• Walk this way

    When there is such a wide selection of travel destinations, why should one opt to go on a pilgrimage?

    Furelos“I did ask that question to myself on the first day of my Camino,” revealed Matthias Ebejer. “The walk to Santiago de Compostela in northwest Spain is not a travel holiday like many others. It can be quite a shock for those who are not used to outdoor activities such as hiking, trekking or camping. On the other hand, it can prove to be pretty challenging to find the real meaning of it all if one is regularly accustomed to such adventures.”

    Matthias was definitely not one of the latter. He was enticed to go on this pilgrimage by his girlfriend Deborah since she had already experienced it together with her family.

    “It did not take her much to convince me. As I began to look for information about this walk, I realized that this was the perfect way to get to know Spain closely. Such a pilgrimage gives you the opportunity to walk from one village to another, crossing different regions, meeting all sorts of people and learning about their culture and the places’s history. It is also very interesting to observe the changing architectural styles, cuisine forms, and people’s mentalities as you move along the rural areas which turn into urban locations as you get closer to the final destination.”

    The Cathedral of Portomarin.As a historian specializing in the history of the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John, Matthias had a further motive to try out this pilgrimage.

    “The Order was established to provide care for the sick, poor or injured pilgrims who visited the Holy Land. Yet eventually, these knights were also protecting the Christian pilgrims who travelled the St James’ Way to Santiago de Compostela. They constructed cathedrals, monasteries and pilgrims’ hostels along the route, some of which still exist today, such as the Cathedral of Portomarin, my favourite stop along the Camino. Portomarin was originally a Hospitaller commandery, and it indicated the part of the walk which was guarded by the Knights of St John. Pilgrim museums located in the various villages and towns along the Camino are quite informative and inspiring. A number of them are found within small churches or large cathedrals but one can also visit private houses which used to belong to wealthy pilgrims who donated their dwellings to become museums.”

    SantiagoAlthough Santiago de Compostela has been associated with spirituality since olden times, it was the miraculous discovery of the remains of the apostle James in the ninth century in this area which made this Galician town so popular. These remains were buried in the site upon which the renowned cathedral of this town was later built.

    “The authenticity of this legend has often created disputes in the Catholic Church since there are those who have their doubts about who is really buried in the crypt of this cathedral. Nevertheless, I believe that such controversy is superfluous because independently of who is buried within the silver box that lies at the heart of this holy site, the ultimate goal of each pilgrim is to stop there and meditate about the journey made and to liberate oneself from the troubling baggage of problems that one has carried along in order to come out as a new person.”

    Thousands of pilgrims have walked this path for the last one thousand years and yet ‘the way’ is a very personal journey.

    Matthias and Deborah posing with the 100 km milestone on their first visit together in 2012.“I am a Catholic, however I am not a religious person. I must admit that my original aim for this walk was more based on cultural interest rather than a spiritual one. Yet such pilgrimages are full of surprises and my walk ended up giving me much more than that.”

    The origin of such pilgrimages was generally based on sacrifice and repentance from one’s sins. Nowadays, things have changed and the aim for such an experience depends on each individual.

    “This pilgrimage is not necessarily meant to be a sacrifice. One is not expected to suffer or to be in pain. I must say that today such a pilgrimage is more a reaction to that universal urge to leave the safety of home in order to find oneself. One has several options from where to start this pilgrimage and each have different levels of difficulties. The longest and most popular route is the Camino Francés which stretches 780 km from St. Jean-Pied-du-Port near Biarritz in France to Santiago.”

    Matthew has participated two times in the Camino. The first time was 213 kms long, leaving from Ponferrada in Spain and taking 9 days to finish. The second one was 100 kms long, being the minimum distance, leaving from Sarria and taking 5 days to arrive to Santiago de Compostela.

    A sheperd along the Camino.“Each time I went with a group of friends. The Camino we chose was not difficult and we walked about 20 to 25 kms daily. Friends provide good company and they also help you to go on whenever you might feel discouraged or tempted to stop. The walk was always deeply moving and enriching. Travelling on foot provides you with the leisure to look around you, to feel the earth beneath your feet, to breathe the fresh air and enjoy the various scents of the surrounding landscapes, and to listen to the sounds or relish the silence. It also presents you with those significant moments wherein you are walking alone thinking about your life, the decisions you made or are about to make, and the meaning of living itself. Although initially one might start this pilgrimage as a mere tourist, at the end of it one will recognize a considerable change in oneself.”

    During his research, Matthew discovered that even the kings of Spain participated in the Camino as part of an old tradition. Later on, during the walk he was informed that up to the present days, prisoners who have a good conduct are offered the opportunity to spend the last six months of their sentence walking the Camino with a guardian instead of spending them in prison.

    almost_there“You meet several people along this pilgrimage and you get the privilege to listen to their stories about why they chose to do this walk. Some of these narratives are very touching such as that of the Scandinavian eighty-year old man who had lost his wife some years before. As he walked part of the way with me, he told me how he had become very depressed by her death and had given up on life, waiting for his end to come soon. Then one day, he decided to stop mourning and to regain the joy of life again. After seeking help from a travel agency, he was recommended to try out the Camino and there he was seeking a way to turn a new page in his life.”

    One can choose the level of comfort and also the means how to do this pilgrimage. Hostels, hotels, restaurants, bars and shops are available all along the route which one can travel by walking, cycling, horse riding or even by car, although the latter does not count much.

    Sarria“When you decide which route you are going to take, you can buy a guidebook online and prepare your journey beforehand. These guidebooks will provide you with all the required information and also with recommendations where to stop. We used to start walking very early in the morning when it was still dark. After a 3km walk, we would stop to eat breakfast and then continue along the way for a further 17kms until we reached the next village or town, generally at around 12:30pm. We chose to rest at municipal hostels wherein we could take a shower, cook some food in the kitchen, wash our clothes and sleep in the dormitory for the price of 5 euros. Such an arrangement gave us the opportunity to visit the village or town in which we stopped or to eat a good meal at a restaurant whenever we felt like it.”

    “The secret is to travel as light as possible and to learn to live with the barest minimum. To cater for the changing weather, one should carry basic layering of clothing and everything should be waterproof. A first-aid kit which includes talc, cream against sores and adhesive bandages is a must. A torch is necessary to find the way in the dark. One must not forget to take any required medicine and also a medical prescription in case something happens to it. Ear plugs could be helpful when sleeping in dormitories. However one of the most important items is a comfortable and sturdy pair of shoes.”

    Credencial2One should definitely not do this pilgrimage without carrying a pilgrim passport or credencial along with him.

    “We obtained our credencial from the Curia of Madrid. This is a blank passport which one stamps along the way in order to confirm one’s participation in the pilgrimage. Many places are equipped with their unique Camino stamps along the route and we loved to go in search of the most appealing ones. When presented duly stamped at Santiago de Compostela, each pilgrim is given a certificate and a plenary indulgence. Eventually, this credencial becomes a very dear memento of this journey.”

    horse“Two other things which should be obtained before starting the walk is the pilgrims’ scallop shell and walking stick. We also placed a Maltese flag on our backpack and this was always a good conversation starter with other pilgrims. At the end of our pilgrimage, we made it a point to arrive in Santiago in time for the noon pilgrims’ mass where we received the blessing. Although we had walked for 20 kms, this experience was so uplifting and emotional that we felt no fatigue even though we had to stand up for an hour and a half as the cathedral was packed with people.”

    Matthew’s first pilgrimage ended at Finisterre and the second at La Coruna.

    The cross at Finisterre“Pilgrims used to walk another three to five days to reach the shores of Finisterre and Muxia, at the extreme point of Spain facing the Atlantic, the edge of the known world. There they would collect the scallop shells as a sign that they had walked the Camino. Legend has it that the body of St James was brought back from Jerusalem from these shores.”

    “At Finisterre there is the tradition to throw away the walking stick which has accompanied you along your pilgrimage into the sea and then burn some of your clothes. This symbolically means that you have walked the way, that you have searched for answers and found them, and that now you are leaving the pilgrim’s life behind in order to go on with your life.”

