A joke about Mount Carmel? They must be crazy...

 all this internet outrage would be far better directed at the problem itself... rather than at the ones who, however distastefully, draw our collective attention to its existence

The first time I experienced the Nadur Carnival was in 1990. I remember the year specifically, because it was my first year at university, and as a Theatre Studies student I was roped in to take part in an official study-unit on the subject (worth two credits, as I recall).

I am told the event has been watered down considerably since then: and though it’s been a few years since I’ve revisited, the last time I did go it seemed but a very pale shadow of the glorious festival of riot, abandon and mayhem I so unexpectedly experienced 27 years ago.

Those who took such mortal offence at this year’s ‘Mount Carmel float’, for instance, would probably have required medical assistance for cardiac arrest within minutes of arrival. For one thing, I distinctly remember a very similar ‘float’ on that first visit, too: an old rust-bucket of a van made out to look like a Mount Carmel ambulance, complete with a team of masked ‘doctors’ who would sporadically emerge to perform ‘brain surgery’ on some random spectator.

And that wasn’t even considered one of the more offensive items. The ones I found particularly disturbing all involved animal cruelty in one form or another.  There was a group of Ku Klux Klan lookalikes (though probably inspired more by the Good Friday procession) parading the severed head of a goat nailed to a placard. Elsewhere, a masked man walked around the crowd carrying a tennis racket, to which a dead pigeon had been tied with elastic bands. Every now and again he would stop and bat the dead bird about a few times... until it literally disintegrated into a mess of feathers. (Most disturbing of all, with his other hand he wheeled a pram containing a cage full of live, cooing pigeons... I never actually saw him replace the dead bird, but the mere suggestion was enough to make me squeamish).

Some were offensive in other ways. There was another man – or woman, because another ingredient of Nadur’s traditional Carnival was that gender roles would be reversed (or subverted) for the duration – sporting a dead octopus impaled on a harpoon, and a bucket of fish entrails which he liberally tossed into the crowd at regular intervals. The stench almost made me puke.

But I have to say that none of this seemed to raise any eyebrows at all at the event itself. The only exception was a small group of American exchange students, also participating in the same study-unit... some of whom were clearly unnerved and appalled.  Interestingly, the primary object of their dismay was a float satirising homosexuality. It was an open van decked up to look like a beautician/hairdresser, under the words ‘Tommy and Gay’.  The ‘act’ was based on the idea that homosexuality was a disease that could be contracted at such places: it involved ‘men’ being transformed into busty transvestites under the hairdresser’s blowdryer.

It was by far the one that got the biggest laughs; but this was long before the days when Malta started featuring in the top 10 list of international gay-friendly countries. I very much doubt it would get the same reaction today. Indeed, it is a wonder that Nadur somehow still manages to put up an annual satirical Carnival at all, when so much of its traditional terrain is now considered ‘off-limits’.

I need hardly add, at this stage, that there is a giant irony lurking in there somewhere. Just think for a moment of all the ways Malta has changed since 1990. Perhaps the most radical social transformation was a total national perspective shift on that cherished Nadur trope, homosexuality. Malta in the early 1990s was a place that struggled to even concede that such a phenomenon existed at all. Successive governments resisted ratifying international conventions which alluded to ‘gay rights’ until the early 2000s: until pressured to do so by the Council of Europe, in fact.  Back then it was inconceivable that Malta, of all places, would one day become an international beacon of equality: let alone that the day would come in less than 30 years.

But there have been perspective shifts of all sorts of other kinds. The divorce referendum of 2011 signalled an epochal shift in perceptions of family life. Another is occurring right now, before our very eyes. Would anyone 30 years ago – or even a lot less – have ever imagined that Malta would be discussing the decriminalisation of drugs like marijuana? Or trying to attract medical marijuana industry giants to start operating here? Back then, there were military roadblocks at every corner, manned by camouflaged soldiers wielding machine-guns; and if so much as a crumb of cannabis resin was found on some poor random teenager, it would be reported in the news as a great military victory in the global ‘war on drugs’.

Attitudes have clearly changed since then... even though the law still uses disproportionate force when dealing with drug offences (raising questions of consistency that I’ll save for another article). But there is no mistaking the general direction: in most areas of social life, Malta has (surprisingly, it must be said) taken giant strides forward in the direction of liberalism.

