The Pastizzi of Kyrgyzstan

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Michael McFeat is a Scot gold miner in Kyrgyzstan. A couple of days ago, during the holiday celebrations, he posted a photo on Facebook showing his mates at the mine queuing up to eat a Kyrgyz delicacy called chuchuk that is apparently a sausage made up of parts of horse. In his caption to the photo McFeat described the national dish as resembling a horse’s penis. Which is when all hell broke lose. His fellow miners threatened to strike and began a petition for his arrest. Indeed, his arrest followed promptly and he is now accused under Kyrgyz law of inciting racial hatred and risks five years in prison. All this for comparing a national dish to a horse’s penis.

It’s one of those comic bits of news that tend to lighten up the New Years’ roll-call – comic that is, unless you are Michael McFeat. He’s unlucky this Michael. If luck had its way he would have been in Malta instead and snapped a photo of a queue outside one of our many pastizzeriji. He would then have been quite free to post it on facebook with a caption stating that Maltese tend to form queues in order to get their hands on a dish that resembles a womans’ private parts. It’s no secret either. There are parts of the country where pastizz is slang for vagina – and these tend to be parts of the country that tend to have a more real “feel” of the language.

McFeat would never have ended up in prison. Well. We cannot say that with absolute certainty can we? Not with the amount of crazy that goes into applying the law on the island of developers and salesmen. You can see it kicking off with a petition while the online barrage of attacks of “Go back to your country” and “Don’t touch my pastizzi” kick off.

The President of the Republic might deem it decorous to step in and defend the plate of the poor people launching a Pastizzi Telethon featuring all the VIP’s of the land in defence of the pastizz. Meanwhile the Prime Minister will immediately negotiate 25 pastizzi kiosk concessions along the islands shore (on ODZ land of course) dubbing it the Wignacourt Circle of Pastizzi. In a speech on National Television Muscat will stand on a custom made pastizz-shaped lectern and grind his teeth menacingly at anyone who threatens to instil the fear of the pastizz among the population. Anyone who criticises the pastizz is negative, and anyone who is negative has no point in living.

Is this too fantastical? Is it too far-fetched? Are you sure? As 2016 stepped in with an Alice in Wonderland message by Joseph Muscat framed in lie upon lie upon lie we would do well to ask more questions of whatever is fed into our heads – particularly whatever is fed into our heads about what it means to be Maltese. The danger is that the few values that are left that distinguish us as a nation risk making pastizzi out of all us.

Happy 2016. May it bring a heavy dose of critical-mindedness, may it whisk away any traces of gullibility and may it signify a return to the discovery of a set of values that define us properly as a nation within Europe.

It’s either that or pastizzi.

 

Urban

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Walking around Valletta during my last visit to Malta I opted to pass through “is-Suq”, the closed food market that is still crying out to be converted for proper use. I would not use the word dilapidated but the state of what should be a vibrant part of the City of Gentlemen leaves much to be desired. Travel to any city in Europe and you will find different versions of these closed markets that have gone through a recent transformation and revitalisation. The quest for organic and health food has contributed quite a little to this phenomenon – allowing for a return to grassroots shopping. It does not necessarily have to be that though – the space occupied by these historic buildings can be regenerated for new use too.

The market featured in the main illustration to this article is Rotterdam’s recently built Markthal (Market Hall). It is a splendid example of a modern version of the market. London, Barcelona, Paris, Canterbury, Metz, Bayonne… all sport their covered markets that bustle with activity.

This month we got the news that Valletta’s market was earmarked for development and refurbishment. “Finally” is the first reaction. Then your heart is filled with fear and apprehension. Yes, that is the second reaction, because when it comes to planning, designing an using urban spaces we are unfortunately subject to the whims and tasteless fancies of the politicien de tour. In a way it is only just right that we get our just desserts in the sense that when we elect these know-it-alls to the seats of power we sort of imply a handover for the general running and administration of the country. In purely hypothetical terms the theory of democracy includes that assumption that these beings are instilled with a strong civic sense – they are Aristotle’s spoudaios. Whatever project they will embark upon, they will do so with the highest sense of civic standard.

Never was an assumption so wrongly made. Sure there have always been different schools of thought as to the use of urban space. Michelangelo’s David (also due to the size) was the subject of much speculation in the “Where shall we put it?” department in fifteenth century Florence. The problem is that our supposèd spoudaios or civic minded rulers are often too bothered with the management of power in the crude sense to worry about anything else such as bothersome concepts of aesthetics, civic appropriateness and urban practicality.

