En la isla de Malta
entre Libia y Sicilia
sembré un olivo.
(On the island of Malta
between Libya and Sicily
I planted an olive tree.)
The poem goes on to describe, in a tone at once lyrical and conversational (akin to some of the better passages of Neruda’s Las uvas y el viento), the beauty of the Valletta fortress, the surrounding “blue wine” sea, and other easily identifiable spots on the island, such as the cove of Wied iż-Żurrieq (with its famed Ħnejja, known to tourists as the Blue Grotto) and the Megalithic temples of Ħaġar Qim and Mnajdra. Just when the colourful images begin to verge on the romantic, Cardenal unabashedly sets them against more modern features filling the view, elements of 1980s touristic Malta. It was 19th March 1984, to be exact, months before Dom Mintoff resigned as socialist Prime Minister. Don Ernesto was visiting Malta on the occasion of L-Ewwel Konferenza Internazzjonali “Sliem u Ħelsien”, an international conference on “Peace and Liberation”, organised by the Laboratorju tal-Paċi, created and directed to this day by Dom Mintoff’s younger brother, Father Dijonisju. Days before, don Ernesto and other pacifists sailing on the Mediterranean were denied permission to disembark on Sicily, where NATO had recently deployed 112 ‘MGM-31 Pershing’ cruise missiles, mentioned towards the end of the poem. En Malta finishes by repeating the planting of the olive tree, “which must now be large, shaking in the wind, / its green branches in olive-green uniform / in protest against / the gringo missiles“.
This year’s Granada festival was specifically dedicated to Cardenal, and a couple of days into the festival, as I was drifting around the book fair opposite the Casa de los leones, I chanced upon don Ernesto sitting in the shade of one of the stands. We conversed for a short while, exchanged a Pasaporte for a dedicated copy of his Epigramas for my good friend and translator Carmen Herrera, and I asked him about his sojourn in Malta. He harbours good memories of the island and his experience there. Three decades are a long time, only a little less than my own lifespan so far; he couldn’t remember where exactly he stayed, nor where he planted the olive tree. The poem doesn’t mention the Peace Laboratory or Father Dijonisju Mintoff, but I imagined it must have been the venue of the pacifist conference, and of the ceremonious tree-planting. I promised him I would look for the tree and send him a photograph.
Ten days later, in Malta for the elections, as most were rambling on about the current character wars, cross-voting confusion and pseudo-scandals, I drove down to the Peace Laboratory to meet Father Mintoff. The Peace Lab, today unfrequented and even unheard of by most of the Maltese, is a quiet refuge at the far southeastern tip of the island – the very ‘chin’ of the Maltese fish -, with a large orchard and adjacent fields, humble buildings (including a chapel and a small mosque), two abandoned outdoor theatres, and a number of commemorative statues and plaques of other well-known international peacemakers, cultural ambassadors and politicians. A few years ago, Father Mintoff opened some of the buildings to house a group of sub-Saharan migrants who had found themselves on the street after losing their jobs and rented flats. As these people are not allowed to return to the ‘open centres’ that hosted them upon their release from 18-month detention, abandoned by the authorities, Father Mintoff welcomed them with open arms, and now lives with them. Over two decades after visiting the place with my father, I re-discovered the Peace Lab last year thanks to visual artist Marco Scerri, whose project Distant Land is a series of black-and-white photographs that documents the day-to-day life of the new tenants of the Peace Lab.
Father Mintoff, 83 years strong and still fully available at all times for those in need, is perhaps one of the very few Maltese who can boast of having seen Malta change, and several times over (“Rajt Malta tinbidel“, as the saying goes): nothing surprises him. He readily confesses to not being good with dates, but his geographical and social memory is intact: he remembers my father, who he used to teach at the Seminarju (when my father was studying to become a priest, an endeavour he quite luckily abandoned – me voilà…); and of course, he remembers don Ernesto’s visit perfectly, having organised the Peace and Liberation conference himself. He showed me the exact olive tree planted by don Ernesto, today quite tall, its branches rustling above the workshop, its trunk harbouring a small birdhouse. Father Mintoff also told me that don Ernesto had planted olive trees in Floriana, in a not-so-small grove I was unaware of yet have passed by hundreds of times, opposite the Phoenicia hotel. The following morning, after a glimpse of the long voting queues at the Qrendi primary school, my father and I decided to go for a quick drive. There they are, two rows of olive trees on what has become a large traffic island just before the bus terminus, some of them planted by don Ernesto himself. The plaque at the entrance to the grove completes the jigsaw. Misión cumplida. It has probably lapped up a lot more car and bus exhaust than human attention over the years, but hopefully, it will now become a little more visible.