    (This article was published in the Travel Supplement issued with The Times of Malta dated 29th March 2017)

    2017.03.29 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • Love is strange doctor

    card for bride and groomChoosing a unique white wedding dress, sending out elegant invitations to guests, being led down the aisle by one’s father, shamelessly removing the garter, tossing the colourful bouquet, and giving out souvenirs may be considered as universal marriage traditions. However the reality is far from that. Rituals and customs could vary greatly between cultures, religions and countries, ranging from the sweet and romantic, to the strange and bizarre and at times even to the shocking and outrageous.

    Ghost weddings – China

    Whereas a wedding is generally expected to be the culmination of a loving and living bride and groom, ghost weddings are still celebrated in some provinces of northern and central China such as Shanxi and Henan. Such weddings are based on a grisly 3000 year old tradition which recommends that the unmarried dead sould not be left alone in the afterlife, otherwise the deceased’s family might get cursed.

    Originally this ritual was strictly for the dead and it involved two unmarried dead people. A wedding ceremony was duly celebrated and the two were buried together in the groom’s grave. Mainly aimed for young unmarried men who worked in coal mining and often suffered fatalities, this custom provided the bereaved parents with the opportunity to help their sons find a soulmate and be at peace even after death. It must be said that traditionally, parents felt obliged to assist their sons to settle down in a marriage.

    Although this tradition is supposed to have ended, especially with the sale of corpses being outlawed in China in 2006, studies and police reports show that this ritual is more alive than ever. Worse than that, besides being practised secretely, this custom has mutated to a more appalling nature, leading to grave robberies and at times even murders. Prices for female corpses or human remains have increased considerably as parents are ready to carry the financial burden, no matter how difficult it might be.

    Fat farms for brides – Mauritania

    While many brides go on strict diets to lose weight before the wedding, in rural Mauritania, an attractive bride is a girl with stomach rolls, stretch marks and overlapping thighs. In this society, a thin girl is considered inferior and unappealing and her slim figure will bring shame to her family. An old tradition in this country, known as leblouh, ensures that girls are round and corpulent at their weddings by force feeding them from the tender age of 5.

    During the school holidays or in the rainy season, when milk is abundant, girls are sent to ‘fattening farms’ where they are constrained to eat by older women, their aunts or grandmothers. A typical daily intake for a six year old includes two kilos of pounded millet blended with two cups of butter, as well as 20 litres of camel’s milk. Refusal to eat all this food will lead to a subtle form of corporal punishment such as squeezing the girls’ toes between two sticks. Vomit has to be consumed again.

    Historians claim that this tradition dates back to pre-colonial times when Mauritania’s population consisted of nomad white Moor Arabs. At the time, a man was deemed wealthy and well respected if his wives could afford to sit still all day and leave the household chores to black slaves. This laziness led these women to gain weight and by time, being overweight became culturally acceptable and regarded as high class.

    Even though health campaigners are trying to eradicate this old tradition, the leblouh practice has seen a resurgence in recent years. A successful fattenning process will make a girl of 15 look 30, making it easier for her to get married. Sadly, this custom causes endless illnesses and health problems to these girls in later years.

    Cursed wives – India

    When searching for a girl to marry, one tends to be attracted by looks or a charming personality. Yet in India, a man has to watch out for more than that since a woman born under Mangal Dosha (a Hindu astrological combination under the influence of planet Mars) is believed to be cursed and after marriage, she might lead to his untimely death.

    Such women are known as Mangliks and are looked upon with fear in Hindu society. Their choice of spouse is very limited as they are clearly not regarded as ideal prospective matches in the arranged marriages which take place in this country.

    A remedy to break this curse is to marry a clay pot during the kumbh vivah ceremony. This function is just like a real Hindu wedding where the woman has to wear a wedding dress and jewelery along with a thread. A priest is invited to chant the mantra and a marriage celebration takes place between the woman and the pot. Once the wedding is over, the bride will change her clothes, remove the thread and tie it around the pot. Later, when no one is watching, the pot will be drowned in a pond or in a river, thereby releasing the woman from the curse and making her suitable to marry a man.

    Spitting on the bride – Kenya

    One of the most emotional moments in a wedding is the point when a father accompanies his daughter down the aisle, then removes her veil and kisses her on her cheek before handing her over to her future husband. Yet although similar emotions will be involved during a wedding celebration of the Maasai people in Kenya, the father of the bride will spit on her in order to bless her.

    Whereas spitting in many cultures is associated with disgrace and humiliation, in this tribe, this act is regarded to bring good luck and fortune. In fact, Maasai tribesmen will spit on their hands before greeting and shaking hands with elders and it is also customary for them to spit on newborns in order to avert any bad luck.

    During a Maasai wedding, the bride’s head is shaved and lamb fat and oil is applied on her head. After her father has spit on her head and breasts, she will leave with her husband and walk away without looking back since she is fearful that she might turn into stone.

     (This article was published in The Wedding Supplement issued with The Sunday Times of Malta dated 12th March 2017)

    2017.03.12 / no responses / Category: The Sunday Times - Articles

  • A sea of profits

    A search through historical notarial deeds reveals how Maltese businesses exploited the cruel reality of war and slavery, maritime historian Dr Joan Abela tells Fiona Vella.

     

    joan abela“Even though there are people who might think that the human tragedy which we are experiencing today in the Mediterranean Sea may be something contemporary, in reality, the human element has always been an issue in this region,” Dr Joan Abela says as she refers me to some thick manuscripts that she had set aside at the Notarial Archives in Valletta.

    We had agreed to discuss the dreadful reality of slavery in the old days and these manuscripts are witness to this phenomenon which took place even in our islands.

    “Before the Knights of St John came to Malta in 1530, the Maltese Islands were already involved in the enslavement business and this was quite a legitimate affair at the time. People captured as slaves or captives were considered as commodities and their negotiations were regarded as valuable transactions, which when necessary, were also recorded in notarial deeds.”

    Dr Abela continued to inform me that in that era, the traffic of slaves occupied a prime place in the economic activity of maritime trade in the southern Mediterranean since it allowed the profitable exchange of monies and commodities.

    “Well aware of the strategic geographical location of Malta in the slave trade business, the Knights of St John established a strong infrastructure in order to attract more merchants and agents. Those who stopped at our islands would have been able to replenish their ships and to make use of the excellent and accomodating financial services which included the availability of notaries, agents, and money changers. Indeed, Braudel stated that Malta together with Livorno acted as a central hub for the slave trade.”

    One needed to have a special license to work as a corsair, otherwise he would be regarded as a pirate and could be hanged for capturing ships, cargo or people illegally.

    a sea of profits 1b“Since corsairing could render ample returns, people invested in it and received their respective shares from the bounty that the corsairs brought with them after they seized a ship. Investors consisted mainly of businessmen and knights. However, one would also find the Jerosolimitan Nuns of the Sovereign Military Hospitaller Order of St John which were located in St Ursula Street, Valletta, forming part of these investors. Their share was due to them for their role in praying for the safe return of the corsairs.”

    As Dr Abela began to indicate various episodes from the displayed manuscripts, she admitted that she was often very touched by what she read in those pages.

    “Obviously when one looks at history in a collective manner, one would say that there was this particular circumstance taking place during that period and that is it. Yet when one looks into these documents and starts reading a deed about an individual life, one starts empathizing with that person and many questions will come to mind. For example, I came upon a deed wherein a priest was selling a slave together with her son to a Genovese merchant on condition that the latter would baptise the child on that same day. The merchant agreed and the deal was made. When you read something like this, how can you help not wonder who this woman was and from where she had come?”

    Corsairing was a high risk job but if all went well, those involved could become rich overnight.

    “Men craved for the opportunity to become corsairs and at one point, there were so many men leaving their jobs to join corsair ships that the Maltese Universitas requested the King of Spain to restrain this because the island was at a loss with the local workforce.”

    “Not all the captured ships delivered the same profits. A galley of the Sultan which would have been filled with riches and fine cloth, would be precious but not without issues and trouble. Other ships would be carrying worthy cargo such as sugar or wheat. Nonetheless, it was the human cargo which was considered the most profitable.”

    Captured people could be sold as slaves or held as captives until they were ransomed.

