches cause they represent magical realism, the small extraordinary happenings in very ordinary lives, the ephemeral joy of threading dangerously and the thought that it is better to be awake and exposed to risk than asleep and numb.  Yet these all live in contradiction with each other  in a world where as Heraclitus warned us you cannot step in the same river twice.  This may be why I changed my mind on stopping this blog upon the realization that the restoration of normality will not mean the end of this journey. 

Monday, May 25, 2020


As a post covid sense of  'normality' sets in, this blog randomly resurrected by an ephemeral spark of imagination a few weeks before the health crisis erupted will probably go in to  another long period of hibernation. For while the health crisis is not over and may return back with even greater vengeance, the dreamy sensation of awe and fear which characterized the  past weeks is drawing towards an end.  Writing here had become part of the daily rituals and cocoons which gave solace and even bliss during isolation but which now sadly only serve to amplify a sense of dissonance between the imagination and  the real.   It is now also the time to let go of imagination and let reality set in.  Life should after all be celebrated in the material world, warts and all.  This was a dark period but one which created a space for reflection as well as an appreciation for beauty and imagination.  For this reason some things shall be missed. But all that can be possibly albeit improbably lived in a more fulfilling way outside.  It was a time when letting go was an acceptable way of coping with an unforeseen event.   This gave some of us a sense of freedom in the face of risk.  As expected the return to normality will be long drawn and bitter  process, which can be unfortunately  measured by the increase in the number of cars in the streets. There will be no grand finale.  No great liberation party awaits us. But  some of the utopian yearnings,possibilities, silences and moments evoked in this space will hopefully materialize in the experience of a life which perhaps can now be seen in a different perspective.  And it all goes back to the start of this journey; the roots which anchor us to a happiness grounded in every day struggles, deep heartfelt smiles, silences, emotions and realities.  

P.S. The author had a change of heart and the blog will not go in to hibernation. He was suffering from Monday morning/afternoon blues. This also forms part of the journey. 

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Random incidents

Life can be perceived as a string of random incidents which collide at you.   So in the end the narrative of the self i.e. the way we define 'I' is simply the drawing of lines connecting these random dots.  The clearer the line, the clearer we can recognize ourselves in this pattern.  In a way we are turning meaningless random incident which just happen in to meaningful and sometimes defining moments leading to other significant moments.  But the way we draw our lines is not disconnected from the society in which we live.  For the words we use to make sense of these patterns are also socially determined.  In  many ways our understanding of our own selves is conditioned by our relationship to power.  For ideology is something which speaks through us.  We also build our idea of ourselves by attributing meaning to some of the random things which strike us while ignoring others which do not.  Therefore although there is an element of autonomy and choice, this is conditioned by the limits of our language.  Yet what we consider  meaningful and  what we ignore also has to do with beliefs and social expectations. In this way we lose a lot from what comes in our way. For when we draw a line between the dots we tend to skip a number of things which we deem irrelevant or which we more often than not fail to comprehend.
In many ways constructing a narrative of the 'self' is very much akin to decorating a house in in a random manner which accumulates over time in to something we can recognise as our own. You may be stuffing it with stuff from artisan markets from all around the world.  Most of these things you buy were clearly not meant to be in the same room as the others.  Yet you make them come together for the sheer purpose of making your place an extension of you.  That is our way of feeling rooted in a place by making it look more like ourselves.  Some people may even be lucky enough to share the same experience with others who share the same sensibilities.  In this way they can even establish a home together and give it a plural imprint rather than a singular one.  In the same way our own narrative of life can intersect with other narratives of others, and sometimes these intersections result in footnotes,  sentences, paragraphs, chapters and rarely whole books.  We may also find ourselves in footnotes, sentences, paragraphs, chapters and rarely whole books of other people.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Ftit u hafna bahar

Sabih il-bahar kalm jew ftit immewweg ghax go fih qisek dejjem thoss li minnu ghandek bizzejjed.  Kemm jekk ghal  ftit f xi qabza ta’ malajr kemm jekk hafna, f' xi nofs ta nhar tiela u niezel miflug bix-xemx imma bic-certezza li se ssibu hemm biex jiffriskak.  U l-bahar fil-bajjiet kommunist u ararkist.  Jghati lil kulhadd u ma jiehu xejn lil hadd. Jistiedenk imma tmur meta trid int.  Il-bahar ghandu riha, hoss u jmissek kullumkien, ruh u gisem.  Materjalist u spiritwali fl-istess hin.  Il-bahar ta’ kulhadd ghalinqas sakemm ma jbieghawhx ukoll.  U minkejja li ghandu r-ritmu tieghu f' dik  iz-zifna eternal tieghu mar-rih, fih issib is-silenzju.  Ghax fih facli ma tixtieqx iktar.  Go fih ftit jew hafna dejjem bizzejjed.    Ghalinqas sakemm qieghed hdejh jew go fih.  U anki jekk il-boghod taf li qieghed hemm dejjem u  kwazi kullumkien.       

