It must be the Byzantines!

The Byzantines came and left so many years ago but their guile seems to have lingered all these years

It is said that the Byzantine empire survived so long because of their unique guile in how they wielded power and their ability to avoid having their enemies uniting against them
It is said that the Byzantine empire survived so long because of their unique guile in how they wielded power and their ability to avoid having their enemies uniting against them

The other day an obviously irate contributor went on a rant in the ‘Times of Malta’ complaining that we Maltese lack discipline to the extent that ‘we are a nation of twisted minds, sick bodies and soulless creatures’. To be frank, I have probably never seen such an agressive anti-Maltese rant. The author of the piece must have been irked by something that he considered serious, even though we all take the complaints he listed – Maltese bread losing its flavour, inefficient Police force, lack of trust in political leaders and carelessness with the environment – in our stride.

I do not think that the problem with Malta and the Maltese is our lack of discipline giving rise to nonchalance in almost everything.

To be sure, the people of the north side of the Mediterranean basin, Southern Spain, Sicily and Calabria, Cyprus and Greece, are not paragons of discipline. The others on the North African coast are much more undisciplined, of course. And if I were to make a comparison between the Maltese and other Mediterranean people, I suspect that we will find the Maltese the most disciplined of the lot. Or perhaps the least undisciplined is more precise.

This is thanks to the effect of the British presence. Discipline in commerce and professional ethics in Malta are superior to that in other Mediterranean countries, thanks to the British.

Yet we only took a little of what is good from the British: too much discipline is a ‘no go’ area!

Somebody I knew used to say that the culture that mostly influenced the Maltese way of doing things is that of the Byzantines, whom we hardly mention in our history books. In fact, it is said that the Byzantine general, Belisarius, briefly landed at Malta while on his way from Sicily to North Africa, and by 535, the island was integrated into the Byzantine province of Sicily.

Followers of Maltese history insist that during the Byzantine period, the main settlements remained the city of ‘Melite’ on mainland Malta and the Citadel in Gozo, while Marsaxlokk, Marsaskala, Marsa and Xlendi may have served as harbours. The relatively high quantity of Byzantine ceramics found in Malta suggests that the island might have had an important strategic role within the empire from the 6th to 8th centuries. 

Of course the Byzantine Empire existed before they came to Malta and lasted much more than their stay here. In fact the Byzantines managed to keep their empire together for over 1,100 years, thus creating the longest-living empire on the European continent. It is said that it survived so long because of the Byzantines’ unique guile in how they wielded power and their ability to avoid having their enemies uniting against them and, of course, to buy time. Buying time, of course, is also an undoubted Maltese trait.

The Maltese seem to have inherited some of this guile, besides that instinct for survival. The need for discipline is practically acknowledged by all, but for the Maltese mentality, discipline is not an end in itself. It is a means to move forward: sometimes it is convenient to be disciplined and sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is opportune to insist that others are disciplined but the rules then would not necessarily apply to you.

For example, I have heard this particular ‘complaint’ (or pretext, rather) from people who built some illegal development, for an incredible number of times: I know I broke the law and I will demolish my illegal structure when others who have also erected illegal structures demolish theirs too!

Call it buying time, but it is very difficult to dismiss the warped logic.

And our instinct for survival justifies whatever we think is expedient for us. We also know how to buy our way around, as can be seen from the lessons of history: becoming Muslim to avoid taxation and getting back freedom of action by collecting money to pay back the feudal lord, Gonsalvo Monroy. Both stories are imbued with the Maltese way of doing things.

That is why the amnesty on irregularities in buildings is seen in a positive way by the great majority of people.

I know that this ‘code’ is quite unethical but I suspect that this is what partly lies behind the big economic success Malta has had after 50 years of independence. 

The Maltese have a particular way of doing things and create something from practically nothing. Northern Europeans take some time to understand this while our Mediterranean neighbours admire us for it – some quite openly and some secretly...

The Byzantines came and left so many years ago and their influence – or rather their guile – seems to have lingered all these years.


Those damned cranes

A report in a recent edition of ‘The Economist’ says that good times are rolling again in Iceland and the economy is purring once again after the economic thumping crash in 2008-09. The island is enjoying a tourist boom with 2.25 million visitors expected in 2017 – seven times the native population. 

‘The Economist’ goes on to say that the influx has created plenty of jobs and a building frenzy to the extent that Reykjavik ‘has a crane on every corner’. Sounds familiar.

Comparisons with Malta do not actually make sense in that the population densities of the two islands are literally poles apart. Most of Iceland is empty space while Malta is overcrowded.

Yet whatever environmentalists say, cranes and building activities are a sign of an economic boom, whether it is in Malta or in Iceland.

On one hand I see the possibility of our building boom leading to an overheated economy but on the other hand, one cannot freeze Malta and its physical status quo if our economy is going to grow.

While stopping all building development does not make sense, the government should still attempt to cool down the heat – not by curbing all development but by, for example, ensuring that public land is not given to developers for peanuts. 

The rental values of apartments in the Sliema/St. Julians area shot up by some 80% in the last four years. Can you imagine what would have happened if all the apartment blocks that environmental NGOs opposed were not given the go-ahead?

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