Social anthropologist Jeremy Boissevain coined the term ‘friends of friends’ in 1974, it is relevant thirty years later
Jeremy Boissevain steps up to the podium where a crowd of some 50 early risers, who have come to a morning breakfast seminar to hear what the Dutch anthropologist has to say about Malta’s coming of age since he first pioneered the anthropological study of the small island back in the fifties. Upon his opening lines, it is evident that little has changed since he first came to the island to discover its highly charged political climate and network of patron-client relations, back in 1956. Saints and Fireworks, his monograph on the Maltese islands he witnessed during the fifties and the sixties, remains the prime reference for so many students of anthropology. Compared to the picture he presented at the time of an island whose loyalties were clearly demarcated between religious and political factions, many still wonder whether the Malta now rechristened as an EU member, has also crossed over the threshold of the modernity that so many hoped for.
But as Boissevain says, the island cannot escape the realities of its small scale and the conflicts it gives rise to. Much of our meandering into why certain national traits which many might find despicable, seem to lead to nowhere, and that Malta’s cultural fabric is still that what is what some 50 years ago. But Boissevain’s parting shot is that there is a need for a systematic thinking about social trends. And there’s no room for trial and error, he remarks. “Malta’s future is everybody’s concern. Hence it is everybody’s responsibility,” he tells his audience. “I truly hope I won’t be obliged to come back and haunt you after yet another 30 years with the same message.”
It’s a message that is generally acknowledged by those present in the hall, where Boissevain’s focus takes a heavy turn towards Malta’s environmental degradation, growing pollution, transport problems, and the lack of long-term vision. Many politicians, he says, thing of the future mainly in terms of the next election. With a generally dormant academic population, Boissevain is unequivocal about what he calls the fear of being labelled, falling from grace with the political parties, or the fear of retribution. It seems like little, truly, may have changed since the 50s.
“I think you can see that from the goings-on at the university,” Boissevain says about the mild outrage, if any, mustered by the university’s academic population. The appointment of what is clearly a government-sponsored choice for rector, IT specialist Juanito Camilleri, was met with anger by academics who refused to even publicly comment on the choice replacing former rector Roger Ellul Micallef. Only one professor, Edward Mallia, had the courage to speak out, and to label the academics “professors at grumbling”.
“You have academics who have accepted a government appointment and nobody did anything about it, even though they had the chance to do something about it. I read the interview with Prof Edward Mallia and it seems people at university are very quiet about it,” Boissevain says.
Spinelessness, surely. But Boissevain says that not everybody on this island lacks guts. “If the university had done what the environmentalists do, organise themselves in protest, maybe they would have accomplished something. But they didn’t. You have to look at what the NGOs are doing right now, focusing on issues such as the Ta’ Cenc development, or as was the case in the NGOs opposing the golf course at Tal-Virtù. I think that is the way you can lift through the blanket of fear that may have enveloped the people at university.”
So it is a question of courage, ultimately, evidently lacking in an island where appointees are forever sanctioned by political parties and whose fate depends upon the favour they enjoy with the political class. “Yes, it is a question of courage. But it is also a question of collective courage, and that is something different. It’s a form of action which doesn’t leave you alone. Acting alone as a single person is a different thing altogether. Few people may have done that at university. The rest tend to be fence-sitters who think academics should be neutral and who should not be saying anything. And there’s a cost for being neutral. But I’m a strong believer in this collective action, where you have somebody to stand up, get committed and make a statement, and see others follow. One way is to ridicule someone, make polices look ridiculous, and that’s one way of accomplishing something. KLM had issued a ban against personnel with beards, and pilots and serving personnel had been instructed to shave off their beards. I read about it in the paper, and having a beard myself I decided to write a letter and send it through the wire, saying that this was ridiculous, that people with beards were not a threat to society, and there were a lot of good people who had beards. It went to the press, and within a week, the issue attracted ridicule for what it was, and people started taking the mickey out of KLM. I was called upon the pilots’ union, one of whom had shaved off their beard, who thanked me for bringing up the issue. And I think that things are changing in Malta as well, and that a whole generation of political activists have been created through the activity of NGOs, to face up to power. They have learnt how to handle the press, how to get their message across, and how to organise things: these activists are future politicians.”
Boissevain’s speech highlights the devastating effect of mega development over the environment. He says it is the problem which strikes him most forcefully, saying the countryside and the coastal zone, the sea, the island’s architectural heritage, are literally being raped and exploited for private gain.
“It is symptomatic of the way development can come at a cost and it’s important to know of this cost and do something about it. But that has been going on because people haven’t reacted to it in the way they are reacting to it today. And this is something that has struck me strongly since I got interested in tourism and the environment. I remember walking from Salina to Sliema with nothing but open countryside in between. There was no such thing as Bugibba or Qawra, except for a few boathouses. It was all clear country, and a lot of is all gone now. But the littering is what has struck the most, and which I believe is the most upsetting, to see how the environment has been sacrificed for progress.”
But how has this happened, for a small island which has seen its visible countryside sacrificed for hyper development crammed in the space of 50 years, amid tourism booms which have seen a general encouragement for more development to take place?
“Well, with the odd exception of the hunter, people did not go to the countryside. People were not particularly interested in the countryside. It has been a town culture. The elite may have had a country house but it has been really the hunter to go out into the countryside. The farmers would return back to the village after a day’s work. People didn’t live out in the country, and with that there was no appreciation of the countryside, unlike for example in the UK, where people move out into the country. Especially in southern Europe, the town is the most important place, and it remains identified with an urban elite.
