These letters can only be read
while the sun touches your sky.
Hmm, I couldn’t get your location.
v. 1 to dabble, to splash (the hands, feet, etc.) about in water. 2 (of sea) to be choppy. 3 to have a superficial knowledge or smattering of (usually a language).
Each sunrise suffuses agony and ecstasy alike. Bodies glow, oceans sparkle. The sun speaks the same fiery tongue as ever. By contrast, language is many-tongued, ever-constructed, in constant advance and retreat. Each sentence is a swell of voices, a tide of generations.
In Maltese, ‘the sun’ is ix-xemx, said ish-shemsh. The initial consonant of the noun xemx warps the definite article il into ix, blurring the sounds together. Not all consonants have this effect: notice that il-qamar (the moon) preserves the il (which is the equivalent of al in Arabic).
Accordingly, we call nine consonants – ċ, d, n, r, s, t, x, ż and z – the sun letters of the alphabet, and the rest, including q, moon letters. How fitting for a language spoken by sun-drenched islanders, the moon with its tides caressing the shores.
Alas, I only know a smattering, like the islands of Malta – limestone smears in the sea between Sicily and Africa, their position making them a crossroads of kingdoms whose every tussle ossified in the lingual substrate.
Soon after moving to Melbourne several years ago, I learned there was a Maltese community centre near me. I cycled over. It was a modest brick building attached to a chapel. At the entrance stood a compact man twice my age, waiting, he said, for the bingo session to end so that he could mop the hall. I told him I was there to enrol in language classes.
‘Are you Maltese?’ he asked.
‘I was born in Australia.’
‘Grandparents,’ I said.
‘50-50, then. You’re a skip!’
‘All of them were born in Malta—’
‘Get your relatives to teach you!’
I wandered the building. The hall had a stained-glass depiction of Valletta’s Grand Harbour, which I imagine some bingo players had last seen in person clutching their parents’ hands on the deck of a departing ship in the decade following World War II.
Back on the patio, Joe still stood smoking.
‘Needs some prickly pear,’ I said, pointing to the garden beds.
‘You like prickly pear, eh?’
I described a bend of the creek where I had found bajtar tax-xewk, a ubiquitous sight on the islands, flowing over corrugated fences to invade the banks. Turned out he lived in the area. Fed ducks every morning. Some of those rogue cacti could have been his.
A dozen of us began that language course, all connected to Malta by blood or marriage. I abandoned it after a few months. Perhaps, having already spent thousands of hours studying Chinese characters and German grammar only for that knowledge to erode over time like arches reclaimed by the sea, I recognised the limits of my linguistic dedication.
Still, I kept the books. Now and then I leaf through the dictionary. Dabbling in the language of my ancestors is like splashing in the water that bore them to foreign shores. I couldn’t use pastizzi or ftira in a Maltese conversation, but I know their taste. Let’s savour some words together.
n. 1 die, cube. 2 the pupil of the eye.
There was a time when light fell upon us, but we could not see.
Long before words existed, before we even had mouths, nature’s die bestowed a few lowly creatures with skin that could distinguish a gleam from the gloom. This binary glimpse of the world, though crude, helped us to evade predators. We learned that shadows can coincide with a leaf twisting through the air, scudding clouds – or occasionally, looming claws.
Chance fluctuations over generations placed that primordial eye in a dimple of skin, which deepened until light had to pass through a narrow opening like a pinhole camera. Fluids swirled into being and settled in chambers to focus the incoming light. The grammar of the eye was developing. Nouns began to accrue: the lens, cornea, sclera, iris, and the gap in the iris – damma.
The pupil. That blackness at the centre of things, beneath things, where the sun cannot reach. The pupil swells in the absence of light. Our minds seek something to grasp in the dark.
v. 1 to descend, to go down, to sink. 2 to fall (of price), to be depreciated. 3 to decline (health). 4 to be recorded in writing. 5 to go from one place to another.
The soft limestone of the Maltese islands is riddled with subterranean chambers. The most famous is Ħal Saflieni Hypogeum. A labyrinthine temple in the negative, carved by hand, the remains of an ancient culture that left no written records. When I visited, the guide could only speculate about the meaning of the ochre spirals on the walls. I imagined nameless people chanting in rhythmic swells, their bone tools against the stone, obscured by a shroud of torch smoke.
