I am a Maltese woman and I’m married to a black man | Lara Bezzina

After Lassane Souleymane’s murder, Lara Bezzina feared for her husband’s life: what if he’s murdered in cold blood while waiting for the bus?

I’m married to a black man. When he first came to Malta a few years ago, walking down the street together used to be simply a frustrating experience. Passers-by looked at us as if we were two aliens from outer space. Their disapproving prying eyes followed us wherever we went. It angered me.

Depending on the day, I either stared back until the bystander looked away, or else muttered a passive-aggressive ‘good morning’, seemingly friendly but implying what-the-heck-are-you-looking-at?’ On one occasion, I am ashamed to say, I told that to an old woman who could not stop staring at us. I now realise that being so unnerved by this attention is pathetic. With time it got better, partially due to my husband insisting that I should not let gazes of others upset me so much. “Let them stare as much as they want,” he always tells me, “after all, what are they doing to us? Nothing!”

He could be right, but the intrusive gazes still affected me. So much so that it even affected my decision on where I wanted to live when we were looking to buy a flat. I couldn’t bear the thought of being the constant object of attention every time we left the house.

I had not always felt this way. Before my then-boyfriend visited Malta for the first time – from his evidently exotic African country – I was adamant that I would not make any excuses for the fact that my boyfriend is black. “No,” I thought, “we will act as normal.” Yet, acting ‘normal’ proved to be a tough task.

When I went to see a flat to rent, the first thing the landlady told me – before I had even entered the building – was: “Don’t worry, there are no Arabs or Blacks here”. I was so shocked. No, I was paralysed: while I knew this kind of racism existed, I never expected to hear this being stated in such a brazen way. I knew I should have walked away in protest, but I did not (so much for considering myself an activist).

Murdered: Lassane Souleymane was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Hal Far as he walked home. Two AFM soldiers are charged with the murder
Murdered: Lassane Souleymane was gunned down in a drive-by shooting in Hal Far as he walked home. Two AFM soldiers are charged with the murder

Finding a decent place to rent on a strict budget was difficult – I was studying and my boyfriend was coming to Malta on a tourist visa, meaning he wouldn’t be able to work for the three months of his stay. Basically we were penniless – no excuse, I know, but the necessity of finding a roof over our heads won and I went in to see the flat, which I liked immediately. It was also within our budget.

Then came the true test: to tell or not to tell the landlady about my boyfriend’s skin colour. Again, I had always promised myself that I would never state my boyfriend is black. Why should I? Do others say their partner is white? But I did. “My boyfriend is black,” I told my landlady amid discussing the details, inquiring whether she had any issues with that. Cutting a long story short, we rented the flat with no problem, but I compromised my values in stating my partner’s skin colour. Yes, I swallowed a racist insult because we needed a place to stay.

For two years we lived in Qawra, where we blended in the melting pot and rarely felt out of place. However, we recently moved to a different place we bought and, once again, we have to face gazes of other people – rather friendly, though inquiring. Recently, however, something has changed: not necessarily in people’s stares, but in my mind and in the way I perceive this attention. After the Ħal Far shooting that claimed the life of Lassana Cisse and injured two other African men, I no longer feel just frustrated at stares from strangers. Now I am tense.

Are those gazes mere acts of curiosity or are they imbued with hatred? Are they echoing ideological notions such as those expressed by the ex-Guardian of Future Generations? Am I welcome in Malta as the wife of a black man and the future mother of a black man’s child?

Strangers’ prying eyes frighten me now. After the horrendous murder, which shocked and saddened me, I became, for the first time, worried about my husband’s safety. I fear for his life: what if he’s shot while walking down the street? What if he’s murdered in cold blood while waiting for the bus?

Walking down the street with him, I keep wondering what people are thinking about us: Are they asking themselves, “What the heck is she doing with a black man? Why are they here? Why doesn’t he go back to his country?” I always thought we were fortunate, living in our own bubble and surrounded by family and friends who accept us. But why would we be more fortunate than anyone else? After all, to many, we are just a freak couple: a white woman and a black man.

Of course, seeing the Mater Dei Hospital staff protest gave me some relief – not everyone thinks that way. Maybe there is still hope yet: maybe Malta will be warm and welcoming again?

Lara Bezzina is an independent researcher, practitioner and activist working mainly in the fields of disability and development as well as broader social issues. She is also a visiting lecturer at the University of Malta.

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