Thus what should be a wholistic use of urban space ad maiorem popoli comoditatem becomes a pawn in the cashing of electoral cheques, in the spiting of opposition plans and before you know it – magnificent plans for an open space at the Valletta entrance will be soiled by a hawker’s paradise and the setting up of a permanent monti (and yes, it is Monti by now… an acquired nomenclature unless you are stuck in some corner of the island – hell, it’s even monti in Gozo which is miles away from the Monte di Pietà).

With the current government it is all about demagogic decisions and statements combined with the fulfilment of hidden pacts and promises. So do not hold your breath for Valletta’s suq. When the time comes you can expect the latest buzillis coming up to the ministers of government to cash his pre-electoral promises. I’m guessing restaurants and cafes will take the place of butchers and grocers (they are a dying breed anyway). We can only hope that we will be spared a flourishing of eight pointed crosses or cacti, luzzi, and whatsnot.

From where I am sitting government policy on urban development is a carte blanche that is available to the highest bidder, no matter how tacky, no matter how unpractical, no matter how ridiculously unfit his plans may be. Whether it is votes or money that is being bid is irrelevant. The Taghna Lkoll trademark is bound to leave its mark on the new Suq too.

The squares in our lives

squares_akkuzaI have this thing I do every time I get to New York. As soon as I have plonked my bags into my hotel room I rush out again and head for that one iconic landmark – Times Square. Maybe it is because it allows me to absorb the reality of having got to the Big Apple having crossed the ocean that divides us. I admit it is trash touristy in all sort of ways but there is something about standing in the middle of Times Square in broad daylight with all the signs flashing at you, with all the tourists transiting in front of you and with the inevitable Times Square safety agent walking up to you and asking where you are from. It is only after those five minutes absorbing the atmosphere that your real check-in has taken place.

Ever since the beginning of history, the social aspect of man has manifested itself strongly in our squares. The Greek philosophers had their agora which was the fulcrum of the city’s life. Interestingly the very linguistic origins of the word agora are to be found in two Greek verbs meaning “I speak in public” and “I shop”. That sounds like something out of Steve Job’s portfolio : iShop, iSpeakInPublic. The less romantic Romans would use their squares in order to make public and martial announcements -the famous Twelve Tables of early Roman life were affixed in a public place for all to know the law (and to abide thereby). Similarly Hammurabi’s famous stele bearing his laws would have been placed in a public forum – ignorance of the law was no excuse.

Closer to home our lives in our Mediterranean communities are strongly linked to the pjazza. A sense of patriotism would have me wax lyrical about our village squares and their churches and kazini but I do not have to restrict myself to the confines of our island. Spain and Italy are the prime examples of the plaza/piazza. The centrality of the square to the life of a town is incredible. I remember walking through the bare streets of some basque towns in the middle of August. Not a soul anywhere but all the roads lead to the square – and even a silent, empty square carries the whispers of the hustle and bustle that will inevitably fill it at the milder, cooler times of the day.

We take the physical distribution of our pjazzez for granted. The Don Camillo/Peppone traits are still there to see – no amount of urban restyling can easily wash away the vibrant dynamics between the church, the kazini and the titotla. Some pjazzas may have a pharmacy (rare), a hairdresser (often), a Local Council (rarer) or a grocer (quite common) but the triptych of church – band club – political party tends to form some kind of blueprint. Within that blueprint lie other minor blueprints such as the physical extension on the front of a church – iz-zuntier (the parvis) that acts as a very physical line of demarcation between the divine and the profane. An historic leftover of the past are a few “Non gode di immunità ecclesiastica” signs – a reminder that the demarcation line often spilled into the legal when church and state actually had conflicting jurisdictions on matters temporal.

The sense, the spirit of a piazza is not a sum of its physical parts. The spirit of the piazza can only be understood by observing the way it is filled and emptied. This post is inspired by a question on facebook: What makes a piazza fake? Can an open space with an urban context ever be a fake piazza as opposed to the real thing? One last aside: reading about Manhattan I learnt that since Broadway existed before the grid pattern was designed for the rest of the avenues and streets, what was done was that wherever Broadway crossed an avenue they created a square. Thus Times Square, Herald Square, Shake Shack’s Madison Park and Union Square. Growing up New York was not built around a square or squares – they seem to have been an accidental addition. There is no Kremlin or Trafalgar Square – there is a huge version of Picadilly Circus.