    “The whole process for redemption was very complicated. These contracts unravel all this system including how the involved parties went about to assure the best positive outcome from their deal. An agent would be requested to act as an intermediary between one party and the other, taking responsibility to collect a deposit from the captive and then to take him to an agreed destination in order to collect the rest of the money from his relatives and then release him.”

    “In April 1558, a slave, Busert Bin Hahmet de Casar concluded the following agreement with his master Giuseppe Baldagno. Busert was transferred to Antonio de Banda from Messina who was a patrone of a ship belonging to Marco Antonio Delixandro, also from Messina. The ship was equipped to undertake a voyage to the Tripolitan fortress of Barbaria. Antonio was to conduct the slave to Tripoli, and from there retrieve 80 gold ducats which was the stipulated price for redemption. This amount was to be remitted either in their value in dinars or in oil, wool or leather goods which the Arabs sold inside the Tripolitan fortress, which goods would be exempt from duty. Busert promised to pay Giuseppe within twenty days of his arrival at the fortress, on condition that the patrone was not to let him disembark unless he received the said payment or its value in goods. Once arrived at destination, the slave would need to make the necessary connection with an intermediary in his own country who would be in a position to acquire the redemption money or goods for him. Once the sum was settled, the slave would become a free man, but if the sum was not paid, he was to return with the same ship and consigned back to his master Giuseppe.”

    a sea of profits 2bAt times, the Grand Master had to issue a safe conduct certificate to enemy ships so that they might transfer the captives to the Tripoli port.

    “One such case was when Turgut Reis captured the ship Catharinet and took all her load to Djerba in 1548. Following this unfortunate capture for the Christian side, the Knight Augustino Spagno was sent as an envoy to negotiate redemption of the captives and once prices were fixed, a Muslim ship carrying these captives was to sail to the Order’s port in Tripoli.”

    Interestingly, although being amid a Holy War against each other, this flourishing trade saw the collaboration and interaction between Christian and Muslim merchants.

    “The capture of slaves did not only translate itself into financial rewards but acted also as a means to strengthen commercial ties between the various ethnic subjects of the cross and the crescent. Both Muslim and Christian merchants exploited this cruel reality and at times, this exploitation was so excessive that appeals were made to the local authorities to annul what plaintiffs described as usurious agreements which desperate souls had been forced to endorse in return for their freedom.”

    “The Catholic Church strongly prohibited any compensation on loans, whether being related to business or not. Interest was regarded as usury and was not allowed. Often, this situation created shortages of cash money, especially after the Jewish community was expelled from the Maltese Islands in 1492. Nevertheless, there were numerous ways of circumventing this prohibition, such as through the difference quoted in the rate of exchange which would incorporate an agreed rate of interest or by paying the value in other goods.”

    Besides ransom agents, there were also those agents who were summoned in order to make arrangements for the purchase of slaves to be delivered to Malta. Gender, age, ethnicity and price were agreed beforehand to eliminate any possible claims for additional payment.

    “Although prices of slaves varied considerably, various studies indicate that the average selling price for a slave during the sixtenth century was in the region of 46 scudi. The acquisition of infidel slaves from Tripoli as a commodity for re-sale was one of the most profitable economic activities through which Malta registered a boom in her commerce.”

    The arrival of Napoleon in 1798 abolished slavery in Malta and yet from litigation cases found in the Tribunal proceedings, during the early British Period, it is clear that the island’s association with slavery would not be terminated by a simple legislative enactment.

    “And yet, back in the eighteenth century, people had already realized that the raiding system was over and that it was not feasible anymore. A new system based on lawful commerce and trade began to emerge; the Pinto stores being evidence of such change.”

    (This article was published in the Family Business Supplement issued with The Times of Malta dated 24 February 2017)

    2017.02.26 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • Christmas inspiration

    the-sculpture-of-baby-jesus-at-il-muzew-tal-bambini-bkara-photo-fiona-vella-1Thousands of baby Jesus statues begged for my attention during a visit at Il-Mużew tal-Bambini in Birkirkara. However, I felt mostly intrigued by a particular terracotta figure which looked completely different from the rest. Its face had captivatingly unique features and the rest of the body was very life like. Yet it was only when I met its creator, sculptor Chris Ebejer, that I understood its real value, since that baby Jesus was not just a statue but a singular work of art.

    “My baby Jesus creations are not popular statues that are meant for domestic use or simply to act as a representation of the son of God. They have an added value because they are sculptures and not just statues,” explained Chris when I met him at his studio in Mqabba.

    “When I do such works, my aim is not only to reproduce the tenderness of a baby but also to relay an artistic style and a distinct message. Such art pieces are not restricted just to the Christmas season but they can be cherished all throughout the year due to their artistic significance.”

    An unfinished terracotta sculpture of a toddler Jesus lay waiting on a workbench. I couldn’t help noticing some subtle facial similarities between this work and the other one that I had viewed before. I was curious to know whether a sculptor would have a specific image in mind of how Jesus should be represented.

    “Before starting to work on something, an artist needs to have a vision of what he intends to create. One wouldn’t picture the exact image in mind but there would already be an idea of the shape, the composition, and the layout of the figure. Details will not be clear but each artist will subconsciously compose some particular features which are typical of his style.”

    “I must say that the facial features of this figure were inspired by those of my nephew. When he was a baby and later on a toddler, I studied closely his facial characteristics in order to explore the difference that exists between such a young face and that of an adult. For example, I observed that a toddler’s forehead is large when compared to the rest of the face, the upper lip is usually protruding, the cheeks are chubby and the neck is fleshy.”

    The sculpted figure of Jesus looked quite human and earthly and I wondered whether such work involved a spiritual process as well?

    “Whenever I am creating a sculpture, my foremost thought is always art. I am not motivated by any religious intentions and I do not aspire to encourage faith or to have people praying in front of my work. I have to admit that the subject is irrelevant to me.”

    Nonetheless, although creativity and originality are always his primary goals, Chris revealed that there is a limit on how much one can move out of the religious figures’ codified facial characteristics which our culture has learnt to decipher and expect.

    “No one has any idea how Jesus actually looked  like, neither as a baby or a child, nor as an adult. Indeed, both his face and the way in which he is represented have changed considerably along the centuries. The belief that some images such as the Veil of the Veronica and the Shroud of Turin could be historically authentic has influenced very much the present impression of Jesus’s face. Once such images are portrayed over and over again and are accepted by society, their characteristics become codified and this will help people to recognize immediately the figure of Jesus. Certainly, as an artist, there are ways and means of how to be creative when dealing with such a significant figure. However, one must know his limits so as not to come out with a profane work.”

    In earlier times, when art could reach out to people more than books, especially due to widespread illiteracy, the Catholic Church often used symbols within artistic works to deliver its messages.

    “There were various symbols that were portrayed with baby Jesus. In Botticelli’s artwork Madonna of the Pomegranate, Jesus is holding a pomegranate in representation of his suffering and resurrection. On the other hand, in the Madonna of the Carnation by Leonardo da Vinci, Jesus is reaching out to a carnation which is the symbol of Passion.”

    sculptor-chris-ebejer-in-his-studio-in-mqabba-photo-marthese-ebejerChris pointed out to his sculpture of toddler Jesus where he had also included such symbols.

    “Although in this sculpture, Jesus might look just like any child, there are a number of clues which will hint to the viewer that there is more to it than that. In fact, the child in sitting on a humble box draped in cloth in allusion to when the babies of ancient royal families were placed on thrones. The young figure is holding a miniature cross in his hand and three nails lie down beneath him on the ground. All these objects, together with the boy’s meditative expression as he looks far out beyond his tender age, create an effect which suggests  that the child is already seeing his mission for the future.”

    As he continues with some final touches on this latest sculpture, Chris reveals that the autumn and wintery seasons tend to inspire him to create new works.

    “I am deeply influenced by the change of seasons and by the transformation which they breed in the coloured landscape. Being from the rural village of Qrendi, I am very attracted to nature and my senses are intensely attuned to it.  As the leaves start turning orangey red, melting in with the aroma of wet brown soil and the liquorish scent of carobs, I feel stimulated to think about Christmas and the birth and life of Jesus, and it is mainly during this period when I come up with new ideas for works with religious themes. Moreover, the earlier approach of night during these days entices me to stay more indoors and this provides me with much more time to work.”