“You have this asymmetry in Malta, with the whole development zone along the coast which has been furthered by the tourism industry, where you previously had this open access to the coast and which has now been further developed. You get more people looking for access to the countryside, especially with new groups such as the Ramblers Association. The only books on the countryside in Malta were actually produced by English people. So there has never really been an interest in the countryside.”
So is there a crisis in the morality of the Maltese, blinded by mega development, seemingly unconscious of their heritage or refusing to take ownership of their common heritage that is blatantly being exploited? Boissevain points to one of the familiar themes of his work, the amoral familism that finds a family-centred orientation being a part of the fabric of daily life in Malta. Here it’s the family being opposed to the notion of individual rights and interests which might be sacrificed for the common good. “In short,” he tells the audience, “it contradicts that the state’s building ordinances and zoning regulations should be obeyed because they are right and just.”
“Yes, it is this ‘me first’ family morality, ‘I’m alright, I’ll do anything for my family’, or ‘I’ll throw things outside, it’s outside my house, my house is clean and out it goes’. I remember, some years ago, during the village feast at Kirkop, when people used to eat rabbits and then throw the skins out of the window. People just litter, and it’s a habit not only in Malta but also in southern Europe. I remember a sight in Sicily, where I was talking to a pharmacist, and it started raining. Water was rushing downhill, and the pharmacist suddenly got out a box of rubbish, and he just threw it out of his door, and it just rushed down the village. I think it’s partly because it just couldn’t bother people, and they got used to this state of affairs. So they never bothered to do anything about it.”
And the laws are there but people don’t implement them. Clearly, Malta’s laws in the planning and environmental fields are geared towards curbing illegal development but their lack of enforcement encourages a dismissive attitude to them.
“Because in the end people are scared of implementing them. If you implement the law you may affect your neighbour. If you complain about your neighbour, about people living in villages close to each other, you may fear they take revenge. It is a well-known fact that you get council mayors whose doors are burnt or splattered with paint. In Sicily they could get shot at, or threatened with death. And the Maltese also tend to be retributional. People here know much about each other, and so they want to hide their actions from others. So there is a fear of retribution and that is why there is acceptance of the authorities taking decisions. That’s why I mentioned the issue concerning the university rector. Maybe the university was unhappy about the situation and maybe they had the power to do something about it. And yet they didn’t do anything about it: there is the acceptance of what I call the hierarchy of infallibility. People here are brought up not to ask questions. I remember when I lectured at the University of Malta, I was looking for space for the students to be able to face each other and discuss with each other. Instead the classroom format is directed towards the teacher, sometimes even standing upon a raised dais. You just wrote down what went on in the lecture. It’s all part of a hierarchy where authority doesn’t want to be questioned, government doesn’t like being questioned, the church doesn’t like being questioned, fathers don’t like being questioned by their children, men don’t want to be questioned by women. It’s all part of a hierarchy and that is possibly starting to break down now.”
That hierarchy comes within a package of family networks, friends-of-friends networks, and other realities of interaction within the city-state that Malta is. With its onerous task of having to play out the independent republic, the island still cannot escape the realities of its conflicts. Size ultimately plays an important part. Boissevain remarks about how the island has to cope with its limited resources to really play the role of the state. “If you think of Malta having to provide a different representative and ambassador to so many countries, they all come from the same pool of talent available which is also the same pool of talent you use for your business and university milieus. They had to be recruited from somewhere, so you get a lecturer who is appointed ambassador for France; an excellent ambassador, I’m sure she’ll be,” he says without mentioning former theatre studies lecturer Vicki Cremona, “but this is the way Malta is making a splendid job with these limited resources. But it taxes Malta because it is a city-state. Scale is a big problem here, where people usually will also have to rule over their families. How impartial can justice be here? Because it is a small society, conflicts of interest can arise at any time. And where the family has to stay and protect each other, this can therefore be a difficult situation. It’s true that in all small towns, even in a Dutch village, you can find mayors who are responsible for illegal dealings. You find a form of social control that is very tight, because living in a small community is difficult for these reasons.”
I ask him whether such an inescapable reality should be accepted, to be treated as an absurd kind of resignation to ‘life in Malta’.
“No I don’t think it should be accepted. And they way it isn’t being accepted is shown by people who are standing up against such things. It is a sign that things are changing, and moving in the right direction. But by nature of being an island, you are insular by definition and access to the outside world is not as easy as being on the European mainland. Being part of the EU is opening up new doors for young generations and succeeding generations will find it easier to study abroad. You are going to have many more outsiders coming to work to Malta. You can’t help the fact that you are insular and that staying here, you are going to be in touch with each other, and there will always be the friends of friends network.
“I would like to think that there will be a more integrated, long-term policy than what you have now, that you will have an idea of where the country wants to go, and making plans for the future. I’d like to think of the environment being protected, that education is directed more at Maltese history and so forth, and that heritage becomes something that is important to all Maltese. And I’d like to see a rational form of prosperity, where affluence can live within its ecological means, and being aware of the danger posed to the island’s finite resources with such mindless development basically designed to further the interests of a few people. What is a golf course at Ta’ Cenc going to do if not create jobs for a few maids serving the villas? There must be a limit somewhere.”