The Hypogeum’s central structure, eight metres below the surface, is oriented to the winter solstice – the time of year when ix-xemx dies and is reborn, the waning of days reversed. Around 2500 BC, the Hypogeum fell silent. In use for more than a thousand years, the temple remained hidden until modern times. The language of its architects may have vanished, but its dialogue with light tells us something of what they venerated.
In Mellieħa, at the opposite end of the island, is a church where my mother’s parents married. The church is an extension of a natural cave whose limestone wall features a painting of the Virgin Mary that’s been falsely attributed to Saint Luke. This is related to the claim that Malta’s churches trace their lineage to Paul, the disciple who, together with Luke, is thought by some to have shipwrecked on the islands in AD 60. However, continuous Christian presence in Malta is improbable. In 870, most Christian inhabitants were killed or exiled during an Arab siege that led to a lengthy period of Islamic rule.
Some suppose that Christians escaped by hiding in caves, keeping the faith until saved by Count Roger the Norman’s attack in 1091 and conquest in 1127. Most likely this is a fantasy, leaving a gap in the lineage. True enough that Muslims were deported after the Norman invasion, whereupon Catholicism became synonymous with Maltese ethnicity. But this was a new tradition. Not an unbroken circle, but a circling back, a spiralling.
Like the ochre designs in the Hypogeum. Were those spirals drawn to mark the circularity of life? The temple doubled as a necropolis. Thousands of skeletons have been found on their sides, spines curled in parallel crescents. Witness all those hands of the living, conducting bodies underground, shaping them for an eternal light.
n. ashes, cinders.
New gods, new traditions, same words. From the ruins of one civilisation rises another. Fid-dar kollox jixtamba, sa r-rmied tal-kenun. There is use for everything in the house, even the ashes.
While Sicilian Muslims colonised the islands, introducing the seed of an Arabic dialect that would outlast them and flower into the Maltese language, our understanding of optics was being rewritten in Cairo, just across the Mediterranean, by a physicist called Ḥasan Ibn al-Haytham.
Many of the ancients, including Plato, explained vision as our eyes emitting a divine fire that bathed objects around us, as if our souls spoke to the universe. Hence ‘evil eye’ superstitions. If eyes are not mere receptors, but emanate spiritual force, it follows that malevolent people could produce harm with their gaze alone. In Malta, farmers adorn buildings with cattle horns to ward off the ghajnhom iljun (lion eyes) of strangers whose pupils seek subjects to settle on and destroy.
Other early scholars, such as Aristotle, held a more accurate but still fuzzy notion that vision was produced by reception of a sort of physical matter. Along these lines, Ibn al-Haytham’s optical experiments showed for the first time how rays of light bounced from objects into our eyes.
So, whenever the Maltese people suffered incursions over the centuries, besieged and ruined in turn by Carthaginians, Romans, Vandals, Ostrogoths, Byzantines, Aghlabids, Normans, Hafsids, Ottomans, the French, and the Axis, their gaze did not brighten the wreckage of their homes. It was the other way around. Firelight entered their eyes, right through the pupils, and this allowed them to see.
Look at them striding over the dock: twenty sharp-nosed lads, hundreds more in the steamship behind. Pinstripe suits, tan skin, dark coiffed hair. Standing tall in the centre of the group is a striking man of the cloth, starched dog collar around his neck, mouth an upturned crescent, sureness in his step. He’s been here before; they have not. This is his flock. Seeds from the shattered homelands, a generation dispersed on the waves. Noonday. The only shadows are beneath their lifted shoes and in the hollows of their eyes.
v. 1 to crush s.th. to a pulp. 2 to strike or beat s.th. with a hammer.
According to poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, the Maltese were the ‘noisiest race under Heaven’, an impression he noted in 1804 while working in Valletta for the British colonial administration that followed Napoleon’s expulsion from the islands. Besides the locals’ supposedly violent and animalistic sounds, Coleridge cursed the ‘endless Jangling’ of church bells struck with hammers at all hours.
Few Maltese owned clocks. There was no need. The clang of bells divided the daylight. Bells called people to mass, prompted the kindling of cooking fires, commemorated Christ’s death at three o’clock on Fridays. They rang to celebrate feast days, honour the passing of a person in the village, and warn of approaching pirates and storms.