The next challenge will be to breathe new life to the large outdoor Greek-style theatre at the Peace Lab, as Father Mintoff wishes. He also dreams of instituting an artists’ residence in one of the Peace Lab buildings, to foster cultural activity and interaction with residents and visitors. In Malta, this is no easy feat, but far from impossible; the main obstacle would not be prejudice, but the search for time, energy and resources. If I were living in Malta, I would make it a personal mission.
En Malta is a beautiful poem, one of my favourites of the anthology for its images and conversational rhythm as well as for its subject, all the more so for capturing the same affable character and spirit of active, lightly tongue-in-cheek observation that infuse Cardenal’s El secreto de Machu Picchu and Oración por Marilyn Monroe. To complete the circle, here it is in Maltese.
F'Malta Fuq il-gżira ta’ Malta bejn il-Libja u Sqallija żrajt siġra taż-żebbuġ. Malta niftakarha bil-bastimenti kbar tal-bwieq suwed, bojod fuq, kbar daqs il-fortijiet ta’ ħdejhom, il-fortijiet taċ-ċnagen sofor jinfdu l-baħar bi swarhom qishom pruwi imramem fuq imramem b’turretti tondi ġo fihom. (Il-bajja li kienu jagħlqu b’katina fi żmien il-kursari.) F’din il-gżira ta’ Malta, dik tal-Kavallieri ta’ Malta: madwarna l-Mediterran ikħal liżar abjad fuq il-blat. L-istess sqaqien qodma ta’ dari, b’antenni tat-televixin. Il-baħar lewn l-inbid sax-xefaq, kieku jeżisti l-inbid blu. Tnax-il grad ta’ blu, jgħidu. Jew fejn il-blu jsir aħdar u l-aħdar isir ragħwa. Jonkella: mewġ itella’ aħdar u abjad bħall-istrixxi tat-tigra. Xatt tant ċar li l-ilma ma jidhirx, xejn għajr l-alki tal-fond. Faċċata, il-gżira ta’ Ċirċe fejn Ulisse dam seba’ snin, ma kienx hemm gwidi tat-turisti dak iż-żmien. F’ikħal nir, luzzi tas-sajd b’għajnejn Osiris fuq il-pruwa (ħdejn jottijiet tal-lussu). Ma kienx żmien it-turisti. Il-baħar kien għadu kiesaħ. Fil-grotta, l-ilma blu fluworexxenti fejn dari kienu jfiġġu s-sireni u sal-lum wieħed jemmen li għadu jarahom fir-rifrazzjoni roża-vjola tax-xemx fuq ir-ramel tal-fond. Iżda kien bil-lejl li kienu jgħannu u wieħed jemmen li għadu jismagħhom meta jidwi bis-saħħa r-riħ notturn ġewwa nett tal-għar. Il-gżira fejn innawfraga San Pawl (60 w.K.), aktarx qrib il-lukanda tagħna. Djar lewn il-pastell bil-bjut ċatti fuq sfond imnixxef. L-għelieqi ta’ Marzu bis-silla mistħija u l-baħar bilkemm jidher fost iż-żnuber. Il-gżira tal-għasel u l-ward kif sejħilha Ċiċerun. Kważi bla art, ġebel biss, u msallba kollha bis-sejjieħ. Gżira tfur bil-bajtar tax-xewk li kien ġab Kolombu. L-irħajjel taħt l-irdum b’restorants umli, u ħdejn il-maqdes megalitiku hot-dogs. Fil-qrib ħafna, lil hinn mill-gżejra ta’ Ċirċe: fi Sqallija, il-Missili Pershing jheddu. Ma ħallewniex niżbarkaw hemm f’dimostrazzjoni paċifika. Malta ċkejkna forma ta’ ħuta mixtieqa mill-imperi kollha: Rumani, Ottomani, Nelson, Napuljun, NATO, illum ħielsa u sielma għall-ewwel darba minn żmien il-Feniċi. Hemmhekk jien għalaqt laqgħa tal-paċifisti u gwerrieri bil-messaġġ: La ħelsien bla paċi, u la paċi bla ħelsien. - “Il-ħaqq u s-sliem jitbewsu”, jgħid is-Salm. – Ħielsa u sielma għall-ewwel darba, il-gżira bil-gvern ġdid soċjalist, fejn f’isem in-Nikaragwa ħawwilt siġra taż-żebbuġ li llum nistħajjilha kbira, titterter fir-riħ, bil-friegħi ħodor, uniformi aħdar-żebbuġi fi protesta kontra il-missili tal-gringos.
(My trip to the Festival Internacional de Poesía de Granada was supported by the Malta Arts Fund.)