Thursday, May 14, 2020

The Paradox

Shelter in words. It is either here or elsewhere.   Words are alive.  Words are a paradox. Light is a paradox. It  can be a particle.  But it can be a wave.  Light gives perspective. But it is ambiguous.  Perspective destroys dreams.  Light makes dreams.  Twinkle twinkle little star.  The Stary Night gives me the creeps.  Dreams take you elsewhere. I know where I want to be right now.  Blown away by a smile. One moment.  
But I can also be drinking raki in a remote village on the border.  Borders are bloody.  Crossings are dangerous.  Borders kill hope and people who push their dreams an inch too far. Some borders can be crossed.  Others should not be crossed.   Choice.  We can dare.  But we can submit. Submission is sometimes freedom.  Letting go.  But submission is a paradox.  One can submit to elsewhere or to here.  I choose elsewhere. But i change elsewhere in to here.      

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Food glorious Food

There can be no feast without an abundance of food, preferably accompanied by wine, raki, beer or herbal brews and teas. For since the invention of fire, food has become a collective experience which has to be shared. The way we have evolved has a lot to do with the way we started preparing and consuming our food. Our own bodies are the biological products of cooking. But food is not just material sustenance but a cultural depository of tastes accumulated through history, layer over layer. Food is also the finest example of international exchange; can you imagine Italian food without tomatoes or the Maghreb without harissa? Yet there where no chillies, chocolate, potatoes and tomatoes in the old world before the brutal conquest of the new world. These ingredients may well be the only positive legacy left from a genocidal conquest. Yet even the conquestadors could not resist being seduced by the spices and flavors concocted by the Mayas, the Aztecs and the Incas. Food is a cultural exchange. Ingredients from different cultures can blend in a way which enhances diversity. Nobody can resist the smell of a pot cooking, irrespective of cultural boundaries and religious divides. Through this exchange often encouraged by the seductive appeal of taste and smell, home grown foods evolve and change but still retain a distinct texture. Immigrants often bring with them new tempting smells but unlike Mc Donalds and coco cola, they tend to enrich what is already established. But the cultural exchange is only part of the story. The other fascinating story is that related to the act of cooking. For cooking is akin to witchcraft. The flavors and herbs we put in the pot can actually change the mood and humors of those who enjoy them, both in the act of preparation and in the act of consumption. And it all comes round through the magic of science: the sheer action of heat, air and earth on base ingredients which are elevated to new levels. The transformation and blending of ingredients is nothing short of an alchemy which often transforms the frugal in to the sublime. There is also magic in the chemistry taking place when food hits the taste buds. Smell also triggers our personal memories especially those related to childhood. But even the most delicious food would lack flavor and taste if consumed in a solitary environment. For it is the feast which turns food in to a sensual experience. It draws us closer to our loved ones. Sure over the past century food has fallen victim to mass production, factory farming, the fast food industry and big retail chains, which have undermined diversity and imposed a sterile uniformity. It has also fallen victim to vanity and the domestification of private life in the nuclear family and taken away from the neighborhood. It has broken apart by rigid seating and cutlery arrangements, which undermine the whole concept of feasting. Eating on cushions on the floor is more conducive to sharing and feasting than sitting on a high chair. A feast has to be messy, joyful and excessive. It has to include numerous plates and flavors. It is no wonder that feasting and food are so intertwined. So in a time of social distancing, it is imperative not to forget the joys of feasting, something which should fill us with revolutionary hope. For reclaiming the joys of sharing, slow cooking, celebrating locally grown ingredients and opening up to an exchange of diversity is an integral part of building a new world in the here and now. It is another reason why we should resist the return to normality. One benefits of the slow down is that we have more time to cook. Just imagine if we can do this in the absence of social distances. After corona; lets have more of these feasts.

