‘U il-kotra qamet f’daqqa’…

And if that’s not a milestone historical moment, for Ruzar Briffa to write a poem about: I don’t know what is, quite frankly…

I have to admit, I never really liked that Ruzar Briffa poem very much: least of all, when I had to study it for my Maltese A-level (a process which, at the time, still involved ‘learning stuff by heart’.)

Nonetheless, I can still recite at least the first stanza from memory, all these years later:

“U l-kotra qamet f’daqqa

U ghajtet, ‘Jien Maltija!

Miskin min ikasbarni,

Miskin min jidhak bija!’”

Now: admittedly, I paused for a moment when it came to the word ‘ikasbarni’… partly, because I realised I had no idea how to actually spell it. (Was it an ‘s’ before the ‘b’; or a ‘z-bit-tikka’? I tend to get these things muddled up, you know…)

But in any case: one quick Google search later, I can happily confirm that my memory (and even my Maltese spelling!) turned out to be spot-on. And let’s face it: there’s probably a good reason, why those words proved so easy to remember, all these years later… while other poems I once knew equally well – including the lyrics of my favourite rock songs, that I now struggle desperately to recall – end up fading into oblivion, over time.

As Daphne Caruana Galizia once wrote, in a blogpost about the same Ruzar Briffa poem: ‘It’s not exactly Wordsworth, is it?’ By which she meant (Note: my memory is not up to the task of reproducing her entire argument, in full) that both the lyrics themselves, and the metre with which they are strung together, do not quite add up to the resounding ‘masterpiece’, that we were all brought up to believe that poem was, within the Maltese literary canon.

For a while, at least, I agreed with that sentiment whole-heartedly. I, too, felt that the poem lacked the sort of ‘gravitas’ one might expect: from what is supposed to be an evocative anthem, about the birth-pangs of our entire country (Malta’s literary answer, If you will, to D.W. Griffiths’ ‘Birth of a Nation’)…

‘Miskin min ikasbarni! Miskin min jidhak bija!’… I hate to say it, but it sounds like a bunch of schoolchildren, taunting each other on the playground…

At the same time, however: I have to also admit that my own appraisal of that Ruzar Briffa poem has changed slightly, over the years. [Note: I am obviously aware that Daphne Caruana Galizia herself is no longer around, to defend her own argument– though she certainly DID defend it, at the time – so I’ll vex her ghost no further, from now on...]

Let’s just say, however, that a couple of things have happened, over the past 40-or-so-years, that have caused me to revise my thoughts.

The first was, very simply, that I discovered (quite by accident) a small detail, which most of you have probably known all along. Contrary to my own assumption, that Ruzar Briffa was trying to capture the national ‘zeitgeist’ of the late 1940s – i.e., when Malta first starting perceiving itself as, at the very least, a ‘potential’ country-in-the-making)…

… it turns out that he was actually writing about a real-life incident, that occurred in (of all places) the Empire Stadium in Gzira! But in case, like me, you were unaware of this detail… the following description is lifted from a 2015 article by Saviour Balzan:

“It was in Malta that an interesting incident happened before the end of the war. It was 25 March, 1945, in the Gżira Stadium, and Hajduk Split had come to Malta to play the Malta team.  

“Before the game, the King’s Own Band proudly played the anthem of Yugoslavia and then it played God Save the King, obviously the national anthem of Great Britain. As the governor, Edmond Schreiber, was about to seat himself, the whole stadium gathering stood up and spontaneously started to sing the Maltese anthem. Schreiber, embarrassed, was obliged to stand up until the end of the Maltese anthem. 

“That episode led Ruzar Briffa, a dermatologist by profession, to write a poem that remains one of those ‘must learn’ if you study Maltese…”

And, well, that places an entirely different perspective on things. Suddenly, everything I earlier criticised the poem for – namely, the ‘childishness’ of both words, and metre – can be seen to make perfect sense. Yes, of course it would be written with such a frivolous, ‘sing-song’ rhythm. It was trying to evoke the sound of what was in reality a ‘football chant’, spontaneously belted out by anywhere up to 10,000 football supporters… in a football stadium, for crying out loud!