Now: whether that’s a good direction to take or not is a subjective question, and I’m all for having a discussion about it some other time. For the moment, however, what intrigues me more is the inherent irony: while this country has officially and institutionally become more tolerant in every way... we, as a people, seem to have done the opposite.  We have become infinitely more squeamish, even though there is infinitely less to be squeamish about.

The Mount Carmel carnival float is a very good example of this (even if it remains just an example: a full list of events that have precipitated similar disproportionate outrage would be too ambitious for this article.) I’m not at all sure why mental health seems to be a permanent fixture on the Nadur Carnival hit-list. But I suspect it is for the same reason as homosexuality: both were considered, to a lesser or greater extent, ‘taboo subjects’ in this country. One clearly still is. And it is part of the Nadur Carnival tradition to be subversive and reactionary: indeed, it is part of the entire idea of ‘Carnival’ to begin with.

Whatever dark recess of our primordial history this festival may have originated in – and Nadur strikes me as closer in spirit to those pagan roots than the national Valletta equivalent – Carnival itself has come down to us as part of the broader Christian/Catholic paradigm. It is not a religious feast; indeed the whole concept involves the suspension of certain religious obligations for the last days before Lent (when all the surfeit is atoned for by sacrifice, etc). As such, it was somewhat reluctantly retained by the Catholic Church, in recognition of the classic ‘pressure cooker’ principle: you have to allow the people let off a little steam, otherwise your precious ‘social order’ will sooner or later blow itself apart.

There is much about Nadur’s carnival that conforms to that template even at a glance. It takes place (or used to take place) in the back streets, and not in the main square. It was also traditionally a time when the most cherished social conventions were temporarily thrown out of the window. At all other times of the year, ‘transvestitism’ would have been considered a scandal and an outrage in conservative, rural Nadur. At Carnival, it was condoned and even encouraged: men would dress as women, and women as men. All in the name of a good laugh, of course... but partly also in the knowledge that the same taboo would be back in place with a vengeance, the moment Ash Wednesday dawned to banish all mirth and frivolity.

OK, I might be over-intellectualising the event itself – which is ultimately, and always was, just a big street party really – but even on that first visit, I could see that there was a certain method in all the madness. One effect of ‘taboo-smashing’ is that it forces us all to confront those taboos, even if only once a year. Mental health is stigmatised in Malta? It’s a widely known secret that our mental health facilities are understaffed or somehow dysfunctional? That people don’t want to discuss it openly, and would far prefer to sweep the inconvenient reality under the carpet?

That’s a red rag to the Nadur Carnival bull: under those circumstances, you can rest assured there will be a float delighting in rubbing our collective noses in that inconvenient reality; forcing us to take a good look at this ‘taboo’ topic, so that we can all appreciate the sheer ugliness of what we’d rather not see.

That, incidentally, is how I interpreted the ‘joke’ when I first saw it in 1990.   Today, I find the same interpretation to be not just plausible, but inescapable. Mount Carmel Hospital has been in the news several times in recent months and years: not just in connection with last month’s tragic suicide.  One wing had to be evacuated on account of flooding in the recent rains; and last October, a group of female patients wrote to this newspaper to complain about ‘inhumane’ conditions (which were later the subject of a parliamentary request for an investigation).

Without entering the merits of each individual complaint, or pointing fingers of blame all over the place, it is plain to see that there are indeed serious problems within our national mental health infrastructure. To me, that rusty battered old ‘Mount Carmel taxi for Crazies’ was nothing more or less than a visual correlation for the actual state of mental healthcare in Malta. An unfair correlation, perhaps; and undeniably a hurtful one to many people. Even so, it still points towards a problem which is real, and which... yes, as it happens. It’s a problem nobody really wants to talk about.

From that perspective – which is mine, naturally, and which I don’t expect anyone else to share, etc. – all this internet outrage would be far better directed at the problem itself... rather than at the ones who, however distastefully, draw our collective attention to its existence. Perhaps that way, our mental healthcare standards might actually improve to a point when Nadur Carnival enthusiasts find there is nothing to actually make fun of any more. And who knows, maybe they’ll stop picking on it every year...

Ah, but then there’d be nothing left for us to all go ballistic about on Facebook, would there? So tell you what: let’s just leave everything as is, and go back to all the moral tantrums....

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