Hundreds of churches span the country, a place so small that you could scoop it from the sea and drop its dripping cliffs and coves between Melbourne’s two airports and not hit a plane – and in a way, that’s what happened during the 20th century. The farmland and urban sprawl west of Melbourne is home to a plurality of the Maltese diaspora.
Some migrants, including my great-grandfather in 1954, first went north to Queensland to work in canecutting gangs. The heat of the crushing season was tough but familiar; the presence of dangerous snakes was not. Saint Paul is said to have banished all poisonous reptiles from Malta in return for the kindness locals showed him after shipwrecking there. Because of this legend, some men on the canefields filled their pockets with powdered stone from the homeland, a folk antidote to snakebite.
I wonder if they found their new country too quiet, too hostile. Did they long for the pealing of bells, the crack of fireworks during their village festa? If a malicious gaze pinned them in the field or on the factory floor, did they mutter hamsa f’ghajnek (five fingers in your eye)?
Tell me, because there are so few left to ask.
n. 1 rain. 2 (fig.) a large quantity of s.th.
My paternal grandmother disembarked in Australia on her eighth birthday. I was surprised to discover, in the course of writing this, that she first learned Maltese to communicate with her husband’s family. She was an outsider to the language. And though she now speaks Maltese fluently, she never learned its written form. I asked her to try spelling xemx.
‘S, h, e, m, s, h, something like that.’
‘How about rain?’
‘S, h, i, t, t, a,’ she said. ‘But when we spoke it, people would think—’
‘Ħara,’ I said. We laughed.
For centuries, illiteracy in Maltese was the norm. It was considered a vulgar, everyday speech. The language of the kitchen, not the courts. There was no written tradition, because the intelligentsia preferred Italian. As a result, most Maltese words concerning culture and science originate from Italian and English, even though the core vocabulary is Semitic.
From around 1880, the British administration sought to supplant Italian usage with English, beginning decades of debate about the language of Maltese public life. Then, in 1940, Fascist Italy helped the Luftwaffe bomb Malta, killing thousands. Pro-Italian language support evaporated. However, the long-time efforts of nationalists to resist English may have led Maltese to emerge as a unifying cultural bond. When Malta gained independence in 1964, the official language was recognised as Maltese.
Even droplets of rain, accumulated over years, can become a wave that lifts a people.
n. 1 time; (when followed by another noun) time of. 2 age. 3 span of life. 4 duration, gen. long. 5 period of time associated with some important event or circumstances; Ż il-Bronż, Bronze Age; Ż il-Ħagar, Stone Age; iż-Żminijiet tan-Nofs, the Middle Ages. 6 season.
Australians think of their sunlight as special. Without a universally shared language to distinguish the colony from its pallid motherland, our national mythos claimed the sun itself. A golden sheen infuses our pastures and promenades, touching every facet of our culture. The yellow disc featured on the Aboriginal flag also decorates the Rising Sun badge pinned by fresh-faced soldiers to their slouch hats.
But nationhood is a fiction, and a temporary one at that. Nations dissolve in the wash of millennia. Meanwhile, stone temples speak to the stars. Australia, peopled since the most recent ice age, is embedded with stories of the land drowning. As long as there is someone like me and someone like you, language can endure. And when it goes, the sun will still rise.
n. 1 trunk of a tree; stem of a plant, stalk. 2 forefoot (of a boat).
We have so little time left. I could write of orange and lemon trees, whose popularity is among the Arabs’ most lasting impact, besides language and cotton. I could write about the Udjat eye painted on Maltese fishing boats. But I will end with a memory far from any ocean. It starts with Nannu’s hand, his fingers as thick as a sapling—
—holding the tractor steering wheel, his other hand on my boyish thigh so that I didn’t vibrate off the seat. We chugged between tall grasses bent by the winds that precede a storm. Over the engine’s thrum I detected the faraway tinkle of cowbells as the herd sought shelter. Around the dam, up the rise. The shed appeared, windows reflecting the last rays of the sun.
Nannu killed the engine, leaving a stillness, the sound of crickets in the dusk. Soon, wet curtains began to lash the dark paddocks. We congregated on the verandah to watch the storm. I loved the thrill of seeing a flash, counting until its growl arrived. Lightning always crept up sooner than expected. One moment it was a distant concern; the next, an abrupt explosion. Harsh light on our faces, all of us eyes-wide and silent.