Hitchens, death and the Malta connection

A lesser-known fact about the British journalist-author is that he spent much of childhood in Malta.

Hitchens on crossing the Grand Harbour: “a flash of drama and beauty and seascape and landscape, it’s as good an inaugural memory as one could wish.”
Hitchens on crossing the Grand Harbour: “a flash of drama and beauty and seascape and landscape, it’s as good an inaugural memory as one could wish.”

Christopher Hitchens - arguably the world's most famous 'practising atheist', with the possible exception of Richard Dawkins - passed away on Thursday, after a 18-month- battle with cancer.

Widely acknowledged as one of the great prose writers of our time, Hitchens has been described as many things throughout his long and controversial career.

To admirers of his perceptive wit and peerless eloquence, he was nothing short of a genius who employed his formidable literary and journalistic skills to challenge the previously unchallengeable territories of religious doctrine and autocracy.

To his detractors - and there were many, including a few ensconced in the Maltese press - he was a spiteful and pernicious 'intellectual anarchist' who - not unlike Satan (with whom he was often compared) - rebelled against all forms of spiritual authority.

One thing is however certain: Hitchens will be remembered (fondly or inimically, depending by whom) primarily for his persistent and occasionally mercurial stand against the 'irrationality' of religious belief: a stand memorably epitomized by the title of his best-known work, 'God is Not Great'.

A lesser-known fact about the British journalist-author is that he spent much of childhood in Malta - his brother Peter was in fact born in Sliema in 1951 - and retained fond memories of the time he spent here in the early 1950s.

His earliest memory (as described in the opening chapter of his memoirs, Hitch-22: published shortly before he was diagnosed with cancer) places him "standing on a ferry-boat that is crossing a lovely harbour" - adding that, "as a flash of drama and beauty and seascape and landscape, it's as good an inaugural memory as one could wish."

The setting was, in fact, the Grand Harbour of Valletta: "the capital of the tiny island-state of Malta and one of the finest Baroque and Renaissance cities of Europe."

Hitchens goes on to describe Malta as "a jewel set in the sea between Sicily and Libya, it has been for centuries a place of the two-edged sword between the Christian and Muslim worlds... [whose] population is so overwhelmingly Roman Catholic that there are, within the walled city, a great plethora of ornate churches, the cathedral being decorated by the murals of Caravaggio himself, that seductive votary of the higher wickedness. The island withstood one of the longest Turkish sieges in the history of 'Christendom.; But the Maltese tongue is a dialect version of the Arabic spoken in the Maghreb, and is the only Semitic language to be written in a Latin script. If you happen to attend a Maltese Catholic church during Mass, you will see the priest raising the Communion Host and calling on "Allah," because this after all is the local word for 'god.' My first memory, in other words, is of a ragged and jagged, but nonetheless permeable and charming, frontier between two cultures and civilizations..."

If his memories of Malta are pleasant, so too are (at least a few) of Malta's memories of Hitchens. Godfrey Vella, chairman of the Malta Humanist Association, cites Hitchens as one of the inspirations for a growing global movement away from superstition and irrationality.

"It is impossible to add much to the tributes that have been pouring in from public figures and people at large," Vella said when contacted yesterday. "Hitchens was a controversial writer and a brilliant orator on many subjects, but what I and many will remember him mostly for was his uncompromising attitude towards any form of tyranny, whether political or religious.

"His clear and totally rational arguments as to why a world without religion can be a better place will be remembered and quoted for many years to come."

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@ bidlafilgvern There is noting unclear or irrational in an atheist being able to appreciate the artistic heritage that our churches posses. An atheist can appreciate Handel's Alleluia sung on an alter just as much as a religious person can enjoy John Lennon on his iPod.
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Funny this...the man who presented the world with "clear and totally rational arguments as to why a world without religion can be a better place" describes Malta as a "jewel" and the thing he most remembers are the "ornate churches", and the example he gives to explain Malta's Semitic heritage is the word for "Allah". Anyway, so long dear friend. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. We will soon follow you. As they say, the Lord first calls upon to himself the best of the pack!

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