    A look at some of his finished works that were in his studio indicated that this sculptor had a particular preference to terracotta.

    “I do love working with terracotta as besides being a natural medium, it also has a pleasant warm colour. It is also more fluid and softer to handle than other materials and so it allows me to work in greater tranquillity. The fact that terracotta has been in use since ancient times enhances also in me that sublime feeling that by utilising this medium, I am helping to keep this traditional technique alive.”

    Apart from baby Jesus sculptures, during this season, Chris tends also to come out with new nativity creations.

    “Tenderness and the love for the family are the main messages imbued in these works.”

    (This article was published in Christmas Times magazine issued with The Times of Malta dated 8th December 2016)

    2016.12.09 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • It-traġedja tal-patrol boat

    Kelmtejn qabel: Ktibt din il-ġrajja fl-1986, meta kelli 15 il-sena. Kienu għaddew sentejn mit-traġedja li laqtet lill-kuġinti Mary Farrugia fis-7 ta’ Settembru 1984, imma ż-żmien ftit li xejn kien taffa’ min-niket. Għaldaqstant kont qbadt pinna f’idi u ħażżiżt il-memorji tiegħi fuq il-karti sabiex b’hekk almenu moħħi u qalbi setgħu jistrieħu kemmxejn mit-toqol li din l-esperjenza kienet ħalliet fuqi wkoll. Għal xi raġuni ddeċidejt li nikteb il-ġrajja minn fomm kuġinti. Xejn minn dak li ktibt m’huwa mmaġinat għax dawn l-emozzjonijiet, il-ħsibijiet, u t-tifkiriet miktuba hawnhekk, smajthom u ġarrabthom flimkien magħha u ma’ wliedha. F’Diċembru 1987 iddeċidejt li nittajpja din il-kitba u bgħattha lill-bord editorjali tar-rivista Sagħtar sabiex jikkunsidrawha għall-pubblikazzjoni. Victor Fenech, wieħed mill-membri tal-bord editorjali, kien kitibli ittra sabiħa ferm fejn kien għarraffni kemm kienet qanqlitu din il-ġrajja. Eventwalment din ġiet ippubblikata fis-Sagħtar tal-ħarġa ta’ Frar 1987.

    It-traġedja tal-patrol boat

    Qomt daqsxejn kmieni aktar mis-soltu dakinhar peress li żewġi Twanny kellu jmur għax-xogħol. Ippreparajtlu daqsxejn ħobż, geżwirtulu f’karta, u poġġejtulu ġol-haversack ċkejken tiegħu.

    Wara li libes il-ħwejjeġ tad-Dejma, inġabar flimkien miegħi mal-mejda biex nieħdu l-kolazzjon ta’ fil-għodu. Wara bies lit-tfal u hekk kif bies lili qalli li jekk idum daqsxejn ma jiġi, ma kelliex għalfejn ninkwieta peress li ma’ xi suldati oħra tad-Dejma kellu jmur jarmi xi murtali lejn Kemmuna. Kien għoddu ħareġ meta ftakar li kien nesa l-ġiżirana tad-deheb tiegħu. Magħha kellha mdendel salib kbir bi Kristu msallab fuqu. Kienet għal qalbu wisq dik il-ġiżirana u qatt ma kien jonqos milli jeħodha miegħu.

    Qajjimt lit-tfal u tajthom jieklu u wara poġġejthom f’kamrithom biex jilgħabu daqsxejn sakemm jien innaddaf id-dar. Ma tantx stajt nitħabat peress li kont tqila bit-tielet tarbija tiegħi, iżda xi tfarfira ‘l hawn u ‘l hemm stajt nagħmilha faċilment.

    Xi ftit ħin wara ġiet it-tifla ta’ ziti Fiona biex tgħini daqsxejn. Ħaslitli l-art u l-ħwejjeġ u b’hekk ħelsitni mix-xogħol iebes tiegħi. Qabel telqet wegħedtha li għal xil-5:00pm, x’ħin kellu jiġi Twanny, kellna neħduha magħna l-baħar. Sadanittant, biex ngħaddi ftit tal-ħin, qbadt żewġ ħbula u waħħalthom flimkien f’forma ta’ bandla bil-ħsieb illi la jiġi Twanny idendilha x’imkien fejn it-tfal ikunu jistgħu jitbandlu fuqha.

    Għaddejt il-ħin tal-ġurnata bħas-soltu. Kienu saru xil-5:15pm meta smajt taħbita fuq il-bieb. Ħsibt li kien ġie Twanny iżda kienu xi zijiet tiegħi. Staqsewni jekk Twanny kienx irritorna d-dar. Għedtilhom li le u kollha ħarsu lejn xulxin b’ħarsa li tfisser ħafna. Għall-ewwel ma ndunajt b’xejn iżda meta bdew jiżdiedu aktar zijiet u nies li jiġu minni, bdejt nitħasseb. Fuq wiċċhom stajt naqralhom xi dulur jew biża’ li kien qiegħed inikkithom.

    Saru s-7:00pm u kont għadni ma naf b’xejn. Josef, it-tifel il-kbir tiegħi ta 5 snin, beda jilgħab mar-radju sa ma xegħlu. Kienu bdew l-aħbarijiet. Ma tajtx każhom sakemm smajt xi kliem li ġibidli l-attenzjon tiegħi….

    Spiċċaw il-punti ewlenin u l-qarrej beda jaqra l-aħbarijiet aktar fid-dettall. B’li smajt bqajt imbellha u msammra ma’ l-art! Qalbi bdiet tħabbat sitta sitta u ħassejtha trid tinqala’ minn postha bit-taħbit.

    Xtaqt inwerżaq imma ma flaħtx. Ħassejt rasi ddur bija. Ma ridtx nemmen lil widnejja li Twanny tiegħi kien… mejjet. Il-lanċa li fuqha kien żewġi flimkien ma’ xi suldati oħra kienet splodiet! Wieħed kien salva, erbgħa oħra sabuhom mejtin u mtertqin f’wiċċ l-ilma, u t-tnejn l-oħra baqgħu ma nstabux.

    Ġrejt lejn dar ommi biex inċempel lil dawk li kienu nkarigati. Kienu tawni aħbar li ħawditni. Ma kontx naf jekk kellix nittama jew nitbikkem: Twanny tiegħi kien wieħed minn dawk li ma nstabux.

    “Imma tgħid salva?” staqsejt bejni u bejn ruħi. “Forsi kien iffortunat u salva. Mhux li kien! Imma jekk le? Alla tiegħi għinni għax ser niġġennen,” bdejt ngħid imbeżżgħa, imħawwda, u mbellha.

    Xi wħud jaħsbu li t-tfal ma jifhmux xi jkun qed jiġri iżda dan mhu minnu xejn. Josef u Roderick, iż-żewġt itfal tiegħi, bdew jistaqsuni għal missierhom. Iż-żgħir ta’ sentejn beda jibki għax ried lil missieru ħdejh. Iżda l-aktar ħaġa li għaġġbitni kienet meta t-tifel żgħir ta’ ziti ta’ 4 snin resaq lejhom u qalilhom, “Għaliex qed tibku? Il-papà tagħkom miet għax waqa’ minn fuq id-dgħajsa. Issa ma jiġix għax miet.”

    Għalkemm ma ridtx nemmen, ħassejt li dan it-tifel ċkejken kien qed jgħid il-verità.

    Issa kien dalam sewwa u kulħadd qata’ qalbu milli għad jara lil Twanny ħaj. Kulħad inġabar lejn daru u raqqadt lil Fiona miegħi dakinhar biex teħodli ħsieb lit-tfal għax ma tantx kont qed inħossni fiha. Dakinhar ħadd ma seta’ jagħlaq għajn m’għajn u kull ħoss, anki l-iċken wieħed li beda jinstema’, bdejt nistħajjlu li żewġi ġie lura. Sa fl-aħħar moħħi ttaqqal bl-inkwiet u rqadt. Dħalt f’dinja ta’ ħolm ikreh liema bħalu; bdejt nara wiċċ żewġi mtertaq u mbiċċer b’ħarsa li twaħħax f’għajnejh.