Friday, May 8, 2020

Conjuring utopia in post covid times

Would it not be great if we do not return back to normal after COVID-19? Would it not be great if we slow down life to enjoy it to the full? Imagine the slow down without the social distancing rules. A world with less cars, less consumerism, less work and more time for ourselves. A world where we can hear birds chirping in the morning and where one can walk at a slower pace without engaging in a dumb rat race. A world where the state fulfills the obligation to insure us from risk and where poverty becomes history. A world where capitalism loses its ability to reproduce itself. Would that not be utopia?
So what would I keep from corona times? On an emotional level its been a pleasant knock out, a puzzle which i am in no rush to entangle, with corona serving as as a delaying tactic. Surely isolation has confined me to a mental and less physical state. Giving flesh to the dreams conjured in the past weeks will be the task ahead. The metaphorical (or real) train will have to depart from this station.
On a work level it simply confirmed that you tend to work more if you work less time. It should be the next great social demand; a reduction of the working time. We need to reclaim time. Our life is too short.
On a political level am less angry, somewhat more lucid and more interested in the aesthetics of rebellion than in letting off steam. In a time dominated by Thanatos (the death instinct), eros (the life instinct) is always bound to rebel. My whole experience has been that of letting go more, not think too much and stop defining things. But old rational me has not gone on holiday. It has given its tacit approval but still watches and observes with interest, and healthy skepticism. It will remain my essential guide, especially in the brave new world after this ends. Otherwise I would lose myself.
But the question remains; is life to be found here or elsewhere? Is the train just a metaphor or is it an indispensable physical bridge to a new life. Is the new life to found in a series of stops in a journey from station to station? And can here and elsewhere meet and merge? Should one travel far away to discover or is that elsewhere found in communities of nomads struggling for change in the here and now? Still that is where aesthetics of rebellion come in to play. For how can eros prevail without rebelling against Thanatos? Isn't elsewhere found in that moment of refusal? The reality is that we live in a state of uncertainty and there is no escape from that, except the certainty of rebellion and saying no.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Why I love Malta but not its flag

The display of Maltese flags on homes, particularly in the poorer and less affluent neighborhoods, during Covid 19 times leaves me cold. Not just because this display of patriotism was contaminated by xenophobia and anti immigrant sentiment stemming from Robert Abela's attempt to project himself as a strongman during a medical emergency, but also because it reminds of the emptiness of this signifier.
Sure enough I feel human more than Maltese or European, but I love Malta, its landscapes, the way the sun illuminates the contours of its rocks, the noise and clutter of its people, the beauty of the Maltese language, the townscapes and the mixture of Mediterranean and other influences. My love for Malta has little to do with it being a nation state, something which was mostly a historical coincidence and far from some manifest destiny. But am proud of some aspects of our history. For example I am proud of our heroic role in resisting fascism in the second world war. I am also proud of the national awakening after the second world war, which saw women and workers winning the right to vote and the election of a Labour government. I am also proud of our robust national health service whose effectiveness spared Malta from the worst ravages of Covid experienced by richer countries. I am also proud of my country's late transformation from a laggard in LGBTIQ issues to a global trailblazer.
So I do not belong to that segment of the population which denigrates Malta, its language and its working classes.
For identity is Malta is intimately connected to class and segregation in education. The segregation of Maltese elites in private schools curtails the evolution of vibrant national culture. Even the media landscape is one where Maltese newspapers are mostly partisan, while the independent media is associated with English.
But surely I can't be proud of many other aspects of manufactured Maltese identity. Sure I can't stand Maltese exceptionalism, so evident in the rhetoric of the anti abortion brigade, who celebrate Malta's uniqueness where motherhood is not a choice but an imposition. I can't stand the eight pointed cross cherished by the far right as a substitute for the swastika. Neither do I stand the way nationalism has replaced class consciousness especially among Labour party supporters. In this new dominant ideology workers are not expected to struggle for their rights but are expected to fulfill their duties to state and party, both of which subservient to capitalism.
Neither am impressed by those who identify themselves as Europeans in order to deny their Maltese roots. In many cases their attitudes are reminiscent of the Maltese elite's identification first with Italianita than with British imperialism, in a bid to be treated as equals by colonial masters. And while I am a firm believer in European integration, the idea of a fortress Europe worries me as much as right wing nationalism.
In many ways the idea of Maltese identity frustrates me because it lacks the confidence and vitality to evolve, absorb and change. I love the rhythm of Maltese ghana but it lacks political and social relevance and failed to blend with other genres like hip hop, punk or reggae. Even our flea markets are lacking in character. We even managed to turn a food market in to a food court serviced by a few local chains. I love the language but there is a general reluctance to coin new words and popularise their use. We are even reluctant to name our children in Maltese. Our TV no longer features high quality drama as was the case in the 1970s and 1980s. Our lack of confidence in our culture probably is one factor contributing to our fear of the others. We are not sufficiently rooted in our culture to believe in our ability to absorb from others while also transmitting aspects of our culture to them.
So while rejecting nationalism as an ideology, I do see a great need for a celebration of Maltese and Mediterranean identities. My starting point is not the nation state but the regional influences which shaped our cultures for the past hundreds of years. Unlike nationalism regionalism can be progressive and inclusive. It offers food, music, beauty, poetry and feasts to all those willing to engage and participate. Rather than erecting fences, regionalism seeks to seduce by appealing to the senses. Unfortunately the drab Maltese flag hanging from balconies lacks sensuality. It is just a symbol representing the state and not the history and lives of its peoples. Ironically the only positive reinforcement in our flag is evoked by the George Cross, granted by the British King to acknowledge our bravery in fighting Nazi Fascism. But still we do not have our own equivalent of Bella Ciao to celebrate that heroic and popular struggle.