Not only does this instantly explain the ‘childishness’ of the lyrics, themselves (let’s face it: you would hardly expect football fans to spontaneously ‘chant Wordsworth’, would you?) but it also places that otherwise awkward line - ‘miskin min ikasbarni!’- into its proper context.

Earlier, I might have have translated that as: “Wretched are [or ‘shame on’] they, who insult me.” Armed with this new perspective, however, I would now go with: “… they who SNUB me! (in the same way as the British governor clearly ‘snubbed’ the Maltese national anthem, back in 1945…)

And while the incident itself may still appear trivial, even when viewed as a ‘milestone moment’, in Malta’s long march towards Independence – you can still see precisely why a poet like Ruzar Briffa would seize on it, to try to conjure up a national sentiment (however contrived) of ‘patriotism’.

Let’s face it: ‘football chants’ tend have a certain rousing quality, even at the best of times (I shamelessly admit that a well-belted out rendition of ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone!’ always reduces me to tears… and I don’t even side with Liverpool!)

Just imagine, then, what emotions they can stir: when the ‘chant’ is your own national anthem; and your ‘nation’ has yet to be even founded…

This, in turn, brings me to the second thing that has changed, over the years. Until quite recently, I had never paused to consider just how ‘relevant’ that poem must have sounded, to a generation which had to actually struggle - in one way or another - to achieve its own Independence.

Having been born into what was already a fully-fledged nation state (about to become a Republic), in 1971: I have absolutely no memory whatsoever, of any other time in history, when this country was directly under the dominion of any other entity, but itself.

And that’s another reason why I never really responded to the battle-cry of: ‘U Il-kotra qamet f’daqqa’! My generation has quite simply never really felt it was really ‘our own battle to fight’, in the first place…

Looking back on all that today, however: once again, a different perspective swims into view.

Obviously, I still have no real memories of what ‘pre-independent Malta’ must have been like, to actually live in… but like Herbert Ganado before me: I, too, have seen this country ‘change’ in other ways, since then.

And one aspect that has consistently struck me, in all the changes I have ever witnessed, is this: most often, it tends to be the apparently ‘trivial’, ‘minor’ incidents, that end up ushering in all the truly ‘major milestones’ of historical progress.

In Ruzar Briffa’s time, it might have been a rousing spontaneous rendition of the ‘Innu Malti’, in defiance of a contemptuous British Governor. Today, it might be a small, spontaneous protest, in Mosta’s Rotunda Square, against the removal of a handful of Ficus trees…

Consider, for instance, how one activist (Marie-Claire Gatt) described the aims of last week’s ‘Mosta Trees’ protest, when addressing the crowd at Rotunda square:

“We do not want a paternalistic political class, where justice is only served by political intervention as though they are doing the public a favour. We demand authorities that prioritise public welfare and environmental protection, resisting the whims of those wielding power…”

Later, a press release would add: “[This issue] highlights a troubling scenario where the public must oversee authorities to ensure that common sense prevails. It is also reflective of a political system that enforces the idea that politicians need to intervene to serve justice when they feel their popularity is at stake.”

Already, then, it can be seen that those protests were NOT, in actual fact, only about the removal of those individual Ficus trees, themselves. As the Malta Chamber of Psychologists explained, far better than I ever could: "Trees are a home for nature, and a daily connection with nature is critical for our mental well-being."

In other words: those people were protesting against the damage that had been caused, not just ‘to the trees’; but also… ‘TO THEMSELVES!’

Now: I’ve left myself with too little space, to illustrate just why that sentiment may amount to a truly historical milestone, in the way people view politics in this country. Something tells me, however, that Maltese politicians will have received a very clear, very powerful message, from those words.

To their ears, it will have sounded a lot like: “We, the people of Malta (or enough of us, anyway) have finally seen through all the games that politicians play; we’ve finally had enough, of a ‘paternalistic political class’ that has only ever betrayed our interests…”; and it all points in one direction; and one direction only.

As a certain Oxford philology professor might have put it (you’ll never guess who I’m ‘Tolkien’ about): ‘The Tree-Huggers of Malta are going to wake up, and find out that they are STRONG!’

And if that’s not a milestone historical moment, for Ruzar Briffa to write a poem about: I don’t know what is, quite frankly…