    Qomt mis-sodda mbeżżgħa u sibt li kienu xil-5:00am. Ma stajt norqod b’xejn u qgħdt inħares lejn iż-żewġ uliedi reqdin qishom xi żewġ anġli. “Il-kbir jixbħu wisq!” għedt f’qalbi. Xagħru safrani u għajnejh koħol kienu bħal ta’ missieru. Intbaħt li dakinhar ibni ma kellux dik it-tbissima fuq fommu bħas-soltu u minn ħin għall-ieħor kien isejjaħ, “Papà, papa`.”

    Sejf ta’ dulur daħalli f’qalbi u f’dak il-ħin ftakart fit-tieġ tagħna. Kemm kont ħsibt li ser ngħaddi ħajja twila u ferħana miegħu. Għall-ħabta tas-6:00am qam kulħadd. Kull siegħa għaddejnieha nisimgħu l-aħbarijiet b’tama kbira iżda kien kollu għalxejn. Minn ħin għall-ieħor bdejt nirċievi telefonati mingħand niesi biex juruni s-sogħba tagħhom. Għal xil-11:00am irċevejt telefonata fejn għarrfuni li ġisem Twanny kien għadu ma nstabx. Qaluli wkoll li veru kellha tkun għalih il-mewt għax proprju dakinhar, hu ma kienx imissu jmur bil-murtali, imma kien ċeda lil ħabibu biex imur għall-festa. Twanny ma kien qalli xejn dwar dan għax kieku żgur li ma kontx inħallih imur.

    Bqajna nittamaw għal bosta u bosta ġranet, imma kien kollu ta’ xejn. Kull lejl bdejt ngħaddih nibki u nħares lejn is-saqaf. It-tfal bdew iħossu aktar u aktar it-telfa ta’ missierhom! “Imma,” kont naħseb, “kemm nista’ ndum nigdbilhom? It-tfal qed jindunaw li ġara xi ħaġa lil missierhom.”

    Iż-żmien itir bla ma biss tinduna u kollox jintesa miegħu. Hekk ukoll intesiet din it-traġedja iżda jien ma ninsiha qatt! Minn din il-ġrajja li ġrat sewwasew fis-7 ta’ Settembru 1984, għaddew sentejn…

    Ma kinetx l-unika telfa tiegħi dik ta’ żewġi. Bix-xokk u l-qatgħa li ħadt, it-tarbija tiegħi twieldet qabel iż-żmien u tpoġġiet f’inkubatur. Semmejtu Anthony-Paul għal żewġi u għal missieri li kien miet xi ftit ġimgħat biss qabel Twanny. Ibni dam jilgħabha mal-mewt għal tliet ġimgħat, iżda hekk kif kien kważi rebaħ din il-battalja qalila, l-aħħar frott ta’ żewġi miet u mar jingħaqad flimkien ma’ missieru. Għadni niftakar li ma ridtx nemmen lil għajnejja hekk kif rajt lill-għażiż ibni mejjet! Ma ridtx nitilqu minn idejja. Kien qisu eżatt bambin ċkejken. Id-dmugħ qabiżli minn xfar għajnejja hekk kif missejtlu jdejh u xofftejh tarija u rqaq.

    Kemm ħsibt li proprju b’dawk l-idejn għad imellisli wiċċi u proprju b’dawk ix-xufftejn għad isejjaħli, “Ma.” Iżda l-akbar għafsa ta’ qalb kienet meta firduli ‘l ibni minni u rajtu jgħib taħt it-trab għal dejjem! ….. Intlift minn sensija u ma nafx x’ġara aktar. Iżda meta stenbaħt sibt ruħi mdawwra b’uliedi, b’ommi, u b’zijieti.

    Il-memorja bdiet tiġini f’moħħi bil-mod il-mod. Iva, issa rajt kollox ċar. Issa ma kien fadalli lil ebda wieħed minnhom. F’inqas minn xahrejn kont tlift lil missieri, lil żewġi u lil ibni. Bkejt kemm flaħt sakemm dmugħ iżjed xi nxerred ma baqgħalix.

    Wara xi żmien, lil uliedi ħadthom iċ-ċimiterju biex isellmu lin-nannu u lil ħuhom. F’dik is-sikta tlabna flimkien għal ruħhom. F’qalbi kont qed nitlob għal ruħ żewġi wkoll. Kont mitlufa fi ħsibijieti meta ibni l-kbir reġa’ staqsieni l-istess mistoqsija li kien ilu jistaqsini għal bosta drabi, “Ma, bilħaqq il-papà għadu ma ġiex jara lil Anthony-Paul.”

    “Il-papà jiġi, dalwaqt jiġi,” erġajt tennejtlu l-istess tweġiba li kont ilni ngħidlu għal sena sħiħa.

    Dawwart wiċċi biex naħbi żewġ demgħat li ħarbuli minn għajnejja. Mur għidilhom lil uliedi li missierhom qiegħed jitlob għalihom mis-sema. Mur għidilhom li qatt u qatt m’hu ser jirritorna lura lejn id-dar! Tassew kienu tfal sfortunati aktar mill-oħrajn dawn uliedi għax lanqas ġisem missierhom ma nstab. F’jum il-missier, lanqas fjuri fuq qabru ma jistgħu jagħmlulu, għax ġismu qiegħed hemm, imtertaq taħt il-baħar, fis-skiet ta’ dejjem…..

    2016.09.10 / no responses / Category: Uncategorized

  • Out of its shell

    No one can really say what inspired Indrí Dimech known as Il-Mikk in 1898 to start decorating the façade of his property in Għaxaq with hundreds of snails and seashells which he collected from local and foreign beaches. However, some suggest that he might have seen such decorations when he was living abroad.

    Massi il-Mikk (Photo provided by Dr Mario Rizzo Naudi)2Known to be able to do whatever came up to his mind, within two years, Indrí turned the two upper sides of the walls of his property in a huge canvas as he craftly designed them with religious symbols made out of snails and seashells. He embellished this artwork further by adding also three niches, a statue, and some writing which included his surname. Soon this property became renowned as Id-Dar tal-Bebbux (the house of snails).

    More than a century later, much of this unique artistic work has somehow succeeded to withstand the test of time. Yet considerable sections of it have been lost and what remains is in dire need of preservation and restoration. For many years, the Local Council of Għaxaq has been trying to obtain the necessary funds to save this singular property in St Mary Street but no one seems to be interested to protect this national cultural heritage.

    “A recent application for funds in a scheme that was dedicated to the restoration of historical sites was disqualified since the work to restore Id-Dar Tal-Bebbux was going to take more than six months. Moreover, we were informed that there were no workers available in the Restoration Section who could do the type of work required for this property,” said Darren Abela, Mayor of the Għaxaq Local Council.

    “We were all very disappointed to receive this news. It is deplorable to notice that it is always the same Local Councils who receive the funds to do restoration projects in their localities whilst our locality always ends up with nothing! Although we are in favour of such works, we find it difficult to understand why similar sites obtain the funds to be restored, whereas this property in Għaxaq which is unique, continues to be ignored.”

    Dar tal-bebbux 1 (Photo - Fiona Vella)Abela insisted that about fifty years ago, this house was considered to be his village’s jewel while today, it is regarded as the village’s sorrow as it is painful to look at its pitiful state.

    “Everyone who sees this house or who hears about it recommends us to restore its old decorations before we lose them once and for all. And yet, nobody has ever came forward with any solid action to commence these works.”

    No estimate of the value of the work required has ever been done because such a project requires particular expertise which till now was not located.

    “At the moment, there are three different families living in this property and they have all agreed that this work should be done. I hope it won’t be too late if we’ll ever have the funds to start this project. It is already doubtful whether the snails and seashells which have fallen out could ever be replaced.”

    It would definitely be a pity to allow further deterioration of this place. Indeed, Indrì Dimech’s work was deemed significant enough to be included in the National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese Islands where there is detailed information about the niches and the statues which form part of Id-Dar tal-Bebbux.

