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The Maltese: Reflecting the Continents' Rich Cultural & Linguistic Diversity

This article is written in reply to the Times of Malta article published 1st March 2009 - 'Malta... where Saudi makes its money - literally'.


Malta is a Southern European Island, not just politically but also ethnically, and has been so for centuries. It has been occupied by the Arabs, which de-populated it and populated it for some time. This happened between the 8th and the 11th century. It is good to note that the population was small with around 10-20,000 inhabitants overall, consisting of people classified as Islamic, Christian and Jewish, in order of prevailing numbers. One must add, Arab rulers allowed other faiths to flourish given they paid the 'harag' tax, a subtle incentive for many to change faith. Al Qimyari , a respected Arab traveller of the time (read: ), wrote that many Christians that inhabited Malta BEFORE the Arab conquest from the Byzantines, left at their own free will. This is recorded in history.

Your article here has an inherent fallacy, which I trust has good intentions. Nonetheless, saying Maltese people are Arabs, simply because the Maltese islands happened to have been conquered by the Arabs (like Spain, Sicily, Sardinia, etc.), or simply because they speak a language with strong Arabic influence, is historically incorrect. The article erroneously refers to the Maltese as Catholic Arabs. With the same argument one can say that during the Arab period many Maltese were former Christian converts into Islam, as is likely to have been the case. But the logic in both observations when used as an argument to proof our ethnicity is simplistic and verywrong. The fact that locals evidently accepted Islam as their faith of choice at the time does not in any way mean they became Arabs as ethnicity is not determined by faith.

One cannot deny the Maltese are a mixture of Mediterranean peoples and others, including the Arabs, but this itself does not define our ethnicity. A quick look to the telephone directory presents a rough but indicative clue to our ethnical mix, with a strong body of surnames emanating from Italian/Sicilian, French, Sicilian, Arabic/North African, and also English and French names.

Prominent researchers on this topic, like Professor Godfrey Hull, in his seminal study 'The Maltese Language Problem' addresses these issues thoroughly. Ethnicity and language can be related, but this is not the case in Malta.

When the Normans arrived, some say, ‘liberated’ Malta from the Arabs in circa 1030, they did not send all the local people of Islamic faith (note the difference, not Arabs, but people of Islamic faith) out. They simply sent out the rulers and their associates. Islam still reigned for some time, and was tolerated until Malta gradually took into hordes of people from the Norman territories that entailed most of Italy and these were Christians. So much so that the population more than tripled over the subsequent few centuries, and this was far from a natural growth trend. One can only assume that many people from the small population which still professed Islamic faith either converted to Christianity thus were absorbed in the new prevailing population or are likely to have left for North Africa close-by.

One can argue that topography has survived centuries and we still have many villages and towns with words of Arabic origin as is the case in Sicily and Spain. But the same as language, topography is just a reflection of Malta’s colourful history, with a multifaceted identity morphed throughout the years, nothing more.

One can also argue that we are Arabic speaking, though this argument will not necessarily hold linguistically from a scientific (i.e. objective) academic perspective, but this point – with all due respect to Arabic (which is a prominent, rich language) – does not make us Arabs.

Before making any sweeping amateurish statements, one needs to study historical evidence, and learn the truth about the Maltese peoples' origin. The Southern European identity, with a mix of Mediterranean and European ancestry - irrespective of the local vernacular, and its Semitic/Arabic/Italian & Sicilian undertones is the one that defines the average Maltese. We have a rich ethnical heritage that, yes, to some extent naturally includes North African elements, as well as it does include French, English, and Spanish and to a larger extent Sicolo-Italian traits.

This is what makes the Maltese so interesting, and I like to say, somewhat ‘unique’ as people. They share so much with so many people around their tiny group of islands. This mix makes them richer and potentially so instinctively open to people hailing from diverse cultures yet with whom they share historic and cultural affinities, irrespective of their origin. The Maltese are old Europeans, forming a fascinating link in the regional historical evolution and their complex identity cannot but highlight the likely future of Europe as a society that ought to be more tolerant, understanding, yet more appreciative of the diversities that embellish its rich overall tapestry.

Ray de Bono


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