That ‘Ġaħan Laburist’? He might be a whole lot smarter than Edward thinks…

As Zammit Lewis put it himself: it’s what the ‘Ġaħan Laburist’ wants, isn’t it? And, oh look: it’s also precisely what the ‘Ġaħan Laburist’ got, and keeps getting to this day

And to be fair to Malta’s most iconic folk-hero: the same could probably be said for the original ‘Ġaħan’ character, too. Remember? The one we were all brought up reading about at school, in books like ‘Gabra Ta’ Ward’….

… in other words, the archetypal ‘village idiot’ of Maltese folklore: best remembered for having so literally interpreted his mother’s words - ‘Igbed il-bieb warajk!’ - that he… well, he did precisely as he was told (much to the amusement of the entire village, when he turned up at church with his front-door in tow…)

And yes: I suppose that it was a pretty darn obtuse thing to do, all things considered. For even if Ġaħan was acting explicitly on his own mother’s instructions (which also implies, by the way, that he was actually ‘being obedient’, for a change)… well, let’s just say that a slightly less moronic folk-hero would have, at minimum:

a) asked his mother for further clarifications (you know, just in case he had ‘misunderstood something’ the first time round), and;

b) paused to question the wisdom - or indeed, even the sanity - of such absurd instructions in the first place.

But no: Ġaħan failed spectacularly to take any such precaution at all… and yes: that probably does tell us a couple of things about his actual cognitive abilities.

One: our national folk-hero clearly lacks the social awareness to understand how such things as ‘words’ – in certain contexts – may acquire entirely different nuances of meaning. And in this respect, he is no different from, say, a very small child who accidentally breaks a glass by ‘throwing it into the sink’… because his mother had very literally told him, ‘Itfaghha fis-sink!’ (And that’s a true story, by the way… but I’ll come back to it some other time.)

Two: Ġaħan also manifestly fails to grasp even the existence of a ‘social code of conduct’ (still less, his own place within it): whereby certain actions are ‘encouraged’, and others ‘frowned upon’, by a wider society of which we all form part… and which ‘punishes’ transgressors by, among other things, public ridicule [Note: at this point, reference must also be made to Ġaħan’s poor, long-suffering mother… whose ‘exasperation’, at the end of each story, is where all the genuine humour usually resides…]

But we are no closer, I fear, to any proper appraisal of Ġaħan’s intelligence. For let’s face it: our national dismissal of ‘Ġaħan’ as ‘just a village idiot’ may end up being more of a reflection of our own intelligence – or lack thereof – than his. Certainly, it tells us far, far more about the mentality of the ‘villagers’ themselves, than about the ‘idiot’ they laugh at…

Who’s to say, for instance, that the same Ġaħan wasn’t actually somewhere on the ‘Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome’ spectrum? And that – socially inept though he undeniably was – in other spheres, he may also have been the unrecognized equivalent of, say an Albert Einstein, or an Alan Turin…? (Be honest: you never really thought of that, did you? No: you only ever think about yourself…)

And besides: there are other reasons to at least question whether the ‘Ġaħan’ we all know (or think we know) is, indeed, even the same ‘Ġaħan’ as we read about at school.

It seems, in fact, there was a whole other dimension to his character that has somehow slipped through the cracks of our collective memory. The ‘village idiot’ interpretation, for instance, overlooks that he was also a ‘trickster’ (which, if you extend the Folklore Family Tree to include pop-culture, would make him a distant relative of Batman’s ‘Joker’, no less…)

Or as the late folklorist George Mifsud Chircop put it (somewhat more authoritatively than I can): “[Ġaħan] is the wise fool, popular with one and all in contemporary Malta. He is the epitome of Maltese verbal wisdom and humour…” [imbued with] “a tendency that springs from the inclination and will to laugh at oneself and the world at large, an ironical bent toward contradiction and debunking...”

And… well, I don’t know. All of a sudden, that doesn’t sound quite so ‘idiotic’, does it? Not to my ears, at any rate…

.. which of course, brings us to the reason why I’m even writing about Malta’s best-loved village idiot in the first place. (Ġaħan, I mean: not Edward Zammit Lewis.)

For I somehow suspect that – just like we’ve all done ourselves, with the real anti-hero of Maltese folklore – Zammit Lewis might be once again be underestimating the intelligence of the people he so recently dismissed under that old folkloristic label, ‘Il-Ġaħan Laburist’.