    Dar tal-bebbux - main facade (Photo - Fiona Vella)High up on the main facade which bears the date 1901, a small stone statue of the Virgin Mary, the patron saint of Għaxaq, stands triumphantly on a large sphere of clouds. Below it, on the left hand side, one can observe a niche with a stone statue of St Joseph holding baby Jesus; a saint which is also very cherished in this village and for whom a secondary feast is dedicated. On the right, another niche was constructed to contain the stone statue of St Andrew; the saint which has the same name as Indrì. Both these niches have been lavishly decorated with beautiful patterns made with snails and seashells and coloured with paint in between. Only the first three letters of the surname Dimech remain intact on the aperture of the left balcony, the middle balcony displays the letters C. Asciak, whilst the word Malta is still in one piece on the right balcony.

    Another niche with three stone statues showing a crucified figure of Christ accompanied by the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist claims the attention at the center of the other facade. Unfortunately, many of the shells which composed the intricate designs around this niche are now lost.

    Several other designs which include religious symbols, particularly those connected to the Passion of the Christ, can also be recognized. A number of other forms show angels, crosses, palm trees, lions, unicorns, fountains, churches, Għaxaq’s coat of arms, and many others.

    One of the niches loacted on a wall of Dar il-BebbuxRelatives of Indrì Dimech who often worked as a sailor in the Middle East narrated how he used to return from his voyages carrying numerous shells. Once back home in Għaxaq, he would cover the facade of his property with bedsheets and continue working on his masterpiece. It is not known whether these sheets served as a protection against the sun or whether he intended to surprise his neighbours once he was finished with his work.

    At the time, Indri’s property functioned as a bar wherein men gathered to have a drink and to socialize after a hard day’s work. In there, those who were devoted and passionate about the feast of St Mary met to discuss the events which had to be organized. Meanwhile, this place served also as the hub which sparked the idea of the establishment of the first social club in Għaxaq that was to be dedicated to the titular of the Assumption of Mary.

    Even Indrì gave a helping hand to decorate the square that was located in front of his property during the feast. Numerous oil lamps and coloured paper turned the surrounding environment in a surreal atmosphere, especially with his bizarre property in the background.

    Today, this property stands in the core of the village, just a few metres away from Għaxaq’s parish church. Although Indrì is gone, his aptitude to mesmerize still lingers on as passers by are captivated by the strange designs that he created. Hopefully, as soon as possible, the authorities would appreciate this gem for its uniqueness and would take the necessary actions to restore back its beauty and allure of bygone days.

    (This article was published in the ‘Homes’ Supplement issued with The Sunday Times of Malta dated 3rd April 2016)

    2016.04.03 / no responses / Category: The Sunday Times - Articles

  • Safety at sea

    Although the sea may be perceived as a barrier, in ancient times, when no infrastructure existed on land, it was actually the medium which connected one country to another. Travelling on the sea had its own risks and so eventually the idea of insuring a ship and its cargo developed. Traces of the first arrangements between merchants date back to the Roman Period, starting from contracts of sea loans and evolving through the centuries into more complex marine insurances.

    Along their history, the Maltese Islands often formed part of important trade routes and therefore local merchants were soon involved in this sector of underwriting risks. A wealth of information related to this aspect is available in old documents which show the development of insurance that was offered against particular risks on the sea. Nonetheless, till now, the origins and progress of marine insurance in Malta have been given little attention.

    Dr Joan Abela with the Notarial Archives' manuscripts (Photo - Fiona Vella)A visit to the Notarial Archives in Valletta where I met historian Dr Joan Abela introduced me to this interesting theme. Always ready to divulge enticing narratives from the valuable sources of these archives, Abela prepared for me a distinguished selection of thick manuscripts in order to help me explore the fine details available within.

    “In antiquity, before marine insurance originated, a sea loan was the only means of transferring risks in maritime transport from the shipper to another person. This consisted of two partners, a traveling and a sedentary one, who pooled their capital in order to invest and share the risk together. With such an agreement, the travelling partner would have more money in hand to work with, whereas the sedentary one would be able to make a profit while staying on land to continue with his work and at the same time avoid the perils that existed out at sea,” explained Abela.

    By the Late Middle Ages, as Italian merchants, particularly from Genoa, continued to experiment on these issues of securing vessels and their cargo, marine insurance gradually began to replace this type of agreement.

    Sources in Notarial Archives related to local history of marine insurance (Photo - Fiona Vella)“Since marine insurance was still in its early stages of development, contracts did not adopt a uniform pattern, but varied considerably according to the exigencies of the contractors. Insurance contracts were usually categorized as Securitas by the notary, and were generally divided into two parts.”

    “The first section listed the insurers’ names and the guaranteed premium which was calculated according to the routes, the prevailing conditions along these routes, the type of cargo, and also the type of ship being used. It also covered the kind of information which was regarded as essential for such a contract, that is, the name of the persons insured, specific details regarding the ship which was to undertake the venture, and other specifications regarding the merchandise and its destination. The second part of the contract usually listed the obligations of the insurers, the rights of those insured, and the method of payment.”

    An invocation of God’s blessing (Photo - Fiona Vella)Abela guided me through the Latin elegant black ink scripture which dated to centuries ago. Interestingly, at the beginning of some contracts, prior to the insertion of the usual stereotyped clauses, notaries included an invocation of God’s blessing for a safe trip.

    Al nome De Dio bon viaggio et salvamento Amen’ started a contract dated May 1558.

    “Divinity was also cited in other parts of the contracts,” revealed Abela. “In fact, the listing of the perils was often preceded by the phrase che Dio non voglia.

    Abela noted also that although at the time, mariners had a great devotion for the Virgin Mary which is evident from ex-voto paintings, Her name and also the names of saints were not usually mentioned when appealing for such spiritual protection in between legal phrases. This contrasted with the names given to ships that were often named after the Madonna and various saints.

    “Indeed these manuscripts can shed light on various subject matters. Amongst the wide data available, one can note the different vessels that were used during the different periods, the names of these ships, the ports to which they travelled, the type of cargo that was carried, and the amount of money which was being insured on it.”

    Malta Insurance Company (Photo - Fiona Vella)“An insurance contract which was concluded on 4 April 1536 stated that the insurance policy covered a shipment of 18 cantari of spun cotton that was going to be loaded from Birgu and shipped to Licata on the fusta of Giacomo Bonnichi. This fusta was to be captained by Paolo Xuejl or by any other captain appointed in his stead, and was secured to travel to any port which may have been deemed necessary for the purpose of the expedition.”

    Interestingly, a clause in the above contract stated that although being insured, the captain was expected to act prudently and to behave as if he was not being offered this protection, in order not to compromise the safety of the merchandise.

    “Should any damage or loss occur to the insured goods, the insurers were usually expected to pay the amount insured without any objection within four months from the incident. Yet as we can see from some documents, such as the petition that was put forward by Nob. Giacomo Bonichi against Mag. Pietro Ros and Giovanni Exatopolo in relation to a contract enrolled in the acts of notary Vincenzo Bonaventura de Bonetiis in 1560, the clients were not always satisfied with the way in which claims were met.”

    Abela pointed out to a most interesting contract which referred to an insurance of a consigment of apothecary products for the Order’s Infirmary. The list of products acted almost as a showcase of those ingredients which the Hospitallers used in order to produce the required medicine for their patients.

    Document with signatures of Antonio Habell and Giuliano Lombardo (Photo - Fiona Vella)“Those who succeeded to establish themselves in this sector had to have great entrepreneurial skills since this business was still in its infancy and there were lots of risks which one had to deal with. Antonio Habell and Giuliano Lombardo were two of the earliest local entrepreneurs who besides being merchants and traders, they also offered marine insurance services, as may be noted in an insurance contract which they endorsed in respect of the safe consignment of a shipment of timber from Licata in 1558.”

    Abela lead me to the book Trade and Port Activity in Malta 1750-1800 (2000) by John Debono where one can find detailed research related to aspects of marine insurance.

    “As Debono elucidates, marine risks involved were numerous and included: inconsistency in the weather, the questionable conduct of a crew which was generally poorly and irregularly paid and usually comprised men who could not find work ashore, plundering or being taken as a slave by pirates, the unreliability of basic sea charts and portolani which only showed the depth of the water, and the perils that war brought with it.”