It may be unfair to apply the concept of the piazza, plaza and agora to the great metropolis – then again we have seen very recently how squares from Tiananmen to Plaza Mayor to Maidan (passing through most of the Maghreb and Tahrir) still play an important role in sending powerful messages. The day two popes were made Saints one million people thronged towards a world famous square that is only useful for such occasions before reverting to an empty vast space until the next great event.

So. Fakeness? What are these “plazas” that are constructed into modern mega buildings. Tigne Point and soon Pender Place will both have their little squares full of token bistros, coffee shops serving the panoply of caffeine hits and possibly a baker (in the Chez Paul tradition that hit continental Europe and the US). Sure, people will congregate and make use of the amenities. There is something sad about hanging around these concrete replicas when you are a stone’s throw away from a bar by the seaside. Will the bistros fulfill the same role as your average kazin complete with grapevine gossip? Somehow I find it hard to believe that the spirit of Tapie’s Bar in Victoria can be transplanted to the core of Pender Place. I also doubt it is the intention of the architects to do so.

The heartbeat of the “fake plaza” is commercial convenience and there is little of the social interaction. All the umbrella’d tables and sandwich stores in the world could not rekindle the civic feeling and heartbeat that a piazza conserves so nonchalantly. Let’s face it… I doubt this song could have been written on a trendy table at Tigne Point… at least not this one…

Adult Entertainment (ars gratia artis)


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The MADC has just ended a run of Elaine May’s Adult Entertainment – a play that centres around a group of porn actors and their efforts to write their own scripts. Porn was never an easy subject to broach, particularly in a community where the words “tightly-knit”, “gossip” and “moral indignation” stick out like ugly sores on the face of any possible semblance of liberal independence.

Unfortunately, I was not able to view any of the MADC performances and so I am unable to tell you whether the MADC troupe carried the play better than most other performances worldwide that did not seem to attract very good reviews (though apparently May’s script might have a lot to answer for that). What I am sure of is that once the MADC actors (and may I emphasise the Amateur – as in not professional – in that acronym) shed their characters’ masks and stopped living the porn dream in those moments of suspended reality, they returned to being very normal (or rather, very complex) human beings. In all probability they go about their different jobs and lives with the same clumsy haphazardness as you or I might.

Once their make-make up levels are reduced to “time for a selfie in aid of cancer research”, the actors stop being actors. They stop being porn stars who supposedly won prizes for “Best Anal” and become executives, salesemen, insurance brokers, managers or teachers. Some might even double up giving a hand in drama school imparting some of the experience they might have gained on stage to young(er) hopefuls.

I do say shed. In our tiny world though, where the aforementioned ugly warts of “gossip” and “moral indignation” run a fine thread through our social fabric, the authors might often find that their artistic exploits (or even failures) hang on to them well beyond their exit (stage left). They are shadowed by the stamp of whatever character whose shoes they might have filled for those fleeting instances on stage. This happens especially in the case of whatever goes for controversial these days – think nudity or offensive behaviour. It’s not just censorship that posed a problem to our artistic community (wherever you may think the source of that censorship may be) but also the consequences of living a life surrounded by the liberal arts. Others might not be too impressed.

Heaven forbid that your scene includes nudity or that you had to fill the shoes of a mentally depraved character. Forget the exploration of the human psyche through a literary interpretation – no, their judgement is that this is sick. Worse still, you are incurable. You may take yourself off the stage but your sickness hangs on. “Did you see him nude on stage? Was it full frontal? Did he really speak like that about wanting to kill a baby? She has no shame standing there with her knockers gazing straight at my husband – we had front row seats you know! I’m sure she/he enjoyed every second of being in that role”. It gets worse. “How could her employers keep her on after seeing her in the buff?”

Of course there is an alternative to all this madness. You could bear in mind that each and every one goes through a life that is full of ups and downs, highs and lows. Some event (or recurring event) such as a broken relationship, a death in the family, a history of abuse, domestic dissonance could end up unearthing an ugly side of a person. Life tends to throw things at us and does not discriminate between actors, local councillors or lavatory attendants. Life happens and man, being the free-thinking animal that he is, has a very complex way of dealing with such moments.

Alea iacta est, the dice are cast. Actors, plumbers, soldiers, – whoever – at some point in their life will be faced with ugly moments and difficult decisions. To link such a bad patch to a profession or a performance or more specifically to whatever mask is worn on stage is pure balderdash.