Ok, let’s revisit the original wording (and let us also – if only for the purpose of this experiment - forget anything we already know about the specific context: i.e., that it was a Whatsapp exchange with Yorgen Fenech; that it occurred at a time when 17-Black was exposed as belonging to the latter… etc. etc.)

In other words, let us do to Edward Zammit Lewis’s comment, what Ġaħan had earlier done to his mother’s instructions:  i.e., strip it down to its bare essentials, and take what remains very literally indeed.

“Hux hekk. Kids and poses. Political competence zero. But [that’s] what the ‘Ġaħan Laburist’ wants… someone to serve him…”

Hmm. Ok, I can easily see why that would have been intensely embarrassing for Edward Zammit Lewis himself: far more potentially damaging, in fact, than virtually any of the other implications of that private communication (i.e., who he was actually talking to, and why).

For not only was Zammit Lewis caught off-camera, nonchalantly insulting his own party’s supporters like that…  but the entire gist of what he said was just as demeaning to his own government, too.

In fact, now that I think about it: the ‘Ġaħan’ reference was probably the least problematic part.  What about the ‘kids and poses’? That is presumably a reference to some of Zammit Lewis’s own Cabinet colleagues; just like his general complaint, in itself, is really all about their lack of ‘political competence’… manifested, in this case, by his government’s tendency to always pander to pressure from its own, self-serving electorate…

And in the eyes of any bona fide supporter of that same government – ‘Ġaħan’, or otherwise – that’s not exactly going to go down swimmingly, is it? Especially not when their beloved Prime Minister is simultaneously trying so very hard to project the clean opposite impression: that… erm, no, actually: it’s not just ‘kids and poses’ at all. (He has a plan to become ‘the best in the world’, remember? And he can’t exactly accomplish that with ‘political competence zero’, can he now?)

And yet, and yet: while we can all see perfectly well how Zammit Lewis might be regretting using those words, today… we can’t exactly argue that he was also… how can I put it? WRONG.

Nor can we even say that Edward Zammit Lewis is ‘unique’ – or even particularly ‘alone’ – in that way of thinking. Indeed, if there’s one thing I’ve learnt from interviewing Maltese politicians, over the years (and, even more so, from all the ‘off-the-record’ chit-chat) it’s that, sooner or later, the topic of conversation will always turn to the same old issue of Malta’s culture of tribal ‘clientelism’…

… and one by one - without exception; and regardless of political allegiance – they will all complain about it, in the end.  Just like Zammit Lewis is doing now, in fact: as if to suggest that ‘political clientelism’ is an endemic problem, which has nothing whatsoever to do with themselves; and which no individual politician has the power to actually solve…

… even if all those same politicians – Zammit Lewis included – are all equally plugged into the same electoral machine that not only ‘encourages’ precisely such clientelism in the first place… but even makes it more or less inevitable, at the end of the day.

For let’s face it: if the ‘Ġaħan Laburist’  - or ‘Nazzjonalist’, for that matter - wants nothing more than for a politician to ‘serve him’… then the Maltese electoral system seems only too happy to provide that same ‘Ġaħan’ with a veritable wealth of options to actually pick from.

And while I myself have lost count of the times I’ve heard, with my own ears, politicians from both sides complaining about that situation… I don’t actually remember a single one of them (outside the main two parties, at any rate) actually arguing in favour of a new electoral system, to replace the faulty - and, let’s face it, hopelessly corrupt - one we have today.

Why not, I wonder? Well, one simple possibility is that it’s not just the ‘Ġaħan Laburist’ who is actually benefitting from the current status quo; nor even, for that matter, all those ‘kids and poses’.

No: when push comes to shove, it is also MPs like Zammit Lewis himself who end up relying on precisely this great ‘meat-market’ of a system – the exchange of votes for tribal political favours, which happens once every five years - to actually get themselves elected to Parliament.

But another reason is… well, as Zammit Lewis put it himself: it’s what the ‘Ġaħan Laburist’ wants, isn’t it? And, oh look: it’s also precisely what the ‘Ġaħan Laburist’ got, and keeps getting to this day.

And what…. they’re supposed to be the ‘stupid ones’? The ones we’re all supposed to ‘laugh at’, because they’re so dumb, they just… don’t… get it?

Oh, I don’t think so, myself. To be honest, it’s actually beginning to look the other way round…