    Thick manuscript with information on marine insurance in Notarial Archives (1) (Photo - Fiona Vella)This study underlines also that initially, undewriters operated on an individual basis up to circa 1771, and those notaries which succeeded did very well financially. From an examination of insurance policies between September 1754 and August 1755 drawn up by notary Agostino Marchese, who at the time was most renowned with underwriters and insured, reveals that no less than 109 marine underwiters during that period insured a total sum of 686, 385 scudi against marine risks. However, by the 1770s individual undewriters were being replaced by insurance firms and in 1771, we see the establishment of the first insurance company in Malta.

    A few years later, the Maltese Islands were in a state of turmoil as they were briefly occupied by the French and this led to a total collapse of the whole local insurance system. A new chapter in this sector initiated with the beginning of the British rule.

    (This article was published in the Shipping and Logistics Supplement which was issued with the Times of Malta on 30th March 2016)

    2016.03.30 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • Take me to church

    “ ‘They have hit our church!’ cried a man as he stumbled down in the tunnel which was located under the Mall Garden. We were huddling in there for shelter together with many other people as the bombs came down over Floriana,” reminisced Pawlu Piscopo who was eight at the time.

    Bombed St Publius' church (Photo provided by Pawlu Piscopo)“At this horrible news, my father grabbed me and my brother by the hand and took us out of the tunnel and over to the granaries where a very sad spectacle awaited us. St Publius’ Church had suffered a direct hit. Its dome was gone and the area was surrounded in rubble. Thirteen people who were taking cover in the church’s crypt were killed and eleven more were injured. That was the blackest moment in the history of the parish church of Floriana: April 28, 1942 at 7:50am.”

    After their house had been bombed, Pawlu’s family were allowed to take some respite in a large residence which today houses the Floriana Local Council. Yet for four years, they lived mostly underground in this tunnel which probably saved their lives. They took with them only a few belongings and the most cherished items, including a statue of St Publius which dated back to 1928 and used to adorn the model altar that his father had constructed at home.

    “Most families in Malta had a model of an altar or a miniature church at home at the time.  Unfortunately, many of these had to be abandoned during the war and a good number of them were destroyed when the houses were bombed.”

    The craft of church model-making had been introduced to our islands by the Knights of St John back in the 16th century, and therefore its knowledge was a distinct tradition. However the adversity of war ravaged even this precious memory until eventually this craft was almost completely forgotten.

    The entrance to Pawlu's model of St Publius' chucrh (Photo provided by Pawlu Piscopo)“After the war, people tried to get on with their lives as best as they could. Shops started to open again but those that used to sell miniature items with which to decorate our religious models, dwindled down to almost none. Nevertheless, the passion for model-making was much engrained in our family and when I bought a miniature structure made of four columns and a dome from a man who was leaving Malta to go to live in Australia, my father Carmelo was inspired to use it as the foundation for a model of St Publius’ church,” explained Pawlu.

    Carmelo was a very skilled carpenter. He would go from time to time to have a look at the church and then go back to his model and construct an exact copy of the section that he had seen.

    “He used the material which was handy at the time, mostly cardboard, wood and gypsum. I helped him out too in order to build the whole church which included ten altars. Eventually, this model reached a huge size of three by four metres and we could walk in it and look above at the beautiful dome,” Pawlu said proudly.

    Once his father grew old, Pawlu continued with the work on this church which they had started back in the early 1960s. As he embellished this model, the wish to set up a group for model-makers in order to share this passion with them, burnt within him.

    Pawlu Piscopo at the exhibition (Photo - Fiona Vella)“On February 26, 1986 which happenned to be the tenth anniversary of my father’s demise, I discussed this idea with two of my friends, Raphael Micallef and Tony Terribile, who were very interested in this sector. We all agreed to do something in order to revive this craft and we sent out adverts in the newspapers to announce the set up of this group which we called Għaqda Dilettanti Mudelli ta’ Knejjes (Church Modelling Society). We were very happy when we received a great response from enthusiastic individuals all over Malta. Soon, a commitee was formed and on March 1986, we organized the first exhibition during the first two weeks of Lent wherein the members displayed the works that they had.”

    It was certainly a great satisfaction to see this society thrive and grow along the years, always adding up new members of various ages. Today, around 400 members form part of this group which operates from its premises at 37, East Street, Valletta.

    John Paul Buhagiar Smith, one of the youngest members of the society, decorating his model-altar (Photo - Fiona Vella)“This year we are delighted to celebrate the 30th anniversary from the establishment of this society,” Pawlu said. “The annual exhibition has been taking place each year. Besides offering the opportunity to showcase our members’ works, this event has served to help our members and the public which visits it, to meditate during the Lent period and to prepare for the Easter celebrations.”

    A bi-monthly magazine, Il-Knisja Tiegħi (My Church), which was also initiated by Pawlu, is marking its 30th anniversary too. Members have been writing features in it related to different aspects of religious folklore, thereby kindling even further interest in model-making.

    Once again this year, the society has organized this exhibition which saw the participation of several of its members. Exhibits varied and included small to large statues of the passion of Christ and Easter, statues of Blessed Mary and several saints, models of altars, church facades and whole churches made of different materials.

    Detail from Pawlu's model dome (1) (Photo provided by Pawlu Piscopo)“I hope that I’ll have enough strength to exhibit my large model of St Publius’ church,” revealed Pawlu at one point. “It takes me four weeks to set it up on a large platform and to connect the miniature chandeliers and light fittings to electricity. I am getting old now and such work is very tiring.”

    Pawlu has been exhibiting this model in a building besides the Floriana Cathecism Museum for many years now, during the feast of St Publius which takes place two weeks after Easter.

    “Many people come to visit my model and they are fascinated with it. Tourists take photos besides it and they ask me how I managed to construct it section by section and yet making it look as a whole. I tell them that there are lifetimes of passion invested within it and that it is imbued with a blend of religious meaning and local traditional skills and creativity.”

    At 82 years, Pawlu is serene and thankful to see the society which he has founded together with his friends strengthen itself and adding members to it.

    “I just wish that it will continue to flourish for very long,” smiled Pawlu as he looked contentedly around him in order to appreciate the beautiful displayed works of the society’s members.

    (This article was published in the Easter Supplement which was issued with The Times of Malta dated 21st March 2016)

    2016.03.21 / no responses / Category: Times of Malta

  • Guests to history

    One would probably spare only a few moments of consideration at the receipt of a wedding invitation. However, for Baron Igino de Piro d’Amico Inguanez, these endearing solicitations were cherished so much that he kept a collection of them, neatly separated according to their date and wrapped up together by a string.

    Baron Igino de Piro d’Amico Inguanez (Photo - Fiona Vella)“Were it not for my grandfather’s interest to keep these wedding invitations, we would have lost this fascinating information which can be unravelled within each one of them,” remarked Marquis Nicholas de Piro as we walked towards an elegant table in one of the rooms at Casa Rocca Piccola where he had layed out a number of these invitations.

    I glanced out at the wide selection of wedding invitations tastefully set on the polished wooden surface, noticing the different sizes, shapes, writing, designs and paper. The earliest ones dated back to 1815, 1829 and 1832. They were quite plain and small, slightly bigger than a credit card, and written in Italian.

    “Here are two of the prettiest ones” said the Marquis as he pulled them out of the rest.

    These two invitations had been issued at the end of the 19th century. They were larger than the earlier ones and were quite different from each other. The one dated June 1896 was elegantly designed with an intricate cross at its corner and consisted of an invitation to the wedding between the noble Maria de Piro and Dr. Alfredo Stilon. The other one dated October 1899 was more colourful and rather than an invitation, it was more an announcement of the wedding which was to take place between the noble Maria Teresa de Piro and the Marquis Paolo Apap Bologna. Once again, both were written in Italian.

    Wedding indefinitely postponed (Photo - Fiona Vella)“Now look at this note which accompanies this wedding invitation,” said the Marquis as he handed it to me.