Never can a judgement be so shallow as one that reduces a person to one flat dimension, ignoring all his or her complexities and realities. Even in the legal world where a judgement must perforce be given at some point, formulae and principles have been developed in order not to judge too summarily and especially to avoid pre-judgement – and as we know, even the legal world is not infallible. It is nigh impossible to judge unless all circumstances are known and a fuller picture is to be had.

All the world’s a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts,
His acts being seven ages. At first, the infant,
Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms.
And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel
And shining morning face, creeping like snail
Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,
Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,
Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard,
Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,
Seeking the bubble reputation
Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances;
And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts
Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,
With spectacles on nose and pouch on side,
His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,
Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.

(Jaques in Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Act II, Scene VII)

200 Kelma

 

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Iddeskrivi lilek innifsek f’mitejn kelma. Mitejn.

Kemm tiflaħ tgħid f’mitejn kelma? X’tip ta’ arbitrarjeta’ hi din? Mitejn kelma miżgħuda tifsir jewilla mitejn mot imlissen b’mod frivolu u qarrieqi li jsawwru maskra – satret il-verita. Tabilħaqq. Għax mill-kelma jsir kollox. Fil-bidu kien hemm il-kelma. U kelma, kelma bi ftit tajn u bżieq sawwar il-bniedem. Ikun minnha skont kelmtu u jgħid biss kelma waħda… u taf int.

Bil-ħeffa titlissen u taħrab eħfef minn fuq ponot ilsienna – ħielsa mill-għarbiel tal-ħosbiena, eħles mill-elf ħsieb ivenvnu ġewwa l-moħħ fit-tellieqa għall-bieb ta’ barra. Il-bokka tal-espressjoni, il-ħalq li toħloq u twelled l-aħħar kelma qabel ma titwieled dik li jmiss. Tkun rebħet setgħana u issa tirrenja bla xkiel. Intagħżlet minn fost il-ħafna bħala il-kelma, anzi, IL-KELMA.

Minn ġewwa l-epididime tal-menti issieltu u terrqu bejniethom il-leġjun ta’ ħsibijiet sabiex fl-aħħar minn fosthom intagħżlet waħda – dik il-kelma li welldet l-idea – li intagħżlet għall-pass li jmiss tal-kreazzjoni assoluta. Imbagħad tibda t-tellieqa li jmiss. Għax bħall Battista qabilhom, kull kelma li titwieled tkun biss qed twitti it-triq għal dik li jmiss.

Kelma, kelma. Jinbena f’suret il-ħallieq il-jien, u lil hinn minnu jinbnew oħrajn f’suret ta’ qabilhom.

Iddeskrivi lilek innifsek f’mitejn kelma. Mitejn.
U ħsiebi bħal għama….

Culture and politics (more Havel)

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In this part of an essay entitled “Politics, Morality and Civility”, Havel concentrates on an important aspect in the development of citizenship. It is evident that Havel’s ideal state involves a cultured citizenship – what he calls “civility” in the wider sense of the world. The fundamentals of a state lie in the building and molding of individuals – upon civility is his future republic based.

From my political ideals, it should be clear enough that what I would like to accentuate in every possible way in my practice of politics is culture. Culture in the widest possible sense of the world, including everything from what might be called the culture of everyday life – or “civility” – to what we know as high culture, including the arts and sciences.

I don’t mean that the state should heavily subsidize culture as a particular area of human endeavour, nor do I at all share the indignant fear of many artists that the period we are going through now is ruining culture and will eventually destroy it. Most of our artists have, unwittingly, grown accustomed to the unending generosity of the socialist state. It subsidised a number of cultural institutions and offices, heedless of whether a film cost one million or ten million crowns, or whether anyone ever went to see it.

It didn’t matter how many idle actors the theatres had on their payrolls; the main thing was that everyone was on one, and thus on the take. The Communist state knew, better than the Czech-Californian philosopher, where the greatest danger to it lay: in the realm of the intellect and the spirit. It knew who first had to be pacified through irrational largesse. That the state was less and less successful at doing so is another matter which merely confirms how right it was to be afraid; for, despite all the bribes and prizes and titles thrown their way, the artists were among the first to rebel.

This nostalgic complaint by artists who fondly remember their “social security” under socialism therefore leaves me unmoved. Culture must, in part at least, learn how to make its own way.