    The presentation of this wedding invitation was simpler than the previous two and the writing was in English. Here, Judge and Mrs L Camilleri were  requesting the company of Baron and Baroness I de Piro d’Amico Inguanez and family to the wedding of their noble daughter Inez to Marquis Mallia Tabone on 26th January 1920. Yet this celebration was not destined to take place as a smaller card which was sent some days later informed those invited that this wedding had been indefinitely postponed.

    Wedding invitation during Lent (Photo - Fiona Vella)“From these invitations, one can also observe the traditional customs of the various eras. For example, this wedding invitation dated 1935 shows clearly that people who chose to get married during the period of Lent had to abide to some limitations.”

    Indeed, a formal note which was inserted together with the wedding invitation that was sent by Chev & Mrs E Moore and Mrs H Xuereb to announce the marriage of their daughter Alice Moore to Godfrey Xuereb, provided this information with direct instructions:

    ‘It is much regretted that in view of the restrictions imposed by Canon Law for weddings held in Lent, only a few guests may attend the religious ceremony at the Archbishop’s Palace.

    You are therefore invited to meet the bride and bridegroom immediately after the ceremony at the residence at 4:00pm.’

    Wedding invitations - close up (Photo - Fiona Vella)As we followed the different invitations that were sent along the years to Baron Igino and his family, we could also trace some of his friends and acquaintances, their residences, the chapels and churches where the marriages took place, and the selected locations for the wedding receptions. Although many of the churches still exist today, some of the street names had changed from Italian to English or were altered completely. A number of the residences mentioned have become quite renowned today whilst a few others were turned into commercial properties. Sadly, some of the lovely villas which provided exquisite entertainment in the bygone days were demolished to make place for large modern complexes.

    Marquis Nicholas de Piro (Photo - Fiona Vella)Amongst these, there was the wedding between Hilda Scicluna and Paymaster Lieutenant W Eric Brockman that took place on 4th March 1928. Their marriage was celebrated at the Archbishop’s Palace in Valletta which seems to have been quite a popular venue for such occasions. On the other hand, the reception was held at the bride’s parents residence that was located at 86 Strada Merkanti Valletta; a house which originally belonged to Sir Oliver Starkey, Bali of Aquila and Latin Secretary to Grand Master La Valette. Being an English Knight, he had assisted the Grand Master during the Great Siege of 1565 and was later given the privilege to be buried in the crypt of the Co-Cathedral of St John in Valletta, close to La Valette’s own burial place.

    The Cathedral in Mdina seems to have been another prominent place for marriages. On 24th January 1937, Adelina Maempel was married to Edwin England Sant Fournier. A reception followed at Villa Luginsland in 26 Boschetto Road, Rabat; a lovely villa which was built by Baron Max von Tucker, the German consul who was serving in Malta in the early 20th century. Unfortunately in recent years years, this remarkable place was in an abandoned state and had a haunting atmosphere.

    Invitation from Gozo (Photo - Fiona Vella)The only wedding invitation which came from Gozo looked quite distinguished and it boasted a silver wax seal. The marriage of Carmela and Paul Vella took place on 4th August 1937 and their reception was organized at the Duke of Ediburgh Hotel in Victoria, Gozo. Alas, in recent years, this splendid hotel that was beautifully constructed in Victorian architecture was demolished in order to make way for a commercial centre and a number of residential units.

    “As you have already noted, some of these wedding invitations pertained to our relatives. Incidentally, this one which announces the marriage between my aunt Mona de Piro to Major John E J Nelson on 28th December 1940 is a favourite of mine, particularly because she was quite a character and she kept her high spirits even when she was aged more than ninety. Well, she’s there, looking at us!” the Marquis exclaimed as he pointed to a delightful portrait on the opposite wall.

    My eyes met with those of a young, graceful girl, defiantly posing with an off-the-shoulder silver dress which melted in the greyish background behind her.

    The noble Mona de Piro (Photo - Fiona Vella)“That portrait created much talk when her relatives saw it since it was regarded too sensual at the time. It was commissioned by her Italian boyfriend, Marquis Onofrio Bartolini Salinbeni, and the painting was done by Arthur Acton who lived in a palace in Florence. Onofrio was madly in love with Mona but unfortunately, their relationship ended and when she returned to Malta, a relative of hers went to Italy to claim this painting since it was not deemed fit for him to keep it,” smiled the Marquis as he went to add some logs to the fire burning in the stylish hearth besides us.

    A warm gush of air embraced the room as the logs protested and cracked and poured a glowing light over the wedding invitations lying in front of us. For a short spell, I thought that I could hear the tinkling of the glasses filled with red velvety wine and golden sizzling champagne as the guests toasted to the newly married couples.

    (This article was published in the Weddings Supplement issued with The Sunday Times of Malta dated 13th March 2016)

    2016.03.13 / no responses / Category: The Sunday Times - Articles

  • Il-presepju tax-xemgħa fir-Rabat, Għawdex

    Toni Vassallo mal-presepju tax-xemgha (Ritratt- Fiona Vella)Kull meta nitla’ Għawdex u ninzerta għaddejjha minn Triq Vajringa, r-Rabat, ma nonqosx li nagħti titwila lil Toni Vassallo u lill-presepju kbir li hu ħadem mix-xemgħa.

     “Meta ħriġt bil-pensjoni fl-1991, xtaqt nivvinta xi ħaġa ġdida biex ngħaddi l-ħin magħha,” stqarr Toni li llum jgħodd is-76 sena.

    “Minn dejjem kont inħobb nagħmel il-presepji. Imma għodwa minnhom, ġieni f’rasi li nibda naħdem fuq presepju għal kollox differenti minn ta’ qablu. Kellu jkun presepju kbir qatiegħ u kont ser naħdmu mix-xemgħa.”

     Il-kwantità kbira tax-xemgħa li kellu bżonn, Toni akkwistaha mingħand diversi ħbieb tiegħu li kienu jaħdmu fiċ-ċimiterji.

    Gallerija tax-xemgha fil-presepju (Ritratt- Fiona Vella)“Kienu jġibuli l-fdalijiet tax-xemgħat u jien kont inħollhom biex ikolli l-materjal ħalli naħdem il-presepju bihom. Meta rajt li kelli ammont biżżejjed biex nibda, bdejt narma l-forma tal-presepju bil-wajer u mbagħad nimla’ bix-xemgħa fuq il-post filwaqt li nagħti l-kulur skont dak li nkun qed nibni.”

    Fix-xenarju tal-presepju, huwa ma naqasx li jinkludi diversi aspetti konnessi m’Għawdex, fosthom għar jixbaħ lill-Għar ta’ Ninu bl-istalaktiti niżlin mis-saqaf, u galleriji, irziezet u mtieħen bi stil Għawdxi. Imbagħad huwa fassal ukoll xi figuri bħall-Madonna, San Ġużepp u l-Bambin Ġesù flimkien mar-rgħajja u persunaġġi oħra.

    “Kemm ilu għandi dan il-presepju biddiltlu l-faċċata darbtejn ħalli nvarja ftit ix-xeni. Għaldaqstant ħallejt ix-xenarju li kelli fuq quddiem u ħdimt ieħor bl-istess xemgħa.”

    Wiehed mill-irziezet tax-xemgha (Ritratt- Fiona Vella)Minn ħin għall-ieħor, il-presepju jkollu xi viżitaturi u Toni ma jonqosx li jagħtihom nagħġa bajda tax-xemgħa bħala tifkira. Intant, meta erġajna sibna ruħna weħidna, hu wrieni l-apparat li bih jaħdem dawn in-nagħaġ, inkluż ukoll il-forom li jagħmel huwa stess.

    “Issa li kbirt, dan il-presepju joffrili mezz biex nheda kemmxejn. Fl-istess ħin, fil-ftit siegħat li nkun hawn kuljum, niltaqa’ ma’ nies differenti u ngħid kelma ma’ dak u ma’ l-ieħor.”

    (Dan l-artiklu deher fis-sit www.littlerock.com.mt f’Diċembru tal-2014)

    Nota: Sfortunatament, illum 6 ta’ Frar 2015, ġejt mgħarrfa li Toni Vassallo żarma dan il-presepju.

    2016.02.06 / no responses / Category: Littlerock

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